The Right to Tell a Story

The author with ni-Vanuatu Chief Fandanumata, Port Vila, Vanuatu

The recent social media stoush over American author Lionel Shriver’s (We Need to Talk About Kevin) speech at Brisbane’s Writer’s Festival raised interesting responses for and about people of colour in particular and marginalised people in general.

To summarise Shriver’s argument, complaints by minorities about cultural appropriation by mainly white authors has gone too far. She was perhaps a bit too narrowly focussed on the work of fiction writers, and she argued that it was impossible to create works of fiction without trying on other peoples’ hats. She argued that imagining other people’s voices is part of the job.

Sudanese writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied ostentatiously walked out of Shriver’s speech and savaged her online. She argued, “It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with.” Abdel-Magied questioned an author’s “right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.”

Stories and histories can tell us as much about the storyteller as the characters they portray. I add the word ‘history’ deliberately, as the line between the fiction implied in ‘story’ and the truth promised in ‘history’. I learned that some languages do not even have a separate word for story and history (Spanish, for example). I also try to teach my students that there is very little in the world that qualifies as ‘truth’ or ‘facts’. Perception, point of view and experience colour everything.

The story depends very much on who is telling it. In contemporary politics, we can understand that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It is also the norm that the victors get to write the history. This is very much of interest to me.

I’m a descendant of South Sea Islanders, pejoratively called Kanakas, who worked the sugarcane fields of 19th century Queensland. There is very little ‘history’ written about our ancestors, but most of it is written by white historians. Further, they argue with descendants about what to call the Kanakas. Historians call them indentured workers, while Australian South Sea Islanders and ni-Vanuatu and Solomon Islanders are adamant that they were slaves.

This is problematic. It’s the terrorist/freedom fighter argument writ large, with the added inconvenience of there being precious little information about it anyway. The usual argument goes, “Yes, the Islanders were treated badly, but they were definitely indentured workers, not slaves.” This is a little disingenuous on a number of levels.

First of all, slavery is not (if you will forgive the pun) a black or white issue, “Slavery was a species of dependent labour differentiated from other forms primarily by the fact that in any society it was the most degrading and most severe. Slavery was the prototype of a relationship defined by domination and power. But throughout the centuries man has invented other forms of dependent labour besides slavery, including … indentured labour. A person became an indentured servant by borrowing money and then voluntarily agreeing to work off the debt during a specified term.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica goes on to note, “Some indentured servants alleged that they were treated worse than slaves; the economic logic of the situation was that slave owners thought of their slaves as a long-term investment whose value would drop if maltreated, whereas the short-term (typically four years) indentured servants could be abused almost to death because their masters had only a brief interest in them.” So much for the massive song and dance about them not being slaves.

Secondly, there is plenty of evidence that many Islanders were not paid after all, and that the formula to hide this fact continues to this day. In 2015, the ABC reported that seasonal workers recruited by a government approved labour-hire company were “Underpaid, underfed, denied breaks and access to medical facilities. … Last month, the workers walked off the job at a farm in Euton, in Southern New South Wales, claiming they were paid as little as $1.20 an hour.”

My great-aunt, the late Aboriginal activist Faith Bandler, insisted that her father, Wacvie, was a slave and that he was paid nothing at all during his indenture. It is true that labourers were not paid while they were working, that all their wages were withheld from the workers until they finished their contracts and were ready to be sent home. If they died, or like Wacvie ran away, they would have in effect earned nothing for the entire time of their indenture. Professor Clive Moore, probably the most respected of the white historians writing about South Sea Islanders claimed that unpaid wages were used “to deport those who were no longer welcome, as non-whites, after Federation in 1901.” Yet he elsewhere writes that he specifically disbelieves Bandler’s claim that he’d been a slave, despite being kidnapped, forced to work for many years and not being paid for his entire time as an indentured worker. He also goes on to say that it is an insult to the real slaves — African Americans in the US — to call them such. To say I respectfully disagree would be an understatement.

Thirdly, it seems to me that this wrangling between South Sea Islanders and white historians over what to call us has helped keep our story hidden. Apparently, workers who are simply ‘mistreated’ isn’t a story; it isn’t interesting enough to warrant some investigation. I’m from Sydney, a long way from the tropical cane fields of mid-to-north Queensland, and I had never heard of ‘Kanakas’ until I met Aunt Faith and she told me I was one. I had reached the age of 30 before hearing of them. Most non-Queenslanders are the same. I can’t help feeling that if we were allowed to tell our story, from our perspective, then our story might not be swept under the rug entitled ‘National Shame’.

I agree with Shriver that we all have the right to try on other peoples’ hats — that’s exactly what I’m trying to do as an amateur historian. But I also agree with Abdel-Magied that those who have genuine insight into those stories need to be heard as well. Because they lack the resources of a Shriver, they need to be championed by the likes of the elite, the publishers, and us as the reading public.

After lots of interviewing in Vanuatu, I sat on a woven mat in the lush garden of a friend, and tried to make sense of what I had heard. I had been really pissed off by the refusal of the Australian government and historians like Moore, who refuse to acknowledge our perspective in anything other than dismissive terms. I said that day, “It’s time for our stories to be heard, to be valued, and to be weighed appropriately. Because we have the right to tell our own stories.”

My mini webisode series, ‘Blackbird’ is coming soon.