Heiss maintains the rage
Author Anita Heiss. Picture: Amanda James.

"The assumption is that the blacker you are, the poorer, needier and more disadvantaged you are — and the less educated you are," Anita Heiss rants down the phone, having found time in her hectic schedule for a chat.

"We had a civil rights movement in this country so we would be able to have jobs, have education and live like other Australians — but when we go and do those things and make use of the basic human rights it's like, you can't possibly be Aboriginal any more because you're healthy and you’ve got a job and a degree."

If Heiss sounds a bit aggravated — well, she is. The charismatic Sydney academic and writer is tired of being amid the storm of controversy which has hounded her ever since she took on controversial News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt in the courts.

In April 2009, Bolt had published a series of articles in which he criticised "fair skinned Aborigines" — including Heiss — of choosing to identify as Aboriginal to gain economic advantage.

As well as incorrectly asserting that her mother was only "part Aboriginal", Bolt suggested that Heiss had "won plum jobs reserved for Aborigines at Koori Radio, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and Macquarie University's Warawara Department of Indigenous Studies".

Heiss, a successful author and teacher with a PhD, was outraged — and so were others named in the reports. In 2010, a nine-strong group led by Aboriginal activist Pat Eatock launched a class action against Bolt and the Herald and Weekly Times in the Federal Court — and won.
On September 28 last year, Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act with articles reasonably likely to offend light-skinned Aboriginal people and ordered that a correction be published.

She was already well known in Sydney literary circles but the case catapulted Heiss into national prominence as a blistering debate about rights to free speech raged on.

Today, the burden of that court battle and its aftermath still weighs heavy — she is still regularly attacked by internet "trolls" — but she says she would have hated herself if she stayed silent.

For her, it was the last straw in a long history of negative stereotyping of Aboriginal people in the media, the lack of opportunity for a fair response to "appalling journalism" and the importance that rights to Aboriginal self-identification be upheld.

"As individuals, we could have sued for defamation to clear our professional names... but I was more concerned about the greater consequences of the kind of journalism that I'd been targeted with and the impacts on the greater community," she says.

"It was never about money. It was about morals, ethics and integrity in writing — the expectation from readers in Australia that when they pick up the newspaper, that they're reading facts — not opinion dressed up as facts."

As the trial began, Heiss had been picking away at her memoirs — and as the debate about Aboriginal identity reached fever pitch, she was spurred to finish it. Since reaching adulthood, she had wrestled more with other people's questions about identity than her own. Raised by a loving family, the "proud Wiradjuri woman" had never questioned her Aboriginality growing up.

"All my life, I was the Aboriginal kid, the brown kid, the dark one — then at 41, I open the newspaper one day and all of a sudden I'm the white one," she said.

"In one breath, whitefellas will say you're an abo, a boong, a lazy black or whatever — and in the next breath they'll take half your identity away by calling you a half-caste."

Heiss had already tried to depict the experience of urban young Aboriginal women in a series of "choc-lit" novels: Not Meeting Mr Right, Avoiding Mr Right and Manhattan Dreaming. In doing so, she says she specifically wanted to write the Aboriginal women she knew into Australian literature and engage (18 to 45-year-old women who "may never have engaged with Aboriginal people in any way, shape or form".

"We're just human beings... we fall in love, we fall out of love, we have careers, families and responsibility and political minds," she says. "But there's other levels of complexity, where we are expected to give back to our communities, break down stereotypes and lift our people up with us when good things happen."

In her often hilarious memoir, Am I Black Enough For You?, Heiss describes herself as a "concrete Koori with Westfield dreaming" who hates camping and loves shopping. She points out that her story does not begin in the desert and there are no didgeridoos and dot paintings.

"I apologise to no-one," she writes. "I'm not very good at playing the clap sticks either and I loathe sleeping outdoors."

Heiss would never dream of changing her Teutonic name — "Heiss is German for hot" she laughs — but says she is still an Aboriginal person. Just not the kind some people expect her to be.

Heiss says the title was not a response to Bolt, but a challenge to Australians to consider their own interpretations of Aboriginal identity.

But after yet another internet backlash from trolls which followed the book's April release and Bolt's complaints that he dared not comment on it, Heiss disappeared for a few weeks, exhausted and dispirited.

She has resurfaced again now more energised than ever, buoyed by the positive feedback to her story.

These days, she refuses to focus on the detractors, rather blogging regularly about her gratefulness for her life.

A keen educator who regularly visits schools, Heiss says she also penned the book in the hopes of teaching young people about the changing face of Aboriginal Australia.

"I go into schools and I'll say to teenagers, 'Where do you think the bulk of indigenous Australia lives' and they'll say in the desert," she says. "Actually, one third of our people live in urban centres.

"The reason they don't know this is because there's no stories about this: we don't appear in Home and Away and Neighbours as normal people who live in normal situations.

"We're only ever sold in storylines living this exotic or poor life. But we are like every other society — we evolve and we change and we grow and learn to adapt."

"I think in some way it gives people an affirmation of who they are — that you can live in the city, you can wear lipstick, be an individual and still be a strong Aboriginal person."

Anita Heiss will be in Broome from August 3 to 5 as a guest speaker at Broome's inaugural writers' festival, Corrugated Lines: A festival of words. Am I Black Enough For You? (Bantam, $34.95).

The West Australian

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