20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Anita Heiss, Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On’ by Anita Heiss

Non-fiction – memoir; Vintage Books Australia; 384 pages; 2022.

Dr Anita Heiss’ Am I Black Enough for You? should be required reading for every Australian.

First published in 2012, it has been updated and subtitled “10 Years On”.  I haven’t read the original (which has been eloquently reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers), so I’m not sure how much it diverts from the first, but I found it an entertaining and educational read and it made me rethink and reassess my own views on what it means to be an Aboriginal in this country.

It’s billed as a memoir but it’s much more than that. It’s an account of a range of issues affecting Aboriginal Australians as told through Heiss’ own intimate and personal lens as a successful author, a passionate advocate for Aboriginal literacy and a high-achieving public intellectual. Just last month, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to tertiary Indigenous Studies & the Arts.

Rejecting the stereotypes

A proud Wiradyuri woman from central NSW, Heiss was raised in suburban Sydney and educated at her local Catholic school. Her father was an immigrant from Austria and her mother was Aboriginal and she cheekily describes herself as a “concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming” because she lives in the city and loves shopping!

This is my story: it is a story about not being from the desert, not learning to speak my traditional language until I was fifty years old, and not wearing ochre. I’m not very good at playing the clap sticks, either, and I loathe sleeping outdoors. Rather, my story is of the journey of being a proud sovereign Wiradyuri yinaa, just not necessarily being the Blackfella — the so-called ‘real Aborigine’ — some people, perhaps even you, expect me to be.

The book essentially breaks down the stereotypes and myths surrounding what it is to be a First Nations person in Australia. It also shatters the expectation that just because Heiss identifies as an Aboriginal, she does not have to be “all-knowing of Aboriginal culture, or to be the Black Oracle”.

I’m Aboriginal. I’m just not the Aboriginal person a lot of people want or expect me to be.

It’s written in a friendly, light-hearted tone but Heiss isn’t afraid to tackle serious issues head-on. She writes about the Stolen Generations (her grandmother was removed from her family in 1910 and lived a life of servitude until 1927, when she got married), racism, why she doesn’t celebrate Australia Day, the black lives matter movement and poor literacy rates in remote Aboriginal communities.

Writing about writing

But she really hits her stride when talking about literacy, which is a clear and demonstrable passion, and there is an excellent chapter (“Writing us into Australian history”) about the importance of including Aboriginal voices, perspectives and  characters in books. A successful and award-winning author in her own right (she has seven novels to her name, as well as a handful of children’s books), Heiss believes her work has a role to play in “placing Aboriginal people on the overall Australian national identity radar”:

With all my books I receive feedback, written and in person, from mobs around the country who tell me that they have had the same experience of discrimination or racism, or that they were moved by a story or poem. I also have a lot of non-Indigenous people (the largest part of my audience because of population size), who tell me that they have been challenged by what I have written and have learned from the experience of reading my work.

Interestingly, since the original edition of this book, there has been an explosion in First Nations writers being published in Australia, and Heiss is particularly proud that the BlackWords database she helped establish now has more than 7,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and storytellers listed on it.

There’s an excellent chapter near the end (“20 reasons you should read Blak”) — adapted from the keynote address she gave at the inaugural Blak & Bright festival at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in 2016 — which outlines why we should all be reading First Nations writers. (As if I need any excuse.)

But it’s really the last chapter (“The Trial”), about her successful racial discrimination class action case against News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt (you can read her take on it in this piece published on Crikey), which acts as a resounding “take that!” to anyone who thinks they can say what they like about Aboriginal Australians and get away with it. Not only does it highlight the values by which Heiss lives — to call people out who perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes and to ensure the world she leaves behind is more equitable and compassionate than it is today — but it also makes Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On such an excellent and important read.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. It is one of the books sent to me as part of my monthly First Nations book subscription from Rabble Books & Games.

This subscription service ties in nicely with my own project to read more books by First Nations writers, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

And finally, this is my contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week (July 3-10, 2022), which coincides with NAIDOC Week, an annual event to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

21 thoughts on “‘Am I Black Enough for You? 10 Years On’ by Anita Heiss”

  1. I love this author to bits. She is brave and strong and funny and wise and an absolute role model for all Australians, not just Indigenous ones.
    But *gulp* 7,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and storytellers! I don’t think my reading list has any hope of keeping up with that!!

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  2. Had a bit of trouble logging in to WordPress, but anyway, I’m really appreciating your raising awareness around Anita Heiss. It sounds like Australia is, dare I say it, making progress. I’ve largely been outside this loop as an non-OZ person…

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    1. Sorry about WP but glad you persevered 😊 Heiss makes some important points about indigenous Americans in this book. She recalls an event she went to in the US where the First Nations country was not acknowledged and she was embarrassed (and angry) about this. In Australia it is now protocol to do an “acknowledgment of country” when speaking publicly, to pay respect to the country you are standing on and its traditional custodians. I hope this book gets published in North America and the UK at some point

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  3. Oh this looks absolutely brilliant and of course NOT AVAILABLE here, how annoying. I can find the original book, a dodgy looking ebook that might or might not be the original or a paperback copy for £50, £30 of which is postage. Hm. I wonder if I can do a swap for any UK book that AUS readers can’t get with you or any of your lovely readers!?

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    1. I’d say give it time. There’s generally a 6 to 12 month time lag (provided UK or World Rights have been sold) before Australian books are published abroad. I’m building a little First Nations library so am holding onto my copy (plus, it’s full of scribbles and sticky notes and not in good shape to swap). Have you tried the Book Depository? Or better still indie bookstore Readings.com.au. They do flat shipping rate to UK (from memory it’s about £15). I used to place an annual order and get three or four books shipped to me at once to make the shipping cost worthwhile. Note that books and postage are expensive here but that £15 fee is a bargain… I pay roughly that same amount just to send presents to family in Melbourne so Readings must have special deal in place.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d forgotten Book Depository and there it is, phew! I wasn’t trying to inveigle your copy off you, by the way, just thought an Aus reader might be having similar woes with UK books! I had forgotten the details of Readings.au which I think you’ve mentioned before, so thank you. I’ve put it on my wish list as I need to get some of the TBR done first, and I’ll have a look and see if it pops up anywhere else, too.

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  4. I wonder if this book will have much traction here in the UK? I suspect not, as even though the issues described are very relevant here, they come under a different guise. I’ll look out for it anyway. It looks interesting and thought provoking.

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  5. I’ve read some Anita Heiss, and in fact I thought I’d read the earlier version of this one. But no. Though her ‘choc.lit’ Not Meeting Mr Right seems at least partly autobiographical. She’s an interesting and thoughtful writer.

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      1. That’s a really thoughtful review of the Miller book – and of course interesting if the young Aboriginal woman ‘is’ Heiss – I have written off and on, especially with Kate W, about the German post-War/post-Holocaust approach to their sins and I think it has a lot to say about how Australians are going to have to deal with the Genocide in our own past (if it is past).

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        1. Thanks, Bill, is one of the books that has stayed with me – not the characters or the actual story, but the ideas presented in it, how genocide is not exclusive to the Germans. I think I have mentioned to you in the past that the Irish have an affinity with Aboriginal Australians too, as they were oppressed by the English, denied their culture and language, removed from their land and systematically starved. I still remember visiting a local graveyard in County Cork and feeling sick when I realised there were no headstones because it was, in fact, a hunger pit or mass grave for famine victims. I’ve been to Auschwitz/Birkenau too — and that experience left a lasting impression. Maybe we need to memorialise the sites of indigenous massacres to get the message across that the same kinds of things have happened here, too?

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          1. There is a memorial for the Cocanarup massacre – The Kukenarup memorial, on the South Coast Highway 15 km west of Ravensthorpe. Kim Scott’s photograph of it heads my post of that name. But that’s the only one I know of, and it’s not obvious driving past though I always look out for it.
            We mostly overlook in Australia that Ireland was an English colony, into the C20th.

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  6. This has clearly been updated significantly – I also read it around the time it came out – as back then there was no “black lives matter” and, as you say, Blak writing has burgeoned significantly since 2012. If anyone had asked me, though, when it came out, I would have said, oh, 5 or 6 years ago, without stopping to think! How time flies, but, really, how wonderful what has been achieved since then.

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    1. There are definitely a lot of references to dates AFTER 2012 so I kind of figure it had been updated quite a bit…and there had to be a reason for the update in the first place – probably to show how far we’ve come but also to highlight that there is still so much left to do. I was thrilled that Anita left me a comment (on my about page) after seeing this review, and she’s tweeted it to all her thousands of followers and put it on her Linked-In page, so my site stats spiked this week! LOL.

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