Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.
Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.
Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.
My experiences of formal cultural awareness programs is limited to three. The first was a two day compulsory program provided by Queensland Health in the nineties. I worked in a paediatric ward of a base hospital, occasionally I cared for an Aboriginal child but rarely had contact with a child’s carers. Usually older siblings were sent up to the ward to visit and police were asked to find parents when it was time for a child to be discharged. I assumed Aboriginal people weren’t comfortable with hospitals. The two days I spent in a classroom hearing the history of the crimes of the dominant white culture against Aboriginal people didn’t give me any insight at to why I rarely saw the parents of Aboriginal children visiting in the ward. Was it a distrust from years ago?
The second cultural awareness talk was less formal but one I was hoping to learn valuable information from. It was two days after I arrived in Aurukun to work with Aboriginal people in the health clinic. I knew I needed to learn about the local culture. The senior health worker took me to a private corner of the room to give me a cultural awareness talk and said “Sometimes a patient comes into the clinic and they might be poison to a health worker.” I’m sure my mouth dropped open and my eyes widened…I asked “What makes one person poison to another?”…after a meaningful pause and a long sigh…the reply was “it’s always been that way.” And with those few words he stood up to leave, having given me the talk. His words left far more questions in my mind than I had before he spoke to me. It was many months before I had any idea of what he was talking about. The little I learnt about local culture was taught informally by the two female health workers on a need to know basis.
The third experience was a whole day at the Alice Springs hospital last year as part of their orientation program. It was run by a local Aboriginal woman. I learnt about kinship systems, cross-cultural communication, local history and language. It was fascinating and informative but by that time I’d already learnt much of it through my own reading, watching films and listening and paying attention to Indigenous people around me who’d been open enough to talk about their lives.
Education is an interesting thing, it can be both formal or informal and come at the right time to be understood and benefitted from, or a lot of money and time can be wasted on irrelevant information badly timed.