The Researcher’s Story

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Aileen Moreton-Robinson,  Jackie Huggins and several others point out, for much of Australia’s history skin signification was used to systematically to decide the fate of generations of Australian Indigenous children.[1] The “whiter” they were the more authorities believed they could be “saved,” and so Indigenous people were separated from each other on the basis of the pigment in their skin. Some Indigenous people maintain that these policies have had a lasting impact on the way many of all background view Indigenous identity, essentially the “blacker” you look the more Indigenous you are considered.[2]

Many Indigenous people in this study argue it is the way you think, act and raised not the colour of your skin, which determines who you are.  Others go further and argue it is not even the way you think, and act any more but what you want to belong to.[3] An added complication to this is that some Indigenous people have observed that being black means you have a materially harder time of it, than being a white Indigenous person.[4] This difference of experience can potentially lead to resentments within the Indigenous community, and as Patricia Dudgeon has shown, this has led to an internal form of racism that some Indigenous people have had to address.[5]

The Researcher’s Story

I give my story in this introduction because it is customary in many Indigenous cultures to share the story of your kinship ties when first meeting someone, and as I am a participant as well as a scholar in the writing world conveyed in this study I believe it important to observe this protocol.

I have been both researcher and researched, interviewee and interviewer in the process of doing my work.[6] The experience of all these positions has given me empathy for the requirements and challenges involved.

My mob are the Angapu and Maipa Fakai clans of the Mekeo, of Papua New Guinea, the French and English of Europe, Bahá’ís and now the writers of Writing Us Mob oral storytelling project.[7] I do not speak any Indigenous language, nor do I do any traditional dances.[8] However, I have an implicit connection with Indigenous cultural values and traditions through my mother, which has become more explicit over time. I have a written copy of my Indigenous family tree and photographs of some of my relatives, because an anthropologist researched my mother’s community for many years and gave me this document.[9] I am a daughter, sister, mother, wife, niece, sister-in law, friend and aunty. My web of social relations is important to me, and nurtures and motivates me in all that I do yet it extends beyond my kin to the world of writers.

I am a writer who feels at home with writers, as writing is something that I feel I can exchange with others. It helps me to reach out across boundaries and feel more comfortable in unfamiliar social spaces. Writing has also helped me to grapple with life’s challenges. I am part of the world of emerging writers, especially those who are actively embarking on the journey to increasing their publication.

In 1995, for the first time I worked as a writer in community, not just as an individual writer, and this has given me some of the most inspiring experiences of my life and planted many of the seeds for this study.[10] I have been in contact with many people comfortable with, and thriving because of having a diverse heritage, but I have also come across those who suffer prejudice, identity crisis, and great difficulties that seem to be from being viewed as different by the wider society, an experience they have not been able to cope with. I have seen people move into a destructive mode where pain shuts out the ability to achieve personal empowerment to transform self, family and communities. On the other hand I have been part of projects where people find pride in their identity through storytelling and writing. As a result of these observations I wanted to do a study that would explore how many Indigenous people see and use writing as a way to achieve healing and empowerment.

Cultures, family and communities have given me access to certain ways of viewing the life-worlds of Indigenous women and particular knowledge systems. They have presented me with unique opportunities, but also with a sense of responsibility and obligation. Personally, it is being a Bahá’í that harmonises all the diversities within me and gives me the strength, courage and conviction to analyse contemporary issues through ethical (what some also call spiritual) principles.[11] Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, states: “True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage.”[12] It is my hope that this study supports this idea of what true learning is.

[1] Rosalyn Kidd, The Way We Civilize (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997) An archival study that illustrates the documented wording of the policies, which disempowered Indigenous peoples in government and other official documents in Queensland.

[2] Dudgeon, “The Complexity of Aboriginal Diversity.” Patricia; Gavey Dudgeon, Darren; Picket, Harry, Working with Indigenous Australia (Perth: WA: Gunada Press, 2000), Patrica Dudgeon, Indigenous Children at School: A Look Beyond the Scenes (Perth: WA: Gunada Press, 2003)

[3] Due to funding available to assist Indigenous people in education, health, the arts and so on, there are criteria set by funding organizations to authenticate identity (to prevent fraud). For discussion of intellectual property see Rosemary van den Berg, “Intellectual Property Rights for Aboriginal People,” in The Strength of Us as Women: Black Women Speak , pp.74-81. & Penny van Toorn, Indigenous Texts and Narratives, Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Elizabeth Webby (Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp.19-49.

[4] See Wendy Holland, “Mistaken Identity,” in The Teeth Are Smiling, the Persistence of Racism in Multicultural Australia, ed. Ellie Vasta; Stephen Castles (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1996) pp. 97-111; Melissa Lucashenko, “Many Prisons,”Hecate 28.1 (2002)., pp.139-42.

[5] Dudgeon, “The Complexity of Aboriginal Diversity.” Ngulaig

[6] I was interviewed during the Writing Us Mob project (2001) and also for Gadigal radio during the Pacific Wave Festival (1998).

[7] The Baha’i religion originated in Iran in 1844 and has had people from many cultural, social and religious backgrounds choose to join it. The basic tenets of the Bahá’í Faith are the oneness of humanity (freedom from prejudice), unity in diversity, justice, and that spiritual teachings have been progressively revealed and renewed in every generation and for every people. For one Indigenous Australian perspective on Bahá’í belief see: Cecilia Barber, “The Role of Indigenous Women in a Global Society,”Herald of the South 47 (1997)., pp.22-23.

I do not know much of the Mekeo culture except what is embedded in the practices of my mother in my upbringing, some stories and textbooks.

[8] I feel I have to state this as commonly I have had people have this expectation of me when they look at the colour of my skin

[9] June Perkins “Meeting an Anthropologist” South Coast Writer’s Centre Anthology, March 2004 {Forthcoming]

[10] June Perkins, “Community Arts and the Tertiary Classroom,” in Tertiary Teaching Models of Innovative Practice, ed. Sue McGinty and Lee Fitzpatrick (Townsville: James Cook University, 1995), pp. 85-105.

[11] Bahá’í scholarship is to take one or more Bahá’í principles and see how they might apply in practice in the real world, in real community and interpersonal modelling. In this study I put into action the principles of independent investigation of the truth, consultation, justice and unity in diversity. For further information see Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Scholarship: Extracts from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abd’u’l Baha, and from Letters of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice (Mona Vale: Baha’i Publications Australia, 1995)

[12] Bahá’u’llah “21 Tablet Translated in Persian in Scholarship Extracts (1995), p.11.

Extract from Distilling Ink from Ochre, 2004 – June Perkins.

Writing Empowerments: Ink from Ochre Extract

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Ong argues that writing can “enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life.” [1]  In other words writing can be moulded to fit those who use it, and can extend rather than diminish subjectivity and intersubjectivity.   Max Van Manen describes the power of writing:

Writing fixes thoughts on paper.  It externalises what in some senses is internal; it distances us from our immediate lived involvements with the things of our world.  As we stare at the paper, and stare at what we have written, our objectified thinking now stares back at us.  This writing creates the reflective cognitive stance …[2]

Writing has a paradoxical power that comes from its ability to objectify as ideas are placed onto paper, yet as it objectifies it subjectifies.  It can do this because writing can represent a dialogue with the self.   Even though many Indigenous women write in collaboration with others, dialogues with the self have some importance.  As Lisa Bellear, a Noonucaal writer and broadcaster, who has experienced violence and abuse at some points during her life, argues:

Each one of us is aware of how colonisation has and is still impacting on our lives.  All of us know what it is to hurt inside.  What is required is to find an effective way through which we can face our traumas . . . Poetry is only one form . . . it is through writing and broadcasting I have a release for my emotions.[3]

Writing itself alone does not achieve transformation, release or healing.   Its potential to transform comes from the “gifts” the writer has and brings to the process of what they put on the page.

Stephen Covey argues that there are four major human “gifts” — self-awareness, conscience, imagination and independent will — which empower individuals.  These gifts enable people to choose how they will respond to any given circumstance in their lives.  He defines self-awareness as the ability to step back from life to observe oneself (including thoughts).  Conscience gives moral sense and moral power.  Imagination is the ability to  “envision something entirely different from  . . . past experience.”[4]  Independent will is the power to take action.

A fifth vital “gift”’ in Covey’s discussion is that of humour, as it has the capacity to combine all of the gifts, to bring great self-awareness so people can think about what is really important in their lives.  Laughter releases tension and “is an alternative to guilt tripping” (p.34). True humour is “light heartedness” not “light mindedness.”  Empowerment is being aware of these gifts and being able to mobilise them in everyday life.  Covey argues that to be proactive people need to develop all these human “gifts” to achieve synergy in interpersonal communications.

Covey uses circle imagery to explore intersubjective empowerment.

The Circle of Concern is a large circle that embraces everything in your life that you may be concerned about.  The Circle of Influence is a smaller circle within the Circle of Concern that embraces the things you can actually do something about. (p.41)

He explains that the tendency is to focus on the Circle of Concern, causing the inner Circle of Influence to be diminished.  Proactive people focus their energies on the Circle of Influence and expand it, rather than diminishing energy (p.41) by focusing on their own Circle of Concern.   Covey maintains that proactive people know when to tell the difference between these two circles.  In his model the major Circle of Influence is self and maybe one’s own family because, even in a single family, one’s influence might come from first effecting a change in oneself.  Change in the community then comes from changes within the individual and family networks.  Action becomes connected to spiritual principles rather than based on emotion.  Love is something we do, not just something we feel.

“Proactive people focus on their Circle of Influence. As a result that circle increases.”(p.41)

He explains that as the circle of influence is strengthened, people become more influential in the world.  This study contends that writing can be a powerful tool in extending a person’s circle of influence, as authors publish their stories, readers engage with their thoughts, across time, and place. What began, as an individual’s story can become a story that becomes part of the reader as well.

Publishing, however, brings with it new challenges and can also produce new forms of writing, intended less for the self, and more for the public, although these lines are sometimes hard to see.  One weakness of Covey’s model is that he does not adequately take into account that some people have more opportunities than others to consolidate and expand the circle of influence.

[1] Ong, Orality and Literacy  p.82.

[2] Van Manen, p.125.

[3] Lisa Bellear, “Healing through Poetry,” in The Strength of Us as Women: Black Women Speak p.70.

[4] I use a popular self- help writer, along side my other theorists, because his model is very useful.Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1997), p. 31. All subsequent references incorporated into the body of the text.

An Extract from my PhD Thesis, Distilling Ink from Ochre, Empowerments of Indigenous Women Through Writing(2004)

I will be doing some updated reading, but it is interesting revisiting this document and thinking about how it may play a role in my writing of fiction and life story.  I’ll also be extracting journals and other pieces to see what treasures might lie therein.

(c) June Perkins

The days of porridge – draft1#

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Rocks for Art and Dreams – June Perkins

The first draft of this piece is the outflow of the emotion of memory.  Next I want to write it  more in a way that shows not tells.  In this draft I like the way the porridge motif works and will think about metaphors and myths around magic porridge pots perhaps.

Remember the days when we survived on porridge and rice
and friends sometimes bought us groceries unasked
to make sure we didn’t go hungry
both of us students
with young children
striving for our qualifications
to move ahead with our lives
under thirty we were.

We even spent short stints living with friends
and family
as we searched for affordable accomodation
who only asked that one day
when we were better off
that we passed it along
and shared that they had once
lived in the days of surviving on porridge
and rice perhaps with a splash of lentils.

Why do I remember these days now?

Perhaps it was the news last night
about the homeless
who are out on the streets
for mental illness
or substance abuse or even just
bad luck and a lost job and
who if someone like Mission Australia breaks the cycle
gives them a letter box
and a home
and helps them clean up their lives whilst in the
home
– move forward.

Perhaps its the memory of soup kitchens
that fed students
on the poverty line
who couldn’t afford the refectory food
and who sought to sleep in the library’s
warmth until it closed.

-I am sure that this still goes on

Because not everyone at university has a regular income
or parents who can, or want, to support them.

– I was thankful for my weekend kitchen hand job.

Maybe it is the couple who
homeless in their car
tried to heat it up
and accidentally died when
their ingenuity went wrong.

Thinking about how tricky it can be from seventeen to twenty one
as you build your life, often away from family
seeking an education and beginning to build your own friendships and family
-reminds me of the days of porridge and rice
where love was the main thing
that kept us warm
and the fuel that kept us going.

We could imagine our food tastier
wear our shoes until the holes made it impossible
and in parts of Queensland even go
barefoot if need be

-it was so warm

and rocks were like treasure
to paint into sneaker gifts for friends
with  a small amount of paint and some
tippex we
could even make thankyou gifts.

Now the pantry is full
but I am looking for a return to more stable work
after spending time concentrating on raising the children
and doing so much community work

I don’t want to return to those days of porridge
but rather help those in the days of porridge
achieve their dreams

(c) June Perkins