A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books and links referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

ilw-2016Each July, book blogger Lisa Hill encourages bloggers to review books written by indigenous authors from around the world. She chooses ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ to coincide with the Australian annual celebration of indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week.

Book cover of Auntie Rita

Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

This week was NAIDOC Week so I searched my book shelves for a book to read by an indigenous author. As I have already reviewed two new books by Australian Aboriginal authors this year (Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt and Pictures from my memory by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis) I decided to review a highly regarded book from the 1990s. Twenty-two years after it was first published I have finally read Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

Rita Huggins shares her life from her earliest years living on her country in what we know as Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. The land sustained her Bidjara-Pitjara people but born in 1922, Rita Huggins and her people were in the sights of a government which was forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land and into reserves. Rita Huggins tells of the traumatic day when she and her family were herded onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her country again.

This book is not a standard memoir. It is also a dialogue between Rita Huggins and her daughter Jackie. At various points through the narrative Jackie Huggins expands on points her mother makes, add her memories and sometimes challenges her mother. In doing this both mother and daughter are unsettling the memoir genre. We are all social beings. We not only live in a social context, we are challenged and have to adjust our thoughts and behaviours in response to those we live and work with. Yet writing a memoir is one of the most solitary practices. The dialogue in this memoir gives us a peek into a mother/daughter relationship. While Auntie Rita quite rightly dominates the book, the reader at times has the feeling that they are at a kitchen table listening to Auntie Rita talk about her life with Jackie sometimes chiming in with a comment about what her mother is saying. Auntie Rita says:

There are some parts of my life that I probably didn’t want to have in the book because to me they are shame jobs. But they are part of the story and Jackie tells me, in her loving way, that I don’t need to feel ashamed… My story is not rare among Aboriginal women.

When reading memoirs we can be lulled into the belief that the writer is exposing every corner of their life. Writers of memoirs never reveal all. The fact that someone does not mention something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Jackie reminds us of this with respect to her mother’s silences about working as a household servant in the 1930s and 1940s. The conditions were appalling. The government took the wages of Aboriginal workers leaving them with a pittance to live on. These wages have not been repaid. Aboriginal domestic workers were often the subject of all sorts of abuse in the homes where they worked, including sexual abuse. Jackie comments:

My mother does not want to talk even to me about the kinds of treatment she experienced. I respect that, but I will not forget nor forgive the people who inflicted that pain. These events should be exposed so that we might have another view of Aboriginal labour history than the gross distortions that present those years as a golden age… What stops Rita speaking about them herself is not unusual – it’s the same thing that stops people speaking about profound sufferings they have experienced. The oppression and pain can be so fierce as to make people mute. They close this experience inside themselves and don’t want anyone to touch it.

Who writes the archives? This issue was addressed during the week at the conference of the Australian Historical Association in Ballarat. It is generally the powerful whose perspective is reflected in the archives, but occasionally a fragment from the dispossessed sneaks through. Included in the book is a transcript of a poignant letter written by Auntie Rita’s father to the ‘Chief Protector’ of Aboriginals in Brisbane pleading for the return of one of Auntie Rita’s sisters from an abusive domestic service position.

Auntie Rita, like too many Aboriginal people, has had a tough life. She had a loving husband who died too young from the effect of war injuries so Auntie Rita was left with four young children to care for. She had years of hardship in Brisbane but the 1960s brought some change in attitudes towards Aboriginal people. Auntie Rita joined the One People of Australia League (OPAL) and spent many years volunteering for the organisation as well as looking after those in need. Looking back she remarks:

One of the things that amazes people is that we have managed to survive without a huge amount of outward bitterness… I’m not sure why I let go of my bitterness. I certainly remember those feelings but try to replace them with more positive feelings. That is how I have survived, and remain feeling strong.

What a lesson in life for everyone.

Other Reviews and Links

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 logo

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

13 thoughts on “A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

  1. That lack of bitterness certainly amazes me. White Australians carry on as though all this stuff is in the past but it seems to me that Bjelke Petersen let the racism genie out of the bottle in Qld and John Howard’s failures of leadership made it worse. The failure of both parties to repay confiscated wages is just one example. BTW I love the Carnarvon Gorge country, how terrible to be exiled for life.


    • If you check the link I added regarding the stolen wages you will see that the Queensland government is currently trying to do something about it in the face of the pay records being missing from the archives. Here’s hoping that this attempt will go some way to rectify the injustice.

      Carnarvon Gorge is a place I would love to visit. I hope that visitors are aware of the debt they owe to the original custodians of the land and the awful way they were treated.


      • Thanks. I followed the links right through to WA – lots of things I didn’t know! But glad a better process underway now in Qld.


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  3. HI Yvonne, the story of these stolen wages is the subject of a memoir by Lesley and Tammy Williams, it won the David Unaipon Award last year (see https://anzlitlovers.com/2015/09/06/not-just-black-and-white-by-lesley-williams-and-tammy-williams/). It’s well worth reading.
    BTW I have a question you might be able to answer… where you say that Rita Huggins had to get by after her husband died young from war injuries… do you know if Aboriginal Australian war widows were paid the same as non-Aboriginal widows? I ask because I’ve just read Tu by Patricia Grace, who says in that book (a novel) that in New Zealand Maori war widows were only paid half of what Pakeha widows were paid.


  4. Sounds like a fascinating book. I love the idea of the structure of the book – part memoir/part commentary. I have Kayang and Me by Kim Scott and Hazel Dean on my shelves which I almost pulled out for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week. While I haven’t read it, it appears to have a similar structure. Have you read Kayang and Me?


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