Image Description: The cover of the book Living on Stolen Land, by Ambelin Kwaymullina. It shows a large tree, brown trunk, green leaves, with multiple colourful star-shaped flowers inside.
By Annalise Wright
All my life, I had grown up with the knowledge that my ancestors were early settlers in Australia and contributed to the displacement and unjust treatment of Indigenous Australian peoples. This fact bothered me, but never made me so uncomfortable as to take action or do anything about it; these were my ancestors, so surely it was not my responsibility to feel their guilt, to fight for Indigenous freedoms on their behalf?
Upon commencing my degree in history and political science, however, I started to question my perspective and since then, I have endeavoured to challenge myself to read, research and listen to as much Indigenous history as I can. This led me to read the topic of today’s review, Living on Stolen Land, by Ambelin Kwaymullina.
Living on Stolen Land is written in free verse, with a conversational tone. I enjoyed this structure because I felt that it was easy to empathise with Kwaymullina, as if she were sharing her familial experiences directly with me. It felt intimate, without the accusatory tone that one might assume, as if these poems and stories could be shared amongst acquaintances in hushed voices at a campfire. It was easy to let my mind wonder with her words, to fall into a trance-like state,
I found that her explanation of bias and its presence in Australia; her claim that ‘it is impossible to be a settler and not benefit from Aboriginal disposition’, made me reflect on how I approach my response to unwanted thoughts about people.
“When people say,
‘I’m not racist’,
all they usually mean
is they don’t hold explicit bias…
in a settler colonial land,
It is impossible
not to benefit from structural bias,
not to hold unconscious bias,
against Indigenous peoples.”
Kwaymullina proposes that readers are not ‘bad’ for possessing these implicit biases but should strive to catch themselves out on these reflexive thoughts and contest their thinking. I read somewhere once that your first response as a thought is how society has conditioned you to react, but your second response is a representation of who you are. This, of course, is not true in every circumstance, but I believe it has some validity and has helped me to understand my own unconscious biases.
Kwaymullina encourages us to seek out to any Indigenous stories we can, for only when we have listened to hundreds of voices and perspectives will we be able to grasp a sense of understanding. Our concept of time is challenged, Kwaymullina explaining a reality where time is not linear but a cycle. It is judged by the changing relationships and meaningful actions.
“”Life does not move through time.
Time moves through life.”
This notion seems idealistic to me, and while my inner cynic tells me that our lives are certainly not defined by relationships, I love the overall concept of it. If we were to live this way, I wonder what the world would look like? Sometimes I sit in my political lectures, hating the current state of things, and I think about this romantic idea of the world. A world where our animals are respected as kin, where mundane objects have spirit and are cared for as things of beauty. I love the concept of the land being alive, the beauty in valuing every piece of matter that exists. Living on Stolen Land inspired me to learn more, to wonder beyond how Indigenous people lived, but more so how they thought and felt about the land.
Reflecting on my thoughts on Indigenous lives when I was younger, yes – it was the actions of my ancestors that had invoked pain and it is not my job to fix it. However, books like Living on Stolen Land make me want to. There is something so pleasant in Kwaymullina’s prose, the idea of connectivity being the centre of Indigenous lives, this connectivity bringing reason to every object, animal and thing that exists. This book is beautifully sad, detailing a group of people experiencing a post-apocalyptic world, in a colonial Australia that struggles to understand them. I felt a sort of melancholy reading her story and even though I have been aware of what colonial settlers did in Australia, I was struck by the overwhelming horror of Indigenous Australian experiences.
I recommend taking the time to read this book. I feel it has genuinely impacted my perspective and will continue to affect my thoughts in the future.