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Biography 24.1 (2001) 197-214

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In The Second Person: Narrative Transactions in Stolen Generations Testimony

Gillian Whitlock

My story is a gift. If I give you a gift and you accept that gift, then you don't go and throw that gift in the waste basket. You do something with it.

--Assembly of First Nations 162

1997: A Bitter Wind

In the winter of 1997 the Australian biographer and critic Drusilla Modjeska was invited to give the formal after-dinner speech at the Premier's literary awards in Sydney. This was designed to be a celebratory occasion, "in praise of good writing." However, Modjeska felt unable to speak publicly then and there without addressing the issue of the Stolen Generations:

All that winter I had been living quietly, writing each day and following public events on the radio and in the press. . . . I felt that when historians come back to look on that year, the writing that would be best remembered would not be the literary works we were there to celebrate, but the testimony of the separated children. . . . Political events can and do affect even the most private and domestic aspects of our lives; I could see it in their past and feel it in my present. (158)

For Modjeska, in the winter of 1997 living and writing could not proceed as before because the Stolen Children testimonies challenged and changed ways of thinking and ways of writing. For her and for many others the climate changed that winter: "I am sure I am not the only one to have had the sensation of waking up to find myself in an Australia I barely recognise. Or, rather, more to the point, in an Australia I would rather not recognise" (159). [End Page 197]

In the winter of 1997 Australians were immersed in an ocean of testimony. It came in the form of the Report of the National Inquiry into the separation from their families and communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This Report from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is called Bringing Them Home. It records that "between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities" from 1910 to 1970 (Wilson 37). The Commission listened to 535 personal stories of forcible removal, and had access to another thousand or so in written form. The Commissioners traveled throughout the country gathering testimonies, listening and reading. In writing the Report they retained as far as possible the actual words as they heard them, and so first-person testimonies are placed alongside third-person reporting and analysis throughout. Since the tabling of the Bringing Them Home report in the Australian federal parliament during the Australian Reconciliation Convention on 26 May 1997, the Stolen Generations testimonies have been the cornerstone of the pursuit of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The seven hundred page report is the best-selling government publication ever, with some twelve thousand copies sold. The HREOC website, which includes the testimonies, is equally in demand, and has facilitated the transit of these stories across a wide and international readership.

The question of how to respond to this Report remains a contentious and divisive issue. The day the report was tabled is now designated as a National Sorry Day, for the Reconciliation Convention called on all parliaments, local governments, organizations, and institutions to follow its example and to offer an apology, "so that we can all move forward together to share responsibility for the future of this nation" (Huggins 146). To date the Australian government has refused either symbolic redress through an act of apology, or financial reparation. Opinion polls continue to suggest that the majority of Australians support this stance. This should not surprise, for as "gifts" these testimonies are profoundly disturbing to dominant ways of thinking about history, identity, and race here, casting a shadow which some dismiss as a "black armband" view of the national history. The Aboriginal activist Pat Dodson has pointed out that the Stolen Generations issue is a...


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