The On Country Reading Group grew out of the Reconciliation Reading Group. Ellen D was the organiser of the Reconciliation Reading Group which held its meetings at the Baillieu Library at The University of Melbourne. Ellen developed her list of books to be read in consultation with local Aboriginal elders and leaders. The Reading Group was a part of Melbourne University’s Reconciliation Action Plan. However, at the end of 2016, the Reading Group was discontinued as it was no longer funded. Ellen also had other things to work on and enjoy.
After having come back from The Netherlands to Australia in June 2016, I was looking for a way to structure my engagement with ‘Aboriginal Australia’. I wanted to not only become more informed about Aboriginal Australia, but to do so in an informal manner. The Reconciliation Reading Group was my first step in this process. ‘Reconciliation’ has long been a commonly invoked word in regards to contemporary Australian politics: it is given national importance and priority. It is about being equal and egalitarian and acknowledging our shared history. Yet, the term has lost some degree of currency and has come to mean the placating of more strident assertions of Indigenous sovereignty over the Continent.
In late 2016, Stan Grant gave the Naarm Oration at The University of Melbourne. Coincidentally, I saw three other friends at the talk: Tim and his girlfriend and also Gerald from the Asia Institute. Although I had seen Tim and Gerald in the lead up to the event, none of us had shared that we were going to the Naarm Oration. It seemed that we all shared a basic interest in Aboriginal Australia even though it wasn’t a part of our professional, working lives. Soon after, Gerald and myself started to plan a new reading group for 2017.
The first book we read was Mark Moran’s book, Serious Whitefella Stuff (Melbourne: MUP Press, 2016). This book was of interest for it showed the failure of policy ‘on the ground’ and also the way in which Indigenous communities appropriated programs to their own needs. We decided to call our little nascent book club the Serious Whitefella Reading Group: definitely a cumbersome name, but one we thought contained a degree of irony. It was a name which conveyed the sense amongst some people that whitefellas tend to overstate their ability to improve the lot of blackfellas while ignoring the fact that they’re (we’re) the problem.
In 2018, I came up with a different name: On Country Reading Group. This name seeks to assert that we are on someone else’s Country whether we know it or not; and whether or not we acknowledge it. We believe that being on someone’s Country, and benefitting from being on it, is a privilege that should be respected. Reading is a small part of the process of learning of our implications in Aboriginal dispossession and the failure to extricate ourselves from colonising practices.
Our little Reading Group chooses books to read from one meeting to the next. We all have a say in which book we will read next – although, I often end up making the final decision, as I’m sort of doing the administration. We read non-fiction and fiction; academic and non-academic titles; texts by Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples; women and men. We seek to maintain a balance in the kinds of books we read.
This is a small group: there are only about 12 people on the email list. Over the last couple of months I have started to send out emails about twice a month containing relevant links to articles or events. Mostly these links are to do with Aboriginal culture or with efforts at coming to terms with our history. I often use The Guardian (with articles by contributors from IndigenousX, but also regularly Paul Daly), The Conversation, and also publishers such as Magabala, AITSIS Press, or clips from YouTube. Although this is not a particularly chatty email list, over time more and more users are sharing links to articles or events.
The book club involves a negotiation of community. We set up this group strictly with the intention of it being both offline and privileging the position of books. It would similarly be possible to set up a club based around Indigenous music or film, or indeed, some kind of club that incorporates all three elements. We do not have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. Most of us only ever see each other at the book club meetings. That the group is small allows everyone to have a say during our discussions. Meeting face-to-face is a means to balance our on-line social practices with those done IRL.