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Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. Anita Heiss & Peter Minter, eds. Crows Nest, NSW. Allen & Unwin / Macquarie University. 2008. xviii + 260 pages. AU $39.95. ISBN 978-1-74175-498-4

The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature is a groundbreaking collection of literary, cultural, and historical importance. It is the first of its kind, covering over two centuries of Australian Aboriginal writing. It opens with the first known text written in English by an indigenous Australian (1796), a letter from a Wangal leader called Bennelong inquiring after the well-being of his sponsor, who has returned to Britain. Like many of the early texts in this anthology--letters, petitions, political documents--the writing is unexpectedly compelling: Bennelong's letter reads like a short story. That the lyricism of his broken English is accidental does not detract from the literary merit of the prose: "I hope Mrs. Phillip very well. You nurse me Madam when I sick. You very good Madam: thank you Madam, & hope you remember me Madam, not forget. I know you very well Madam. Madam I want stockings. Thank you Madam."

Reading through the anthology, we witness the transformation of indigenous Australia. Eighty-one authors from different aboriginal backgrounds express their experience in fictional and nonfictional prose, poetry, and excerpts from plays. The editors of the anthology, Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, have made a point of presenting only literature written in English, as opposed to works in Aboriginal languages gathered and translated by anthropologists. But the Aboriginal linguistic influence remains strong. Much of the writing is infused with Aboriginal rhythms and original ways of saying things. Some of the texts are even written in a vibrant Aboriginal English pidgin. In his play No Sugar, Jack Davis (1917-2000), one of the foremost Aboriginal poets and playwrights, uses a pidgin from the Moore River Settlement to powerful poetic effect. A character recounts the murderous injustices of Gudeeah (white men): "Gudeeah bin kill'em. Finish, kill'em. Big mob, 1926, kill'em big mob my country." A central theme in the play, and of much of the writing in the anthology, is the loss of language and awareness of traditional culture.

Another remarkable piece, among many, is "The Boomerang Racket," by Joe Timbery (1912-78), a poet and world-champion boomerang thrower. As with many of the early letters and petitions in the anthology, one initially wonders why the editors chose to include what at first glance appears to be a nonliterary piece: a warning against purchasing cheap, inauthentic boomerangs. But "The Boomerang Racket" quickly reveals deep metaphorical undercurrents.

From the invigorating chantlike poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal to David Unaipon's detailed study of Aboriginal culture and his collection of stories from dreamtime, this anthology presents a panorama of indigenous Australia's most powerful voices. It covers all forms of Aboriginal English writing and is a treasury both literary and historical.

Shon Arieh-Lerer

Brooklyn, New York
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Author:Arieh-Lerer, Shon
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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