Mudrooroo: Crafty Impostor or Rebel with a Cause?

Article excerpt

Impostures succeed because, not in spite, of their fictitiousness. They take wing with congenial cultural fantasies. Impostors persevere because any fear they may have of being discovered is overshadowed by their dread of being alone. (Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy 71)

HILLEL Schwartz defines imposture as 'the compulsive assumption of invented lives' and impersonation as 'the concerted assumption of another's public identity' (72). This is not to say that one cannot be at once an impostor and an impersonator: the best impersonators are surely the impostors whose secrets we know nothing of. That we 'know them not' is precisely because they are able to manipulate identities that are recognised by others. Imposture is not a state achieved by an individual, but is dependent for its success upon the society in which it is practised and authenticated. Contemporary attempts to understand the subject in terms of authenticity have, however, become as complicated and controversial as its antithesis, imposture. This paper considers the ways in which Australia's racialised social order permitted the writer Mudrooroo to 'pass' as Indigenous, and to gain recognition as the first Aboriginal novelist. Whilst it is not my intention to dwell on already published biographical material, (1) some details are offered in an effort to contextualise my argument that reception is as significant to imposture as the performance itself.

In a time defined by the search for distinctiveness and self-fulfilment, authenticity is a concept that carries with it, in Nick Groom's words, 'the conceits of genius, creativity and especially that of originality' (293). Yet, as Groom also points out, it is the hunger for authenticity that gives rise to falsehood and fraudulence. Australia has had its share of writers and artists who have deployed acts of imposture as the means of legitimising their projects: Banumbir Wongar was recognised internationally as an Amhem Land Aboriginal writer, but proved to be Streten Bozic, a Serbian immigrant to Australia; Indigenous novelist Wanda Koolmatrie was unveiled as Leon Carmen, a white Australian male (see Nolan in this volume); and Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup was the creation of the late Elizabeth Durack. These impostures refer to non-Aboriginals passing as Aboriginals. A longing for the sense of community, spirituality and belonging often associated with Aboriginality is not unknown in modern Australian society. Robert Beardwood observes that 'in the last decade--certainly since the Mabo High Court decision and the subsequent Native Title Act in 1993--non-Aboriginal Australian claims-to-place have been expressed in terms of what is felt to be lacking: a feeling of belonging to legitimate place within the nation which transcends material or legal property relations' (10). It seems peculiar nevertheless that the wish to 'become' Aboriginal should so often manifest itself in non-Aboriginals involved in the arts. As Ken Gelder remarks, however, this particular Australian curiosity 'has its own quirky genealogy-stretching back to fantasies about 'white blackfellows' in the 1930s and 1940s, in art and, in particular, in poetry' (1). Speaking in the context of what he calls white culture's tendency towards one-sidedness, Gelder argues that 'by taking out the 'non-' from 'non-Aboriginal', these writers [and artists] want settler Australians not only to become indigenous but to supplant Aboriginal people in the process' (2; emphasis in original). In this scenario, 'Aboriginal people remain Aboriginal, but settlers become indigenous' (1), a form of displacement that invokes the colonial paradigm of possession through dispossession. Gelder's view helps to explain why a number of Aboriginal Elders and intellectuals regard such misappropriation in the arts as cultural theft fuelled by feelings of white guilt, rather than by remorse or a wish to right past wrongs.

As is widely known, the award-winning writer Mudrooroo is also believed by some to have assumed an Aboriginal identity as a way of legitimising his creative output. …