Mud map: Australian women’s experimental writing

Helen Flavell

I write this review of mud map as a wadjela on Nyungar Wadjuk country and make this statement hopefully not as a tokenistic gesture but rather out of respect and as an attempt to bring to this text what several of the writings in this anthology evoke: a consciousness of what it means to live as part of the coloniser majority on Aboriginal country.

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Review of Mud map: Australian women’s experimental writing. 2013. Edited by Barbara Brooks, Moya Costello, Anna Gibbs and Rosslyn Prosser. TEXT Vol 17, No 1 ISSN: 1327-9556

The letter arrived at 7.15am on the Monday after school had finished. They hadn’t slept well the night before as there had been a burglary, or some kind of drug related disturbance in the row of town houses in the night. The government housing grouped together in what was an increasingly expensive area had the typical set of inhabitants found in departmental housing. Fringe dwellers in the now gentrified suburb between river and sea. The town houses were a bit unkempt and there was rubbish strewn in the small area of trees that provided a buffer from the highway and traffic noise.

When Terri reluctantly opened the door in response to the incessant banging, tired from the broken night, she was met by an average, scruffy looking wadjela1 man. He was a process server. His delivery of the letter from the school board was designed to convey severity, legality and gravity. Terri demanded his identification and received his card; she knew how these things worked. You needed to know who you were dealing with. This is how it happened, how she and her two children received notice that they were no longer part of the school community; a community they had belonged to for five years.

The school Terri’s two children were attending—had been able to attend prior to the letter’s arrival— had a formal Reconciliation Action Plan. When approached several years earlier by Terri and a wadjela parent about the possibility of a Reconciliation Action Plan for the school, the wadjela principal had been positive and open. It aligned with the school’s values he said.

The letter made it clear that the children had not been expelled but, rather, Terri’s behaviour was the issue which had, almost as an aside, resulted in both children not being able to continue at the school. Terri and her kids were, well had been, the only Aboriginal family at the school. The decision is final and no further communication will be entered into, was how the letter finished.

The “story” of Terri’s experience, at first, appears incongruent with a review. Yet mud map is atypical (women’s) writing that not only inhabits the margin of publishing it emanates from a postcolonial context (Flavell, 2009). In this marginal space—generically, geographically and politically—who gets to speak and when are important questions. What are the processes of inclusion and exclusion that validate and engender agency?

I write this review of mud map as a wadjela on Nyungar Wadjuk country and make this statement hopefully not as a tokenistic gesture but rather out of respect and as an attempt to bring to this text what several of the writings in this anthology evoke: a consciousness of what it means to live as part of the coloniser majority on Aboriginal country. Several of the writers in mud map acknowledge being, and writing, on Aboriginal country. For example, Ann Brewster’s “You mother’s garden,” which actively engages with Aboriginal sovereignty and the privilege of whiteness, and Robyn Ferrell’s “Whitefella worship.” Gillian Barlow’s piece “Ruby” also addresses power, privilege and whiteness, exploring the narrator’s experience of being charged with racism in the workplace by an Aboriginal colleague.

For me, the title—mud map—places the collection firmly in relation to Aboriginal Australia in its symbolic representation of the Australian landscape as “unchartered” and “unknown.” A mud map is after all, a tool for off-road navigation; an old Australian bush saying used in early European colonisation, the directions to enable you to get somewhere which are, literally, written in the mud. In the introduction to mud map Anna Gibbs rightly defines experimental women’s writing as marginal, in need of defence, within mainstream publishing traditions. The “map” provided by this anthology is, therefore, necessarily incomplete and informal. Some of what is missing, Gibbs suggests, is the “the avowedly Aboriginal work [the editors] had hoped for” (1), although several of the authors “could claim Aboriginal heritage” (4). According to Gibbs, the editors struggled with what constitutes experimental writing, asking questions about the potential of Aboriginal autobiographical writing to be read as experimental presumably within the context of Australia’s history of colonisation. From the editors’ reading of experimental writing as a minority practice, therefore, is it reasonable in this review to raise questions about the relationship of the margin to the marginalised? At the end of Barlow’s “Ruby” the narrator is addressed by the Aboriginal woman accusing her of racism:

“I know you were trying to say something particular. I know you didn’t mean anything more than what you were saying. But to others, to Ruby, to me, it means so much more. There is a history stretching back to the first invasion with that word [simple]. People locked away. People shot. People stolen from their families – because they didn’t speak the same language, didn’t value the same things as the strangers who had moved in, because they chose not to be so materialistic and didn’t invest in all those materialistic things. We don’t take those words so easily” (Barlow, 2013, 6).

Aileen Moreton-Robinson in Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism challenges white feminists to interrogate the power and privilege inherent in their subject position.  Moreton-Robinson argues that whilst inclusive of the “other” white, middle-class feminists fail to demonstrate the necessary self-reflexive interrogation of whiteness required for anti-racist practice. In the words of Moreton-Robinson: “Who is listened to and heard depends on their ability and capacity to exercise power as part of the dominant group” (2000, 133).

What might it have been like if the principal had said “Kaya!” in response to the question of a Reconciliation Action Plan at the school? Instead of thinking in terms of reaffirming the school’s values, how might it had felt had he spoken this Nyungar word for both yes and hello/recognition?

The school’s story was that they had done enough, worked hard to support Terri and the kids and to adjust processes to meet their needs. They had tried to work with their late arrival to school, accommodate their lack of resources and provide support so homework could be completed. They had also implemented a plan for reconciliation. What more could they have done? Terri’s behaviour had become discourteous—she had criticised staff—and she had been “verbally abusive” in a meeting where four staff had attempted, with Terri’s daughter present and then reduced to tears, to address the family’s “failure” to adequately answer the educational concerns raised by staff. In the official minutes, which Terri did not know were being taken, it was recorded that Terri’s behaviour had made her daughter cry and that her speech appeared “slurred.” It was clear, she had breached the school’s code of conduct, the decision was final and no further communication would be entered into.

The issues Terri raised in relation to that meeting went unanswered, despite requesting mediation to resolve the conflict and sourcing a suitable, qualified mediator. Terri argued that she did not feel culturally safe;2 the way the meeting and conflict were “managed” replicated colonial practices. When the early morning banging on the door announced the letter’s arrival the kids were unsettled and confused. Its message conveyed exclusion and loss; of their friends, the community, and their positive memories of the school. Terri felt hurt, attacked, isolated and without support. She felt set up. Her “failure” to maintain the white middle-class code of behaviour turned on physical and psychological systemic frustration of aspiration.3

I enjoyed mud map.  Being asked to do the review has been a gift, but I have struggled with the editorial which positions women’s experimental writing as marginal.  In my mind, this claim of the margin negates the extreme minoritarian status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian nation state. Certainly not all of the women who are published in the anthology are wadjelas—there is diversity—but in claiming the margin is there a risk of not adequately considering the context in which this anthology emerges: conceived and written on country that is not ours?

The works that particularly resonated for me are those that are reflexive. For example, some of the highlights were Emma Ashmere’s piece with its humour and self-deferential positioning, Hoa Pham’s “Wave” for how it left me and Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Littoral marginalia”. Perhaps due to my current relationship with, and lack of immersion into, experimental writing I found those which made overt references to theory somewhat alienating and I would revisit and re-read in an attempt to engage.  There’s nothing wrong with hard work, or writing that challenges you (note the English Protestant values) but one has to have the time and inclination to do this.  As Anna highlights in the introduction, the audience for experimental writing is already limited and the increasing fragmentation of daily life, cuts to higher education and a reduction in literary studies courses, combined with Australia’s general anti-intellectualism, means that the audience will, likely, continue to shrink. Also, I’m not convinced you can escape the elitism implied by experimental writing which, in the hierarchy of writing forms, is positioned on high precisely for its intellectualism, intertextual reference to contemporary theories, and challenges to traditional genres. I think that is why the pieces that seemed concerned with their own “cleverness” inferred through their mastery of theory, those that seemed to take themselves perhaps a bit too seriously, engaged me the least.

Although Terri does not claim the identity of “writer” she is an artist and is working on her Mother’s autobiography. She hopes to complete the project, which she has been working on for years, before her Mother passes. Her Mother is from the Stolen Generations, a diabetic and an amputee. As part of the autobiography much research has been undertaken, including the payment of fees to access government documents relating to her Mother’s life. Along with the family’s exclusion from the school comes ongoing struggles firmly entrenched in Australian racism (direct, casual, and institutional), issues relating to family members’ marginalisation and the intergenerational trauma caused by the violence of colonisation and cycles of poverty and dispossession.

Despite the questions the anthology raises for me about the margin, I invite you to engage with the many short works that make up mud map. It is a celebration of women’s experimental writing and, apart from the pieces already mentioned, I also really enjoyed Nasrin Matouhchi’s “The warmness of handling”, Gillian Barlow’s “Ruby,” and Virginia Barratt’s “She is a boy.” This is not a complete list and I will never do justice to the works included in mud map; what is more, you may not agree with my wadjela positioning or review. That is alright, though, because as I increasingly become involved in realms other than the literary and struggle to create a life practice that resonates with the theories I espouse, I am certain that diverse viewpoints enrich us resulting in better outcomes. That is the strength of mud map; that it incorporates diversity in writing and in styles.

1. Wadjela is the Nyungar word for European or white person.

2. Cultural safety is a term used in health which is “difficult to define because it is a philosophy or an approach to health care that is not so much about what you do but rather how you do it” (Eckermann et al., 2010, 185). Cultural safety is defined by the person experiencing it and is underpinned by the self-reflexive interrogation of the health practitioner’s own culture and the impact it has on health service delivery.

3. “Systemic frustration of aspirations means that the predominant social order denies one category of person’s access to the prerequisites of effective participation in a system developed and controlled by powerful interest groups. These prerequisites, as outlined by Savitch’s (1975) analysis of systemic bias, include organisation and communication skills, financial resources, and commitment of personnel and trained staff” (Eckermann et al., 2010, 74).


Brooks, Barbara, Moya Costello, Anna Gibbs and Rosslyn Prosser (Eds), Mud map: Australian women’s experimental writing. TEXT Vol 17.

Eckermann, A.-K., Down, T., Chong, E., Nixon, L., Fray, R., & Johnson, S. (2010). Binan Goonj: Bridging cultures in Aboriginal health (3rd ed.). Chatswood, NSW: Elsevier.

Flavell, H., Who Killed Jeanne Randolph? King, Muecke or “fictocriticism”. (2009). In Outskirts: Feminism Along the Edge, 20.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2000). Talkin’ up the white woman: Indigenous women and white feminism. St Lucia, Queensland: Queensland University Press.

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