The Black Lives Matter movement has spread from the US across the Western world, sparking protests that saw thousands take to the streets in Melbourne – despite the pandemic. MYKE BARTLETT speaks to two Australian authors about their work, the need for greater diversity in school texts and what effect a more inclusive curriculum might have for all students.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Maxine, you’ve described your new picture book, When We Say Black Lives Matter, as an ‘act of black love’. What do you mean by that?
What does it do to black children when the only images they’re seeing in media of themselves – or the primary images – are people who look like them being incarcerated, being prevented from entering countries, being brutalised, being excluded? It’s a hard thing to explain and for them to process – why is this happening to people who look like you? I wanted to engage with that. How do you explain to those kids that it’s nothing they’ve done wrong, that they are worthy of love, that their families are just as important as other families?
Picture books are really the first storytelling we do with children. If children aren’t seeing themselves – their faces, their stories, their lives – we really are saying to them that they don’t matter.
Are picture books a problem because parents enjoy sharing the books they read as children?
Absolutely. I still read all the books I read as a kid with my kids – Mr Magnolia and Possum Magic, all those classics. But it was a completely different world 35 years ago. What happens when those books are never updated is the world is changing but the images we are presenting are not.
How important do you think your book would have been if you’d read it in primary or pre-primary?
I think it would have been really important for me. I had one picture book, which I remember distinctly, that had a black girl as a protagonist. Unbeknownst to me, it was actually written by a white Jewish man. Back then, it was really difficult in Australia to come across black kids’ books.
Did you see any diversity in the books you read at school?
In lower primary school, no. Books were invariably written by white authors and there were one or two characters of colour. In middle high school, books like My Place and Looking for Alibrandi started to come on the scene.
Nowadays there are publishers like Magabala Books, who produce Aboriginal kids books which are absolutely beautiful. There are so many good Indigenous picture books now that should be in every school. There’s one that came out this year called Our Home, Our Heartbeat, and Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu is another.
Any you wish you could have read?
I think being taught books by Australian writers of colour, Indigenous Australians and Australians with migrant backgrounds, would have been really important, because we were reading Patrick White and Jane Austen and Shakespeare – things that were so far from the reality of life for a lot of kids. There was also a reluctance to have contemporary work on the syllabus.
If you were put in charge of the curriculum, is there one particular book you would like to see taught in every school?
I think Tony Birch. His work is so engaging, and he writes short fiction as well as novels. I think he would be great across many year levels. Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Palestinian-Egyptian Australian author who has written a lot of Young Adult fiction, would be good. And multi-voice anthologies like Growing Up African in Australia provide a chorus of voices telling different stories, which can be really interesting for kids.
What do you hope would be the effect of a curriculum that does contain more black voices?
Broader horizons for all children. There’s this idea that by teaching diverse works, we’re enriching kids who have historically been left out, but actually everyone benefits. You’re doing a disservice to every child if you’re not actually widening their mindset. I also think it’s important that kids of colour see their white classmates read these books, because it’s like seeing your classmates learn about yourself. There are so many reasons why it’s beneficial.
Tony, your latest novel The White Girl has just been optioned for a film – does that make it more likely it will be taught in schools?
The White Girl is already being taught this year at Princes Hill Secondary and next year at the new Preston Secondary College. Although a lot of my books have been taught at Year 11 and below, the way the central committee decides on Year 12 books makes it difficult to get books on the list. Last year, an academic from the Melbourne University education faculty asked me to talk to a VATE conference, alongside several other Aboriginal writers. There were 32 books on the Victorian curriculum that year and there was not one Aboriginal writer.
Why is it so difficult to get books by Aboriginal writers taught at Year 12 level?
One of the things you can’t argue now is that there’s a lack of material or quality. At the moment, there are four Aboriginal writers who in recent years won the Miles Franklin. The depth of writing across all genres is incredibly strong. The argument that that academic explained to me, which sounds almost ludicrous, is that English teachers are hesitant to teach books by Indigenous writers because the issues were often contentious. Basically, he put it down to people being oversensitive to this being a political issue in Australia. I do a lot of school visits and I find that not to be the case with students and staff. They aren’t confronted by the issues; they see them as necessary to discuss.
Take a book like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which involves the massacre of Aboriginal people – I have no problem with the book, but I think it’s interesting that the narrator is a white woman. If those same issues of history are presented by an Aboriginal author, there is more of a contest over that legitimacy.
When I was a historian, I was involved in the so-called ‘history wars’ and I found that an Aboriginal person presenting a view on colonial violence would face more hostility than a white leftist historian presenting the same view. I think there really is an underlying historical anxiety. I think it’s sub-conscious and I think it’s around white guilt.
Do you feel that books and especially fiction have an important role in helping students face up to Australia’s dark past?
As a student who was bad at almost everything except English at school, I found reading fiction invaluable.
The problem is when you’re teaching undergraduates, you’re teaching people who have no insight into their country’s history because they haven’t been exposed to crucial issues in high school. If people were studying Aboriginal literature in high school more widely than they are now, it would prepare people for what they will be studying at university. Or just engaging with Aboriginal people in everyday life.
You said you enjoyed English, but did you feel the curriculum had anything to say to you, given your background?
This is touching on the issue of the universal appeal of literature. I read a book in high school called A Kestrel for A Knave, which was set in Northern England and was about a young boy called Billy Casper, who lived in a dank, grimy coal town. What’s interesting about that book is it had great resonance for me and other kids who went to Richmond High School in the late 60s and early 70s, because it was a novel about the working class. It had a really strong appeal for us, because that kid – for all his differences – was a kid like us. We all came from different ethnic backgrounds, but we were all working class. There was still a cultural affinity.
I think one of the other values of books is that, if you read a novel about an Aboriginal kid, it’s not only that you’re being introduced to Aboriginal culture, there are other issues that teenage readers will share. That can give you a hook into a book. Although I’m arguing for more Aboriginal writing to be taught in high school, it’s not to compartmentalise different writers or different stories. I think teenagers are really smart at picking up associations.
Are there books you wish you could have studied?
Actually, it’s the other way around. I feel more that the stuff I missed out on was the stuff that was being taught, but not taught to us. When I went to university as a 30-year-old, we studied Othello. I wrote an essay called Who Kidnapped Shakespeare? which was about the fact that the canon was taught in a very formal, elitist way which meant that kids who were struggling or came from marginalised backgrounds were taught to believe it wasn’t for us. When I read Othello at university, I thought it was magical.
I taught creative writing at Melbourne University for about 12 years and I also used to volunteer to teach with homeless people and in the juvenile justice centre in Parkville, the old Turana boys home. You’ve got to give people confidence to work at their own level. I think we weren’t given the confidence to work with Shakespearean language, which can seem quite alien. There should have been ways to introduce us to that language and those texts that didn’t alienate us. People teach Shakespeare in prisons and the prisoners get it. They understand melodrama, murder and mayhem. It’s all about how it’s taught.