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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. Highly recommended

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Edited by Anita Heiss. (2018)

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is the collection of 50 texts written by Aborigines who answer the question “How was it to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?” A simple question with a complex kaleidoscope of answers.

The fifty speakers talk about their childhood, their Aboriginal identity and what it means to them. The life stories cover the whole Australian territory and come from people of different ages, background and family history. Some have grown up in Aboriginal culture from infancy, some have discovered it later in life. But reading story after story, common points leap out of the book.

I thought there were a lot of métis in the fifty writers. Before we go forward with this theme, let me explain the French word métis and why I’ll use it in my billet. A métis (métisse for a woman) is someone with parents from different ethnic origins. I know that the English expression is mixed-race child but I don’t want to use it. Firstly, I think it includes in itself something derogatory whereas the French doesn’t, simply because it’s a different word. Mixed-race sounds faulty while métis describes a new individual without inferring that they are inferior to the offspring of a couple with the same ethnic origin. Secondly, I don’t want to use the word race as it has no scientific basis and as it carries the weight of history. Métis it will be.

So, I thought there were a lot of mixed couples, with one partner Aborigine and the other with European origins. I would have loved to learn more about how these parental couples came together as marrying someone with a different ethnic origin is not always well-accepted by societies.

That makes a lot of our writers métis and with this came relentless questions about the colour of their skin. I understood why Anita Heiss also wrote Am I Black Enough For You? The lottery of genetics makes these métis children all shades of skin colour, from lily white to dark brown. A lot of writers report that they had to justify their aboriginality because they were too fair-skinned. They didn’t fit in the cliché of the Aborigine as a blackfella. They didn’t carry their aboriginality on their face. Sometimes it’s a means to blend into white society, especially in school. Sometimes it’s a curse. Often, it blurs their sense of self. Melanie Mununggur-Williams talks about being grey, as a result of these relentless questions

In my life, and life in general, there always seems to be a contrast. Always a comparison. Always a grey area. It never was, and never will be, black or white. It’s a good thing I don’t mind the colour grey. Well, not anymore, at least.

This also means that there are mathematical questions about being half Aboriginal or a quarter…the way they defined black men in the South of the USA before the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine the impact of this repeated question on young people who are building their identity.

I also had the feeling that the writers who lived with their Aboriginal extended family grew up with strong roots and that the school system and encounters with white kids were like pouring RoundUp on these roots. They knew their place in the world before starting school and adjusting to the white school system undermined what their families had taught them. Suddenly, the seed of doubt was planted. Doubts about their identity and their worth. It seems that the Australian school system did a lot of damages in primary schools and high schools but found ways to detect bright students and push them to university through various state-run programs.

As a French, coming from a school system that aims at universality, I’m totally puzzled by the Aborigine studies programs, Aborigine outings and stuff. This is impossible to imagine in France, a country where recording the ethnic origin of a person is forbidden. These programs were diversely appreciated by our writers, some enjoyed them, others didn’t like that they were identified as Aborigines and had to stand out.

All of the contributors experienced racism. The only difference between the writers is the intensity of the racism they had to face. Ambelin Kwaymullina says:

Yes, of course I experienced racism. It’s like standing in the sea and having the waves crash over you; it’s regular and relentless and you forget what it’s like to be able to properly breathe. Or, at least, I forget until I walk into a safe place. Then I notice as air rushes into my lungs and goes to my head; I am dizzy and my horizons expand to infinity. I don’t remember many safe places when I was a kid; certainly school wasn’t one of them. But I find more safe places now.

This is one of the most powerful description of racism I’ve read in this collection of fifty stories.

Another common point between the stories is how families moved around. Either they were displaced by the government, or they moved a lot to find work, to have a better house or to leave a mission. A few writers have a member of the Stolen Generations in their family. Family trees were broken because of assimilation policies and people lose part or all of their identity. They lost their Ariadne thread to their culture.

Several speakers say they were considered as second-class citizen, that they were living in a country that tried to erase them, their history and their culture through displacements, massacres and assimilation policies.

But don’t be mistaken. This is not an angry book or a sad book. It is poignant because all the writers reveal private details about their childhood, their adolescence and their struggles. It’s heartbreaking to read individual stories but to find common patterns that make you understand that what each of them lived through was actually institutionalized and fed by a lot of ignorance.

There is anger but there is hope too. Reading side by side the stories of older people and of millennials shows that the country is moving forward and in a positive direction. There is still a lot to do and Celeste Liddle expresses it well:

However, until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends – for example, by negotiating treaty settlements with First People – I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.

These individual journeys also show children living a lot of happy moments at home and with their extended family. They put forward the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal cultures and traditions through the resilience of individuals who keep learning and teaching. All of the contributors speak from the heart and it contributes immensely to the quality of this collection.

As a French woman, I am totally lost in the different Aboriginal people and I know that the cultures are different from one people to the other. It’s too complex to grasp by reading a book and I hope that didn’t misunderstand these brave writers out of ignorance. I hope they’ll forgive me if I did.

I’d like to thank them for sharing their personal stories with us. It must have been hard to share sometimes but it’s worth it. It helps readers like me to better grasp what it is to be non-white in a white society. Some stories are heartbreaking. All the writers had to develop a thick skin and I find remarkable that very few of them are fuelled by anger. It’s a tribute to their Aboriginal roots, so firmly planted that they stayed alive in adversity. Several of them also mention how they have a double cultural background, that these two backgrounds might be hard to reconcile at times but they are, in the end, a valuable personal wealth. Being métis is a chance.

Anita Heiss did a great job editing this book and I can’t help thinking that I’d love to read Growing Up Native American in the USA, edited by Sherman Alexie, Growing Up Black in America, edited by Toni Morrison or Growing Up beur in France, edited by Azouz Begag.

Last but not least, I got to buy Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. It’s a book I actively looked for after reading Lisa’s review.

PS: a beur is a French of North-African descent.

  1. December 26, 2018 at 7:06 am

    I’m glad that you enjoyed it, but I think you’ve misread it, if you can speak of ‘mestis’. The derivative here is ‘mestizo’ and it is an offensive term.
    Being Aboriginal is a bit like being Swiss, or Irish, or Polish, or Afghan.
    It is an ancient form of citizenship, and a spiritual connection to our family, our ancestors and to the land.
    Australia was invaded, and the original people here never ceded their country. There was no treaty, and we never surrendered our original citizenship and our belonging to the nations we were born into. We absorbed and welcomed new cultures, despite the efforts of the colonists to divide and seperate us from our own culture.
    For generations, there were concerted efforts to create a disconnection from the oldest civilisation on earth – by dividing family groups and classifying them into social groups and classes according skin colour.
    Efforts to classify us by our skin colour have always been about reducing our connection to our family, our country, our culture.
    There are hundreds of different Aboriginal nations within Australia so the way that most people self-identify is by their cultural group or their ancestral country.
    Our spirits come from the land, and from the dreaming, and from our ancestors.
    Some of us may wear lighter coloured skins these days, but this does not make us something ‘new’. Our spirits are still our spirits, it’s just that these days, some of us wear lighter coloured clothes. It’s like discarding a used shirt at the end of the day, and the next day, taking up a new one.


    • December 26, 2018 at 8:26 am

      I got all that, no worries.

      When I used the word métis, I was referring to the contributors who have a double heritage, one from an Aboriginal parent and one from a parent of European origin. I was surprised to see that many writers in this collection have this double heritage because in countries with strong racism, you don’t have a lot of mixed couples. That’s what I’m curious of how they got together in the first place and what kind of hurdles of their own they had to live through because of their choice of partner.

      And yes, I think people with double origins (be it Aboriginal and European or African and European) are different because they have a foot in two -equally valuable- worlds. I’m not speaking from experience but I imagine it’s both a wealth and a difficulty in life and in finding your identity, especially during adolescence.


  2. December 26, 2018 at 8:00 am

    Lovely post Emma. I’m thrilled that I managed to get this book scheduled for my reading group in 2019. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    Meanwhile though, reading your perspective is great because you see it with such different eyes.

    And, what synchronicity. I only came across the word métis a few days ago – regarding a Canadian writer, but I didn’t quite realise it has a generic meaning.


    • December 26, 2018 at 8:36 am

      I’m looking forward to reading your review of it as you have a lot more cultural background about it than I have.
      Reading the comment from Quokka before yours, I hope I didn’t write anything offensive. It’s a tricky question, especially for a foreigner.
      The writers in this collection have unique Australian experiences because of the specific context of the country, between the colonisation and the subsequent treatment of Aboriginal nations (and wow, Australia had a lot to ask forgiveness for)

      But between the lines I also saw a quest for identity that can also just be human, and nothing else.


      • December 26, 2018 at 10:38 am

        That’s really weird, because when I wrote my comment, there were no other comments on the post but now, as you say, Quokka’s appears before mine. No idea how that happened.

        I don’t think you wrote anything offensive. It sounds like Quokka has a different connotation of “métis” to yours. You made it clear you used this term to avoid using an offensive time.

        However, indigenous identity is a very complex issue over here and it’s very hard for anyone who is non-indigenous to fully grasp all the nuances. All we can do is listen and speak respectfully and hope that our heart is seen even if our words aren’t understood quite as we meant them? I think I’m reading it for our February meeting.


        • December 26, 2018 at 10:51 am


          As I’m not Australian, I don’t feel entitled to judge Australian politics, except from a humanist point of view. (and especially coming from a country which had a heavy past as a colonisator.)
          I wanted to read these stories through the human experience they represent.


  3. December 26, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    I think this is a beautiful review, Emma. I have a lump in my throat from reading it.


    • December 26, 2018 at 1:25 pm

      Thanks Lisa, I was starting to worry about what I wrote.


  4. December 27, 2018 at 2:37 am

    Yes Emma, a beautiful review. You say in France it is illegal to record ethnicity, and I can see why, but I think in the end, in France and in Australia, it is not down to us whites to say everyone is equal when quite clearly they are not. In Europe as in Australia, Indigenous peoples are demanding that they be recognised on terms which they, not we, specify.


    • December 27, 2018 at 8:08 am

      Thanks Bill.
      It is also illegal to record someone’s religion. You know, all the data that could help a State to track down people for their beliefs or belonging to a community. Post WWII laws…

      Equality is far from achieved in my country too. But the aim remains Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Even if it’s a goal that will never be achieved, we need to keep it as a goal.

      And yes, it’s a goal that comes out of the white thinkers of the 18th century.


  5. January 4, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Great and thoughtfully considered review Emma. Books like these are a challenge to review but important to share and raise awareness of. There is so much richness and learning opportunity that was lost by proponents of colonisation everywhere in the world, an almost irreversible impact, we are fortunate that some of it has survived and privileged to be given the opportunity to listen and learn from the descendants today.


    • January 4, 2019 at 7:51 pm

      It was easy to write about in the sense that I was very moved by the stories and I had things to say.
      But it was also difficult because I was always afraid to write something wrong or hurtful. (and according to the first comment I received, I did)

      I think Bill is right. It’s such a different view of the world that it’s hard for us to understand it fully. But we can try. And unfortunately, racism has common characteristics in lots of worlds.

      From what I see of your reading habits, I think it’s a book you’ll be interested in.


  6. January 27, 2019 at 10:04 am

    Emma, ref Tsubame I think the book was published by Talon in 2000, but I can no longer find a copy on ABE or any other site to check this.


  7. February 9, 2019 at 4:22 am

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and respectful review Emma. I have this book on my TBR pile & you’ve certainly increased my desire to read it sooner rather than later.

    I believe that Quokka was saying that being Aboriginal has nothing to do with skin colour. That skin colour is a tool that white people use to classify and divide the world. From your reading of these essays, though, you would have seen that within the Aboriginal community at large there is a wide variety of views and opinions about what it means to be Aboriginal. There are commonalities, but not all indigenous people believe the same things or have the same experiences. And as Sue said, the important thing is to be able to listen and discuss respectfully our different perspectives.


    • February 10, 2019 at 10:42 am

      It’s a very interesting book, very eye-opening. I think it’s a useful book because none of the writers is using their story as a political tool.
      They just share their personal story and their only claim is to have the right to be who they are.

      When I read the book, it was obvious that each writer was unique and that there was not only one way to be Aboriginal. I know it has nothing to do with skin colour but it’s still a widespread idea, isn’t it? The complexity of the different cultures makes it difficult to sum up and humans don’t deal well with complex thinking. Simplification is easy and lazy. (We, Europeans did the same in Africa, btw. African people are all “Africans”.)

      This, in itself, is a simplification done by the whites to put a name on cultures they don’t understand and it ends up in a polarization of us vs them that is unhealthy and difficult to get out of.

      When I wrote my billet, I thought that the only sad common point between the stories was racism. Using the colour of the skin is a simplified way to adress “otherness”. It’s very clear in Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. The settlers wonder whether a white man can become black if he starts living like a black man. That’s how they express it when their actual question is whether a European-raised man can become Aboriginal by living with them. It’s a complex issue.

      Yesterday I watched an interview of James Baldwin about Go Tell It on the Mountain and he says he became aware of racism when he was between 5 and 7 years old.
      It started with parents warning their children not to play with him because he was a black boy. That’s one of the most common simplifications: instead of telling a child their true feeling (“I don’t want you to play with this kid because I think he’s different from us and I’m not comfortable with it”), people say “don’t play with a black boy” (Or in Europe, with “a Paki”,”an Arab” and earlier, with an Italian, an Irish…) And then kids grow up with the ingrained equation “colour of the skin or immigration = negative.”

      Education is the only way and it takes time, efforts, willingness and money. And above all perseverance.

      PS: I hope I managed to convey my thoughts properly. This is the kind of sensitive topics where face to face conversations are better. It lets less space for misunderstandings (or they can be righted immediately)

      PPS: I highly recommend reading The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. January 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm
  2. January 6, 2019 at 11:07 pm
  3. July 20, 2019 at 5:01 pm

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