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Jane Harrison

Platform Paper 30

Who can play Aboriginal roles?

Jane Harrison

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Australia’s first Indigenous writer, David Unaipon (1872–1967) made a commitment to sharing his stories with non-Aboriginal people. Did he hope that they would be valued as part of our country’s cultural expression? Since his time Aboriginal myths and stories have been widely adopted and adapted, often without reference to their origins or history. Homer and Shakespeare are no longer around to defend their work, but Aboriginal people are alive and outspoken about how they are depicted on the page, stage and on the screen. How, if ever, asks Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison, can Aboriginal themes be ‘used’ by others in a way that is acceptable to Aboriginal people? How can non-Aboriginals learn to interpret themes, and indeed, what are Aboriginal themes? Who can give permission and who refuse? What about our shared experiences and common history, do we not all have the rights to that? Harrison treads her way through the challenging issues of exploitation, referencing, literary fraud, blacked-up actors and community ownership. Sharing our history and stories is essential, she writes, for the health of Aboriginal culture. But first we must acknowledge who is in control. 

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About the Author

Jane Harrison is a multi-award-winning writer and essayist. Her first play Stolen (1998) has been widely performed in Australia, the UK and Asia, was co-winner of the Kate Challis RAKA award and was set for school study in Victoria and NSW.

If defining who ‘is’ an Aboriginal presents challenges, then defining Aboriginal ‘themes’ or ‘content’ presents rather more. Are Aboriginal stories simply those that involve Aboriginal people/characters? Are they only traditional or Dreamtime stories? Are Aboriginal stories those that are controlled by Aboriginal creators, irrespective of the content? Or are there other considerations to be taken into account? Has the readership or audience anything to do with it