Year

2004

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Faculty of Arts

Abstract

In this study, postcolonial, postmodern and feminist critical theories are used as analytical tools to examine the life and work of black Australian author and long-time advocate of Aboriginal rights, Colin Johnson/Mudrooroo Nyoongah. The project acknowledges the broad scope and vigour of the authors literary production, but concentrates on his ten works of fiction. Readings of the novels proceed on the basis that the meaning of who Johnson is and what he once represented has changed. In the years leading up to the new millennium, the legitimacy of the authors claim to Aboriginality was publicly questioned. As a consequence, neither he nor his artistic product can be seen to inhere to the pre-existing discourses of identity that left his Aboriginal status unchallenged. Until now, there has been no sustained analysis of the authors novels following the 1996 refutation of his claim to belonging to the Nyoongar people of Western Australia, through a matrilineal link. This study seeks to fill that gap. It differs markedly from previous examinations of Johnsons oeuvre and asks where the man and his work now belong in Australias literary history. Against popular literary theory, one of the aims of this study is to show how Johnson and his texts are inextricably, if imaginatively, intertwined to such a measure that, at times, fiction and fact become almost inseparable. Whatever form it may take, literature does not exist in an independent domain or in some autonomous artistic universe outside society. It is argued here that the range of possibilities of meaning to be found in the authors novels emerges, to a large extent, from the complexities of his own life � from the drama of the personal and social worlds beyond his texts. The temptation to equate the alleged fiction of the authors life with what he writes does not dismiss his accomplishments, however. The significance of his admirable contribution to Australian contemporary literature is undeniable. Rather, it is argued here that this new scenario offers the potential to open up a further range of readings and invites a different critical approach to Johnsons backward looking, yet visionary writings. Underlying the notion that a shift in critical commentary is called for, is the reality of Johnsons institutionalisation as a child and the trauma of separation from his mother and siblings this likely entailed. Given the autobiographical nature of much of Johnsons fiction, the possibility that his mother was white, not black as he consistently claimed � and has neither confirmed nor denied � is crucial to any serious contemporary analysis of his work. The prospect that, for whatever reason, the author has consistently misrepresented his mother is also critical to any explanation for the ever-increasing level of misogyny he articulates in the course of his literary trajectory. Discussion develops in the context of Johnsons writing as his means of giving expression to a sense of loss and betrayal engendered by the mother figure and manifested in a symbolic alignment with the female as the source of the worlds ills. It also turns on Johnsons recent claims that the conditions that made his career as an Aboriginal author possible were governed primarily by the colour of his skin as the marker of identity in a priori discourses of race in Australian society. In other words, his appearance was a contributing factor to any personal complicity in what he claims was the textualisation of his identity by his mentor, the late Dame Mary Durack in unequal black/white relations of power. The project concludes by suggesting that Johnsons lasting message is that the colonial-will-to-dominate remains unchanged. It also proposes that the authors silence regarding his mothers real identity and thus his own, may be read as an act of rebellion � a refusal to bow to the sceptre of subordinating white power and ideology that is similarly reflected in his anti-authoritarian writing.

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