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  • For you, K. Tsianina Lomawaima
  • Natalie Harkin (bio)

A response to K. Tsianina Lomawaima, “A Principle of Relativity through Indigenous Biography.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 248–69

When I read your paper I immediately began to conceptualize a response in the spirit of “dear friend”: a direct offering to you through an intimacy that comes with uncanny recognition of stories, memories, and dreams; an intimacy that makes meaning in worlds steeped in histories of shared deep-colonialisms. It was easy to find myself in your contemplation on silences left behind by ghosts, for your story, partly through and beyond the colonial archive, is familiar to the point of knowing. You began with a quote from Vine Deloria, Jr.’s concept of relativity. Your words then rise from the page to trace new paths across land and seascapes to settle on a small story, with me, in South Australia. This is a direct conversation. There is no colonial-filter here to observe and translate these words, ideas, and experiences, just a direct connection where synergies unfold and weave strong; the affect a paradox, given my heart-warming and familiar reading of you, a stranger on the other side of the world. We have been matched well in this literary, trans-Indigenous biography project. Through such potent contemplation, stories and conversations collide, and invisible, unexpected spaces open up for us to write into.

I think about my own search for missing narratives, finding traces in places of those whose eyes I have never met, or will never meet again. I sometimes look in the mirror, and these spectres find me; they catch me by surprise. I recognize their shape, their color, their gaze. They are displaced through their passing to a haunting recognition, and through my dad’s fading eyes staring back at me I find my beloved nanna. I never met my great-grandmother’s gaze. Grace died before I was born, but I see her too. I know her. Like you, I am interested in the place of “auto” in “biography,” and the often vexed, [End Page 270] critical question of “writing on ghosts” through the indelible imprint they have on our lives. We are haunted and haunting writers examining repressed personal and collective histories to transform and project forward. Like your trail-blazing great-aunt Tsianina, my great-grandmother Grace was a mezzo-soprano. She performed with her baritone, piano-accordion-playing cousin in venues around the city, including functions hosted by the Aborigines Advancement League. She performed on Point Pearce Mission Station where she grew up, and was known to accompany David Unaipon, our famous Ngarrindjeri author, preacher, philosopher, and inventor, when he gave speeches at churches on the virtues of educating Aboriginal people. She was also a regular on Australia’s Amateur Hour, a roving radio talent-show from the 1940s– 50s, her voice broadcast live into living rooms around Australia. I spent hours searching for her voice in the National Film and Sound Archive, with no luck.

Grace wasn’t famous like your great-aunt Tsianina; however, I imagine they might have met. I imagine them singing together: commanding the stage, casting spells on audiences, and defying expectations. I imagine them powdering their faces, releasing their harmonies, and smashing stereotypes, followed by a cup of hot strong black tea.

I know my mezzo-soprano great-grandmother was deeply loved. I recall intimate details, like her wide, strong gentle hands and the softness of her body, safe and so easy to lean into. I have memories of my family’s memories of her. I have also traced a version of her story, and that of my extended family, through the state’s Aboriginal archives. This work set out to follow ghosts and paper trails in the attempt to better understand my family’s place in a broader history of colonialism.

The archives I have had access to provide a chilling and intimate snapshot of lives lived under extraordinary surveillance, particularly from the 1920s to 1950s. These records triggered particular questions about surveillance, representation, and agency, bearing witness to the state’s archivization processes that maintained a history of erasure, silencing, and forgetting. Your work resonates here...


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pp. 270-273
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