#22 Writing Across Cultures

Pat Lowe migrated to Western Australia in 1972. There she met her partner and Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike. Pat joined him at his desert camp under a tree, and the pair went hunting and collaborated on several books about desert life. It was these books, that Pat shared with us during a workshop I attended at London’s second Australia and New Zealand Literature and Arts Festival.

Telling Other people’s stories: Writing Across Cultures was a great session, considering the ways stories are gathered and rewritten by others. Pat shared her methodology and the difficulties of interpreting someone else’s world for an English-reading audience.

Many of the challenges are the same for artists working with older people in care. That is, does anyone other than that person have a right to tell their story?

Pat believes it was the spirit of the work that matters, the impression of being in the company of those she was writing about, picking up on both verbal and non-verbal aspects. Her aim was to share her understanding of the Aboriginal Australian community she knew. Her books, she says, are accessible. To be so, she chose not to write in dialect but to ‘translate’ the language for readers. For her, it was important to show the eloquence of Jimmy and his family.

There are many ethical questions about the role of artists working within a community. Should Pat have only used Jimmy’s words in her books? On the one hand, people’s stories were mediated through the lens of another. What might have been lost in that process?

On the other hand, her training as a psychologist gives great confidence in her judgment, and in the 1970s and 80s she was one of the few white Australians producing work with indigenous Australians so her work had enormous social value. Plus, her books were used in WA schools to share details of Aboriginal culture and promote understanding.

Food for thought.