#AWW 2013: Mum Shirl book review

Mum Shirl’s autobiography was first published in 1981. But I think these words are still just as relevant now as they were then. Especially during this political climate and the stylings of the Liberal party’s Scott Morrison.

If white people hear of it, then they think the same of all Black people.

The only thing they don’t seem to think is if something good happens. Then they think it is an ‘exception’.

Many people have told me that they think I am an ‘exception’, but I’m not. I have about the same as everybody else has. The difference now is that they do think I am an exception, which has come to mean that many times I am allowed to do things that they would not let another Aboriginal person do. But there are many fine Aboriginal people who, with half a chance, would be doing what I am now doing, and many of them would be able to do it better because they have an educated mind. The difference seems to me to be that they are rarely given the chance.

Reading this book is like having a cosy chat with MumShirl. She gently but unflinchingly reveals how white policies, perhaps well meaning but misguided perhaps intentional, had devastating effects on Aboriginal communities. She talks of her early life at Erambie Mission in Cowra with her family, discovering she had epilepsy and her early struggles with it when medication was still unavailable to treat it, marrying, child rearing and losing her marriage and giving up her child to the care of relatives. She also talks about the extensive efforts she went to to support prisoners, family and anyone and everyone in need of help. She was a founding member of both the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service. Throughout her determination to do her best is her motivation, no matter the cost to her personally. She really was an amazing person (she passed away in 1998). She was awarded an MBE in 1975, an Order of Australia in 1985, Aborigine of the Year in 1990, and named as a National Living Treasure shortly before her death.

When he met me, he asked me, ‘What sort of work do you do?’ I told him I visited people in their homes and in prisons, and he said, ‘Oh, do they call you a social worker?’ and I said, ‘No, they call me a sticky beak.’

I can see the parallels between what MumShirl speaks of as happening in the past and what is happening now. I’m not claiming that this somehow gives me a understanding of what Aboriginal people experience, just that my eyes have been opened somewhat to the continuing crap that white society heaps upon the Aboriginal community (and refugees etc etc) while we like ask ourselves naval gazing questions like “Is Australia really racist?” answer is hell yes in case you were wondering; and pretend that The Apology and Sorry Day make all the past misdeeds and present crap somehow all better like a bandaid over a gaping wound instead of being just a couple of steps in the right direction. Nor do I want to downplay the importance of those things, what I’m trying to get at is that we, as a society, seem to be dusting off our hands as if the job has been done and everything is fine now while the Intervention, black deaths in custody an over representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system etc. still goes on.

I’m still not sure what to do with this new found knowledge. I still feel like I need to shut up and learn more first. If you want to learn more too I think that Anita Heiss’ 100 book list of Aboriginal authors is a fantastic place to start.

SotBO: parts of this post deal with generalisations. Not all of these generalisations will be true for everyone. If it’s not about you, it’s not about you.

I’m reading books by female Aboriginal authors for the Australian Women Writer Challenge 2013 and it is turning out to be quite an education. I have previously read Manhattan Dreaming (reviewed) by Anita Heiss;  Butterfly Song by Terri Janke;  Me, Antman and Fleabag by Gayle Kennedy; and Too Flash by Melissa Lucashenko.  Mum Shirl is number 5 out of ten I plan to read in 2013 and the second review of six.  I am only counting one book from each author, although once I started reading Anita Heiss’ ‘Chocklit’ I had to read them all.


Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, culture wars, fun & hobbies, history, Life, social justice


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