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Auntie Rita, by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

February 21, 2012

Auntie Rita, by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins. Aboriginal Studies Press (1994), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 160 pages.

Auntie Rita is the autobiography of an Aboriginal Australian women, Rita Huggins, written in dialogue with her daughter, Jackie Huggins, a university professor. Read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Working together, Jackie and Rita Huggins create a full account of Rita’s life. Rita is the primary narrator, telling her story in her own style and words. Jackie, a college professor specializing in Aboriginal issues, inserts comments. Sometimes she fills in useful history to give readers an overall context for Rita’s life. Sometimes she gives another interpretation to her mother’s account, for example, trying to relieve her mother’s guilts. Sometimes, the two “fight with their tongues,” disagreeing but allowing the other to be heard. Jackie explains that the use of both their voices in the book means that she is not speaking “for her mother but to her, with her, and about her.”

Rita’s story is a dramatic one, even harsher than the ones I know from either African or Native Americans. She begins with her memories of her “born place,” a lush valley with massive cliffs and caves which is now a national park. Then she relates her childhood memory of when “troopers” arrived, captured the tribal group, loaded them into a cattle wagon and took them all away. At the first stop, the old people—who were also the darkest—were left behind never to be seen again. Then the younger families were put in a concentration-like camp where Rita spent her childhood. They were forced to give up their tribal languages and practices and were monitored constantly.

When young women, like Rita, reached adolescence, they were put out to work as domestic servants living in the homes of whites and working without time off. Unlike domestic servants in most countries, the government collected their wages leaving them only a pittance as “pocket money.” (Although allegedly held in trust, that money has never been given to those who worked for it.) When Rita became pregnant, she had to leave her daughter with her parents miles away from her job so she could continue her work as a servant. Eventually, Rita was granted an “exemption” from such close governmental supervision after her employer confirmed that she was “civilized” and “thrifty.”

Rita married shortly after World War II and had more children, but her happy marriage was cut short by the early war-related death of her husband. She was left to raise her children alone. Living in a Brisbane neighborhood of poor whites and “Murries” (people from a variety of different tribes and indigenous groups), she became involved in early attempts to bring white Australians and Aboriginals together and to work to end the worst aspects of discrimination. Rita became a recognized leader of the One People of Australia (OPAL) organization in Brisbane.

Noteworthy in Rita Huggins’ account is her positive depiction of some, but not all, of whites, especially the ones she knew in OPAL. Her organization had been founded by whites and one of its goals was to create social interactions between blacks and whites. Although sometime criticized as assimilationist, the group was vital to Rita as she developed the social and political skills to lead efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginals, especially those living in cities like Brisbane. Rita expresses her gratitude to the group for being her “community of support.” She credits them with helping her gain “a sense of freedom, responsibility, strength, and most importantly, helping other people.” Involvement with whites in the struggle to change conditions for Aboriginals existed alongside efforts by both Rita and Jackie to preserve and protect their heritage and values.

I recommend this book highly to all who would learn of what life has been like for others and how they have managed to struggle to make a place for themselves.

Related books:
My Place, by Sally Morgan. A straight-forward account of a young woman’s discovery of her Aboriginal heritage. [My Review]

Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright. A more literary account of Aboriginal life. My next read and one I am very excited about. [Review in the near future]

Also see the discussion of Aboriginal Australian women writers that appeared on the Australian Women Writers challenge.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 10:02 pm

    Hi Marilyn

    It has taken me a while to get round to your blog because several of the links you posted on the challenge page were faulty. I think I’ve fixed them now.

    This memoir sounds like a story of hope, as well as being a fascinating personal insight into an important aspect of Australian history.

    • February 22, 2012 8:30 am

      Thanks for straightening out my entries on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am new to blogging and knew I had made mistakes, but didn’t know how to correct them. Thanks setting up that challenge and for having the guest blog on Aboriginal women writers. These are new to me and I hope to read and report on some more of them.

      • February 23, 2012 12:30 am

        You’re very welcome, Marilyn, and I’m glad you found some new authors. Dr June Perkins and Dr Anita Heiss made some excellent recommendations for that post. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

  2. March 14, 2012 4:53 am

    Thanks very much for this review.


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  4. Am I Black Enough for You?, by Anita Heiss. | Me, you, and books
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