Gillian Cowlishaw heads west, along the M4 motorway, passing suburbs that stretch along the plains that lie between inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains. She takes a wrong turnoff and gets lost in unfamiliar territory between Blacktown, Mt Druitt and St Marys.
The year is 2000, and in May a mass of people walk across the Harbour Bridge in a festive outpouring of support for reconciliation.
Cowlishaw, an influential anthropologist and author of the new book The City’s Outback, spent the year researching Aboriginal lives in Mt Druitt, which she describes as a rich city’s "subordinated self", a place that many assume to already know about — poor, miserable, bogan and boring. Lacking culture, deserving sympathy. In The City’s Outback, Cowlishaw records people’s life stories, sitting in messy living rooms and around backyard tables where drinkers down sweet moselle, relishing scandal and darkly humorous storytelling.
I should declare at the outset my own involvement in this book: in 2006, when Cowlishaw resumed this work, I was her research assistant.
I clearly recall knocking on the front doors of Koori households to return transcripts or to catch up with someone. Both of us felt uncomfortable echoes of "the welfare" at some places, as curtains were pulled back suspiciously or a kid (shouldn’t you be at school? — thought but not asked) yelled out to adults announcing white women visitors.
While I acknowledge the potential conflict of interest in me reviewing a book written by a greatly admired mentor, rest assured that Gillian is always imploring me to criticise her work. What she is saying is that she wants to be taken seriously, as an anthropologist working in the least "exotic" or "traditional" parts of Aboriginal Australia.
Indeed, her mission is to take seriously these lives: to bring to light and attempt to understand what people make of their own depressed and marginal circumstances. She insists that these lives are both as meaningful as any other, and as "definitively Aboriginal as those of the blackest people in northern Australia". The question of what it means to be Aboriginal is an important theme of this rich and sometimes confronting book.
Frank Doolan, a moody intriguing mix of agitator, stirrer, mediator, poet, challenger and friend, initially led Cowlishaw to Mt Druitt. He is a central character and his struggles, bright flashes of passion, and moving generosity are a highlight of this work. I felt like I got to know Frank through reading this book and am a wiser person for it.
Essentially Cowlishaw sets out to do two things. The first is to bear witness to a selection of Aboriginal lives, and to bring this series of life stories to our attention. Of course, a range of Aboriginal life stories have been published in Australia over recent decades: some of them popular and well known, some of them more small-scale ventures. These stories form part of public knowledge about Aboriginal people, ways of knowing that Cowlishaw is determined to complicate. Many of the stories in this book are fragmented; these are accounts of everyday life, in the vernacular, and they are laced with distress, hatred, resignation and contempt as well as triumph, forgiveness and transcendence.
The second purpose, which drives the narrative of the book, is to tell the story of this particular research project’s genesis and execution. This book will be followed by another, more substantial ethnographic work about Mt Druitt Kooris. The City’s Outback is casual in style, a kind of diary, in which "wrong turnoffs and getting lost" are important to the process of learning about the lives of strangers.
I think it’s the first of these ambitions that will most interest the general reader. These life stories are not presented as typical. "You won’t find Aborigines defined here", Cowlishaw warns. "Instead, one intention is to challenge the conventionally imagined ‘Aborigines’ by conveying the sentient presence of particular people as they became known to me."
In terms of the second thrust of this work, it’s not clear who all the exegesis about the ethnographic research process is aimed at. There are some implicit, verging on underhanded, digs at Australian historians and at the discipline of cultural studies, which seem in-house to me: I hope they don’t put off a general reader.
These purposes are less easy to separate than I have suggested above. Important points are made within the discussion of anthropological practice, upon which the book’s ultimate strengths rest.
Cowlishaw defends the desire to know about others radically different to the self. At the same time she embraces anthropology’s "reflexive turn", the product of 1970s-era critiques of the researcher’s power vis a vis the researched, the former drawn from category of the colonisor and the latter, the colonised. So, Cowlishaw is ever-present in this work, noting her visceral reactions to different styles of life: we are privy to her moral judgments, frustrations, impatience, despair and shock. She also takes great pleasure in many of the encounters detailed.
The life stories recorded in Mt Druitt, and Cowlishaw’s discussion of them, take us again and again into uncomfortable territory. For example, muttered questions about authenticity dog community "Elders" who are called upon to perform welcome to country, smoking ceremonies and the like. The progressive, liberal parts of the nation, striving for reconciliation, might embrace such gestures of acknowledgment and respect.
Yet Cowlishaw shows that sometimes the desire for Aboriginal culture creates burdens and doubts. Some of her subjects revive pre-contact practices enthusiastically, while others scorn and others still feel keenly their failure to be Aboriginal in ways that are valued. The "community" has its own measure of being authentically Aboriginal: things to do with family, knowing one’s relations, hating the cops, communal rather than individualistic orientations.
A bigger, more challenging question underlies this. What Cowlishaw is probing is the usefulness of a contemporary Indigenous identity anchored in the pre-contact, or "traditional", past. What do dot paintings have to do with life in the suburbs? Barney, one of the characters in this book, rails against what he perceives as his people’s tendency to "blame Captain Cook". He says, "They keep saying we got to get our culture back and that’ll save us. It won’t save us. We can have all the culture in the world, but because we don’t have those basic living skills, that’s where we’re going backwards."
Like Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race, Cowlishaw’s groundbreaking work about Bourke in western NSW — where Frank Doolan is from and has now returned — this is a book with guts, integrity and a sense of humour. Frank seems to often have an aphorism at hand, and I looked for one to neatly close this review. But he’s got so much to say, I’ll end with a longer musing:
"I think Aboriginality is a personal thing. It’s up to the individual and you walk down a long road to find your Aboriginality. It’s not just something you put on and wear easily … Some people want a peaceful life. That’s OK, they can have that when the war’s over. We’re in the middle of it now."
The City’s Outback is published by UNSW Press and will be launched by Ghassan Hage on Friday 13 March at Gleebooks in Sydney.
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