Sunday, 8 June 2014

the burden of memory

Last year I took a couple of copies of a book about the Carrolup artists into the prison to give to one of my university students. As a Noongar Elder I figured it would be appropriate to entrust him with their care so he could loan them out to others, which is what Charlie (not his real name) dutifully did by locking them in his cupboard. Prisoners in maximum security aren't usually allowed locked cupboards because they can hide contraband, but Charlie was a 'lifer' and after many years of good behaviour, had been granted some privileges.

When I went back 2 weeks later, Charlie was very excited because he had found an old sepia photograph of his parents in the book. He didn't have a photo of his mum and dad so he asked me if I would scan and print one out for him, which of course I did - on my best glossy photographic paper. It was a wedding photo - husband and wife were dressed in wadjela clothes and made a very handsome couple.

In my job as Aboriginal art lecturer a few years ago I was keen to give my students information about their past - many knew little of their Aboriginal culture so I took every opportunity to educate them. I felt uncomfortable doing it, because a white woman shouldn't really be giving these people back their heritage - but so much had been lost already and I thought it was really important. I tried not to be patronising but maybe it seemed that way to them - I really don't know.

Just recently I passed on some information about an exhibition of the Carrolup artists that Curtin University has curated for the Town Hall. There were some photos from those days at the old Marribank Mission and the Curtin staff were trying to identify the kids. Some had already been identified and I recognised many familiar names. One of the curators was quite excited about this yet although I know her intentions were honourable, like mine had been when I tried to reconnect these people with their past, I saw myself reflected in her and it got me thinking. Was I just perpetuating the same patriarchal culture where the 'whites' tell the 'blacks' what's good for them? It occurred to me that maybe Aboriginal people are just plain tired of being reminded. When I talk to my Aboriginal colleagues at work I get the feeling they don't want to keep dragging up the past, they want to talk about their pets or how one of their kids has just completed a degree in anthropology. It seems many of us wadjelas have only just caught up with what's been happening for the past 200 years and it's we who need to talk about it. But Aboriginal people have been dealing with it for generations and maybe they just want to move on.

This stuff happens in families - at least in mine. It wasn't that long ago my aunties were reminding me of my 'bad' behaviour as a teenager - this was when I was in my forties. For f***k's sake - aren't people allowed to change and move on? My guess is that it's easier to file people away in boxes and tape them up - in that context memory is just a convenient way to keep everything neat and tidy. 

Recently something else got me thinking about memory. For the past 7 weeks I have been a participant in a research study into the emotional benefits of spending 25 minutes a day in 'mindfulness meditation'. Many memories have surfaced during my meditation sessions - random things I had completely forgotten about. Some have been good memories, but there are some unpleasant things I now have to deal with dammit - things I had unknowingly shoved into the darkest recesses of my psyche. It's got me wondering - when is too much remembering a burden?

image: Randy Mora/YCN,


  1. This is such an interesting post. I read Goldie somewhere wrote (and mind my bad quote from memory here)"You can have white man identified as a plumber or a carpenter, a white woman who will be identified as a mother, or psychologist etc, but an Aboriginal will always be identified in literature as an Aboriginal, a Maori will always be identified as Moari."

    In a way it is part of the process of 'othering', constructing a person's identity based on race. I can see the frustration with this. It's not just a burden of memory but a burden of an identity imposed by other people.

  2. That's a good quote - and so true. And you are right - it's this thing of other people defining who we are. Bloody annoying actually. I hope I haven't been annoying to Aboriginal people. Sometimes I think I have noticed how patient they are with me.

  3. Your last line made me smile. I think I may have noticed it in my own interactions too :~)