Powerful portrait of a Koori artist

September 3, 2011
Eileen Harrison and Carolyn Landon.

Black Swan
By Carolyn Landon & Eileen Harrison
238 pages
Allen & Unwin, June 2011

Bestselling author Carolyn Landon says the main revision she had to make in writing her latest book, Black Swan was editing all her anger out of it.

"I had difficulty with my own voice," she tells  Green Left Weekly about the book, a memoir of Koori artist Eileen Harrison.

"Mainly, it was getting my own angry and ashamed responses to what Eileen was telling off my chest. After I let off steam in the drafts, I eliminated most of my reactions.

“It was part of the process, but one I needed help with."

Readers of Black Swan, co-written with Harrison, are sure to feel some of that anger. Like Landon's bestselling book Jackson's Track, it shows how Australia's assimilation policy has devastated individual lives.

Harrison first approached Landon with an idea for a children's book.

She told Landon that when she was growing up on the Aboriginal mission of Lake Tyers in the 1950s, she took a boat trip across the lake.

Half way across, some boys at the front of the boat caught a black swan and stuffed it into a bag. A fierce storm whipped up that threatened to capsize the boat.

One of the elders at the rear freed the bird and the storm instantly gave way to sunshine.

Soon after, Harrison began to see herself as that trapped swan.

When Harrison began recounting her memories to Landon, the author saw that Harrison's cygnet of a book could grow into something far more majestic.

She convinced Harrison to begin delving into the murky depths, and the story took wing. Like the bird in its title, the finished book is beautiful, dark and occasionally frightening.

For Harrison, writing it must have been equal parts therapy and trauma.

"It was tough," Harrison tells  GLW the morning after a promotion night for the book.

"An Aboriginal woman in the audience at our event last night stood up and thanked me for telling my story. She said most Koori women will not speak this story, but for her it was very important that I did.

“We don’t speak the story because there is too much sadness and shame, but I found the strength. Now that the book is written, I can see many new things about my life ― new meanings ― I didn’t realise before.

“For instance, I have been able to forgive my parents and say that I love them because I can now see why things happened the way they did."

Harrison's family was seen as being the most stable on the mission. It was for this reason that in 1963 they were chosen to be the first to be assimilated into white society.

At only a month's notice, they were moved into a house 132km from the rest of their relatives.

The isolation was deliberate. They were given no preparation and were bewildered by having to pay for things like electricity, clothes, food, school books and wood for the stove.

The money just disappeared.

Harrison's shy mother could not cope with the racism in town. She became withdrawn, depressed and lonely.

Harrison's father managed to land a job at a local home for the criminally insane. When the children went past, they saw the kind of racist abuse he must have been copping.

At school, when Harrison was encircled by a group of children all chanting "boong" at her, she felt like that swan being stuffed into a hessian sack.

Harrison's father began to drink and abuse her mother and sisters, then her mother began to drink too, followed by Harrison.

One by one, the children were separated and taken into care or placed in orphanages. Harrison’s parents died early, violent deaths. Her father was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Her mother was beaten to death.

It's a familiar story. In the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, national commissioner Elliott Johnston QC wrote of "the destructive downward spiral so often seen: the synergetic relationship between the disempowerment of Aboriginal people in general and self-destructive drinking behaviour".

In the book Grog War, award-winning Aboriginal author Alexis Wright - whom Landon cites as one of her favourite writers - tells how a grog ban on one day a week in the Northern Territory township of Tennant's Creek worked wonders. Yet the book leaves more questions than answers.

"Alcohol still affects my family and I don’t know what to do about it," says Harrison. "It is a destroyer and causes shame and violence.

“I know I was able to pull myself away from it because I became aware of how it affected my health and also how my drinking affected my ability to care for the people I love.

“You have to feel strong to give up grog. The person themselves has to do it. My art gave me pride."

Harrison's first brush with painting came in Warragul, Victoria, when she met an Aboriginal woman who was an art student. She invited Harrison to her house and handed her reluctant new friend a brush and paint.

Harrison's first effort, “Old Man Ghost Gums”, is extraordinary.

If, as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “we have art to save ourselves from the truth”, one can only imagine the relief it brought Harrison.

Her discovery of painting finally freed her from the suffocating swan's sack.

For her book, Harrison has recreated  “Old Man Ghost Gums” in a fractal-like, mesmerising monochrome. Many of her other works are also repainted in black and white.

"It was too expensive for Allen & Unwin to put colour prints throughout the book,” she says. “I couldn’t have told the story without the art. The artwork got me going to get this book out and so it needed to be in each chapter."

Landon has moulded each chapter around one of Harrison's artworks and the writer’s words bring each of the artist’s paintings to lyrical life.

"I knew, intuitively, that the paintings had to lead us into the story," says Landon. "I knew that Eileen has many identities, as we all do. Her identities were confused in her head for a long time because of the assimilation process and the accompanying racism.

“The one thing she knew for sure about herself, by the time I met her, was that she was an artist. I instinctively knew I should start with the art, start where she felt confident.

“Through her paintings she had already put her story out in the public domain."

Indigenous artist and historian Colin Jones says it is a myth that Aboriginal people had no written language before the European invasion.

Aboriginal art is a written language, he says, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

"I don’t think my paintings can always be translated like a book," says Harrison. "Translating my thoughts into words to make a story was a different process and very difficult."

But she had faith in Landon.

"Interestingly, Eileen let me interpret the paintings how I wanted to," says Landon.

Harrison’s confidence in Landon is not surprising.

Jackson's Track, Landon's memoir of a white bushman living among an autonomous Aboriginal society deep in the woods of Gippsland, has even won high praise from hard-to-please Gumbainggir historian and activist Gary Foley.

"Gary told me Jackson's Track was the best history book ever written," says Landon. "I told him it was one man's idea of history, maybe closer to fiction on some levels than history."

Foley is known to start some lectures with the aphorism: "History is something that never happened, written by someone who wasn't there."

So his reply to Landon was in character.

“He said he didn't care," says Landon. "He still thought it was the best history book ever written.

“I went away from that conversation feeling pretty chuffed."

But Landon didn't let such praise go to her head. When  Jackson's Track  came in for criticism from some of the people criticised in the book, she wrote a whole new book giving their side of the story.

At the launch of  Jackson's Track Revisited, professor Graham Davidson said: "I believe the book is likely to take an honoured place, not just in the history of Aboriginal Victoria, but also in wider debates on history and memory."

That same mature, open-minded and sensitive approach can be seen in Black Swan.

Landon treads carefully, detailing the delicate process of uncovering Harrison's history together with her in Victoria's archives.

Like all great books, it educates in an innovative way.

Landon is a natural educator. Before becoming an author, she was inspired into another profession by a favourite teacher.

"I became an English teacher, but I always knew I was a writer,” she says. “I was/am a watcher."

Her powers of observation are shared by Harrison. She was deaf all her life until her hearing was improved only recently, with cochlear implants.

"I do see things and think in terms of what I see rather than what I hear," says Harrison.

And like Landon, she has had to learn to deal with her anger as she observes white, racist Australia.

“I know how to take a step back,” she says. “Like say, ‘whoa’ to myself and calm down before I say anything bad."

Harrison has bad things to say in Black Swan ― but sometimes, that’s the only way to do good.

Eileen Harrison's five favourite Aboriginal artists

1. Jenny Murray-Jones helped me with my art [she was the friend who first handed Harrison a brush and paint], but her naturalistic work is very different to mine.

2. Ray Thomas’s work is wonderful. It is work based on Lake Tyers. I understand and love his images.

3. Vicki Couzens uses traditional images on her ceramic sculptures and on possum skin cloaks. I love her work.

4. Esther Kirby is from Kerang [in Victoria] and she does carving on emu eggs. They impress me.

5. Lisa Kennedy works with pastels and her work is really spiritual. It’s important to me.
I have worked with many artists from Gippsland, and all over Victoria. I am very lucky.

Carolyn Landon's five favourite writers on Aboriginal issues

1. I think Alexis Wright’s Carpenteria is a masterpiece. Beautifully written, complex, mysterious. I think she extends our language.

2. I like the poet Lionel Fogarty. He, too, stretches the language and the forms.

3. I love Inga Clendinnen. She is such a clear thinker and a wonderful writer.

4. I trust Bain Attwood, even though I argue with him a lot in my head. His early book, The Making of the Aborigines (Allen & Unwin 1989), opened Gippsland Aboriginal History for me. I got to know the people first (in Jackson’s Track) and then I read the histories.

5. There are many more great books. I guess the two most important reference books on my shelf are A.W.Howitt's The Native Tribes of South-East Australia first published at the turn of the 20th century. Howitt was a self educated anthropologist, member of the Royal Geographic Society who guided his scholarship. He lived in Maffra, was a hops farmer and great friend of the Kurnai. His notes are invaluable. Richard Broome's Aboriginal Victorians is also full of valuable information. He sat for months and months in the Records Office in North Melbourne (PROV) - as well as the State Library and Laverton and Bunjilaka - and sorted through everything there. Because he relied almost entirely on the record, however, this is only one version of the history, a white male version. The Kurnai, for instance, have many differences with his work. The fact that he calls the Kurnai Gunai without once using the name Kurnai is enough to make them throw the book out the window. Too bad, because it has a lot of good information in it.

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