Indigenous reading challenge

My 2015 challenge: the wrap up

On Invasion (Australia) Day 2015, I set myself, and anyone else who cared to participate, the challenge of reading at least 5 books by Indigenous authors within the year.

The motivation I gave for doing this challenge was ‘to better understand the experiences and cultures of the traditional custodians of the land we live on’. Of course books are not the only way to do this. When I was a student in the 1980s I read a lot about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, politics and culture, but since then I’ve continued learning from Indigenous radio and TV programs, and from working with Aboriginal colleagues.

But I do love books — the long read — and I decided it was unacceptable that books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so rarely made it onto my bookshelf. Setting the Indigenous Reading Challenge was a way of making sure that they got back onto my to-be-read (TBR) list.

For my 2015 challenge I read 6 works altogether (one of them doubles up with my African Reading Challenge), ranging from biography to fantasy to politics.

I kicked off with Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss, which provided a perfect start to the challenge as it brought me up to date with some contemporary Aboriginal thinking on identity and racism, as well as meshing nicely with my own experiences as a part of a mixed race (though not Indigenous) family. My response here.

My second read was a biography by Isaac Bacirongo, an African Australian man who is BaTembo (indigenous to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo). It had the slightly shocking title of Still a Pygmy, and provided important insights into the stigma and discrimination that the people of the forest have had to deal with. My review (and soundtrack) here.

Next I tackled The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright. I say ‘tackled’, because I feel this book stretched my brain in ways it hasn’t been exercised for quite a while, and I’m still thinking about it months later. Definitely my challenge highlight. My review here.

Around this time I ran out of steam for writing reviews. I was reading up a storm though — in July and August I read13 books for a Winter Readathon, including 2 more for the Indigenous Challenge: Wild Cat Falling by Mudrooroo and Heat and Light, by Ellen van Neerven.

Wild Cat Falling is one of the first novels to be published by an Aboriginal author (in 1965). I think it should be on all Australians’ reading lists. Mudrooroo’s story of how institutionalised racism limits, even dictates a young man’s life choices still resonates 50 years on, because the tragedy of arbitrary incarceration of young Aboriginal men is still being played out across this country.

Van Neerven’s key themes in Heat and Light are to do with obligation, connection and disruption, sexuality and female power. She creates memorable female characters and vivid evocations of country. I can’t say more because I had to return it to the library six months ago, which really inhibits writing an adequate review, but you can read another blogger’s excellent response here. What she said.

After Heat and Light, I took a long break from the challenge. I was having health problems which meant I retreated to comfort reading rather than challenge reading for a few months (lots of Terry Pratchett). But as the end of year loomed closer, even though I had technically completed the challenge by reading 5 books by Indigenous authors, I felt that I hadn’t really met my challenge goal because only 4 of them were Australian — so I downloaded Marcia Langton’s Boyer lecture series: The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.

These lectures were on my TBR list from the beginning of the challenge, and just as Am I Black Enough for You? was a perfect book to start with, the lectures were an excellent way to end. As with Heiss, although for different reasons, controversy surrounds this work, and it highlights important issues for 21st century Australia. I don’t always agree with Langton’s argument but the lectures have given me plenty to think about, and I am working on a response which I will post as soon as I can think it all through.

Should I continue the challenge?

I’ve read a few articles recently about white bloggers and reading diversity. I didn’t save all the links, but one of them is here. The gist of them is: It’s great that white people are reading more books by people of colour, but when we carry on about it online, for example by declaring we will only read PoC authors authors for a year, it just serves to make ourselves look good (politically correct, deserving of praise) and doesn’t necessarily achieve anything in terms of addressing the issues of racism and sexism. The article I linked to above suggests we just continue broaden our reading and discuss each book on its merits, not in a context of how good we are for reading it.

It’s an interesting discussion that got me thinking, is my very small Indigenous Reading Challenge in that category? I guess to some extent it is. I am reading for self improvement and to become a ‘better’ person, and I do hope it hasn’t come across as being all about me. But the challenge has got me reading books I otherwise might not have, and I hope that sharing my thoughts on some of them will motivate my followers to do the same, because these books are all worth reading.

For me, reading more broadly doesn’t just mean including tokenistically including writers who are Indigenous or people of colour; I know I’d also benefit from (and enjoy) reading more non-fiction, more ‘classics’, more Australian authors of all hues and, totally against the trend, more male authors (other than my favoured few, which fit on the fingers of one hand).

Setting myself the Indigenous challenge, participating in Kinna’s African Reading Challenge, being in a book club and encouraging other people to nominate books for me to read in my winter readathon are all ways of ensuring I read widely and deeply and don’t get lost in comfort reading. I love cake, but I feel sick if I eat too much.

So yes, at risk of appearing self-aggrandising, I will continue my Indigenous Reading Challenge in 2016, and I will keep blogging about it. Really, it’s just another step along the way on my lifelong reading adventures. Ideally I will be reading several books by Indigenous authors every year for the rest of my life. Will you join me?

What the challenge involves

There are only 2 rules:

  • Read at least 5 books, or listen to 5 substantial podcasts, by Indigenous authors before the end of 2016 (extensions to 26 January 2017 are allowed).
  • At least 3 should relate to the Indigenous people of your own country (if you are living in a colonised country).

Please use the comments below to share book suggestions, commit to taking the challenge, share your reviews and opinions or just to provide an update on what you’ve read. If you post a review on your own blog, please link back and tag your post ‘Indigenous Reading Challenge’.

You can find reading ideas on book lists here and here and here.

What I’m planning on reading

I haven’t made a definite list but frontrunners at the moment are:

  • That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
  • Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
  • The Intervention edited by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss
  • The Tears of Strangers by Stan Grant

Any suggestions for book #5 and beyond?


I pay respect to the elders (past and present) of the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation on whose land I live.

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9 thoughts on “Indigenous reading challenge

  1. Well, I think Anita Heiss says it much better than I can: she will be addressing the launch of the Blak and Write Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival (http://blakandbright.com.au/) on the topic of 20 Reasons Why you Should Read Blak. (And yes, I’m attending the launch).
    I’ve hosted Indigenous Literature Week on my blog since 2012, and I don’t do it to make myself look good: I do it to promote the work of indigenous writers who don’t get anywhere near enough exposure in the print media, and I do that for the reasons I gave on the Blak and Write blog http://blakandbright.com.au/2015/08/why-i-read-blak-lisa-hill/
    People are of course entitled to their own point-of-view, but discouraging people of good intent is counter-productive, IMO. Good for you for continuing with your challenge anyway, and I hope you’ll drop by during NAIDOC week and share some links to your reviews.

    • Thanks Lisa, you make very good points here & in your post on Blak& Bright. I’ve probably oversimplified the argument, and in any case the post I linked to was responding to a phenomena that I think is more prevalent in the US & UK than here – maybe there’s a bit of bandwagon-jumping going on. The context here is quite different. Thanks for your encouragement & I will certainly be looking out for your NAIDOC week posts – I hope I’ve managed to revive some energy for reviewing by then!

      Enjoy the festival, it looks great.

  2. Great post, and thanks for the link maamej. I’ve had Wild cat falling on my radar ever since I heard about it in the late 60s early 70s, my youth and time of civil rights awakening. I’ve read a couple of your 2015 books and your 2016 books. Authors I’ve read and would suggest include Tara June Winch, Jeanine Leane, Marie Munkara, Melissa Licashenko. High on my to read list include Gayle Kennedy, Terri Janke, Larissa Behrendt.

    Re your question, I’d say it’s a case of damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It’s the cross we bear for being the advantaged ones, and fair enough too. I think it never hurts for us to be confronted, for our motives to be questioned and our idea to be challenged. It’s healthy. And yet I recognise that even saying all this can sound smug or patronising. Like you and Lisa I read diverse books because I don’t just want to read about myself. I share them publicly because I’d like others to read them, but I recognise that in doing so it can seem like some self-back-patting, particularly where I drawn particular attention to what I’ve done. That however is, I think, better than not reading the books or sharing them at all.

    • Thanks, great to have some recommendations & also your thoughts on my question. I guess the important thing is to have some awareness of why we are sharing – perhaps the article I referred to was mainly responding to a gimmicky trend that’s quite different to what we are all doing with our blogs.

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