Explainer: Why Barry Spurr Is Wrong On Black Writing


First Nations people are known as oral storytellers, a tradition built over tens of thousands of years, but they have also punched well above their weight in Australia’s literary scene, despite their voice often being ignored.

As reported in New Matilda yesterday, Professor Barry Spurr, Australia’s leading professor of poetry, writes in the review of the National Curriculum that the contribution of First Nations writers to Australia’s literary tradition has been “minimal”.

In his comments to the review, where he has been employed as a specialist on English, Professor Spurr says western literature, particularly of British origin, is being de-prioritised behind Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing.

“The impact of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on literature in English in Australia has been minimal and is vastly outweighed by the impact of global literature in English, especially from Britain, on our literary culture.”

But Professor Spurr’s reasoning is based more on racism, than reality.

In private emails to two friends outside of the University of Sydney, Professor Spurr claims that “Abo literature” is not distinguished, and should be taken out of the curriculum altogether, based on his comparison of the Californian high school curriculum.

He says in the email Education Minister Christopher Pyne had asked him to compare the English curriculum with other countries.

“The Californian high school English curriculum has arrived (as Pyne wants me to compare ours with other countries,” Professor Spurr writes in the email.

“Another 300 pages of reading! Amongst the senior year texts for study are Churchill’s wartime speeches. Imagine setting that for the NSW HSC English.

“And whereas the local curriculum has the phrase ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ on virtually every one of its 300 pages, the Californian curriculum does not ONCE mention native Americans and has only a very slight representation of African-American literature (which, unlike Abo literature, actually exists and has some distinguished productions).”

Professor Spurr’s hatred of Aboriginal literature, and his sledging that it is not “distinguished” doesn’t stand up in the face of a thriving Black writing scene that has produced Noongar writer Kim Scott and Waanyi writer Alexis Wright, who both have received the highest literary honour in Australia – the Miles Franklin award – and have been translated into other languages.

It also doesn’t stand up against the critically acclaimed work by other prominent award-winning Aboriginal writers like Tony Birch, Tara June Winch, Sam Wagan Watson jnr, Kevin Gilbert, Ooderoo Noonuccall, Bruce Pascoe, Larissa Behrendt, Nicole Watson, Anita Heiss and Melissa Lucashenko, to name only a few.

Ms Lucashenko, who’s novel Mullumbimby made the Miles Frankin longlist this year, told New Matilda that Professor Spurr’s recommendation to the curriculum review showed that the themes and voices in Aboriginal literature were obviously still “too confronting” for many.

“From what I gather, he seems to be conflating quantity with quality. And after all, the same can be said for the impact of Australian writing generally. The international impact is quite small, notwithstanding Richard Flanagan’s wonderful news about the Man Booker this week,” Ms Lucashenko said.

“But we learn most from those who think differently. The effect of one-or-two eye opening Indigenous novels or stories or poems could easily outweigh a hundred British books recycling the same tired, narrow tropes which informed the colonial tropes which informed the colonial project in Australia for two centuries.

“About time our multiple voices were afforded a place at the table, but that’s still too confronting for some, apparently.”

Tony Birch, who’s novel Blood was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2012, told the Edinburgh World Writer’s Festival last year that “too many Australians remain ignorant of the creative and intellectual reach of Aboriginal writing, knowing little beyond the degree to which it serves us and fits within a national narrative”.

He says Aboriginal literature has historically been “definitively anti-nationalist” and says its role in challenging Australia’s past and present can’t be discounted, stating writers like Scott and Wright have been important in critiquing the dominant national story.

He says Scott and Wright’s work has been translated into several languages and is read widely across the globe.

“In recent years, the wider literary community in Australia has celebrated Aboriginal writing, although it continues to be received and consumed defensively, within a mindset stuck in the colonial imagination,” Birch writes.

“I call this the ‘disloyalty effect’, whereby some critics, commentators and readers respond to what they feel is a negative critique of the national story: an act of ingratitude.”

Professor Spurr also short shrifts the role of Aboriginal poetry, despite poetry being his area of expertise and despite poetry being the most popular form of creative writing for Aboriginal writers.

Aboriginal poets like Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal are widely read throughout Australia, expressing the political voice of Aboriginal Australia, directly challenging cultural norms and ideals presented in other Australian poetry.

Gilbert wrote “black poets sing, not in odes to Euripides or Dionysus, not Keats, not Browning, nor Shakespeare; neither do they sing a pastoral lay to a ‘sunburnt country’ for they know that that russet stain that Dorothea Mackellar spoke of is actually the stain of blood, our blood, covering the surface of our land so the white man could steal our land.”

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