Ginibi and the Practice of Auto/biography.'
Don't Take Your Love to Town
(hereafter, Don't Take), is one of the crests of a wave of
Aboriginal women's published autobiographies that began nearly twenty
years ago with Monica Clare's Karobran (1978). Autobiography has been
the dominant genre over this time for most Aboriginal women writers,
including Labumore (Elsie Roughsey), Glenyse Ward, Sally Morgan, Doris
Pilkington and Mabel Edmund. In writing autobiography, they have been
able to construct a visible identity as indigenous women within Australian
society, and to write about aspects of the past that have been hidden
from view as Langford Ginibi puts it `so we don't get left out of
the next lot of history' (Interview, 1994: 108).
As commonly understood, autobiography can be described as a personal
recollection of history; biography as an account of someone else's
personal responses to history. Writing that is labelled history seems
more objective, more an account of facts; fiction by contrast is 'made
up.' Many of these Aboriginal texts, while they might be seen as primarily
autobiography, have a hybrid quality (the most hybrid being Morgan's
My Place), and combine features of more than one genre.
The generic labels that get put on texts such as
these are connected to how close what seems to be the authorial
voice is to that of the narrator. Personal autobiographical lifewriting
has a documentary effect, it gives the reader the sense of being
told the truth. In fact, Langford Ginibi has explicitly stated that
she is not producing fiction:
I'm not interested in fiction. Don't need
to be, because I'm too busy writing the truth about my people.
. . . This is from our side of the fence. . . . Although the history
of the whole of white Australia is one of the biggest fictions,
aye? (Interview, 1994: 102)
The Acknowledgments tell us that Don't Take
`is a true life story of an Aboriginal woman's struggle to raise
a family of nine children in a society divided between black and
white culture in Australia.' When Langford Ginibi was born in 1934,
it was the Depression and conditions were particularly hard. Housing,
health and education have been, and continue to be, key issues for
Aboriginal people. Even years later, in the 1960s, things many of
us take for granted were luxuries for families like hers: alone
with eight children and trying to get housing from the APB, she
has 'fantasies about getting a roof over the kids' heads and having
taps, and floors' (108). On one occasion, when she is going into
labour, she has to walk to the hospital; on another she has to carry
her daughter, Pearl, who has bronchitis, four miles to find a doctor;
no help was available. When another daughter, Ellen, is at high
school, the mother is told by the headmaster that she has been fighting.
Ellen's explanation is: `The girl I hit called me a dirty abo, so
I decked her' (175).
Even today, Langford Ginibi does not see a dramatic
improvement, either in relation to ideas having changed or wealth
being distributed more equally. `I say to people that say that there's
no racism in this country, paint yourself black for a day and see
how well you fare' (Interview, 1994: 118). As she put it in a later
book: `There are two types of people who inhabit Australia: there's
the rich and the poor, and I don't mean just that it's Aborigines
who are the most disadvantaged' (My Bundjalung People, 45).
Intersecting with poverty and racial discrimination
is the specific oppression associated with gender. There has been
much debate about whether sexism, or racism, or class oppression
under colonisation and capitalism, has been the primary negative
factor in Aboriginal women's experience. Langford Ginibi's life
as a woman is affected by racism, and her life as an Aboriginal
person affected by sexism. Often it is hard to separate the issues,
though there is a gender-specificity to some of the differences
between the experience of being black (and very often poor) of Aboriginal
women and men.
In reading an Aboriginal woman's autobiography
like Don't Take, what contributes to a sense of its truth-effects
are such things as the informal mode of address that has some affinities
with oral expression, and the candour with which Langford Ginibi
describes a number of painful and sometimes embarrassing experiences.
Earlier practices of colonisation forced certain
roles, two in particular, upon Aboriginal women. One was that of
`black velvet' (sexually available and `promiscuous'), the other
was that of the upstanding, moral pillar of the family. Until recently,
Aboriginal women writers have been wary of depicting their characters
or themselves as the former, perhaps because of concerns about reinforcing
a stereotype. Langford Ginibi's friend Pammy, an Aboriginal artist,
with whom she travels back to her Bundjalung country says as part
of a speech that she makes there:
Can you imagine what it's like for a Koori
woman, raped and beaten, to have to go for help to the same organisations
that stole her kids initially and the same lot who are killing
her brothers) can you imagine how she feels about her so-called
rights and protection? She knows she hasn't got any. Whether she's
drunk or not, they believe she is drunk. It's always the stereotypes
a woman has to deal with before anything else, even before she
can get help. (My Bundjalung People, 50)
Don't Take is unusual in presenting a sexualised
self, just as Tracy Moffat's film, Nice Coloured Girls, was
pioneering in this way when it first was shown. Almost all the other
women writers of Aboriginal autobiography are reticent; their narratives
hint at secrets too difficult to tell. Alternatively, or as well,
to withhold information can be a strategy of resistance. This is
a central theme of Sally Morgan's My Place. The Murrie writer, Jackie
Huggins, when she was working on her mother's biography, Auntie
Rita, was told by Rita Huggins:
There are some parts of my life that I
probably didn't want in the book because to me they are shame
jobs. . . . There are, though, other things that I just cannot
speak about because they are too painful to remember. These things
I must keep to myself. Much has been done to me and my people
that we find hard to talk about.(Auntie Rita 2)
Often what is hard to talk about is sexual and
other violence from white men in a historical situation where the
sexism and sexual oppression encountered by women is compounded
for black women by racism. Langford Ginibi is comparatively explicit
about this: `My grandmother was a full-blood. She was raped by an
Italian, the banana plantation owner up home, Billy Nudgell, that's
how my mother came to be. You see' (Interview, 1994: 105). Even
more extreme economic inequality than many white women have experienced
exacerbates the effects of domestic violence. Langford Ginibi is
beaten up by Sam earlier, and later by Lance, though, by contrast,
when the boys are in their early teenage years and have run away
from home and Ruby asks Lance to 'give them a good belting', he
only pretends to do it and hits the beds instead (128).
Langford Ginibi does not shrink either from talking
about another source of some shame - how she begins to drink to
excess, and her children have to come to the pub looking for her.
While she attributes her heavy drinking partly to the death of Pearl
(which she felt so badly that she would go up to the cemetery at
Botany and sleep on her grave, 149) she does not deny that she also
enjoyed the destructive activity of excessive drinking:
No money no land no jobs no hope. So we
had to find ways to keep our spirits up and that didn't only mean
our spiritual ones but also our liquid ones. (151)
It took some years before she realised: `I'd started
drinking when Pearl died and twelve years later it hadn't drowned
my sorrows. Every morning when I woke up my sorrows were there again,
worse if I was hungover' (216).
There are some common features to the experiences
of black and white women (writers). Using writing as a tool for
consciousness raising, and writing in such places as at the kitchen
table in the middle of the night when the children are asleep (Don't
Take, 226), are two that are frequently discussed. Langford
Ginibi had no 'room of her own' then: her early formation as a writer
came in 'the times I had to myself - the men gone to work and the
kids still asleep - and I sat on the bank fishing and thinking about
There are also some significant differences between
black and white women's writing, produced not only negatively by
the racism, sexism and class factors I mentioned before, but also
by racial and cultural difference, asserted as a positive thing.
Singularity is the objective of traditional autobiography; in Aboriginal
women's writing, identity is achieved as an extension of the collective.
Langford Ginibi has commented: 'this is not only my book, my story,
it's the story of every Aboriginal woman in this country today that's
got kids to raise. I'm only one' (Interview, 1994: 114). History
and family history is written; Langford Ginibi is proud to have
been able to trace 'five generations of Koori experience' (Interview,
Caring and sharing is very much a feature of Aboriginal
lifestyles depicted in writing like Don't Take, and it is
often contrasted with a self-centredness and a lack of warmth and
generosity in the colonising culture. Within the family and extended
family in particular, relationship is created and maintained. Langford
Ginibi is abandoned by her mother, but later reunited with her,
to some degree. Her aunt's extended family becomes hers, as well
as other relatives. Even deceased members of the family have a continuing
presence. Writing and publishing her story gives Langford Ginibi
a way of recreating those relationships, as well as rewriting a
more general history and, beyond that, when she finishes her book,
she knew she could `examine my own life from it and know who I was'
(269). The Nyoongah writer and critic, Mudrooroo, suggests that
Langford Ginibi became explicitly political and entered activism
through the initial act of writing Don't Take.
in the process of publication they become
more aware of the politics and problems involved in the production
of texts. . . . They have to go through that process of finding
a voice in the struggle as writers, of existing in textuality,
and this is particularly so for Aboriginal women writers. Perhaps
I should say that to be black and a woman in Australia is an awful
place from which to write. For black women to write is to challenge
the whole patriarchal mess. (Interview, 145)
Jan Labarlestier has commented that Aboriginal
women's life-writing: 'is a challenge to the ways in which Aboriginality
has been constructed in dominant "white" discourses. In
contemporary Australian society, "living black" [the title
of an anthology by Kevin Gilbert] and writing about it can be seen
as a process of political confrontation' (90). Langford Ginibi's
earlier political involvement with groups like the Aboriginal Progressive
Association had been curtailed by Lance who demanded to know why
she didn't stay at home to look after the kids 'instead of running
around to meetings' (118). From her own personal experience later
of her son Nobby being in jail, she starts taking an interest in
black deaths in custody when (for the moment) she has spare time,
with only Jeff left living at home to be looked after. Soon she
has her granddaughter Jaymi too, until her father David dies of
a drug overdose, and she goes back to her mother. The socially destructive
effects of hard drugs, and the inability of various organisations
to rehabilitate the casualties of an oppressive syystem lead Langford
Ginibi to trying to find out how David got the drugs: 'but everyone
I spoke to was so pathetic, and all in their own private hells'
For Langford Ginibi, writing is also a way of articulating
the pain of all these experiences; she recalls how 'back in the
room I'd run to hide my hurt' (Interview, 1994: 102); 'I can assure
you that everything that's written in there is true, because I've
got the scars to prove it' (115), she also comments. These are both
scars on the body and scars on the mind. Later, she tells her Aunt
Alma, 'I don't want to get upset any more about Nobby . . . But
reading this, I'm getting upset about everyone' (257).
However, what Langford Ginibi also does is consistently
refuse the status of victim, as someone the reader should be sorry
for. She comes over as brave and bold, and her use of humour is
one of the main contributing factors to this effect: 'Aboriginal
humour is our survival mechanism' (Interview, 1994: 111). This is
found both in the use of language with jokes such as 'the gubbament'
(coined from 'gubba' meaning white), to more detailed incidents
such as when she has found out that her boyfriend, Lance, is sleeping
with her best friend and drifts into a cinema searching for escape,
only to be confronted with 'close-ups of giant bodies and their
sexual desire, doorieing everywhere'(119). Another later Langford
Ginibi book, Real Deadly (1992), has an amusing story called
'Perfumes.' She has bought herself two bottles and her friend Margaret
comes to visit her.
When she saw Cachet, she pronounced it
"catchit" and when she saw Black Velvet, she cracked
up! Me and her started to laugh our heads off about what black
velvet meant, when Mary from the dairy came to the door. We tried
to tell her why we were laughing at the black velvet, by pointing
between our legs to our private parts, because Mary's deaf! Margaret
topped it off by saying, "You better be careful with that
black velvet because you might catch it."(66-7)
The song 'Don't Take Your Love to Town,' by Kenny
Rogers that Langford Ginibi has used as her title, she recalls,
'an old boyfriend used to sing that to me. That fella that I wrote
about in there, Georgie, who was heaven's gift to the women of the
world. Or he thought he was' (Interview, 1994: 114). She wryly comments
on how, by 1971, after a number of attempts to be a couple, she
felt: 'I'd taken my love to town too many times' (170).
The difference in the situation of Aboriginal men
and women in a racist society is apparent in both their lives and
their writing, which expresses, as in the Epigraph from Bobbi Sykes'
poem, 'the accumulated pain of two centuries,' the overcoming of
experiences that have produced, as in the Walt Whitman Epigraph,
a sense of being 'jagged and broken.'
I felt like I was living tribal but with
no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food-gathering,
the laws and the songs were broken up, and my generation at this
time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse
than the poorest of poor whites, and in the case of women, living
hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and
then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared.
Families are broken up, men wander off or get incarcerated.
When Ruby has six children and her relationship with Gordon is collapsing,
she talks to her friend Midge about men, 'and how hard it was to
find one who didn't mind the responsibility and kept on loving you,
and had a sense of humour' (85). Gordon turns out just the same
as Sam. Wryly looking back on this later, she can say to her son-in-law,
Steve, that she will only get married again 'When I can get a man
who can look after me better than I can do myself'(170). She also
comments of her friend of thirty-eight years, Nerida: `the only
time we had a row was over a man, and we didn't think it was worth
losing our friendship over' (221).
Writing by Aboriginal men including Archie Weller
and Mudrooroo often expresses a sense of alienation, arising out
of experiences similar to those of Nobby and his friends. Women
are to some extent compelled to be those who hold the family together.
This is not initially what Langford Ginibi's own mother did, she
went away with her baby when Ruby was young, leaving the other children
with their father; and it is her father who for the time being holds
the family together, along with Uncle Ernie Ord. Soon however, in
Sydney, Langford Ginibi's mother has another family. This loss produces
some anguish for Langford Ginibi, and her reaction then is: 'I promised
myself if I ever had kids I'd never leave them'(10). When they later
on run into their mother at the markets at Botany Road, she comes
towards them crying and clearly wanting contact, the father refuses
to allow this to happen for quite some time. Langford Ginibi meets
her mother again and is invited to her house. The emotions are so
high, however, that when told by her mother that she should keep
away from Sam Griffin, 'he's no good,'(52) and Langford Ginibi retorts
'You don't have to worry about me now, you never cared before,'
this upsets her mother so much that she physically attacks her.
They don't meet again for another three years.
Don't Take depicts a world where youth get
into trouble with the gungies, get put into institutions, take risks
with hard drugs, kill themselves, or die in a prison system that
Langford Ginibi describes as 'killing our sons like a war' (224).
All this time the mothers, and often the sisters, are supposed to
be always there, holding everything together. Langford Ginibi was
- but the accumulated stress of this was enormous. Talking of her
friend of thirty-eight years, Nerida, she comments:
She had a family of ten children and lost
four boys and I had lost two, so we know what it's like to lose
the ones we love the most of all, our children. (221)
There is some ambivalence in Langford Ginibi's
representation of being a mother, and of all the pain involved in
the fight for survival. In 1984, she is living in Allawah hostel
in Granville, 'for people who'd raised their families and didn't
want to become live-in baby-sitters for their kids' (267). She has
her 'first holiday away from my children in thirty-three years .
. . and I needed to stop thinking about them for a while, and calm
myself' (229). The enormous load of responsibility borne by mothers
in particular can produce immense strain. Langford Ginibi recalls
how she wrote to Nobby that his being in jail was as painful (in
different ways) for his family as for himself:
every time you were jailed, we went to
jail with you. . . . You never received all the knocks on your
own, because we felt everything.(Interview 1994, 121)
The question of what kind of audience this text
seems to expect is an interesting one. As Jackie Huggins has pointed
out: 'let's face it, there are more whites than blacks who read
books out there. So are you looking at a book that's going to be
basically written about blacks and called black? Or are you looking
at the market which is predominantly white and, in a sense, appeasing
their consciences about blacks, because that is what they like?'
(Interview 143). Langford Ginibi has suggested: 'the truth is just
to educate people) mostly non-Aboriginal people) about how we really
are' (Robinson Interview, 1993: 13). Langford Ginibi's writing has,
then, an element of the didactic. It is designed to teach, and to
But it's not only about the culture, it's
not only for us. It's for our people to share with people, because
it's where we come from, to make things better. (Interview, 1994:
However, in her view, good writing must also have
'the humour, the drama, all the emotions, the laughter, the tears)
everything. You can mix the past with the present, bring them back
in and out of the story like you're weaving something' (Sandham
Interview, 1993: 13).
Don't Take, then, is part of a group of
Aboriginal women's autobiographical texts but in some ways it advances
their frontiers, particularly in its greater explicitness than usual
about aspects of sexuality and sexual oppression. This has also
been a feature of much writing since the 1970s by non-Aboriginal
women writers but, as I have pointed out, taking account of issues
of race adds extra dimensions to the readings that can be made,
including those which focus on issues of gender, and can help build
solidarity between women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds
in struggling against the still-prevalent discrimination based upon
Associate Professor of English at the University of Queensland
Editor of Hecate
Carole Ferrier teaches courses on gender, race
and class in relation to literature in the English Department at
the University of Queensland, and has also been an activist in these
areas for many years. Since 1975, she has been editor of the feminist
Ferrier, Carole. `Aboriginal Women's Narratives.' In Ferrier, ed,
Gender, Politics and Fiction: Twentieth Century Australian Women's
Novels, Second expanded edition, St Lucia: University of Queensland
Huggins, Jackie and Isabel Tarrago. `Questions
of Collaboration.' Interview with Carole Ferrier. Hecate 16, 1/2,
Huggins, Rita and Jackie Huggins. Auntie Rita.
Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994.
Labarlestier, Jan. `"Through their Own Eyes":
An Interpretation of Aboriginal Women's Writing,' in Gill Bottomley
et al., eds. Intersexions: Gender/Class/Culture/Ethnicity, Sydney:
Allen and Unwin, 1991.
Langford Ginibi, Ruby. `Ruby Records Her History.'
Interview with Sonya Sandham. SMH, 26 June 1993.
Langford Ginibi, Ruby. `Author to Help Discover
New Talent.' Interview with Judy Robinson. SMH 17 July 1993.
Langford Ginibi, Ruby. Interview with Janine Little.
Hecate 20.1 (1994): 100-121.
Langford Ginibi, Ruby. Real Deadly. Sydney: Angus
and Robertson 1992.
Mudrooroo. Interview with Janine Little. Hecate
19. 1 (1993): 143-154.