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: Continue reading

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Second-Hand Bookshopping in Brisbane

Hubble and I enjoy rummaging through second-hand bookshops. They are treasure troves. I buy some new books, but I am building up my Australian history collection by finding out of print, sometimes obscure gems in second-hand bookshops. Often these books are hard to find in a library near me – particularly if they solely relate to a state other than the state in which I live. I visited two great second-hand bookshops while I was in Brisbane recently. I left Sydney with a 10kg suitcase and returned with a 20kg suitcase full of second-hand books.

Red brick building with 'Archives Fine Books' sign at the bottom and "John Mills Himself' formed in concrete at the top.

Archives Fine Books in Charlotte Street, Brisbane

Book cover

Soldiers of the Service Vol II, edited by Eddie Clarke and Tom Watson (Church Archivists’ Press, 1999).

For a number of years I have been visiting Archives Fine Books in Charlotte Street. Recently I found a large room at the back of the shop that I had not been aware of. In this room I found Soldiers of the Service Volume II: More Early Queensland Educators and their Schools. Not too many people would get excited by this title, but it should be a good reference book for my work about the history of education in Queensland. I bought it because I thought it would be difficult to borrow from a library in Sydney where I live. Not only is it available in very few libraries, there was not one image of the front cover on the internet until I photographed my own and uploaded it. Now I need to find a copy of Volumes I and III. Given the interest in this book (see comments) I have added a list of the chapter titles of this book at the end of this post.

I also picked up some old school readers. School readers are generally not digitised. I am purchasing readers when I can so that I can digitise them at home using my camera, a cardboard box, a lamp and some optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert print to machine readable text using these instructions. Once I have done this I can easily analyse the text in these readers.

Continue reading

Kangaroo Point, Brisbane

People purchasing tickets through round, grilled windows at the Gabba

We had pre-purchased our tickets for the Brisbane Lions vs Hawthorn game so bypassed the ticket queue but the small ticket windows at the Gabba caught my eye. I wonder what it is like for the ticket sellers working behind these portholes?

Last week I was back in Brisbane. Family from Melbourne and Sydney joined our Brisbane family to watch the Hawthorn vs Brisbane Lions football game at the Gabba. After an enjoyable family weekend, I stayed on for a few days to do some research. That plan was somewhat hijacked when my brand new laptop had a major failure. I had to use a spreadsheet on a tablet while I was working in the archives. It was a slow and fiddly way to work. Tablets are great, but not for working with spreadsheets.

I was going to blog about my stay, but I was about to copy a draft of this post from my computer to my blog when my laptop failed and I couldn’t access the document. These computer problems made me rather grumpy for a couple of days but I decided to stop dwelling on my first world problems and from then on I enjoyed my visit.

I am back in Sydney now and have decided to share with you the posts I was planning to publish last week. In a happy coincidence I have found out it is Queensland Week. Queensland Week celebrates the separation of Queensland from New South Wales on 6th June 1859. So now I have a good pretext for publishing my Queensland posts this week.

During our football weekend we stayed at Kangaroo Point which is walking distance to the Gabba. One of the families I have been researching lived in this area in the late nineteenth century but I knew that this is one of the most heavily developed areas of Brisbane so I was not expecting to find any of the buildings connected with this family.

I like walking the streets trodden in the past by the people I am researching. Even if there have been a lot of changes one can still gain a sense of the topography and how the places they frequented related to each other. Sometimes one can strike it lucky and find a building that has survived a century of urban redevelopment. On a morning walk we found such a place. The schools my family had attended had been demolished, but the church next to these schools has survived. Continue reading

Review: Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt

Book cover

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt (UQP, 2016).

Larissa Behrendt has written a nuanced and engrossing book about colonial attitudes as they operated through a particular Australian colonial ‘captivity tale’. Using the story told by Eliza Fraser who was helped by the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island after surviving a ship wreck in 1836, Behrendt turns the colonial gaze back on itself to examine the motives, the fears and the deficiencies of the Europeans as revealed in stories such as Eliza’s.

Behrendt uses her background as a novelist to examine the dramatic elements that drive the stories of Eliza Fraser.  These stories were written to satisfy the expectations of British readers for a tale of ‘barbaric natives‘, gripping adventure with a dash of sexual danger to titillate the audience. Behrendt retells the story from the point of view of the Butchulla people, the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island. She then goes on to demonstrate how various fictions justified colonial violence against indigenous people and wended their way into the legal framework that supported the dispossession of land from the traditional owners. Behrendt shows the power of stories, whether they are fictional, historical or legal in shaping a narrative that can perpetrate violence, but how these stories can also be used to dismantle the structures that caused great injustices.

In Finding Eliza Larissa Behrendt examines gender across the racial divide in colonial settler society. She rejects a simplistic judgement of Eliza Fraser’s role in all this. Behrendt acknowledges Eliza’s strength and tenacity to not only survive what would have been a terrifying ordeal for a middle-class European woman but to take the initiative to tell her story in a European culture where women’s voices struggled to be publicly heard. Continue reading

5 Tips about Queensland State Archives for researchers who live outside Brisbane

Front of Queensland State Archives Building

Queensland State Archives are at 435 Compton Road, Runcorn in Brisbane.

I had the pleasure of researching at the Queensland State Archives while I was in Brisbane recently. These tips are for anyone who lives outside Brisbane who wants to research at the Archives and make the best use of their time:

1.     Lockers for suitcases

Small suitcase in an open locker

Luggage locker at Queensland State Archives.

The first thing an out-of-Brisbane researcher needs to know about the Queensland State Archives is that there are two lockers big enough to store a small suitcase. This means you can save time by heading to the Archives as soon as you arrive in Brisbane without visiting your hotel to drop off your luggage first. Remember to bring a one dollar coin to use the locker. You receive the coin back when you have finished with the locker.

2.     You cannot order items in advance of your visit, but you can do some preparation in advance

The second thing an out-of-Brisbane researcher needs to know about the Queensland State Archives is that you cannot order items before you arrive. This is sad, but the reason this facility is not available is sadder still. Unfortunately researchers were ordering items and then not showing up. Like all archives, the Queensland State Archives does not have enough staff and they certainly cannot afford to waste staff time by retrieving items for people who do not show up. This is a lesson for all researchers. Sometimes we order stuff and are unavoidably prevented from visiting the archives eg illness. But it is important that if we order stuff we make every effort to use it. It would be a shame if other archives have to withdraw the facility of ordering items in advance.

But you can still make the best use of your time by preparing for your isit. Before you arrive at the Archives make a list of all the Item ID numbers for the records you want. When you arrive at the Archives, go straight to the computers in the reading room where you can order the items. Use the ‘Retrieve Using ID’ facility in the catalogue and lodge the order. You can order items whenever you want and are not bound by a timetable for getting orders in at certain times during the day like at some archives. Items arrive in a reasonable time. It all works smoothly and the desk staff are very helpful.

While you are waiting for your items to arrive go to the microfilm room and look at any microfilms that you need. Continue reading

Researching in Brisbane Again

photo of young girl dressed up as a nurse and young boy dressed up as a wounded soldier with arm in sling.

Like children in many parts of the world, Queensland children were affected by the Great War. This cover of the weekly newspaper, The Queenslander from 1st December 1917, is captioned, “The Spirit of the Times”. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Over the last few weeks I have returned to my research roots. I have been exploring the history of Brisbane from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of the Depression. My client is interested in the life story of a man who was born in Brisbane in the early twentieth century who moved to Sydney as an adult. He went on to work in East Asia during World War II and then became a successful business man. It is a pleasure to be part of such an interesting multi-national, collaborative project.

Once again I have been exploring the education history of the time, the politics, the culture and the experiences of young people growing up in Brisbane during this era. Fortunately I still have the references and workings for my honours thesis which was about Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum held in 1910. Some of the work I did on that is relevant for my current research.

I gladly left our sodden house for a research trip to Brisbane – what a delight to have working lights and a good internet connection for a few days! I immersed myself in old records the Queensland State Archives and the State Library of Queensland as well as exploring the local area where our man had grown up. A good sense of place is important if an historian to portray the history well. There is nothing like walking the streets and visiting the places which are the sites of the history that is being researched. Continue reading

The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman

Book cover of The Power of Bones

The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014).

“I chose survival” says Keelen Mailman in her memoir, The Power of Bones. Powerful, painful and memorable, The Power of Bones lays bare the struggles and achievements of Aboriginal life in  Australia during the late twentieth century and more recently.

Mailman is an Aboriginal woman from south-west Queensland near Charleville. She had a hard childhood and a poor education but she has risen from this to be the first Aboriginal woman to run a commercial cattle station. This book is a lesson in never writing a person off, no matter how bleak their background appears to be.

Mailman is proud of her Bidjara culture. Her knowledge and commitment to the Bidjara people was recognised by one of the community elders who asked her to manage the Mount Tabor cattle station for the Bidjara. The work at the station is mentioned in passing, the focus of this memoir is family and culture. Continue reading