2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge Review – MumShirl: an autobiography with the assistance of Bobbi Sykes

Black silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat on a green background (with some faint writing in the top and bottom thirds), with the words in white: 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

MumShirl with the assistance of Roberta B. Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads blurb

Colleen Shirly Perry, better known as ‘Mumshirl’ worked for the Aboriginal Medical Service, recieved an MBE and generally did everything she could for aboriginal people.

My review

It feels quite appropriate to be writing this review on Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day, particularly one on which the debate is not only about the nomenclature of the day and what (if anything) we should be celebrating or commemorating, but also about whether someone such as the husband of the Queen of England should receive the top Australian honour, in circumstances where that honour is itself controversial and where the man is known for making ignorant and bigoted comments, including to Australias First Nations people.

I’ve said in other reviews that books have given me access to a new perspective, a different way of telling the story. This is also true of MumShirl’s autobiography.

It is not the usual kind of autobiography. It is not structured as an overall chronological narrative; it tells very little about the author/subject’s inner feelings and personal circumstances from time to time (what there is of those tends to be a by-the-by and/or an explanation for MumShirl’s understanding or awareness of, or interaction with, certain events, or reasons for her to do what she did). Even very significant aspects of her life (epilepsy, including her lack of education and difficulty getting a job as a result, the death of her first child in labour and the miscarriage of all pregnancies after her second, the giving up of her only living child to her husband’s parents) are mentioned almost in passing. The book is more a series of short pieces about some of the things going on in the Black community over MumShirl’s lifetime and the prejudices and injustices she observed and faced.

I can’t really say much about the book that is better than what MumShirl had to say for herself, so here are some particularly cutting quotes:

I don’t know whether it is the fits that turn employers off epileptics, or just the fear that we will take fits. It is certainly the fear that is harder to live with for epileptics than the actual fits themselves. Perhaps it is also that way for employers. (p 26)

While there is definitely such a thing in prison as doing ‘hard time’, I am not convinced that there is ‘easy’ time. (p 36)

[On people from Black organisations being invited in the 1970s to speak to white organisations:] It turned out that it was costing us a lot to tell these white people that we were not about to start any riots and that all the events which were taking place were in self-defence. After a while, quite a lot of these speakers just wouldn’t go any more, and they were criticised by white people who said we had become ‘unfriendly’.

For many of us, however, it was not just a question of money; it was also a question of time. We could be here in our own community helping out, or out there in the white community not quite sure if our talking was helping anybody at all. (p 54)

And this is a dynamic we continue to see playing out – the majority/powerful group says “EDUCATE US!!!” and when the minority/less powerful group refuses, the response is as MumShirl has described, or worse.

We went away laughing [having just been refused service in a hotel], because it all seemed so silly. We could have had lunch with the Queen, if we wanted, but we couldn’t get a drink in this hotel, and we couldn’t get served in lots of crummy places in Sydney and all around Australia; but we could have had lunch with the Queen.

What a funny way they run their places, these white people, I thought. (p 88)

I think white people forget that Aboriginal people did not have the benefit of schooling and most of us don’t know how to read and write, much less keep account books. It is a long, slow, hard way to learn how to run things and especially to start them up, when we have never had any experience like this before. (at p 92)

MumShirl is talking here about the various successes and failures of Aboriginal-run services and organisations. I have had conversations along these lines with the kind of people who say “oh but we’ve given them so much money and they just waste it!” Well, so do many other start-ups … but the point is that providing funding and better education brings us closer to realistic successful self-determination, which in my view is an important part of justice for Black people in Australia. Also, even in relation to younger Black people who have better access to education, the generations of inequity and injustice have an ongoing impact, as we know that levels of parental education (and, I suspect, community education) have an enormous effect.

This book really is a must-read. It is also a very quick and easy read. MumShirl demonstrates a very high level of empathy, together with serious frustration that the rest of the world does not, for the most part, seem to have the same. This is a book we can all learn from, not only about the events MumShirl describes, but how we can perhaps work together to try to fix the problems we have. Because unfortunately, while there have been some changes for the better in the nearly 35 years since this book was published, there are still too many things which remain the same.

h/t to Mindy for her review of this book for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

This is a review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can see my full list of books here. You can find a full list of my reviews, and other posts relevant to the challenge, here.


Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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