New South Wales is on fire again. Umbral clouds billow above the buildings of the Sydney CBD. Elsewhere homes are burning. Hundreds of hectares scarring. The air is rife with ordeal. As if the city might cook. As if Gaia is making a point in a ruinous and ancient sepia.
I want to take a picture but we are hurrying to make the Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture. I have a migraine, my brain delicately and privately swelling in its own cataclysmic haze. We enter the small auditorium through the State Library café. It is closing. The end is nigh. We rush in anxiously (or was that just me?). There is no obvious place to sit. People are spaced out in small clumps like a post modern poem. We find a place between phrases. I put my camera together. Take a picture of the presenter. Wonder if I should. As if the presenter knows I am clueless on this matter, she tells a story about a white woman in another audience recently who asked her if it was “alright for a non-indigenous person to write about indigenous people”. In relating this story to us, the presenter sighs heavily, leans on the lectern, takes a moment and says that she hates having to say “No” but someone has to. So “No”. It is not alright. The woman presses her point later over coffee, “It’s okay, I know exactly how you feel and why you said “No”. “No”, answers the presenter, “you don’t know exactly why. Not even close“. She had crossed a line with her question and, again, more seriously with her apologetics. The presenter had to speak up. Didn’t want to. But says she always has to. Someone has to. The speaker of this difficult but necessary word ‘No” is Author Melissa Lucashenko. In speaking on what it means to be an indigenous author in Australia, on what can be done to support the creation and distribution of indigenous authorship, she begins to edit the ‘elitist post modern text’ sprawled out in front of her. She educates us about the toxic representations of indigenous people: Firstly, portrayed as a noble savage in some kind of garden of Eden who is easily conquered (read: saved) by white man; or secondly, as the ‘tragic native’, always a ‘victim’. She likens these descriptions to the two little pigs who built their houses out of straw and sticks and who were eaten by the ‘wolf’. She argues for more representations of the third kind; the pig who had the initiative to build his house in bricks, to foil the wolf and survive and prosper. She says that these types of indigenous people are invisible in text, art and film and suggests that the only representation that, in her opinion, truly does portray the ingenious indigenous of the third kind is The Tracker (it seems overwhelmingly appropriate that the only representation of value is one that portrays a tracker who ‘tracks’ what white society cannot see). The Tracker depicts the indigenous protagonist (who can speak four languages, including Latin) as resourceful, smart, and successful. She also says that if we do not start to portray the indigenous as empowered, strong, and capable then they may rise up and find other ways to clear their throats. They might become militant. She is telling us. She is telling us “No”. No more.
I feel chastened. Disquiet. She is formidable. I feel the earth beneath her. In her. In comparison, I feel like a wisp of condensation across my own clichéd idea of a remote desert ridge.
She is strong, sure, and wolf-wise.
And…she is richly, richly appreciated…honoured…we all say thank you…I say thank you…
Later, outside again, as we wait for the walk sign to change to green, the world has cooled. The clouds only dimly lit now by the lights of the CBD.
But we can smell the smoke and ruin. The rage and fire.