Think Queensland and I immediately conjure apartheid births and prototypes, stolen Aboriginal wages, native title rise and fall, the National Party, the Country Party, and any other Queensland wheat-belt-born party with a minority to vilify. But maybe this is all in the past? Our new prime minister defies my immediate judgment by being Queensland born and bred and a free thinker, and the state's first female premier is standing up against racism within the ministry. Queensland may be the home of backwards immigration and Aboriginal rights policy but it is also a land with an intact heartbeat, home to many of our country's Indigenous heroes: Eddie Mabo, Cathy Freeman, Sam Watson, Jackie Huggins, Justine Saunders, Rosie Barkus and Chris Sarra. Indigenous communities in Queensland contribute enormously to the cultural and psychological landscape of Australian identity.
Is it a state still steeped in dirty secrets and old assimilation thinking? If it has this wealth of Indigenous warriors and heroes in sports, arts, politics and justice, why has it been a stomping ground for racist and dividing powers? I ask in my lifetime, what has changed for my people.
Twenty years ago I was four and had never been to Queensland; for many years my parents had travelled throughout the state in search of fruit– picking work but had settled in Housing Commission in Wollongong in time for my arrival. Twenty years ago Australia was celebrating a bicentenary with tokenistic Indigenous pride. Twenty years ago the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing award, for an unpublished manuscript in honour of the first Aboriginal person to be published – David Unaipon – was established.
I arrived in Brisbane for the first time at nineteen. I'd heard I could get work there when I returned from overseas. I also went in an attempt to dispel the myth that had been issued to me as a traveller, not just in rural and urban Australia, but all over the world – that Queensland, and especially Brisbane, was the end of the world, cesspits of bigotry.
Within a few months of arriving in Brisbane I'd written my first short story. The State Library of Queensland provided me with a good place to sleep on lounges, a nice view, sneaky coffees from the security guard, old flicks in the video room and a little poster on a notice board: Young Writers' Award, $2000 first prize, $500 runner up. I wanted the cash.
I was the runner up and was invited to the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards ceremony at the Queensland Art Gallery to watch my name flick up on the screen for a nanosecond and get my $500 in the foyer on the way out. I got the bug. I was asked to expand my writing. Twelve months later I entered a manuscript into the David Unaipon Award, and won. My words would be heard.
WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THAT ALONG the banks of the Brisbane River every year a pilgrimage is made, heart in hand, out past the oaks and the snake highways wrapping themselves around the mangrove city? One of those faces, those drop your head faces, exits the art gallery and on to the lawns, to laugh out loud to the sky, to shake off that past that might subside for an evening, but not for a lifetime, and not for writing.
The award finds a new voice; each spring, a manuscript, a suite of poems, one of so many old stories which bleed the insides – is set free. Doris Pilkington Garimara, Samuel Wagan Watson, Larissa Berendt, Ruth Hegarty, Robert Lowe. From Queensland to Tasmania to the Centre – these stories are coming through, voices loud and honest and proud, voices that for far too long have been silenced. Voices bound and typeset in the small printers, and published every year in our most conservative city.
I came to Brisbane to put to rest the stereotype that had been created about Queensland. It is at rest. I know we have miles to go for our people, but it feels as if we're seen eye to eye now, instead of always looking down or being looked down upon. I have arrived myself, I have come to a place, through chance to Brisbane, but through the opportunity it gave – to my own voice, and to an invitation to thrive. I have become something. I have arrived.
The Unaipon award is one example of movement not only benefiting Queensland, but all of Australia. And now we have the Dreaming Festival, Torres Strait Islander Arts Festival, we've got the Cape York Agreement, Jackie Huggins and Kevin Rudd. And every year the arrival of a voice, a winner who walks out into the stifling Brisbane air, and breathes back life. From the banks of the Brisbane River across tablelands and desert and ocean, every year a glitch on the Premier's Awards list is bringing these stories home.
They say you measure yourself by people that measure themselves by you, so if the rest of us no longer measure ourselves by how racist Queensland is, then maybe we have emerged into a new era, maybe we long-grass people have become a whole instead of a small part, have become survivors, heroes instead of just victims. Maybe, through all of Australia's measurement of Queensland's past, we are surer of arriving at a better future. Twenty years on. And always. ♦