Poet and activist Lionel Fogarty talks to Debashree Dattaray about his efforts to help Australia's aboriginal population keep alive their culture and identity, and to connect their struggles with those of oppressed people everywhere.
Vote 1 Australian Australia
Is there burden terra nullius
Change the motherfucker name and we sweet
Invasion January 26 2012 still seem terra nullius
Why? For identity look out of just things
Why court lie the years still
Why? Failure to look like reality in law white pump up fake
Fate washes all my people into
Non-indigenous belief rights
Rate weight heavy on family to bear
Late stress make us awake with no stress no loss no toss no memories to pain
As we walk to a wonderful year ahead we will cheer no more
The claim dat it’s all one people’s
Land but cheer eat drink smoke it bimise land
Why; cos our cause is forever
Until owner of things
Give up to sharing up
Why; cos dispossession speak in
The ones without possession
What of the deaths yesterday and the deaths murri foresees
26 Jan happily the one in
There is a set togethering every
Year called Abo week ain’t that enough appointment for cultures to gather the land
they name Australia
Captain whites of the history here
Are still cooking racism for gain
Power great lie and just to belonga
To failed lost love
Out there all be all for it be a message; don’t bring up the past
Even so the past was 26th Jan
And Invasion still on murris culture
The 26th of January is a special date in the national consciousness of both India, where it is Republic Day, and Australia, where it is the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British settlers. The aboriginal population of Australia, however, remember it as Invasion Day; it was the beginning, after all, of the dispossession of their lands and identity, and an existence as second-class citizens in their own country. On 26 January 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was founded in Canberra, a physical space in the national capital to serve as the spiritual centre for the aboriginal struggles for greater rights. Forty years later, when the then-Leader of the Opposition (now PM) Tony Abbott suggested during a press conference that the Embassy had outlived its purpose because former PM Kevin Rudd had made a “historic apology”, angry aboriginal activists crashed the Australia Day celebrations, a peaceful protest that led to Abbott and Julia Gillard having to be bundled away by bodyguards. They had a right to be angry; could centuries of continued oppression and a host of unresolved issues really be wished away by simply saying sorry?
Lionel George Fogarty was born in 1958 at Barambah—now known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve—in the South Burnett region of Queensland. Kargun, his first collection of poetry, was published in 1980, and he has gone on to publish ten collections, as well as a children’s book Booyooburra, a folk tale of the Wakka Wakka people. A political activist involved in the aboriginal struggles for land rights, health and legal services, and against the disproportionately high rates of aboriginal deaths in police custody (including his brother Daniel, in 1993), Fogarty has travelled the world, connecting with indigenous communities. He’s been involved with a not-for-profit poetry organisation, The Red Room Company, and worked with inmates in New South Wales prisons as part of an initiative called Unlocked, as well as its creative projects, including Clubs and Societies and The Poet’s Life Works. His most recent works include Minyung Woolah Binnung: What Saying Says (Keeaira Press, 2004), Dha’lan Djani Mitti: Collected Poems (Salt Publishing, 2008) and Mogwie Idan (Vagabond Press). In 2012 he won the Scanlon Award for Connection Requittal. He was in India earlier this year to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival and the Kolkata Literary Meet.
Could you tell me a little about yourself, your early influences? How would you define home?
Growing up in an aboriginal detribalised community was a remarkable and terrible experience. Thirty seven tribes had been forced to gather at Cherbourg, forbidden to practice their culture; the entirety of the Old Aboriginal Act was enforced. As a young boy, I saw my family still maintain their strength and courage, and the constant desire to return to their traditional country roots. Whispers of storytelling around our campfires influenced me to be proud of who I am.
My favourite memories are sitting with my father in his boomerang factory. He made hundreds of boomerangs by hand, to sell to white tourists. My mother was a beautiful caring woman, who shared her writing skills to pen letters to the government authorities on behalf of others seeking the whereabouts of missing family. My uncle Dreamy Eye introduced me to the Ocker language of the poor working class in Northern Australia. Cherbourg had a population of approximately 1,000 people, so there were many influences, as we were all forced to remain within the mission boundaries—one could not leave without the permission of the white man. I guess this ‘home’ was forced on us. Today, my definition of ‘home’ is returning to my homeland.
Could you speak a bit about your involvement with education in Cherbourg?
Education to us is our culture, and this is not provided in the public government school system. For me, it is important to revitalise an ancient story (Booyooburra) and how it influenced political education and expanded stories to the present day, for the community to produce other literature. Many books have been written and published by our children now. I am always involved in the education of my hometown, regardless of where I am.
What would you consider to be the most important issues in Australian aboriginal studies today?
The revitalisation of traditional aboriginal languages is the most important issue. Before the British colonisation, there were nearly 800 different languages and dialects on our continent. Today, maybe 15 to 20 of them remain fluent. These are the oldest languages in the world, as we are the oldest cultural continuum surviving. Proper land rights and the justice of reparation are vital too. We need to have our economy returned to us. Recognition of our sovereignty is a current debate, as we are not yet recognised by the Australian Constitution. A referendum may be held in 2017 to rectify this. If successful, I hope this would strengthen our call for traditional law and give our voice strength, help us improve health and housing, and environmental and anthropological issues.
How do you negotiate activism and poetry—what for you would be the point of convergence?
The convergence occurs by understanding the national struggle (for rights) and not being influenced by the politics. Protest was a way to express the fundamental meaning of similarities between injustices in different regions. The false charges against me—“conspiring against the State”—forced my activism at a young age.
How do you inscribe the oral in the written?
I listen to the narratives of my community, and write down the special intrigue of stories. I listen with my eyes.
Could you tell us a bit about your work as a visual artist?
Since the late ’90s, I’ve used a lot of my illustrations in my work. The dead ancestral dimensional imaginative images gave me the excellence to show the eye-body-ears-heartbeat of my literature. I was interested in the ungrammar and grammarified English to produce an ideal art that penetrated in me. I think I have successfully done that, and I am proud to have that ability and in not being institutionalised or being taught to be a professor of an art-hood.
How do you connect with other aboriginal writers? Do you have a community of aboriginal writers in Australia?
There are now an estimated 4,000 aboriginal writers—online and published. At the moment, we have a national body called the First Nations Australia Writers Network, which we have developed over two years now. This network aims to solidify our unity through information, mentoring and opportunity. Only three publishing houses are dedicated to Aboriginal literature; Magabala Books is the leader here. Moreover, there is growing connection with writers from other indigenous cultures across the world, sharing stories of tradition and the shared stories of colonisation.
Where do you see yourself going with your writing now?
At the moment, I am writing my memoir. I think this is important. Yet, with all my poetry, I feel that the importance of translation helps bring unity and inspiration to a younger generation of readers.
How do you deal with the idea of indigeneity?
I have not diminished my roots in my Mitti Mitti clan, and I never will. I find that because I have grown up with father, mother, grandfather and grandmother in real life, moving away from family and language would be very unbalanced. The words of the land were wood and fire. We dance it now.
How do you plan to connect with India in terms of activism and poetry?
I hope that the translation of my poetry to Bengali will allow another physical appearance to India. And I hope it will foster a better connection between the aborigines and Indians living in Australia. Bridges are just starting to emerge. There needs to be more support from publishing houses and universities, to better multicultural cohesion in Australia and the world. Respect for one’s cultures will lead to better political understanding too.
 Fogarty’s poems were recently translated as part of the Second Australia–India International Translation Winter School organised by the Centre for Translation of Indian Literatures (CENTIL), Jadavpur University, and the Centre of Advanced Study (Phase 2), Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, in collaboration with the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, and supported by Literary Commons. Fogarty also spoke about his activism and his experiences as an Australian Aboriginal poet in the concluding session of the Winter School.