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5 minutes

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia – An Introduction

Anita Heiss
Last edited: October 10, 2023

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.

We received more than 120 original submissions from Aboriginal people nationally as a result of the callout for contributions, each with an important story to tell, proving that many want mainstream Australia to understand what it’s like to ‘grow up Aboriginal’.

Each account reveals, to some degree, the impacts of invasion and colonisation – on language, on country, on ways of life, on how people are treated daily in the community, the education system, the workplace and in friendship groups.

The stories cover country from Nukunu to Noongar, Wiradjuri to Western Arrernte, Ku Ku Yalinji to Kunibídji, Gunditjamara to Gumbaynggirr and many places in between.

Experiences span coastal and desert regions, cities and remote communities, and all of them speak to the heart – sometimes calling for empathy, oftentimes challenging stereotypes, always demanding respect.

We did not place any boundaries on the collection, other than that the pieces had to be non-fiction and so we have life stories written from all around the country, including from boarding schools and even from inside prison; and from schoolchildren, university students and grandparents. We also have recollections of growing up Aboriginal in Australia by opera singers, actors, journalists, academics and activists. In many ways, this anthology will also serve to demonstrate how we contribute to, and participate in, many varied aspects of society every day.

While lives have been lived and expressed individually, there are numerous communal connections and shared experiences that frame common themes, including the importance and influence of identity, the stolen generations, family and kinship, education, concepts of country and place, and sport.

This collection mirrors the society that Aboriginal people live in and engage with every day, so there are motivational and uplifting stories alongside those on suicide; words on feminism and sexuality, as well as football and theatre. Role models and religion and road trips. We are diverse peoples and that’s exactly what growing up Aboriginal means today in Australia.

Many contributors are being published for the first time. All have generously and courageously bared their personal and family histories, their pain and heartache, their experiences of racism so that others can learn about what it means to grow up as a First Nations person in a country where they are often viewed and treated as second-class citizens, and sometimes even worse than that.

But this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration, demonstrating the will to survive and the capacity to thrive against the odds. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia paints a landscape of a country that has created leaders who form strong communities, with a generous heart and passion for change. That is why this anthology matters. The goal is to break down stereotypes – many of which are identified within these pages – and to create a new dialogue with and about Aboriginal Australians.

There are over fifty contributors to this collection. One deserves special mention, not only for her work as a poet and community role model, but because during the process of compiling this book she took her own life at the age of twenty-eight. Alice Eather was a devoted and passionate bilingual primary school teacher, and in recent years she was widely recognised for her performance poetry, her work as an activist, and a dynamic member of her community. Alice had an unswerving commitment to sustaining her language, people and homeland. Alice’s family and all those involved in the production of the anthology hope her work and messages will remain as a legacy to inspire others.

It was a pleasure and privilege to work alongside publisher Aviva Tuffield on this anthology. Together we shared a common goal in putting this book together, and I thank her for her enthusiasm and support in what was a challenging process.

Reading through the submissions for Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, I saw elements of myself as a child and as an adult, still on a journey of learning and discovery. I felt the same sting of racism as described by some contributors, as well as the strength and resilience expressed by others. I was fortunate as a child growing up Aboriginal in Australia: although I wasn’t surrounded by my extended Wiradjuri family in the Sydney suburb of Matraville, my close-knit immediate family provided all the support, guidance and the protection I sometimes needed to become a strong, proud, urban Koori who knows how to assert her rightful place in this country, and the world. Here’s hoping this collection proves that many Aboriginal Australians feel similarly, that it goes some way to enabling those who don’t to do so, and inspires all Australians to allow that to happen.

[The above is the introduction to the anthology ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’ available from our store, re-published with permission.]
Anita Heiss
Lifetime Ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles. She is a Lifetime Ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. Anita was a finalist in the 2012 Human Rights Awards and the 2013 Australian of the Year Awards. She lives in Brisbane.