People of the land, voice of the people

Land is the dominant feature in the works of Australian Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright, whose Chinese great-grandfather left his homeland for a hard life Down Under.
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Australian Aboriginal writer and land activist Alexis Wright

China is no strange place for the Australian Aboriginal writer and land activist Alexis Wright, whose great-grandfather, like thousands of other Chinese laborers, left his homeland for a hard life Down Under.

Wright, 67, whose works include “Carpentaria” and “The Swan Book,” has come to China several times in recent years, attending symposiums with Chinese writers and visiting her great-grandfather’s homeland.

With little knowledge of his past, she was told that his Chinese surname might possibly indicate he lived on boats.

“That is strange for me to hear because I have spent most of my life fighting for land rights, and he was this other side of the family, landless and with no concept of land ownership,” the indigenous writer told Shanghai Daily in an interview during Australian Writers’ Week in China.

Land is the dominant feature in Wright’s works. Her great-grandfather settled in the northern Outback along the Gulf of Carpentaria in the 19th century and married a woman from the Waanyi indigenous people.

It was only in recent years that the traditional owners of her ancestry were able to take back some of their lands. For Wright, it is not only about reclaiming the land, but also finding a way to maintain the unique culture and tell its stories to mainstream Australia.

“The Aboriginal culture is a very deep one associated with land, and everything has its meaning,” she said. “People have different responsibilities for maintaining that story and the laws associated with the people, and the devastation that people would feel if the laws were broken and what would happen to the country — that it would die.”

Wright was somewhat pessimistic in her most recent novel, “The Swan Book,” which is set 100 years in the future, when land disputes, refugees and relocation remain issues to be resolved.

“I would like to think land disputes would be resolved,” she explained. “At the time of writing the book, I didn’t feel very confident in the Aboriginal future. I was wondering if there was a sort of backward step all the time toward dealing with the Aboriginal people in Australia. How much strength do we have as people to survive in the future if we had to be continually battling? What’s the breaking point? I was wondering what the last person standing would be like.”

The last standing person in her novel is a young girl named Oblivia, who is found on a sacred, spiritual tree. Traumatized by what had happened to her, Oblivia refuses to grow up and tries to maintain her beliefs in a rather mad way.

“In a way she represents every Aboriginal person,” Wright said.

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Her father, a white cattleman, died when she was 5, and she went to live in Cloncurry in the state of Queensland with her mother and grandmother.

“I grew up confused,” she said. “It was a feeling of rejection that you couldn’t really understand. It wasn’t until I left and got an education that I found the name for it all — racism. It’s getting better, but all the issues are still there and need to be resolved.”

One of her tools is through storytelling, hoping that her books help shed some light of understanding for all people to recognize the relevance of Aboriginal culture and thinking.

It hasn’t been easy. Her novel “Carpentaria,” which follows various conflicts the Aborigines have had with local law enforcement, governments and multinational corporations, was at pains to attract a mainstream publisher at first.

“It has been really difficult for Aboriginal writers to get published,” she said. “Through the work that writers like myself have been doing and the recognition that our worth is being received overseas, a lot of publishers in Australia are looking for good Aboriginal writing now. It is changing, but not enough.”

In a sense, she has been a pioneer in that literary change. In 2006, “Carpenteria” won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in Australia. Her first book, “Plains of Promise,” was published in 1997 and nominated for several literary awards. It has been reprinted several times.

Wright is quite optimistic about a new development in Aboriginal storytelling — online social media. There, many good stories from indigenous people are being distributed and recognized.

(Ong Jing Yi contributed to this story.)

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