Shifting paradigms: Bruce Pascoe and hidden history

December 7, 2018 by Byron Writers Festival

Yuin author Bruce Pascoe’s interest in history led him to the archives and early explorers’ accounts of Aboriginal society. Here he found a very different take on Indigenous technology, customs and ingenuity to many of the popular perceptions. The resulting book, Dark Emu, argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. He discusses his research and writing with Katinka Smit.

The Neil Gaiman poem ‘The Mushroom Hunters’ is predominantly an ode to women as ‘the first scientists’, but it also references how the first scientists in the world were Indigenous peoples.

We were involved in science and engineering. Some of our fish traps are beautiful pieces of architectural design and engineering, and I talk about them in Dark Emu, in reverence of the skill. But our women invented bread; 36,000 years ago (and probably much earlier than that) a woman in an act of incredible intellectual foresight decided to harvest grain, grind it into flour, mix it with water and, with an incredible understanding of chemistry, heat it and make bread. In terms of world science, it’s one of those breakthroughs in human development, and it started here.

How do you feel about the history of Australia having been so misconstrued, considering the evidence in the archives? What of the apparent obligations of historiographical practice?

I think that’s European intellectual life. If we’re going to repair that damage, we need to look at a different form of education. European intellectual life is so Eurocentric, it doesn’t really take in other forms of thought. If we’re going to repair that lack, we’re going to have to look at the mind. I’m very tempted to write a book called ‘The European Mind’, but I don’t want to because it’s going to be painful to do it. But I think the world needs to understand that the way Europeans think is not the only way to think.

There was a discussion on a panel at Byron Writers Festival 2017 with Kim Scott about Noongar classification systems, how plants and animals are placed in relation to where they are from, which is a whole paradigm shift away from the European classification system.

Classification systems are fascinating to study. I’m a bird observer and interested in botany, so I use European classificatory systems and I enjoy it. I like to know that a parrot is related to these other birds. But in the Aboriginal mind, often we’re taught about the voicing – who is talking when – and that groups birds together. The magpie, the currawong and the raven are actually having a conversation: these creatures are interacting with each other. That changes your whole attitude to Country.

You pronominally identify as Indigenous – ‘this is who we are, this is what has happened’; but also as European – ‘we have done this, we’ve colonised’ – and also as Australian. Is this what decolonising the mind looks like?

I had to decolonise my mind from the assumption that whatever Europeans do is the pinnacle of human life so far on Earth. I questioned my own Elders’ description of history, because I hadn’t been taught it at school. I was already at university learning history, European history. I thought I knew Australian history, yet they told me a completely different version of life in this country. I struggled with the idea that there could be any other form of life. I was inculcated with the European mind. But I also have to admit that I am part of that system. My family is solidly Cornish, and solidly Aboriginal. Without either of them, I don’t exist. You can’t deny any part of that which produced you. You have to pay respect. But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t criticise.

You mentioned once that we need to learn to write about blackfellas as well as we do about white fellas. Why do you think that (non-Indigenous) Australian authors generally find it difficult to adequately imagine Aboriginal characters?

We don’t understand our history. That avoidance of the real, fundamental facts of our occupation of this continent prevents us from really seeing Aboriginal people, because we’re actually not supposed to see Aboriginal people. So how can we write about them? We can only write about them in a distant sense. We don’t know how little we’ve extended ourselves to learn about it. We don’t hold a mirror up to ourselves, we don’t examine. I was forced to do it. I’m not any better than anyone else. I knew nothing. But that meant that I was exposed to all the tricks, and all the lack, and the tininess.

You’ve written an array of books across genres, and multilingual stories as well. What was the genesis for this array of diversity?

I love writing and I love telling stories. There are different ways to tell stories and I don’t feel any of them are forbidden to me. Our old people were storytellers. The more I become immersed in my culture I’ve realised that in Aboriginal life, storytellers are revered. A community wants a spiritual person, a practical person, a nurturing person. They also want a storytelling person. My role in Aboriginal life has sanction. I’m continuously being asked by my own people to tell this or that story, or not to tell that story. Fellow writers think that’s terrible, but it’s not like that in Aboriginal ways or story; it’s something you can treasure. That story is within, you find a way to tell it in another way.

Dark Emu is published by Magabala Books.

Byron Writers Festival