In Writing Never Arrives Naked, Penny van Toorn engages our minds and hearts. Her academically innovative book reveals the resourceful and often poignant ways that Indigenous Australians involved themselves in the coloniser’s paper culture. The first Aboriginal readers were children stolen from the clans around Sydney Harbour. The first Aboriginal author was Bennelong—a stolen adult.
From the early years of colonisation, Aboriginal people used writing to negotiate a changing world, to challenge their oppressors, protect country and kin, and occasionally for economic gain. Disrupting conventional beliefs, van Toorn notes that shortly after settlement Aboriginal people were exchanging written texts as curiosities, and integrating letters of the alphabet into their graphic traditions. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Aboriginal people played key roles in translating the Bible, and made their political views known in community and regional newspapers. They also sent numerous letters and petitions to political figures, including Queen Victoria.
Penny van Toorn challenges the established notion that the coloniser’s written culture superseded Indigenous oral cultures. Rather, she argues, Indigenous communities developed their own cultures of reading and writing, which involved a complex interplay between their own social protocols and the practices of literacy introduced by the British.