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Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, by Larissa Behrendt.

July 7, 2016

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, by Larissa Behrendt.
University of Queensland Press (2016), 204 pages.

 4 stars

An insightful exploration into the narratives that European settlers told about Indigenous Australians and the power they gained through those stories.

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman in the forefront of movements for Australian Indigenous people.  She is a lawyer and has served in various legal positions as well as written several books about legal issues that her people face.  She is also a novelist, creating prize-winning stories that expand our understanding of who Indigenous people are.  In 2009, she was named Indigenous Person of the Year.

In Finding Eliza, Behrendt displays her expertise in both literature and law as she as she describes the negative portrayal of Indigenous people in the writings of those who came to Australia.  She opens her account with the captivity narrative of Eliza Fraser, an English wife captured by the Butchulla people when she was shipwrecked on Fraser Island in 1836. Behrendt points out the ways in which the popular books about her adventure stress her purity and fragileness and the ignorance and “savagery” of her captors.  Mrs. Fraser herself wrote promoting this view.  These stories laid a foundation for Australian settler self-images as strong and all-conquering and for government policies that tried to destroy and eliminate those who were “other.”

Behrendt goes on to explore other examples of how literary images spread false ideas about native peoples.  In addition to Australian authors, she uses authors like Joseph Conrad to show how white authors project their own fears about themselves onto Indigenous people.  But she sees problems with the presentation of Indigenous people as “noble savages” as well.  Such depiction falsely claims Indigenous people to be passive, childlike, and content.  Stemming from the idea of the noble savage is the unrealistic demand that Indigenous people must be living as if their lives have been untouched by the past two hundred years in order to reclaim native lands.  There is no place in the myth of the noble savage for those who have adapted to white settlement and its accompanying industrialization and urbanization.

Much of what Behrendt writes is familiar to me because of my own investigation of what happened between settlers and Indigenous people in North America. But the myths she attacks are still alive and real, as she makes clear.  The information that Behrendt presents needs to become generally accepted by all of us, especially those of us who live on land once belonging to Indigenous people.   In that hope, I recommend Finding Eliza to other readers.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2016 1:58 am

    Fantastic review, Marilyn, is it ok if I add the link to the Indigenous Lit Week reviews on my blog?

    • July 8, 2016 9:33 am

      Sure. I intended to add it this morning. It was late here when I posted the review and just didn’t follow through.


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