This dissertation is a study of Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives published in Australia since the 1970s. While other critics focus on these narratives as texts of "resistance," I emphasise their transformative possibilities. Using Ross Chambers's notion of the "oppositional narrative," Kenneth Burke's theories of rhetoric, Mikhail Bahktin's discussions of the dialogic nature of language, and Carolyn Miller's theories of genre as an avenue for "social action," I argue that Aboriginal women's autobiographies not only resist or rewrite dominant histories, for they also present opportunities for identification, dialogue and transformation between Aboriginal autobiographers and their readers.
I trace a chronological trajectory from the early 1900s to the present in an investigation that centres upon four main questions: Why were Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives published in such large numbers from the 1970s? What were the historical, political, economic, and social conditions for the publication of these narratives? Why do so many Aboriginal women select autobiography as their genre, and how do they employ the rhetorical nature of autobiographical expression to achieve stated aims including education, reconciliation and social change? These questions identify Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives as agents of political and social transformation and as sites for the intersection of varied and often competing discourses affecting their production, circulation and consumption.
Chapter One explores the representation of Aboriginal women in ethnographic and anthropological writing. In this chapter, I frace the move from Aboriginal women as objects within ethnographic biographical writing to Aboriginal women as subjects of their own autobiographical narratives. This shift in speaking position by Aboriginal women from being represented to representing themselves, is clearly exemplified in the changes within ethnographic writing about Aboriginal women from the early 1900s to the present.
Chapter Two traces Aboriginal political movements from the 1960s to the 1980s and contextualises the social environment that fostered the development of a new listening and responsive audience for Aboriginal concerns. I argue that events such as the 1967 Referendum and the ensuing Black Power movement opened a discursive space for both the publication and popularity of Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives.
Chapter Three introduces the first Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives to be published in commercial print form in Australia in the 1970s and argues that these narratives had a particularly urgent task to fulfil: the creation of national Aboriginal cultural memory. These individual recollections began to "fill the gaps" of the cultural and communal memory of the Aboriginal community, which had been threatened in the aftermath of colonisation. This chapter focuses on the creation and employment of cultural memory for political purposes based on detailed discussions of autobiographical narratives by Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), Margaret Tucker, and Shirley Smith.
Issues of identity, memory and discursive authority also provide the basis for the case study of the collaborative production of Elsie Roughsey's autobiography. An Aboriginal Mother Tells of the Old and the New in Chapter Four. Drawing from the original manuscripts and interviews with Roughsey and her two editors, Paul Memmott and Robyn Horsman, I follow a trajectory from the initial writing stages to reviews of the book while engaging ethical and theoretical issues such as authority, voice, editorial intervention, language, marketing, and reviewing.
Chapter Five identifies the dialogic nature of Aboriginal autobiographical texts using Mikhail Bahktin's theories in The Dialogic Imagination. Using this trope of "autobiography as dialogue," the chapter continues the dissertation's chronological journey, with the publication of Sally Morgan's My Place in 1987 and continuing with the Aboriginal witnessing narratives based on Stolen Generation experiences. Employing Ross Chambers' notion of the "witnessing relay," I concentrate on how both the inter- and extra-textual relationships between the author, the body, the reader and the community promote the continuation of the witnessing acts started by Aboriginal women in their autobiographical narratives.
This dissertation, in both its organisation and its methodology, demonstrates that these texts have a continuing social and political currency, function as a means of social change, and "make a difference" in the lives those who read and study them. In many ways. Aboriginal women's autobiographical narratives are texts of transformation; and it is the development of these transformative possibilities through time and space as well as through communities, bodies, identities, disciplines and discourses that this dissertation seeks to explore.