Putting Indigenous heritage at heart of national story

Kim Scott will deliver the opening address at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival. Photo: Supplied
Kim Scott will deliver the opening address at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival. Photo: Supplied

There's a powerful hurt lurking at the core of Kim Scott's latest novel, Taboo. A group of Aboriginal people are getting ready to assemble on land that was the site years earlier of a massacre. It's historic trauma brought front and centre.

Scott, a man whose Noongar identity informs most of his writing and who has twice won the Miles Franklin award, says what he is talking about in the book is "putting Aboriginal people at the centre of nation state identity".

The Indigenous writer will consider this and more on Friday in the opening address of this year's Melbourne Writers Festival - theme: revolutions - when he will discuss stories that explain who we are, how story can challenge national identity and help ensure meaningful and lasting connections between language and land and peoples.

Books such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had a big impact on Scott as a child, although he concedes now that he was too young when he read it; he missed the essence of story that can lead a reader into an interior space that offers secrets or inside information: "The sort of stories available to us at different times explains who we are."

But he will also cite another kind of story popular when he was a boy, a country and western song, Trumby, that contained the sort of lyrics that would offend any Indigenous person, or any right-thinking person. "It's very recent that it has turned around from my youth to at least enlightened members of the community valuing and wanting more of Indigenous heritages."

Scott has long worked on the recovery of Indigenous language, the intuitive point of which, he says, is to heal people damaged at the interface of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds.

"There's a lot of exchange and negotiation to be done. I don't want to be too glib about this, I want to end with something like that, the importance of what can be gained from connecting with pre-colonial heritage and language. And the necessarily collaborative nature of making stories. This is how it's different from polemic. Political but not necessarily polemical."

The recent decision by two Melbourne councils to dump Australia Day was "eminently sensible", he said, although he did not object to its existence provided it was made clear what it was about: "The colonisers arrived in Sydney and grabbed the land."

His council in Fremantle had voted not to have Australia Day celebrations this year because "some people were offended and they are the people who the land was stolen from ... Fremantle had an event, One Day in Fremantle and it was really successful".

People could have different interpretations of historical events, but Scott agrees with Indigenous journalist Stan Grant who called this week for a more comprehensive inscription on the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney's Hyde Park, which claims Cook "discovered" Australia.

And he liked the initiatives that came out of the recent Uluru Summit of Indigenous leaders to consider reform of the constitution, and says it's frustrating for many Indigenous people that the nature of the shared Australian history - "something akin to an apartheid regime" - has not been acknowledged and recognised.

"I find myself saying these many Indigenous heritages are major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging all across the continent. I like to use that term because it makes it easier to talk about the importance of investing in it."

Melbourne Writers Festival begins on August 25. The Age is a festival sponsor.

This story Putting Indigenous heritage at heart of national story first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.