Polities and Poetics

Race Relations and Reconciliation in Australian Literature

by Adelle Sefton-Rowston (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 220 Pages
Series: Cultural Identity Studies, Volume 32


A reconciliation movement spread across Australia during the 1990s, bringing significant marches, speeches, and policies across the country. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians began imagining race relations in new ways and articulations of place, belonging, and being together began informing literature of a unique new genre. This book explores the political and poetic paradigms of reconciliation represented in Australian writing of this period. The author brings together textual evidence of themes and a vernacular contributing to the emergent genre of reconciliatory literature. The nexus between resistance and reconciliation is explored as a complex process to understanding sovereignty, colonial history, and the future of society. Moreover, this book argues it is creative writing that is most necessary for a deeper understanding of each other and of place, because it is writing that calls one to witness, to feel, and to imagine all at the same time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Auxiliaries in the construction of new worlds
  • Chapter 1 Reconciliation has a history
  • Chapter 2 A ‘place’ for reconciliation in Australian writing
  • Chapter 3 It’s not Black and White: Migrant Australians and reconciliation
  • Chapter 4 Reconciliation as embodiment: Knowing the Other through touch and emotion
  • Chapter 5 Reconciliation as a discourse on belief and one of belief itself: Exploring Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria
  • Not a conclusion: An exploration of what continues to be reconciled
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


The idea to explore reconciliation through literature came to me while visiting a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia called Santa Teresa. I am sincerely grateful for the time spent with Cecile and her family on her verandah, engaging in life’s yarns of love and politics, and for showing me how reconciliation is a dialogue between strangers in this larger web of humanity. And so, at the centre of this monograph is a story, a point and a place where I became centred in this work that is both activist and poetic.

A big thank you is extended to Professor Lyn McCredden, whose critical advice marks every page of this book. Also, I would like to acknowledge Professor Francis Devlin-Glass for her initial brainstorming towards a research plan. I would also like to thank Louise McManus for her frequent emails to see how ‘the writing’ was going and for proofreading a large portion of my earlier thesis. And finally, I would like to acknowledge the conversations I’ve had with English lecturers Dr Damien Barlow and Associate Professor Alison Ravenscroft, who once said I ‘must do a PhD’ – their encouragement lit a fire in me that continues to burn.


Auxiliaries in the construction of new worlds

There are two fundamental Australian truths. One: Black people have proven they will not go away despite the exaggerated reports of their demise. Two: White people won’t go away either despite what some Aboriginal people wish to believe. We’re stuck with each other and we’re stuck with our land. What a magnificent prospect.1

– Bruce Pascoe (2007)

In an era of apology and heightened awareness of racial issues, there are prospects for constructing a new world order that places diverse peoples in meaningful relationship with each other. Social transformation, like writing, is creative work. And the author’s job is to imagine new possibilities and to expose truths that no longer serve us. Australian authors are special in this case, as many have, over the decades, inaugurated a postcolonial reality through their texts, making colonial oppressors more accountable and, in effect, more atoned for the colonial injustices of the past. The purpose of combining art and research here is to offer a realignment of cultural, ideological and conceptual divisions concerning race, history, land ownership, identity, and belonging in the places we live – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Thus, at the centre of this enquiry is the pivotal role creative fiction plays in reorganizing race relations through literary contributions to areas such as history, psychology, migration, cultural narratives, politics, and notions of the sacred – all themes identified in Australian fiction writing over previous decades to inform what is known as the ‘reconciliation’ debates.

The term ‘reconciliation’ has been commonly used in Australia since July 1988, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke discussed his position on a ←1 | 2→national treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – saying he is ‘not hung up on the word “treaty”, it’s not the word that’s important … if there is a sense of reconciliation’.2 Les Murray makes earlier mention of the word in 1980 when replying to an invitation from fellow poet Judith Wright to support a treaty campaign, stating that: ‘Your passion may be Justice, or perhaps Restitution; mine is Reconciliation.’3 The use of the term became common all over the world during the 1990s to describe the process of former enemies working together to create a better future.4

In the Australian context of colonisation, however, the term ‘reconciliation’ is somewhat a misnomer in literary studies, attracting criticism over its intentions as a ‘settler project’. Jeanine Leane argues that while some texts by non-Indigenous authors ‘reveal synchronic slices of settler consciousness’, most Australian writers lack real empathy when writing about racial issues because they do not personally know Aboriginal people and instead end up stealing the voices of Aboriginal people in their efforts to write new stories about nationhood.5 The term (re)conciliation is misleading in the sense that it implies there was an existing relationship between settlers and First Nations peoples to even begin with. Before the colonisation of Australia, there was not, however, a pre-existing relationship between the settlers and Indigenous peoples nor was there an understanding or acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty or the existence of the many diverse cultural and linguistic groups throughout the country. The term ‘reconciliation’ is problematic in relation to Australia’s later history too, for the origin of the word stems from Christian theology, which for many Aboriginal people is synonymous with the White Australia policy and the systemic abuse Aboriginal people endured in religious missions.

Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly argue, however, ‘that the lack of definitional and conceptual clarity surrounding the term “reconciliation” ←2 | 3→is, in fact, partly to blame for unsatisfactory results achieved in the area of reconciliation around the world’.6 The term ‘race relations’ has become more popular and regularly utilised as a neutral synonym for reconciliation in political and sociocultural debates. Yet the concept of ‘race relations’ does not typically signify the more-encompassing legal aspects of ‘reconciliation’ that is reflected in global discourses that commonly express the need for equality and institutional change under national and international laws. Rather, the 2016 report from Reconciliation Australia uses the term ‘race relations’ in a less definitive way to instead measure reconciliation as a culture free of racism.7 In this particular report, definitions of reconciliation are compared across Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Rwanda, and South Africa to find common themes of reconciliation that include: recognition of the past, political leadership, unity, and trust. Arguably, all these conceptual traits first cut across the philosophical, psychological, and emotional landscape of individuals before a material reconciliation is ever expressed collectively in law and politics. However, this way of categorizing reconciliation fails to recognise the affective role that reading and writing play in the consciousness and imaginations of individuals before allowing reconciliation to be socially and culturally realised.

In Can These Bones Live? (1996), Veronica Brady defines the term reconciliation as being ‘able to work together for change’ and points to the need for settlers to become clear about what ‘kind of an experience is involved and what exactly the conflict between the two cultures is about’.8 Brady’s literary scholarship spans mostly across early colonial novels, but she does include Sally Morgan’s My Place, originally published in 1987. Since the publication of Brady’s work, there is an opportunity here to explore more contemporary texts from a later political time – for example, when reconciliation debates came into expression in the 1990s to include marches over Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in the 2000s. Interestingly, ←3 | 4→novels published from 1990 to 2010 provide clearer scope for understanding reconciliation and the ‘kind of experience’ that Brady predicts in her earlier scholarly work. It is during a time of political reconciliation in Australia that modern day readers became drawn together by texts to reflect more deeply on issues of Australian history, sovereignty, nationalism, political resistance, and reconciliation through the passage of creative imagination. Contemporary authors in these later texts fiercely question colonial assumptions about history, belonging, and White hegemony more than ever before and put forward possibilities for social transformation in the new worlds that these authors create. Such stories mimic bird dreams at a time the nation was supposedly preparing to take flight, and literary communities throughout Australia (and the world) began to see that reconciliation’s full potential could be realised through authors imagining paradigms for race relations at precisely the same time as reconciliation was being politically conceived and thought through. In 2011, Miles Franklin literary judge Morag Fraser supports this view when she pronounces Kim Scott’s award-winning novel That Deadman Dance as a text that ‘shifts our understanding of what a historical novel can do’.9

This book shows how from 1990 onwards particular authors such as Larissa Behrendt, Dianne Johnson, Kim Mahood, Meme McDonald, Marie Munkara, Bruce Pascoe, Kim Scott, Daryl Tonkin, Alexis Wright, and Arnold Zable inaugurate textual archetypes, character constructions, plots, and symbols to inform a new genre of writing termed, for the first time here, as ‘reconciliatory literature’. These texts span the period from the early 1990s until 2010 and differ fundamentally from the writing of Indigenous authors in the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, including Mudrooroo, Oodgeroo, and Judith Wright, who brought about ideological awareness and social change through the genre of resistance writing.

This new genre of ‘reconciliatory literature’, however, chronologically precedes what Adam Shoemaker coins ‘resistance writing’ from the period of 1929–88. In his book Black Words, White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988 (2004), Shoemaker traces Australian Indigenous writing over ←4 | 5→a specific period in correspondence to the growing national importance of Indigenous issues, arguing it is during ‘the twenty-five years up to 1988 that the other side of black/white cultural communication in Australia finally found expression’.10 Shoemaker’s project explores the politicisation of Indigenous literature, especially its contribution to cultural nationalism and growing Aboriginal pride during these years, and writes:

Black activists grew both in numbers and in audibility through the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s, as did the politicization of many Aborigines. The activists made themselves heard through petitions, protests, demonstrations, interviews, and publicity campaigns and, importantly many of them also began to write.11

Shoemaker’s research shows how particular texts are characteristic of ‘resistance literature’ because these authors significantly reject and even seek out retaliation against the colony in ways they use language to critique racism and to advocate for equal rights. Shoemaker’s argument focuses mainly on the potential for Aboriginal writing to be symbolically political and states:

Aboriginal literature also belongs largely to the realm of symbolic politics. However, it is far more complex than a flag or a tent on the lawns of Parliament House. While their symbolism is overt and striking, that of Black Australian writing is usually more subtle and covert. Aboriginal authors can persuade and educate the reader without the potentially alienating intensity of a march or a demonstration, even though the aims of both may be identical. In that sense, Aboriginal literature may, in the long run, have an even more important role to play in advancing the Black Australian cause than public exhibitions of grievances, which can be misconstrued by the average White Australian as intimations of so-called ‘Black Power’.12

Exploring Australian Aboriginal writing from these earlier decades shows the growing confidence of Indigenous authors to negate White power structures and demand social and political change. While contemporary authors (post 1988) also want a complete overhaul of the nation’s social ←5 | 6→order through creative writing, the authorial demands in later decades are more specific to seeking ‘recognition’ rather than ‘retaliation’. For instance, contemporary texts incorporate textual themes that vividly (re)member Australian history, assertively (re)claim sovereignty, (re)present Black bodies in various proximity to others, and enter a dialogue with non-Indigenous readers based on understandings of whiteness, multiculturalism, and racism.

Shoemaker’s contribution to literary scholarship informs a period up until 1988 (the year of the Bicentenary and a celebration that many Indigenous people oppose). Yet his work marks a time when Indigenous voices are heard more affectively, and non-Indigenous people can engage in a new politics centred on psychological and philosophical shifts to repair race relations and set new agendas. Reconciliatory literature belongs to a progressively different time when Black writing is no longer globally ghettoised as Fourth World literature but seen as belonging to First World, trans-indigenous writing that represents how discourses have changed in the aftermath of the civil rights movement to inform reconciliation as a significant meme in a number of disciplines.13 Just as the 1960s demanded racial equality through the poetics of Oodgeroo/Kath Walker, it is post-1988 that captures new and equally exceptional imaginations like Alexis Wright and Marie Munkara, whose work articulates and critically analyses race relations in Australia to include the place of migrants in the reconciliation debates.

Modern texts discussed in this book therefore offer global interest to reconciliation debates, not only in the Australian context but in other multicultural countries where postcolonial literatures are read for reconciliation in non-binary terms (like Black and White) to include Jewish and migrant perspectives about healing, reconciliation, and belonging to nation. ←6 | 7→Internationally acclaimed scholar and activist Chinua Achebe vs. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, offers diverse linguistic and ideological perspectives on race relations in the African context, while Sam Selvon uses Caribbean Creole in The Lonely Londoners to highlight the political implications when using English as the language of artistic production. Such diverse perspectives highlight the reasons why reconciliation is not only between Black and White subjects and should include writing from languages other than English. Australian academic Michael Jacklin stresses the need for an important transnational research agenda that includes rich dimensions of bilingual literary work to significantly understand Australia’s culture and identity.14 Hence, this book’s inclusion of multicultural writing from Jewish author Arnold Zable and perspectives from bilingual Indigenous author Margaret Kemarre Turner discusses new ontological representations that escape a world already dominated by English and the overused colonial dualisms of Black and White. A cross section of diverse stories and perspectives hope to atomise many understandings of what it means to reconcile rather than pertaining to limited understandings of relations between ‘us and them’.

The nexus between polities and poetics is not about exploring what stories ‘say’ but rather what they ‘do’ at a pivotal time in Australian history. In Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience, Jennifer Loureide Biddle discusses ‘painting’ as a verb rather than a noun and examines what art ‘does’ rather than what it ‘means’, suggesting that art is a material force in culture, sentiment, and politics with the power to create aspirations towards radical political possibilities.15 Loureide Biddle neatly sums up her argument by stating that art is ‘a way of being in the world, not just a way of “seeing” it’.16 Her argument about visual art is profound, not only in the area of art history and theory but also in the much wider area of the creative arts, including literature. Her argument raises questions ←7 | 8→about what artistic expression does, whether via painting, performing, or, in this case, writing, and her enquiries are inspiration for wondering how creative writing can ‘do’ reconciliation.

French theorist Julia Kristeva comments on aspects of nation building in France and argues that ‘poetic language’ is important to the production of a society’s culture, particularly when writers of a minority group do away with conventional linguistic uses and require words to ‘bear a more basic significance that has to do with our individual and collective being-in-the-world’.17 Reading and writing are, she explains, ‘an exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language … an activity that liberates the subject from a number of linguistic, psychic, and social networks … and a dynamism that breaks up the inertia of language habits and grants linguists the unique possibility of studying the becoming of the significance of signs’.18 Kristeva’s theory promotes a view that reconciliation, like any ideological concept, is built on consensus about the meaning of signs and semiotics – as language is produced in social and historical fields which allow for communication to take place. Yet, according to Kristeva, language embedded in colonial constructs such as ethnocentric images, depictions, and lexicons inherent of the empire is a great challenge to the discourse of reconciliation, which aims to devise and transmit revolutionary ideas through language. Clearly, social transformation is derived from new and emerging forms of language and semiotics. Thus, it is only when authors use ‘poetic language’ to challenge what Kristeva terms ‘historical forces or currents’ that ideas which readers take for granted about the Other are reformed in a textual sense.19 Kristeva’s theoretical formula is useful, albeit complex, arguing that words have form (as units of language) and essence (as referents to elements of reality).20 Hence, there is a significant link between the way reconciliation is articulated, and its possibilities for implementation in chosen ‘reconciliatory’ texts for interpretation.←8 | 9→


X, 220
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
reconciliation Indigenous Australian Indigenous writing Australian literature Indigenous Australian literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 220 pp.

Biographical notes

Adelle Sefton-Rowston (Author)

Adelle Sefton-Rowston lives on Larrakia country and lectures at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. She is a Fulbright scholar and an award winning essayist. Adelle is president of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association.


Title: Polities and Poetics