Four names - which identity?
Born in 1938 as Colin Johnson in Narrogin in West Australia, Mudrooroo wrote the novel “Wild Cat Falling” in 1965 and has since been known as the father of aboriginal literature. His extensive opus includes autobiographical texts, novels, poetry, literary criticism, film-scripts and dramas and has launched a series of debates about Aborigines and post-colonial writing. He is a member of the Aboriginal Arts Committee of the Australia Council and founded with Jack Davis the Aboriginal Writers´ Oral Literature and Dramatists´ Association.
In 1966 appeared in Australia the novel “Wild Cat Falling”, in which the 28-year old author Colin Johnson wrote about Wildcat, a young Aborigine freed from jail only to be returned two days later on suspected murder. But although or because this novel was said to be the first aboriginal one, Colin Johnson was uneasy and changed its end for the film version in 1975. In 1988 he revised it further, from a post-colonial point of view, and changed his name “as a special bicentennial event” to Mudrooroo Narrogin, shortening it later to Mudrooroo for historical reasons:
”I was born in Narrogin WA - hence my name. In 1988 I decided that to have an English name wasn´t very appropriate. Seeing as I was born in a little place outside Narrogin called East Cuballing, which is only a post office and not much else, and since Narrogin was the name on my birth certificate I decided I would use ´Narrogin´ at least as my nom-de-plume. ´Mudrooroo´ came about because I was talking to Oodgeroo Noonuccal in 1988 and she, in the course of discussion, said that we should have a working totem or dreaming. Then she said seeing that we are writers why not the paperbark tree? ´Oodgeroo´ means paperbark in the Noonuccal language and ´Mudrooroo´ means paperbark in the Bibbulmum language which is my mother´s people´s language; and so I changed my name to Mudrooroo. Now that evolved into ´Mudrooroo Nyoongah´ which is my people´s name. I then became tired of explaining what Nyoongah meant. (The term Aboriginal or Aborigine is a white imposition on the indigenous peoples of Australia; being a Nyoongah means something different to being an Aboriginal - we´re a mix of races who belong to the south-west of Western Australia.) So my name now is Mudrooroo Nyoongah and my nom-de-plume is Mudrooroo." (Aboriginal Voices, S .55).
Mudrooroo deconstructs not only his identities but also his first novel “Wild Cat Falling” in “Doin” Wildcat. As Mudrooroo, he rewrites the latter as an Aborigine from a post-colonial perspective, accusing Colin Johnson of having shown an Aborigine from the point of view of a non-Aborigine. In “Doin” Wildcat, the protagonist goes back to his now unused jail to help the white director and producer Al Wrothberg to film his book. The “I” person is thus in the privileged position of having written a book then a film-script and of having an actor play him as a young man. In being both behind and in front of the camera, he is just as much on the fringe and at the centre as are the Aborigines in Australian society and culture. He comes from a dominated culture but uses the dominant one to reflect publicly on the lot of aboriginal writers.
Unlike in “Wild Cat Falling”, the protagonist in “Doin” Wildcat no longer speaks standard English but rather sacrifices the standard language as show for the sake of aboriginal English. He goes even further. From his now more sovereign perspective he reveals that some things in jail had not happened as formerly claimed. For instance he had claimed earlier that he had flung a teapot at a guard, but he now claims that this was only a “wish thing”. In fact there had been a small rebellion at the time, but this collective action had not fitted into Colin Johnson´s literary concept, which had been individualist and existentialist. As a post-modern storyteller, Mudrooro is able to question his own motives and to point out to what extent the expectations of white readers had affected the story and end of his first aboriginal novel.
The actor who plays Wildcat comes to the Wildcat storyteller and complains about the end of the film - about Wildcat´s apologising for having shot at a policeman. Wildcat explains that this was a ticket to the outside world. “It ad to please em, so the endin wa an appy one for em … Jacky wa sorry cause ee was in Freo (prison) for an eternity an a day.” Johnson´s manuscript was a part of colonial normative discourse, now rejected by Mudrooroo and other aboriginal authors.
In his manifesto “From the Fringe” (1990) Mudrooroo says what he as a writer does or should do. In effect it is an aboriginal anti-aesthetic program directed against the white norm. In it he objects to using the word Aborigine for people who see themselves as belonging to different groups and puts forward an anti-educational program made up of the “literature of aboriginality based on traditional forms”. This should help black Australian natives not to be gradually assimilated, in the name of liberal humanistic social reform, through educational, employment and equal rights´ projects for Aborigines. But he sees that it is not possible to return to the traditional past, since “traditional society has either become transitional society, or been made over into an artefact. It has become fossilised and the young people have turned away from the fossilised remains.” (ibid p. 145)
Mudrooroo sees Aborigines as being a fringe group faced by the normative classification into civilised or tribal and finds himself in an ambivalent position. “White people assume that he or she is writing for the white world, the world of the invader. It is a curious fate - to write for a people not one´s own, and stranger still to write for the conquerors of one´s people.... The assimilated writer has succeeded after much effort in making Standard English his own. Now he or she can only fully express himself or herself in it; while all the time supporting Aboriginal languages and clamouring for the complete use of Aboriginal discourse.” (ibid p. 148)
This is a dilemma which Muldrooroo is unable to escape, especially if his novels are presented to the public as romantic and exotic. The German introduction to “Master of the Ghost Dreaming” (1991), for instance, says: “From the originally proud aboriginal clan only a small community has survived, for the missionary Fada has brought with his Christian faith only misery and ailments onto the island. Janagamuttuk, the head of the community, reacts by taking his folk on a journey into another world. Effortlessly they break through space and time to find the force with which to overcome the alien civilisation and to return to their own homeland.”
Instead of withdrawing into exoticism, Mudrooroo uses European culture as material for his own aims. In 1991 he turned to “Der Auftrag” (“The Commission”), a play by the German author Heiner Müller, and set it within a play of his own about Aborigines. The resulting comedy The Aboriginal Protesters confront the proclamation of the Australian Republic on 26 January 2001 was premiered on 11.01.1996 in Sydney and is said to have marked the birth of black theatre in Australia.
The play is about a drama group of Aborigines who are players in Müller´s play. The audience witness a rehearsal of the latter on the eve of the proclamation of the Australian republic. The players discuss and criticise the play, in which the ideals of the French revolution are to be exported to Jamaica. The French emissaries arrive on this isle in the Caribbean in 1794 to stir up a revolt against the English. They fail, on account of themselves and on account of the counter revolution underway in France. Their task is no longer on the agenda. With the betrayal of ideals, the scenes but not the Aborigines end. They vote against performing the play as a protest against the birth of the white republic with which they are unable to identify. The audience, however, gets to see the whole of Müller´s play as also a highly interesting critique of his central theme: the dialectic of revolution and betrayal.
In the same year - 1996 - Mudrooroo´s past was involved in the discussion about aboriginal identity. His family claimed that he was no real Aborigine, since his mother was said to be descended from the first white child ever born in the Swan River Colony (now Western Australia), and his father to be a black from America. Muldrooroo had always felt himself to be an Aborigine, even in his years as Colin Jacksom, though back in the 50s such an identity brought with it drawbacks and discrimination.
Asked by his publisher Mary Durack for details of his family background to go with “Wild Cat Falling”, he had written: “Date and place of birth, Narrogin, 21st August 1938. Lived in Beverley until nine. Orphanage until 16 years of age (neglected child). My mother, I think, came from Narrogin, and is, I think, still alive in Perth. My father is a blank - a cipher.´ (´Identity Parade´, Bulletin, 27 August 1996) While his family and many others viewed the question of his identity as a question of genes, the post-modern theoretician Muldrooroo was less committal: “Whatever my identity is, it rests on my history of over fifty years and that is that´. (European Association for the Study of Australia, Newsletter No. 20, May 1999).
(Translation: Phil Stanway)
Mudrooro was born in 1938 as Colin Johnson in Narrogin in Western Australia and changed his name to Mudrooroo in 1988. He was taken from his mother at the age of 9 then brought up in a catholic orphanage. At 17 he was jailed, then he moved to Melbourne and worked briefly in the civil service. In 1965 his novel "Wild Cat Falling" was the first to have been written by an Aborigine. He then travelled through Asia for awhile, spending seven years in India, three of them as a Buddhist monk.
On his return he wrote various novels, poems, reviews, plays, tales and theoretical texts and in 1988 changed his name from Colin Jackson to Mudrooroo. His study about Aboriginal literature "Writing from the Fringe" (1990) sparked off a series of critical debates.
The promised land
Novel. Angus & Robertson: Pymble / Sydney
Novel. Harper Collins: Sydney
The Indigenous Literature of Australia: Milli Milli Wangka
Essays. Hyland House: Melbourne
Pacific highway Boo-Blooz
Poems. University of Queensland Press: St. Lucia
Us Mob: History, Culture, Struggle
Essays. Harper Collins: Sydney
Encyclopaedia. Thorsons: London
The Mudrooroo/Muller Project: A Theatrical Casebook
Ed. Gerhard Fischer. University of NSW Press
Novel. Angus & Robertson: Pymble
Wild Cat Screaming
Novel. Angus & Robertson: Pymble
The green dictionary
Not stated. Macdonald Optima: London
The Garden of Gethsemane
Poems. Hyland House: Victoria
Master of the Ghost Dreaming
Novel. Angus & Robertson: North Ryde
Writing From the Fringe
Essay. Hyland House: Melbourne
Dalwurra, the Black Bittern
Not stated. University of Western Australia: Nedlands
Novel. Hyland House: Melbourne
Long Live Sandawara
Novel. Hyland House: Melbourne
Doctor Wooreddy´s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World
Novel. Hyland House: Melbourne
The Song Circle of Jacky and Selected Poems
Poems. Hyland House: Melbourne
Cured to death
Not stated. Secker & Warburg: London
Wild Cat Falling
Novel. Angus & Robertson: Sydney