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Am I Black Enough for You?, by Anita Heiss.

April 12, 2013

Am I Black Enough for You?, by Anita Heiss.  North Sydney, N.S.W. : Bantam, 2012.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A valuable, informative account by an urbane, educated, highly successful Aboriginal Australian woman about her life and her work to include Aboriginal people in her nation’s conversation.

Anita Heiss is impressive.  She is a living challenge to stereotypes of Indigenous people as illiterate, poor, and isolated.  She has devoted herself to the cause of increasing literacy among Aboriginal people and to holding classes for children and adults of their communities to help them write and publish accounts of their own lives.  After earning a Ph.D., she turned away from academia to write full-time.  A widely read author, she has become a spokesperson for indigenous peoples throughout Australia and around the world.   Her popular “choc lit” novels, featuring Aboriginal career women, introducing a wide variety of readers to the existence of women like Heiss.  Her  discussion of the need for Indigenous writers should be read by all.

In writing her own life story, Heiss centers on her own achievements and the reasons she has devoted herself to the inclusion of people like herself in her nation’s dialog.   She includes little about her childhood and personal life.  Instead she writes chapters about both her mother and father and the love and stability of their inter-racial marriage.  Her mother was a Wiradjuri , the daughter of a woman taken from her parents as a member of the “Stolen Generation.”  Her father was an Austrian who came to Australia as a “New Immigrant” after World War II.  Heiss grew up knowing both their families.  Seemingly she was raised in a non-indigenous suburb of Sydney and experienced relatively minor racial slurs, but nothing as traumatic as others have described.  Race was never discussed in her home and she became interested in Indigenous issues while attending college.  Heiss limits her discussion of her love life to four pages and then devotes a few more to the reasons she has not become a mother because she hasn’t been involved with Mr. Right.  Later chapters chronicle her many, often globa,l friendships.

Identity is a central issue for Heiss but she seems more intent on proclaiming  who she is than exploring internal conflicts and contradictions.  Her sense of herself seems somewhat static.  She never notes any conflicts between her Indigenous persona and her success in a non-Indigenous world.  Problems come from others who refuse to acknowledge who she is.  She begins and ends her book with an account of the lawsuit that she and others initiated against an Australian commentator who accused them of not actually being Indigenous. He said they were merely claiming to be so that they could gain financial benefits.  He also falsely claimed that Heiss’s mother was not Indigenous.  In Australia it is illegal to harass people over race, and he was judged guilty.

Heiss writes in a straightforward and positive manner, at times becoming chatty with her readers.  Her style is effective for the story she tells her readers, although personally I prefer memoirs to be more literary and nuanced, more willing to deal with conflicts and ambiguities of the author’s life.

When I was unable to borrow or buy this book, Sue at whisperinggums found and sent me a copy.  I am very grateful to her for providing me with a chance to read this book.

I recommend this book to all readers wanting to know more about Indigenous Australians.  Perhaps, as Lisa suggests, it could be read in tandem with one of the autobiographies of individuals who grew up more immersed in Aboriginal culture and who directly experienced the abuses of removal from their families and lands. Or perhaps with Kayang & Me, by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, which Lisa recently reviewed.

Other Australian Indigenous Autobiographies I have reviewed:

Auntie Rita, by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.
My Place, by Sally Morgan.
Kick the Tin, by Doris Kartinyeri.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2013 12:29 pm

    Sounds interesting! Thanks for sharing.

    • April 16, 2013 10:17 am

      I am fascinated by the ways in which Australian Indigenous people are, and are not, like either American, Native Americans, or Hispanics (whom I consider Indigenous, too, in a way). We have as much prejudice as the white Australians but divide the abuses to them up rather than dumping all on one group. And slavery for a couple of hundred years had its impact. I don’t mean to engage in comparative pain, but the patterns are weird.

  2. April 12, 2013 4:56 pm

    I like this balanced and interesting review. You acknowledge the strengths and the limitations. I agree with you about literary, nuanced memoirs that show us the shadow side as well as the bright side of the self.

    • April 16, 2013 10:12 am

      Yes, I like more complex literature better, too, but see value in this book. I have been reading about “Drawing the Color Line” and realizing anew just how firmly people were taught that whites were the only competent ones. It’s no wonder such ideas die slowly.

  3. April 13, 2013 2:28 pm

    Uh oh, thanks for mentioning the “static identity” feel. Nothing to me sends up more red flags than no conflict and growth in one’s identity. I think I’d need to read more emotional type memoirs before I could read this one.

    • April 16, 2013 10:09 am

      The more emotional and introspective memoirs are my favorite memoirs, too, but I think hers may have a different kind of value for another group of readers who like her “choc lit” too.

      • April 22, 2013 2:25 am

        I think you have hit the nail on the head Marilyn. Anita Heiss’ writing is very important as it is deliberately written to reach a mainstream audience. As a consequence many people who have had no interaction with Aboriginal people and know little about indigenous issues have read this book and been moved by it.

  4. finola permalink
    April 15, 2013 6:26 pm

    I have really tried to like this book (or this woman) but I can’t; literary values nil, but I cannot hear Indigenous nuance in the language either … maybe I shouldn’t say anything, but we have in Australia the longest surviving culture (I say civilisation) in the world and it’s incredibly beautiful and deep and Anita makes hay in a superficial way, good luck to her, I guess…

    • April 16, 2013 10:07 am

      I understand your ambivalance. My hope is that with her and work her work a few more people, black and white, will give up their outdated notions that people of color are inferior. People who would not read you or me.

      What authors do you suggest for giving that Indigenous nuance in their writing? Yes, civilization is the right word.

      Glad to see news that Spinifex has republished one of your books. I look forward to reading it.

  5. April 24, 2013 10:20 am

    Thanks, Yvonne. I am glad to hear that some people have been moved by her story. I am just finishing Kayang and Me by Hazel Brown and Kim Scott which is the best Indigenous semi-autobiography I have read yet. Review soon. Impressive on how to bridge cultural differences.

Trackbacks

  1. April 2013 Roundup: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge
  2. Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2013 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  3. Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you (Review) | Whispering Gums
  4. 2013 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge
  5. Histories and Life Writing in 2013 | Australian Women Writers Challenge
  6. Review: Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt | Stumbling Through the Past

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