My Place, by Sally Morgan.
My Place, by Sally Morgan. Fremantle Press (2010), 440 pages. First published 1987.
I read this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Sally Morgan has written a poignant memoir about her discovery and exploration of her family’s aboriginal Australian roots.
Morgan describes her childhood in a working-class family in Perth, the largest city on the southwest coast of Australia. Her father had fought and been captured by the Germans in World War II and was fighting a losing battle with what we would now probably call post traumatic stress disorder, made worse by his drinking. Morgan was still in grade school when he died. Her mother and Nan, the grandmother who lived with them, decided to keep the children from knowing that they were aborigines. They had justified fears they would be declared unfit and the children would be taken away. Because of white men in their lineage, only the grandmother was dark enough to be easily identified as a “blackfellow.”
As a teenager, Morgan discovered her true ethnic heritage and responded first with confusion and then with curiosity. Marrying and raising children of her own, she painstakingly traced down and recorded her family story. She talked with the white women in whose family her grandmother had worked, and found their version of her family’s history was demonstrably false. She also visited the “station” in northeastern Australia where her family had originally lived. There she found people who had known her grandmother and uncle and who accepted her as part of their larger family. Eventually her great-uncle, mother, and grandmother added their stories to her book. Her memoir ends on a note of reconciliation.
The stories told by her relatives make painfully real the conditions shaping the lives of aborigines in the first half of the twentieth century. They were still under the total control of the particular white family that settled in their home regions. Although slavery was not legally in existence, their lives resembled that of slaves since they literally had no options but to obey powerful whites. Both Morgan’s grandmother and her great-uncle were taken away from their parents as children and had never seen them again. Her great-uncle was sent to a violent and abusive “school” from which he was able to run away and eventually establish himself on a small farm. Her grandmother was sent as a child to serve in the household of her “owner” in Perth.
Nan spent most of her life as a domestic servant in that household and her story resembles those told by the women whom we have been reading for Real Help. She was expected to play with and serve the family’s children who were only a few years younger than she was. The family claimed that they loved her and treated her as part of their family, yet they would not let her keep the children she bore. She only saw her daughter, Morgan’s mother, two or three times a year. Although Nan had assumed she would stay with the family her whole life, they fired her, and then begged her to return. She agreed to come back because they were the only stable factor in her life, only to be fired the second time. In her old age, she was bitter and frequently estranged from the daughter whom she been forced to give up. After describing the strenuous work expected of her and always having her meals alone in the kitchen, Nan said, ”You see, it’s no use them sayin’ I was one of the family, ‘cause I wasn’t. I was their servant.”
Reading this story, I thought again about scholars who claim that race and gender have no reality because they are only “social categories.” Maybe race and gender do not have any biological meaning other than that we give them, but as “social categories” race and gender can determine almost everything about the lives some individuals are allowed. Categories like race and gender can give some groups of humans the power to abuse other human beings in very concrete ways.
My Place focuses mainly on the treatment of aborigines by white Australians. I hope that other books I plan to read will introduce me to more of their culture and society. As a white, American woman, the stories of Morgan and her family resonated with what I know of both African American and Native American treatment, and yet the setting and the particulars were unique.
I feel richer for having read this book and recommend it strongly to others.