Protocols, Political Correctness and Discomfort Zones: Indigenous Life Writing and Non-Indigenous Editing

By McDonnell, Margaret | Hecate, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Protocols, Political Correctness and Discomfort Zones: Indigenous Life Writing and Non-Indigenous Editing


McDonnell, Margaret, Hecate


The emergence of the genre of autobiographical writing by Indigenous Australian women, often categorised as life writing, is a distinctive phenomenon of the Australian publishing scene of the past thirty-five years. It has particular implications for the role of the editor, particularly when the editor is non-Indigenous. In this event, the work of editing becomes an exercise in cross-cultural communication and negotiation. Using my experience of editing women's life writing, including Ruth Hegarty's Is That You, Ruthie? and Bittersweet Journey, this paper examines the various roles of the editor of this writing, the problems of authorisation and negotiation in bringing the life story to publication, the constraints and the opportunities which life writing offers Indigenous women in Australia now, and the distinctive style and voice of Indigenous writing. It also considers the categorisation of autobiographical narratives, and the issues that an editor of cross-cultural work must consider, and concludes by proposing some protocols that may be useful for the editing of these texts.

I refer to 'life writing' rather than 'autobiography' because of the preconceptions surrounding the literary form of 'autobiography'. Because the choice of genre category influences how a manuscript is edited, how it and the resulting book are read, and how the book is marketed, the choice is both important and political. Aileen Moreton-Robinson favours the term 'life writings' because of the collaborative and 'fundamentally social' aspects of the life experience described. Gillian Whitlock highlights the disagreements around definition, due to the acceptance of the term 'autobiography' for texts that 'present the self in terms of the classic autobiographic narrative of individualism'. Whitlock notes the perceived advantages--the 'introduc[tion of] cultural and historical specificity' and the disadvantages--'reinforce[ment of] the xenophobia in the users of the term "autobiography"' of this approach. (1) Carole Ferrier argues for life writings to be read as novels because that 'allows them to make an intervention into the ... field [of literature]. She argues further that such reading could lead to 'recognition of the distinctiveness and the complexity of [the writers'] voices' and to 'a degree of attention to their style, language and form that would not be usual if they were read as history'. (2) I use the term 'life writing' precisely because of its cultural specificity. As most editors are women, and the writers I refer to are women, I use feminine pronouns throughout.

First, I will put the production of a book into some perspective. The end result of a complex industrial process, a book is both a cultural item and an item of commerce, and there is a tension between the cultural and economic manifestations. A book is also a product of the time and the particular milieu in which the manuscript was created and the book itself was manufactured (because a manuscript is not a book, it is merely the raw material for the process that produces books). Not only is the book itself a product of time and place, so too are its readers and the way the book is read and critiqued.

Between the writer and the reader the manuscript passes through a number of hands and processes: one of the most important of these (because of the power involved) is the editor. This nexus between editor and writer is where the manuscript is manipulated into a book: it is developed, changed, appropriated and/or censored. At this intersection of author and editor there is a professional relationship that often becomes a personal one; but there is also another intersection--the one that exists between editor and publisher; this is the institutional context in which the editor is working. The tensions between these two points of intersection are often displayed in the situation of the editor: whether she is employed by the author as some sort of collaborator, or a freelancer or in-house editor employed directly by the publisher. …

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