Method – Unsettling Narratives

Through an extensive study of indigenous writing, Clare Bradford attempts to lay bare the complex ways in which indigenous writers resist the systematic colonization of their culture. This arises from a core concern she bring up early on where “the fact that non-Indigenous people learn about Indigenous people largely through representations produced [. . .] through “stories told by former colonists” means that Indigenous cultures and people are generally the objects of discourse and not their subjects” (10). This core concern sweeps throughout her primary analysis of Indigenous novels – for kids and adults, and all in Australia. She easily sets up her conversation to include race, language, Eurocentrism, whiteness, canon, and concerns with assimilation. The primary readings are littered throughout the text and those are fairly generative, but also unfortunately short, as hardly any text gets more than two paragraphs before we move on. For me, however, it is her discussion of resistances to method and cautionary asides that I found most interesting.

Bradford’s first chapter concerns itself with a discussion on the impacts of images and language as they function as true/respectful/accurate/responsible vehicles towards representing Indigenous people. Yet before she can dive into her sources, she points out from a reading of Langston that “it is not the case that texts by Indigenous writers always produce “better” representations of Indigenous peoples and cultures than those by non-Indigenous writers [. . .] because there is no single “correct” mode of being Aboriginal” (11-12). This claim is almost obvious, that to imagine that any one narrative – presumably a good/accurate one – could actually encompass the entirety of Indigenous people is obviously absurd (although she does acknowledge that Indigenous writers are in a position to write with greater awareness). Yet Bradford, as she tackles writing that resists and grapples with a systematic colonization of people, offsets her reading with this cautionary claim. It is a very responsible move, and attempts to address an imagined need/impulse to accept single narratives as all encompassing, even as it does justice for the group it discusses. This cautionary moment puts more value in her many primary readings, even as they present potentially conflicting messages.

Bradford, like many of our other thinkers, tackles the discomfort surrounding discussions of race/class/gender quite succinctly as she notes “there is no such thing as an innocent text, that all texts are informed by ideologies, some overt but others implicit and often invisible to authors and illustrators” (14-15). Like we’ve been noting throughout our discussions, this seems to be another moment in which a need to affirm studies of children’s lit arises. Bradford does, however, add more nuance to this sentiment as she quotes Ashcroft to say “meaning is achieved constitutively as a product of the dialogic situation of reading” (15). The reminder that writers, illustrators, and readers all individual influence the meaning of the texts reminds us of the complexity of children’s lit., even more specifically those that are meant to openly resist norms of colonization.

But again, nothing particularly new. That is, however, until she notes that “judgments of quality in children’s literature frequently rely on naturalized notions about literariness” and that “such ideas are problematic [. . .] because they rely on a bundle of assumptions derived from Western notions of literary quality” (15-16). Here is where Bradford addresses a new deconstructive approach to Indigenous writing. Namely, our assumptions and discussion surrounding quality inherently assume a (white, European) Western bias for our narratives.

This focus on the assumptions of theory were particularly interesting. Bradford writes that “a crucial problem in postcolonial theory lies in how resistance is understood – as a collision of force and counter-force” (20). The assumption that resistance needs to relatively clear and confrontational – at the very least defiant – behavior problematizes passive methods and imagines the quite resistance as meaningless silence. Bradford is fully committed to tackling this issue, and structures much of her primary reading to acknowledge these passive forms of resistance.

Bradford’s second chapter addresses critically the loss of language as a tragedy of colonization. Tracing a history of Indigenous publishing and publishing house behaviors, she grapples with a rather unique issues that oral traditions present. Again, Bradford reminds us of the troubles of Western-dominated narrative thinking as it attempts to transcribe old narratives. Issues of categorized, with different narratives following different forms of oral tradition become messy as accurate tools for representation in translation.

Unsettling Narratives does a lot of what we have already seen, but Bradford pushes us to acknowledge the man ingrained Western assumptions we have about our narratives. Her observations are incredibly nuanced, and do a great job of restructuring future discussions of race.