Intersubjectivity, Whiteness and Race:
Reading Indigenous Life Stories
(with particular reference to Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri’s The Man from the Sunrise Side)

Anne Brewster

In 1992 Mary Louise Pratt defined ‘contact zone’ as ‘the space of colonial encounters’ (6). In talking about ‘the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures’ (7) she foregrounded her interest in the idea that ‘subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other’ (7). This approach challenges the salvage model of postcolonial critical analysis which characterises colonised cultures as passive and past-oriented. It seeks to redefine both colonising and colonised cultures as inventive, open to exchange, modification, borrowing, absorption and transformation by recognising their mutual entanglement. In this article I would like to investigate the relationality of indigene and coloniser as it is performed in the discursive space of the production and consumption of Indigenous literature.

Indigenous intellectual Marcia Langton insists on a recognition of the mutual imbrication of Indigenous and non-Indigenous constituencies within the postcolonial nation. She suggests that Aboriginality (and we might add ‘whiteness’) is the product of an ‘intercultural dialogue’ and the ‘intersubjectivity of black and white’ (1994: 98). Intersubjectivity has become the dominant term for the relationality of indigene and non-indigene in discussions of Indigenous cultural production. In the wider public sphere the intersubjectivity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people was elaborated in the last decade of the twentieth century through the nationalist pedagogical discourse of Reconciliation.1

The relationality of Indigenous and non-Indigenous constituencies within the postcolonial nation in Australia has always been mediated by the discourse of race. Indeed, it is frequently noted that the nation was contracted through the figure of race which throughout its history has been repeatedly mobilised in ongoing reconfigurations of white power. I am undertaking a series of readings of Indigenous literary texts which chart the effects of racialised difference in the production of national imaginaries. I argue that the non-Indigenous project of participating in the circulation of Indigenous texts, debates and agendas within this sphere should be complemented with an analysis of the subject formation of whiteness. Accordingly, we can read Indigenous literary texts in a way which, in Giroux’s words, ‘take[s] a detour through race in order to decide how whiteness might be renegotiated’ (295). Or, to put it another way, we can examine how Indigenous literary texts figure the space of relationality in which racialised subjects and whiteness are conjointly produced.

I’m taking as an exemplar Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri’s recent life narrative The Man from the Sunrise Sidewhich was short-listed in the non-fiction category of the 2002 NSW Premier’s Literary Award. Chalarimeri is a Kwini elder from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I would like to start by making some observations about the first-person narrativity of the life story genre. Many commentators have remarked upon the specific role that autoethnographies play in ethnoracial projects of obtaining for oral narratives the status of history, thereby installing elided and excluded minoritarian narratives of the past within or alongside narratives of global and national formation. Minoritarian autoethnographies are important not only in their role of producing a counter-archive of colonisation but as testimonies of the heroism of Indigenous peoples’ survival and resistance to genocidal management by successive post/colonial governments. (The recent runaway success in Australia of Philip Noyce’s film of Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence,for example, is an index of the contagion of the affective force of the Indigenous heroic mode across multiple public spheres of the nation).

As a number of commentators have remarked, testimony is one of the dominant narrative modes in what has come to be known as the ‘post-traumatic century’ (Felman and Laub, 1), an era marked by various constituencies’ experience of collective trauma following in the wake of large-scale violence, of which colonisation in Australia is one example. According to Felman and Laub, testimony is the narrative genre available to unresolved or fragmented cultural memories that have not been acknowledged or narrativised in formal processes of understanding and remembrance (5). Certainly Australia has a long way to go as a nation in appropriately and formally commemorating its pre- and postcolonial Indigenous history.

Testimony is enabled by the act of listening and Indigenous first-person narratives do the cultural work of convening a cross-racial dialogue. Life story narration is a product of the unfinished business of recent history. The delay in recounting these stories is evidence of the reluctance of non-Indigenous Australians to occupy a shared space of dialogue in which they are the listeners. This move becomes available at specific historical moments. Testimony is always a belated performance, taking place after an historical gap (Felman and Laub, 84). As I have argued elsewhere (Brewster 1995), Sally Morgan’s 1987 landmark auto/biography, My Place, for example, was successful in finding an audience in white Australia precisely because the events of the past were far enough in the past for non-Indigenous Australians not to feel personally implicated in or responsible for the injustices the book so disturbingly documents.

I do not want to imply that the relationship between Indigenous life writing and the past is one of unmediated reflection or mimesis. In my reading of Chalarimeri’s text I want to explore how the unfolding of the past in turn unfolds, in the act of reading, the relationality, that is, the interaffectivity and intercorporeality of Indigenous and non-Indigenous subjects. Life story is the genre which has dominated Indigenous literary production, particularly that of Indigenous women. (Elsewhere I discuss the gendering of this genre [Brewster 1995, 1996] and its embeddedness within the cultural and historical specificity of Indigenous constituencies). One of the specific efficacies of life story narration is its inclusion of the affect that history, for example, has excised from its modes of narration. This is not the only role of inter-generational Indigenous oral and life narration, however, which also has archival and educational significance in its recording of an array of significant information relating to, for example, massacre sites, community interconnections, kinship and the displaced history of the stolen generations.

The Man from the Sunrise Side is an important archival record not only in its documentation of regional Indigenous practices and knowledges, place names and family networks, but in the large range of events and practices relating to the historical management of Indigenous peoples that it records. Many of these events have been displaced from non-Indigenous collective and institutional memory. Consequently, their (re)acquaintance with the history of colonisation in Australia which is, in effect, a history of institutionalized cruelty and torture, is a traumatic experience for non-Indigenous Australians. White readings of Indigenous life stories therefore produce intense affective dispositions such as shame, guilt, grief, defensiveness, anger, despair and ressentiment.


Chalarimeri spent his childhood and adolescence (from the 1940s to the 1960s) in the Benedictine Mission of Kalumburu in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. His book consists largely of a description of life on that Mission but also ranges over events of his adult life. It is a commentary on issues pertinent to the contemporary zone of relationality or Reconciliation. As an archival enterprise it documents the assistance given by Indigenous people to the ‘settlers’. He describes how Indigenous people’s specialised skills made them indispensable as police trackers (33, 91); how their sharing of their knowledge of the land, and their ability to travel through it, made it possible for drovers to plan stock routes and to move their herds of cattle (49) and for non-Indigenous people to move between settlements before the establishment of roads (172); and for the army to relay information via Indigenous messengers during the Japanese bombing of the region (58). Indigenous knowledge and skill were particularly crucial during times of crisis such as the seasonal flooding which made it virtually impossible for non-Indigenous people to survive in the region without the expertise of the Indigenous population (18).

The Man from the Sunrise Sidethus functions to document the unrecognised but foundational role of Indigenous labour and skill in the Kimberley in the establishment of the pastoral and pearling industries and their various support industries. This stockpile of information has different significance for Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences and produces different affective reactions in each in the process of reading. For an Indigenous reader it may confirm a similar, unacknowledged story preserved in familial oral history. For a non-Indigenous reader, on the other hand, it may constitute something of a revelation about a colonial past shrouded in guilty silence and disavowal.

Another of Chalarimeri’s narrative roles is that of advocating for the legal and civil rights of the Indigenous people of the region and compiling a record of the systemic violation of those rights. As an elder with an extensive knowledge of the history of the region, his role is that of bringing to our attention the unfinished business of a social justice agenda — implicating the mission, state and federal governments and a number of non-Indigenous individuals (the naming of whom is an important remedial function of the text). This unfinished business ranges from inhumane treatment of Indigenous people on the mission including physical and psychological brutality (flogging, being threatened with a gun, a woman being tied to a fence, a young boy being chained in a dog collar to a tree); the elision of basic civil rights (the removal of children, the lack of privacy regarding mail); and the breaching of legal rights (no payment for Indigenous labour, shady business deals and the theft of land). There is further unfinished business regarding the state and federal government administration such as police abuse of women; the cruel chaining of Indigenous people who were also forced to travel long distances on foot; pollution and rubbish left by the army; the lawlessness of the police; the use of agent orange for weed control; and the indiscriminate killing of people’s dogs — a vital source of hunting assistance, especially for the elderly.

Chalarimeri’s accounts of the extensive exploitation of Indigenous people’s labour by the church and the state, the lack of regard for these people’s health, their inability to claim insurance or compensation following accidents and death, and the lack of adequate educational and training services, all create a damning picture of systemic abuse deeply (and differently) disturbing for Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers. For the non-Indigenous reader who has not had access to the orality-based knowledge and memory of Indigenous communities these narratives produce a certain degree of shock, a symptom of a discontinuity in the national imaginary regarding the past. Opinion polls commissioned by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1999-2000 indicate the existence of a strenuously maintained psychic boundary quarantining the national past from the ongoing effects of colonisation and dispossession. Comments gleaned from the Newspoll survey, for example, indicate that ‘[non-Indigenous] people accepted [that Indigenous people] had been treated badly in the past but were much more reluctant to acknowledge recent disadvantage’ (Gratton, 33); and that ‘a majority of Australians do not believe there is a link between current disadvantage and the past’ (Gratton, 34). More aphoristically, the Saulwick and Muller Report summarised non-Indigenous people’s belief that ‘the past was past’ (Gratton, 39).

This repudiation both of the continuity and persistence of the ‘past’ in the present and of the ongoing psychic and corporeal racialised interconnectedness of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, is a product of unresolved white anxiety. Prime Minister Howard’s statement that ‘Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control’ (Gratton, 90) clearly articulates the affective politics of white injury and minoritisation. Whiteness, as Howard’s rhetoric demonstrates, has emerged in late twentieth-century Australia as a site of trauma and destabilisation.

The psychic crisis of whiteness is directly engaged with in the public sphere by many Indigenous cultural workers, politicians, community spokespeople, academics and activists. Writing by cultural workers such as Chalarimeri mediates the transition from white postcolonial anxiety to new forms of intersubjectivity through the engagement of reading. These narratives travel into the zone of the intimate subjections of colonial power — into the contradictions, ambivalence and ambiguity of its power-riddled social relations — opening up rather than shutting off this scene of psychic, affective, and corporeal inter-relatedness. Indigenous literary texts, I argue, broker new modes of intersubjectivity and elaborate a space for new formations of anti-racist whiteness.

Life stories draw their power in this enterprise from the textuality of first-person narration. Through the directness and intimacy of this form of interlocution, these texts actively explore the terror of what Pratt calls the ‘contact zone’ and what I am calling the relationality of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This terror is conventionally disavowed, displaced and contained by various technologies mounted as a defense against remembering. Indigenous address brings this space of terror into recognition fleshing it out through the act of imagining the historical and contemporary co-presence and co-habitation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous constituencies within the circumference of the nation.

As I suggest above, although The Man from the Sunrise Side signals its specificity as a personal story, it situates personal memory within the broader ethnical and moral imperatives of the politics of recognition and redistributive justice. The personal address and the political imperatives of this narrative are thus mutually constitutive. An interesting illustration of the intertwining of these two imperatives in the genesis of the text can be seen in the way that the documentary function of the narrative is occasionally interrupted by the conditions of its production, in this case, the collaborative project between Chalarimeri and his non-Indigenous partner, Traudl Tan. Much work on contemporary Indigenous life narratives in the last decade or so investigates the collaborative engendering and discursivity of these texts, situating them within their specific enunciative, social and marketing contexts in an effort to avoid the undesirable consequences of divorcing them from the materiality of their consumption and production and thus depoliticising them. The Man from the Sunrise Side is the product of a series of discussions and taped interviews between Chalarimeri and his partner Traudl Tan, and the reminders that this relationship is the foundational scene of the narrative, break through the text in the form of the occasional direct narratorial address to her in the vocative case. Early on in the narrative an asterisked remark at the bottom of the page glosses Chalarimeri’s phrase ‘when you and I went there…’ by explaining: ‘Ambrose addresses Traudl from time to time’ (10). In the course of the narrative Chalarimeri intermittently and briefly addresses Tan usually to confirm the identity of particular places or events, family connections or a moral/ethical point (136, 163, 178, 206, 224, 225).

These traces of the oral performance of the story remind us of the transactional and transitive nature of storytelling - the fact that it constitutes a social exchange of telling and listening. The original oral performance of the text foreshadows its re-animation in the broader public sphere through the act of reading which convokes Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The intimacy and immediacy of Chalarimeri’s address to his non-Indigenous partner is reproduced in his address to the reader. (I am not arguing for an unmediated intimacy conveyed through the ‘voice’ of a fully present narratorial subject here. Rather I want to suggest that the intimacy of the first-person address positions the reader in a particular way).

The micropolitics of the cross-racial collaborative production of Indigenous life narratives is thus indexical of the racialised intersubjectivity enacted through reading, an (inter)active, generative event. The collaborative relationships which have produced Indigenous life stories range across a broad spectrum of social liaisons which may be ‘professional’ and/or ‘private’. White editors, transcribers and interviewers have had a variety of political investments in these collaborations including political and religious affiliations (eg the Communist Party of Australia and Moral Re-armament).2 Others describe their relationships as ‘personal’ and in terms of friendship. It is also clear that for Indigenous story-tellers and writers the business of getting their life stories into print is a political project; collaboration under these conditions clearly has a professional aspect in which skills and expertise are engaged in order to produce the desired outcome.

No doubt many collaborations have both ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ aspects. The difficulty of separating the two indicates the contrived and unstable nature of the binary. This also pertains to the narrative ‘voice’ in relation to its audience. Elsewhere I have argued that Indigenous life stories are often conceived for several audiences simultaneously, for example that of family members and descendents, and that of the wider non-Indigenous public sphere (Brewster 1995). Narrative ‘identity’ or performance, therefore, is as overdetermined as the polyvalent foldings, decussations and effervescences along the continuously racialised ‘border’ of intersubjectivity, a ‘border’ which, as Taussig suggests, emits rather than contains turbulent social, historical and psychic forces (Alterity, 151).


In this last section I refer to another theorisation of what Pratt called the 'contact zone', namely Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man(1987). In this work on Indian shamans in the upper reaches of the Putumayo in Colombia, Taussig investigates the cultural interaction of poor white colonists and the Indian shamans they go to for healing. Taussig's study is pertinent to my discussion of the zone of racialised intersubjectivity animated in non-Indigenous readings of Indigenous literary texts, as he also investigates cross-cultural dialogue between coloniser and colonised. His discussion, like mine, focusses on the interaffectivity of the racialised exchange of telling and listening. He argues that the Indians, the most oppressed and marginalised people in contemporary Colombian society, are credited with possessing magical power which is then made available to the colonists through an inverted racial contract. The Indians have acquired their status as shamans, Taussig argues, because of their experience of terror and suffering throughout the savage colonial history of Colombia. The redemptive mythology of shamanic healing is the product of a history of colonisation by a Christian culture. The shamans’ magic (and of course Taussig’s anthropology) is a product of this history, being a hybrid of Christian and traditional Indian practices. Taussig does however emphasise that the shamans work ‘against and in combination with … the official discourse of suffering, order and redemption institutionalised by the Church, the state and the culture of terror’ (467). It is not a one-way process where Indian culture is passive, acted upon by forces which are not themselves engaged and modified. In fact these forces have come full circle, as it were, with the poor white colonists seeking redemption at the hands of the colonised indigenes; Taussig describes the encounter of the poor white colonists and the Indian shamans as one in which the shamans ‘heal[ ] the pain in the souls of the civilised’ (328).

Taussig’s study of the postcolonial contact zone in Columbia resonates with contemporary postcolonial Australia where white violence and anxiety is the product of unacknowledged and unresolved guilt and shame over a colonial history of institutionally-sanctioned cruelty and barbarity. In contemporary Australian culture Indigeneity and Indigenous culture are invested with symbolic capital in a way that is analogous to the situation Taussig describes. Indigenous literature capitalises on this symbolic value which enables the brokering, for example, of Reconciliation and new formations of anti-racist whiteness; it mediates white terror through narration in its elaboration of a zone of cross-racial intersubjectivity.

Taussig describes the therapeutic encounter of the shamans and the ailing white colonists in Colombia as a ‘coming together to heal’ (463). While reflexivity within the zone of cross-racial intersubjectivity in Australia does present the opportunity for a psychic shift, movement or refunctioning of non-Indigenous subjectivity, I would not want to invoke the redemptive mythology of healing in this context or suggest that the relationship between Indigenous author and non-Indigenous reader is analogous to that of therapist and patient. Any shift or reconfiguring of non-Indigenous subjectivity can only be provisional. Although I do believe in the political efficacy of a discourse of anti-racism I do not think it is possible for white people to divest themselves of their whiteness once and for all. Racism is a product of social and economic asymmetries, not simply of the psychopathology of national civil life. While the racialised intersubjectivity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people does undoubtedly have a psychic dimension, the latter is determined in the main by socio-economic conditions. While my own project anticipates the possibility of new formations of whiteness I do not share Taussig’s investment in the value of the therapeutic exercise of healing. My methodology is deconstructive, maintaining a skepticism about the possibility of finally dismantling either racism, whiteness or assimilationist instrumentality. Nonetheless, critiques of contemporary configurations of race, whiteness and assimilationism, and a commitment to the ideals of minority cultural rights, anti-racism and redistributive justice, remain indispensable to the field of white readings of Indigenous literature. Redemption narratives, however, run the risk of foreclosing upon an analysis of the ongoing effects and reconfiguration of power asymmetries.

Nonetheless the dynamics of white terror and the intense (inter)affectivity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous constituencies in postcolonial Australia have many similarities with the situation Taussig describes. The coming together of non-Indigenous and Indigenous people produces a dynamic, interactive space of movement and change. It is a psychic touching which brings into play the ambiguous and ambivalent intensities constitutive of colonial power. I suggest that one of the dominant effects of Indigenous address is the defamiliarisation of whiteness. This defamiliarisation can produce the kind of social knowledge which Taussig describes as 'being sensitive to the uncertainties of self in Otherness' (463).

Taussig argues that the colonists of Colombia ‘gain courage from [the Indian shamans’] confluence of strength and fragility’ (210). In reading Indigenous literature and being positioned as receptive listeners we witness the suffering of the indigene and the effects of white terror on their body. Our being interpellated as witnesses has the effect of foregrounding the subjectivity of the indigene, thereby decentering whiteness. It is not exactly a redemptive power we receive in this reversal but the ‘magic’ (to use Taussig’s term) of having our identity made strange. The experience of defamiliarisation shifts us into the space of becoming-subject because the ‘self’ to which we return is not a fixed site. Defamiliarisation reminds us of the inability of identity to remain identical to itself and of the fact that whiteness itself is a zone of indeterminacy and becoming. Whiteness experiences a splitting and doubling. The white subject, for example, can be simultaneously an index and a critic of whiteness. This split whiteness, however, in spite of its knowingness, has difficulty disassociating and extricating itself from the ongoing reconfiguration of white dominance played out in dispositions of desire, disavowal and anxiety.

The effects of our affective imbrication in the racialising of indigenous people are thus, despite our best efforts as white intellectuals, ungovernable, unpredictable and conflictual. In other words, even if we can stand outside our whiteness intellectually, whiteness is something we cannot easily, if ever, divest ourselves of. Nonetheless, the defamiliarisation of whiteness can enable a recognition of our embeddedness within a racialised hierarchy and allow for the possibility of reworking the intense affect of a shamed and traumatised whiteness and of refashioning our ethics of relationality. I don’t want to suggest, therefore, that the indigene can deliver us from whiteness but that the alterity of indigeneity interrupts and refunctions whiteness by reminding us of our own otherness. Alterity, Taussig insists, is a relationship, not a thing (Alterity, 130); a perception of the otherness of the indigene reproduces (our own) otherness. Conversations with Indigenous texts and people will thus always undo, unsettle and deconstruct white identities. Kristeva suggests that ‘recognising the stranger in ourselves we are spared detesting him in himself’ (1). The recognition of our own otherness is the recognition that whiteness is not a stable point of origin but a set of desires and flows of attraction and repulsion displaced onto the phantasmatic racialised body of the other. A recognition of this may in turn work to forestall the violence of domesticating difference and allow us instead to invent new modalities of whiteness which accommodate radical alterity in new social imaginaries and virtual worlds of co-existence and co-habitation.3


1 Reconciliation was inaugurated by the setting up of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation under legislation in 1991 with the aim of improving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The reconciliation process concluded at the Corroboree ceremony at the Sydney Opera House in 2000.
2 See, for example, a discussion of these alliances in a PhD thesis by Jennifer Jones titled ‘Aboriginal Women’s Autobiographical Narratives..’, University of Adelaide 2001.
3 I would like to thank the anonymous reader of this article in its draft form for their insightful comments.


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_____. Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography. Sydney: Sydney University Press in assoc. with Oxford University Press, 1996.

Chalarimeri, Ambrose Mungala. The Man from the Sunrise Side, Broome: Magabala Books, 2001.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, New York: Routledge, 1992.

Giroux, Henry A. ‘Racial Politics and the Pedagogy of Whiteness’, in Whiteness. A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill, New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Gratton, Michelle. Ed. Reconciliation: Essays on Australian Reconciliation. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2000.

Langton, Marcia. ‘Aboriginal Art and Film; the Politics of Representation’, Race and Class, 35 (4), April-June 1994, pp. 75-91.

Morgan, Sally. My Place, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987.

Pilkington, Doris. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, St Lucia: Queensland University Press, 1996.

Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992.
Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study of Terror and Healing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

-----. Mimesis and Alterity, London: Routledge, 1993.