I knew before I began my steampunk novel that I would need to learn a whole new set of rules when it came to my Koori character, Matilda (you’ll notice that’s not a Koori name – names are just one taboo area).
A week or two ago I attended a lecture (in the gorgeously squished building above) by bestselling chicklit author Anita Heiss, who is a member of the Wiradjuri nation.
The lecture itself was very interesting (especially the various covers – some early drafts had Koori art from utterly the wrong nation, ugh), but the best part for me was that, as I’d hoped, Anita was able to tell me exactly where to look to find out how to write respectfully about a Koori character.
These are the two documents she recommended I read before approaching the correct Koori nation for more detailed consent:
The bits about copyright were especially fascinating, because of course copyright law isn’t designed for oral stories – which means extremely valuable stories are not legally protected. Not yet.
Also, I’ll probably need to pay actual money to representatives of the nation I choose for Matilda’s background. I can handle that. Given the classic steampunk theme of rampant colonialism, it’s neat that I will be giving something back in order to honourably write about that era.
There is a huge wealth of religious tradition that non-Koori Australia is largely unaware of – not because we’re helplessly undereducated, but because much of it is secret, and needs to stay that way. My rule when it comes to other religions is, “What if they’re right?”
What if it’s true that a woman playing a didgeridoo causes terrible harm? What if outsider knowledge of sacred rituals destroys a people group?
Frankly, I’m not going to risk it.
This was part of the reason I made Matilda half-British, and a rebel against both her parents’ cultures. That way I can steer well clear of a lot of traditional knowledge or ritual – since Matilda has left much of it behind her.
And of course I’ll take care that the facts about historical Koori that make it into the book are accurate.
If you are writing about a people group you’re not a part of, here’s a good list for you to think about:
2. Indigenous control
3. Communication, consultation, and consent
4. Interpretation, integrity and authenticity
5. Secrecy and confidentiality
6. Attribution and copyright
7. Proper returns and royalties
8. Continuing cultures
9. Recognition and protection
And here’s a great resource for finding Koori artists by state:
I’m setting my book in Australia because I love it with all my heart. Matilda exists because there is no WAY I’m going to pretend Koori people didn’t exist in 1854. (That’s exactly what was done at the time – nice work, Empire.) I’m so pleased to have finally found some detailed resources so I can make the book something special for all Australians.
Or at least, all those who like steampunk.