Psuedonyms: Colin Johnson; Mudrooroo Narogin. Nationality: Australian (Aboriginal Australian: Nyoongah). Born: Colin Thomas Johnson, in East Cuballing, Western Australia, 21 August 1938. Education: Clontarf, Boys Town, Perth, 1950s; Murdoch University, Perth; Melbourne University, Perth, 1985–87, B.A. (honors) 1987. Family: Lives with Janine Mary Little since 1993. Career: Lecturer, University of Northern Territory, Darwin, 1987; lecturer, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1988. Since 1991 chair, Aboriginal Studies, Murdoch University, Perth; co-founder, Aboriginal Oral Literature and Dramatists Association. Awards: Western Australia Premier's prize for poetry and most outstanding entry, 1992. Member: Australian Society of Authors; Aboriginal Oral Literature and Dramatists Association. Agent: David Grossman Literary Agency Ltd., 118B Holland Park Avenue, London W11 4UA, England.
The Song Circle of Jackie. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1986.
Dalwurra. Nedlands, University of Western Australia Press, 1988.
The Garden of Gethsemane: Poems from the Lost Decade. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1991.
Pacific Highway Boo-Blooz: Country Poems. St. Lucia, Queensland, University of Victoria Press, 1996.
The Mudrooroo/Mueller Project. Sydney, New South Wales University Press, 1993.
Wildcat Falling (as Colin Johnson). Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1965.
Long Live Sandaware (as Colin Johnson). Melbourne, Hyland House, 1979.
Doin Wildcat. Melbourne, Hyland House, n.d.
Master of the Ghost Dreaming. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1991.
Wildcat Screaming. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1992.
The Kwinkan. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1993.
Undying. North Ryde, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1998.
Underground. Pymble, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1999.
Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1990.
Aboriginal Mythology. London, Aquarian/Harper Collins, 1994.
Us Mob: History, Culture, Struggle: An Introduction to Indigenous Australia. Sydney, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1995.
Indigenous Literature of Australia. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, 1997.*
Manuscript Collection: The Baytte Library, Perth.
Critical Studies: Mudrooroo: A Critical Study by Adam Shoemaker, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1993; "The Novels of Mudrooroo" by Bill Perrett, in Critical Survey (Oxford), 6(1), 1994; interview with Susanne Bau, in Antipodes (Brooklyn, New York), 8(2), December 1994; "Mastering Ceremonies: The Politics of Ritual and Ceremony in Eleanor Dark, Rudy Wiebe and Mudrooroo" by Penny Van Toorn, in ANZSC, 12, December 1994; "Mudrooroo: The Politics of Aboriginal Performance and Aboriginial Sovereignty" by Bill Dunstone, in Post-Colonial Stages: Critical and Creative Views on Drama, Theatre and Performance, edited by Helen Gilbert, London, Dangaroo, 1999.* * *
Mudrooroo, who previously published under the name Colin Johnson and who also has used the name Mudrooroo Narogin, first gained recognition in 1959 as a talented beginner in writing drama. Since then he has become an impressive writer of fiction, leading off with a novel of modern urban Aboriginal youth, and he has pioneered the literary expression of an Aboriginal point of view on centrally important historical events—the war against whites waged by a Western Australian Aboriginal leader and the near genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines. Always a polemicist but also the writer of a scholarly study of modern Aboriginal literature, he began to publish poetry only in the late 1980s.
Mudrooroo's first publication of poetry in book form, The Song Circle of Jacky, uses "Jacky" as a generic name (a name much applied to Aborigines by whites too imperious to bother learning Aboriginal names) for the modern, observant Aborigine, who is probably Mudrooroo himself. Jacky has views on U.S. highways and on invasive wars resisted by civil terrorism. He also witnesses Aboriginal suffering of many kinds, including death in prison, and urges land and other rights. A jaunty poem fantasizes the sale "lock, stock and Aborigines, / Of Australia to GMH in the interests / Of all-round prosperity plus the curbing of inflation, / And the paying of an army of anti-terrorist squads / Armed to the teeth to fight an opposition yet to appear."
Mudrooroo's shorter-lined verse recalls Oogeroo's work, but whereas she often used simple rhyming forms, he has chosen mostly to be free of such formality. The verse is pedestrian, but its straightforward and sometimes trenchant wording, with ringing or pathetic repetitions, makes it easily accessible. As in "Song Thirty," Jacky the initiated, Jacky the kurdaitcha man, is also a teacher:
What's a Naboriginal?...
Mummy, do you know about the Unguru?
Said it was a great big snak;
Said it strick when it was hurt;
Said that it was hurting now—
Mummy, I'm too scared to cry,
I don't want our land to die.'
Jacky smiles, he's getting through.
Dalwurra, published in 1988 (the bicentenary of white settlement in Australia), contains the map, in the idiom of an Aboriginal drawing, of a trip to Singapore, Calcutta, New Delhi, Madras, London, and other places. The traveler is the Black Bittern, Dalwurra, of the title, and the forty-four poems of the ancestral being's journey (the black bittern is a nonmigratory bird) duplicate Mudrooroo's travels and show his anguish at unwelcome encounters and reminders of racial oppression.
The tagging of exotic animals to represent outside peoples in contact with Dalwurra is interesting, but it certainly needs the explanations given in the book's introduction. Indians going to London to live are characterized as Peacock "selling the wings, / Selling the tail feathers, / Buying the ticket, / Creating the luck, / Dyeing his tail feathers white, / Practising: / The rain in Spain falls mainly on London town." Blackbird is a victimized black man in London. Mole is a reflection on the Underground ("The red snouted one / Snuffles itching claws, / The red-clawed one / Tumbles redlidded eyes / Blind to the sight, / Blind to the light …"). The end poems about the Black Bittern ("indigo-maroon") in its habitat are touching and beautiful, and they use the repetitions typical of song cycles, as in "Home":
Wandering the beaches and creeks,
Wandering the beaches and creeks searching,
Searching for fish, searching the shoreline,
As one of a flock, as one of a flock...
Had there even been a time of indigo-maroon?
And then his feet stamp out the log-coffin of sweet honey
Residing, residing in the time of indigo-maroon.
Along with earlier pieces, Mudrooroo's selected poems, The Garden of Gethsemane: Poems from the Lost Decade, includes several extensive groups. Mudrooroo is a versatile poet, and he sees the necessity for the description of natural phenomena in the Aboriginal mode, as in "Lightning":
Dunno who he was, that brother with the hammer
With the mallet in his fist, just a brother...
Namaragan, sweep us together in your lightning flashes,
Namaragan, as my clapsticks mark out the rhythm
Your hammer crashes and in the wind spirit child
Out the consternation of their line, of our line, of your line.
Mudrooroo writes strong political poems, including those that protest injustice against or the misery of deprived Aborigines and others of reconciliation, as well as personal and sensuous poems. He has seen the need for an exemplary writer, and he has taken on the task himself. As readers accustom themselves to Mudrooroo's view of the world and to the references in his poems, they come to admire the concept and to treasure the best poems as extensions of the Aboriginal oral tradition. Such readers can only celebrate the making of a poet in full view, for Mudrooroo is certainly one of the finest writers in Australia and arguably one of a handful of the most significant.
At the time of the publication of Pacific Highway Boo-Blooz in 1996, Mudrooroo's personal history received great publicity when it was revealed that his ancestry was not part Aboriginal but Jamaican Creole. His personal upbringing, however, which so greatly influenced his acceptance and understanding of Aboriginality, remained unchanged. This included his formative early experiences in school, orphanage, and prison, where his Aboriginality was unquestioned. Pacific Highway Boo-Blooz uses country-and-western song contours to evoke life on the margins of society and along the "dole paradise" of Queensland's Pacific beaches. Mudrooroo has probably done more to instill an Aboriginal consciousness in Australian writing than any other practitioner. Conditioning can be as powerful a formative element in a person's experience as genetics.