Chelsea Watego, Another Day in the Colony (University of Queensland Press 2021)
Not every book is as explicit as this one about its intended readership. The Introduction gives fair notice:
This is not a book for colonisers, or those aspiring to share the same status as them. This is a book that is written specifically for Blackfullas, and when I say Blackfullas I mean of the capital B kind.(Page 9)
When I speak of the uppercase Blacks, I speak of those who simultaneously recognise and refuse the racialised location we’ve been prescribed, as well as those who have been haunted by it.
‘Colonisers’ is the term Chelsea Watego prefers over, say, ‘non-Indigenous people’ or ‘settlers’ because, she argues, those terms gloss over the continuing violence of colonisation. As a reader of Anglo-Celtic heritage, I’m glad to report that the Introduction continues:
Of course, the colonisers may find something of use here.
In 2020, the first year of Covid-19 and the year of a re-energised global Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia, Chelsea Watego took leave from work, including her Twitter account and the Wild Black Women radio show. In the Introduction, she tells us that her ‘body was tired and, in this moment, appeared to insist that [she] tell a story’. The stories that she told make up this book:
- ‘don’t feed the natives’ – among other things, a personal account of growing up and taking on a career in Indigenous health, which Watego has come to understands as aiming ‘to strategise a Black living which presumes a Black future, of a forevermore kind … that is set on our terms, on our land’
- ‘animals, cannibals and criminals’ – about which more later
- ‘the unpublishable story’ – an article, discussed in the previous essay, that was rejected by the journal that had commissioned it
- ‘on racial violence, victims and victors’ – an argument for the importance of naming racism, accepting that it is embedded in the institutions of the colony, rather than talking of culture and diversity, and relying on the courts to put things right
- ‘ambiguously Indigenous’ – a critique of the ’emerging tribe’ of people who discover Aboriginal heritage and identity after growing up white, and assume positions of authority in Indigenous affairs. She describes this grouping as a modern equivalent of the nineteenth century Native Police
- ‘fuck hope’ – an argument against a version of hope that minimises current mistreatment and suffering by focusing on an imagined time when things will be better
- ‘a final word … on joy’ – which could be an extended paraphrase of Alice Walker’s revelation at the end of Possessing the Secret of Joy, ‘The secret of joy is resistance.’
That list can only give a faint idea of the confronting riches of the book. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get defensive at times, identifying with the writers, editors and reviewers Watego finds wanting, or that as a man I didn’t feel a guilty relief when she focused on white women as key culprits, or that at times I didn’t respond with something like, ‘Steady on now, that’s a bit intemperate.’ Et cetera. I’m pretty sure any non-Indigenous/coloniser reader will have similar responses, which might be some consolation to the people whose names are named. We’re in this together.
The second essay, ”animals, cannibals and criminals’, lays out the way Australian fictional and non-fictional (‘faction’) writing has depicted Aboriginal people as either belonging in the past with quaint customs and stories, or as problems to be solved by white managerialism. These representations aren’t safely in the past.
The essay discusses Sarah Maddison’s book The Colonial Fantasy (‘which it could be argued is one of the more sympathetic works to the plight of Indigenous people in our time’), and Randolph Stow’s To the Islands (or at least Stow’s preface to the 2002 revised edition, which deterred her from reading much further).
The Black story must be a site for which the coloniser can express sympathy, and not in a solidarity kind of way, but a condescending sorrow for our supposed plight. Our stories should not be repositories for which faux coloniser sympathy may find a home, yet too often they are.(Page 67)
The essay moves on to stories of how Watego’s own writing has run foul of gatekeepers. She entered academia with the aim of correcting the prevailing account of First Nations people by presenting a solid evidence base. She found it wasn’t a matter of evidence, but of a deeply embedded attitude in the minds of the colonisers.
Editors have asked her to include on-the-other-hand paragraphs that undercut the thrust of her writing; have quibbled with her use of language like ‘white’ to describe a racial category; articles have either gone unpublished or are still awaiting publication years after being accepted.
The chapter ends with the story of an article she wrote for a special edition of the Australian Feminist Law Journal, but which didn’t make it into the journal. As with all such stories, the reader is left wondering what version of events the unnamed meddlers and censors would tell. We don’t get that, but we get something even better: the following chapter, ‘the unpublishable story’, gives us the article to read and judge for ourselves.
There can be little doubt that the article would make painful reading for Cathy McLennan, whose memoir Saltwater (link is to my blogpost) is unsparingly criticised, but it’s not the first time the book has been given the treatment (see ‘Crocodile Tears‘ by Russell Marks in Overland Summer 2019), and it’s hard not to see the force of Watego’s argument that the editors who spiked the story were mistaken to override the judgment of the two First Nations editors of the special issue as well as two anonymous peer-reviewers.
Back to the story of the article being spiked:
After much back and forth, the managing editor and editor-in-chief advised that this work was not publishable in any form because it apparently posed a threat of defamation because the white woman author of the book I was critiquing wouldn’t like my review … Her real concern was that there was an imputation that the author of the book was racist.(Page 76)
This sounds like arse-covering to me, and I expect academics of all kinds run into it all the time. The book being criticised was, after all, written by a lawyer.
Watego’s next sentence is the killer:
Now I didn’t say the author was racist, but I did have about 180 footnotes, three-quarters of which were direct quotes from the text that cited animalistic references to the Aboriginal characters.
On first reading, I took this to be a bit of smart-aleckery: ‘I didn’t say she was a racist, I just gave 180 examples of her racism.’ But it’s more interesting than that. However emphatic she is about the harmful nature the book, she really isn’t imputing malice to the writer. Her argument is that we colonisers are so imbued with the notion of our own superiority – so enmeshed in a racist and colonising system of thought and practice – that no matter how good our intentions or sincere our anti-racist attitudes, we fuck up.
And this is at the heart of the storytelling war, and the dangers confronting the sovereign storyteller in the colony. We simply are not permitted to speak freely and truthfully about the violence we are subject to.
The book as a whole is a living contradiction of that last sentence. Thank you Chelsea Watego and University of Queensland Press for this abrasive, uncompromising, sometimes hilarious piece of free and truthful telling.