Articles

Professor Sally Morgan: the importance of stories.

30th September 2004

Blanch Lake was the Aboriginal Information & Liaison Officer at Arts Law

Born in Perth, Western Australia, the eldest of five children, Sally Morgan was fifteen when she learnt that she and her sister were Aboriginal, descendants of the Palku people of the Pilbara.

Her most famous book, My Place is the story of her recognising her Aboriginal heritage and her quest for identity. It tells the story of her self-discovery through reconnection with her Aboriginal culture and community. This, her most influential work, has been a model for other Indigenous writers.

Sally is an artist of international repute. Her artwork is held in numerous private and public collections in Australia and the United States, including the Australian National Gallery and the Dobell Foundation collection. Her work as an artist is excellently described and illustrated in the book The Art of Sally Morgan.

As part of the celebration in 1993 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her print Outback was selected by international art historians as one of 30 paintings and sculptures for reproduction on a stamp representing an article of the Declaration.

Of course Sally is perhaps even better known as a writer. In addition to My Place, she has published a second book for adults, Wanamurraganya:The Story of Jack McPhee, and numerous children's books, including Little Piggies, Pet Problem, Just A Little Brown Dog, Dan's Grandpa and In Your Dreams.  Her play Sistergirl, has been produced by Black Swan Theatre and was first performed at the Festival of Perth 1992.

Sally completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Western Australia in 1974. She also has post-graduate diplomas from the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University of Technology) in Counselling Psychology and Computing and Library Studies. Currently, Sally is a Professor at the Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts, the School of Indigenous Studies, at the University of Western Australia.

Blanch Lake: How did you become interested/involved in writing?

Sally Morgan:I did not have a natural interest, but as a child I loved to read. I think it actually started by what had happened to my family. I had to tell my family's story, that's what gave me the drive. Otherwise I would have not taken writing up, as it was never an ambition of mine.

BL: What are your motivations for writing?

SM:Now I am interested in writing, I see it as a vehicle to give people a voice, for people to be heard, a vehicle that can tell our family stories and give a deeper balance and insight into the past as well as the present. I have been helping people to tell their stories. The last 8 years I have been working with other Indigenous people and have been doing editorial work for oral history projects, which have been published as community resources.

BL: How important do you think it is to use Aboriginal traditional knowledge in writing?

SM:I think people share what they feel happy and comfortable with, what fits in with each group's cultural protocols and sensitivities. Because of the diversity of our communities people share knowledge and experience that is appropriate to them as an individual or community. It's important that communities have the power to control the rights to their own cultural knowledge.

BL: Do you think Indigenous writers have impacted on the Australian writing scene? 

SM:Yes, because Indigenous writers are providing an alternative voice to mainstream society and history. Indigenous people are able to tell their own views of history. That is important for the wider community to read and understand, particularly in light of such debates as for example, the Keith Windschuttle debate.

BL: What is your most prized work and why?

SM:My Place –because it tells the story of family and Wanamurraganya, my grandfather's story because it further extends that history. I think both books have also encouraged other people to tell their stories of their families.

BL: What are you working on at the moment?

SM:I work at the School of Indigenous Studies (University of Western Australia). I work in the area of oral history and we are involved in community projects based around oral history and also art exhibitions and public forums. In my spare time I am writing a trilogy of three historical novels. They examine the life of one woman and how the legislation specifically for Aboriginal people in Western Australia impacts on her life. This story is fictitious, but I have drawn from actual experiences and also key historical figures in WA.

BL: What other opportunities have you seen emerge from your writing?

SM:It has given me the opportunity to work with other Indigenous writers and communities, who want to tell their stories. I love to sit around and yarn about the past with the old people. I have done some travel but I always get homesick, except if I'm out bush, then it's never long enough.

BL: Do you have a favourite Indigenous writer?

SM:There are a lot of Aboriginal writers in Western Australia, so many of us have worked together at one time or another. We like to sit around and have a joke together. I do read a wide range of Indigenous writers' work, as many as I can. I am interested in what other writers have to say. So it's hard for me to say I have a favourite. I think everyone offers something different.

BL: Have you won any awards for your work?

SM:I won the Human Rights Award in 1989. That was for my work on Wanamurraganya, which was based on Jack McPhee from the Pilbara, who was my grandfather. I am very, very proud of that work.

BL: What would you like to say to Indigenous Australians with a story to tell?

SM:I would like to encourage Indigenous people to tell their stories, whether its through writing or painting or dance, music or theatre. Our stories are important, the more stories the better. We can all learn from each other, and it helps to build the bigger picture.

BL: Thank you Sally for sharing your time and your writer's life with us, we wish you the best of luck with your new work.