SHORT REVIEW: John Muk Muk Burke and Martin Langford (editors), 'Ngara' (2004)

Another publication from Five Islands Press is Ngara, an anthology of poetry, essays and meditations, and companion volume to the Fourth Australian Poetry Festival staged by the Poets Union in 2004.

Ngara's editors John Muk Muk Burke and Martin Langford invited both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal poets, novelists, historians and scholars to respond to some of the more difficult questions facing contemporary Australians: How might the non-Indigenous Australian be at home here? What might non-Indigenous cultures learn from Indigenous ones about ways of living in this place? What, if anything, might Aborigines wish to take from the various migrant cultures? What might they wish to keep and define as their own? Contributors to the anthology include Lee Cataldi, Louise Crisp, Martin Harrison, Barry Hill, Anna Kerkijk-Nicholson, John Mateer, Dennis McDermott, Alex Miller, Geoff Page, Peter Read, Henry Reynolds and Robyn Rowlands.

Anthologies and collections suffer from the weight of imposed expectations. Though we may browse through Dipti Saravanamuttu's recent collection The Collosseum - reviewed elsewhere - because we've an interest in developments in the poet's writing, one thumbs through the pages of a thematic anthology with more explicit expectations, particularly with an anthology such as Ngara, testing the troubled waters of indigenous issues. [As it happens, one of Saravanamuttu's poems from The Collosseum could comfortably survive the transition to this anthology, 'Anatomy of the Perfect Delusion', written partly in response to Elizabeth Durack's impersonation of an Aboriginal painter, the fictional Eddie Burrup].

Given that storytelling is fundamental to an indigenous way of life, it's hardly surprising that in a book devoted to the discussion of indigenous issues, three of the anthology's standout contributions - narratives by Robyn Rowlands, Alex Miller and John Muk Muk Burke - are woven from the tapestry of personal experience. Neither does the selection of poems and essays disappoint. In his piece ['Polemics', pg 175], John Muk Muk Burke suggests opportunity be made available to study Aboriginal languages in schools; that there be public recognition of the Aboriginal flag; and consideration given to re-naming our highways 'song lines' with Aboriginal names. More controversially, he advocates a total withdrawal of white support systems from Aboriginal communities. Historian Henry Reynolds - in his contribution, 'Lest We Forget' - concludes that Black Australia has never been dealt with fairly and honestly because 'the border wars were about the ownership and control of land, about taking it by force from those who had been in possession since time immemorial....' Mark McKenna recommends the interpretation of his contribution as a conversation of hope, 'not by focusing purely on violence, or on the denial of violence. But instead by writing a history of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in which religion, the environment, the economy and all aspects of social and cultural history have a place.' Barry Hill's poems and essay form a retrospective reflection on aspects of translation, journeys and place.

Census figures show Indigenous Australians comprise less than two percent of the country's population, pointing to a lack of visibility that helps to explain why indigenous issues are for the most part overlooked. One might surf the internet in search of the 'official' view of multiculturalism in Australia and chance upon the Australian Museum's 'Dreaming Online' website with its seeming confirmation of Australia as a multicultural society. All well and good; representative of the standard line, and how we prefer to think of ourselves - an inclusive society. But to encounter John Muk Muk Burke's assertion that Australia is essentially not multicultural at all, but bi-cultural, is to appreciate that there's no unified view of multiculturalism.

Nor is Muk Muk Burke's a voice in isolation. Indigenous spokespersons have spoken out in other forums over the years in similar vein, including Miles Franklin Award winner Kim Scott, in The Weekend Australian, [24th-25th February, 2001]: 'Frankly, in any celebration of Federation, I'm tempted to get on the first vacant soapbox and get a bit cranky. Shout something about injustice. Say something akin to the words of a friend of mine as she stomped away from our primary school's "multicultural day". "First they destroy our culture and then they want to rub our noses in it".' And - different newspaper, similar sentiments - Jimmy Everett in the pages of Hobart's Mercury, [January 24th, 2004]: 'It may well be all right for the already assimilated Aborigines to celebrate Australia Day, but for those of us who are not fooled into believing things have changed for the better, it is invasion day.' Black Australian's disenchantment with the status quo is firmly entrenched.

The strength of the Ngara anthology lies in its capacity to bring together a brace of confronting contributions from writers I'm prepared to trust - that's the personal response! - writers who have won the respect of many for their efforts in generating dialogue within the wider community.

(Ngara: Living in this Place Now, edited by John Muk Muk Burke and Martin Langford, ISBN: 1 74128 070 2 RRP $21.95)