Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling – Book Review

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Of all the books I read in English Literature at school, Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves, stands out in my recollection, and despite the thousands of books I’ve read since, I can still remember specific passages. Especially the ones Larissa Behrendt refers to in her discussion and analysis of captivity narratives in Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling.

Behrendt, who is a lawyer and academic, writes for the common reader, forgoing academic prose and legal jargon. The main focus is Eliza Fraser, on which White based his character of Ellen in A Fringe of Leaves. Here is a balanced and nuanced exploration of the facts of the story, and the versions told by Eliza and others and to what ends. Behrendt does not condemn Eliza Fraser for telling a sensationalist version of events, recognising that to some extent Eliza was a ‘product’ of the racism and biases of her time, and also that she had to make money somehow as a woman in the 19th century. In these Eliza Fraser stories, the Butchulla people of K’gari (Fraser Island) were portrayed as inferior, barbaric, and cannibalistic.

Just as Eliza Fraser was motivated by the need for funds (and perhaps to save face), Behrendt recognises that “often there is a motivation – a politics – that accompanies the telling of any story”. The ensuing narratives of the Eliza Fraser story fitted within a canon of cannibalistic literature and rhetoric already at work in the world.

The colonial impulse within Robinson Crusoe heralded the early push into empire, and stories such as Coonardoo and A Fringe of Leaves, justified the disempowerment of Aboriginal people because of their perceived need for civilising, dispossessing them of their authority, land, and women and children. Behrendt describes colonial narratives as a kind of smoke screen, depicting Aboriginal women as lewd and lascivious and Aboriginal men as violent to their women to deflect attention away from white men’s actions in raping Aboriginal women.

Behrendt broadens the focus from the Fraser story and other Australian colonial narratives to discuss cannibalism in the popular mythology of the day, countering the narratives with factual documentation that fails to verify the practice among Aboriginal people. Rather, there are numerous examples of white sailors resorting to cannibalism to survive in straitened circumstances.

For any non-Indigenous author in Australia thinking about writing Aboriginal characters, Jeanine Leane in a recent Overland article states that they should ask themselves some basic questions: “Why do you want to write Aboriginal characters?… What do you hope to achieve through this representation?” Like the Behrendt quotation above, representation is politically motivated.

Many, if not all, non-Indigenous authors contemplating Aboriginal characters would not be seeking to reinforce the negative stereotypes that Behrendt discusses in Finding Eliza. They are more likely to be motivated by some kind of sympathy for the cause. But positive stereotypes are also harmful in the long-term, says Behrendt.

These positive stereotypes romanticise Aboriginal culture, imbuing Indigenous people with supernatural, new agey powers such as telepathy, and valorise their ‘oneness’ with nature. This risks the exclusion of some Aboriginal people by questioning the authenticity of their identity if they do not conform to the image of the ‘noble savage’.

Positive representation, whereby a non-Indigenous character ‘saves’ an Indigenous character are also problematic as they serve to devalue Indigenous people’s agency, and deny their ability to ‘save’ themselves.

Given that non-Indigenous authors might be tempted to romanticise Indigenous lives, experiences, culture, and worldviews in order to ‘redress the balance’, Behrendt finds it critical that Indigenous writers are given the space to critique non-Indigenous writers writing Indigenous characters. To create an authentic Aboriginal character the author needs to deeply understand their experience and perspective.

This is the starting point.

Finding Eliza is both an easy and difficult read. It is a slim volume, written in layperson’s language, weaving its own story. But it urges self-reflexivity, whether or not you as an author have chosen to include Indigenous characters in your story. If not, why not? And if so—what do the characters say about your understanding of Indigenous people?

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