Golden Emu: Notes on a Hoax

Michael Connor

Contributing editor

It began here. Bruce Pascoe was thirty-four, he had been a country high school teacher and was working as an Education Department bureaucrat in Carlton when he received his first newspaper headline and a four-word review: “The man’s a charlatan!” The insightful summing up was given by the King Island News—which deserves an entry in any future history of the Dark Emu hoax.

It was 1982, and after a short summer holiday on King Island, Pascoe published an essay in the Age on the island, its people and its sheep. It was where he had spent a lonely childhood and it had not been forgiven. His lecturing tone was not as successful with adult islanders as it had been with classroom-confined adolescents (who had no choice) or as it would later be when a red headband came out of the dress-ups box.

In the 1950s his father, Alf Pascoe, worked on the island, first at the tungsten mine and then as a storekeeper. He was also elected to the local council—but the island held no happy memories for his son. It had “always been a poor place”:

The structures of human habitation are almost completely ugly. Most of the houses are unpainted and nearly all are of fibro-cement sheet. The land does not yield enough to justify more permanent homes … The tenuous grasp of human settlement and the broken ribs of the wreck of ships are indications of a battle in the balance … If your sheep are not dying of cold …

Poor Grassy was considered and discarded: “It must be one of the most bleak and ugly mining towns on the face of the Earth.”

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A self-dramatising narrative has always been part of being Bruce Pascoe: “In the first days of 1982 I walked the beaches and cliffs of rock once again and looked west and wondered at the despair of the first ship-wrecked men and women.” Locals read his words and recalled the fine sunny summer weather and glimpses of Pascoe and a companion walking hand in hand on the beaches, but perhaps he had been reading Emily Brontë:

Vegetation just doesn’t survive the perils of the weather here, and the darkness of the place causes the heart to constrict … Under these circumstances you would expect the people of the island to be blunt, mute creatures, but they are evidence of the resilience of the human animal.

Where modern visitors and tourist blogs describe “lush pastures and a temperate climate”, Pascoe discerned misery caused by the dreaded colonials:

The general appearance of their island has been made poor and drear as a result of careless clearing by the original settlers, who, like all mainland settlers, completely misunderstood the manner of farming required for this new land. Rapacious burning clearing resulted in many areas of heavier soils; on this sandy isle, loss of topsoil and the shelter of the forests altered the ability of the land to produce. Most of the sheep and cattle are evidence of these poor conditions.

Readers surely yearned for some un-rapacious firestick farming to make things right.

His mother was evoked, though not her bad health and deteriorating eyesight. The child who seemingly observed her so minutely had been aged from three to ten years at the time:

Once my mother sank her determined teeth into the task of living on the island she developed a fixation with the kitchen window which looked west across the desolate sea. With her hands lost in the dishwater, she would gaze and gaze at the ocean of unimaginable ferocity and brutishness. It was a mean savanna of white caps that lured and seduced the eye. It was like loving a devil.

Locals unsportingly remembered which house the Pascoe family had occupied and that it had only a distant view of the sea. The King Island News editor was helpful:

May we suggest Mr Pascoe finds out in which direction the kitchen window did face, and start again from there.

The newspaper printed letters from their readers that the Age refused to publish; Mr Pascoe replied and threatened lawyers.

Portrait of a Celt. The following year, 1983, Pascoe set up his own publishing venture, Australian Short Stories. In the Canberra Times when publicising the venture Patrick Connelly described the Education Department employee and future Aboriginal elder as “a russet-bearded Celt who prefers to compose prose and poetry while digging fence postholes”. Pascoe was pleased his magazine was being printed in Maryborough, Victoria: “That should be a good omen for the project. Maryborough is the place where the Pascoes have lived for generations. It’s almost an ancestral seat.” And a place to which none of his supposed Aboriginal tribes are connected. He also recalled his childhood on King Island, “where his father carried on the mining traditions of Cornish forebears by working as a carpenter in the tungsten diggings”.

Black blood. For Gone Bush, a collection of essays edited by Roger McDonald in 1990, Pascoe contributed an essay titled “Middens”. It begins with the recent death of his father and deals with Cape Otway. It is in this essay that he makes what may be his first published claim of Aboriginality when he writes of “My little bit of black blood struggling in its chamber of Cornish muscle.” His mother later wrote that it was “Around this time Bruce discovered there was an Aboriginal connection in the family.” In a different version Pascoe himself has said (the story changes) that a truck-driving uncle had told him of the family’s Aboriginal connections in his teens and that his grandmother was angry when he repeated this to her. Possibly she was not hiding family secrets but annoyed at her silly son for telling silly stories to her credulous grandson. The Pascoe Aboriginal story is never stable and swings about to suit the fantasy of the moment.

The Canberra Times reviewer Ian Warden was unimpressed:

Almost everything benefits from having nothing said or written about it, and I think that Cape Otway should have been saved from Bruce Pascoe’s prose, wetter still than the waters of the Cape itself … “We are pelagic,” gushes Bruce. “Our eyes are constantly on the sea and we take our sustenance from her. We are sea creatures. Water on the brain. A wet imprint in our genes. A sea synapse.” These sentiments were better and less pretentiously expressed by the author of the popular ditty O I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside!

Ground zero of a hoax. The Broome publishing company Magabala Books is responsible for issuing Dark Emu and validating Bruce Pascoe’s claims of Aboriginality. Magabala is a strange publishing company for it seems to have no working heart in Broome, yet this is what they claim: “Magabala’s commitment to developing new and emerging Indigenous writers, illustrators and one-time storytellers, sets us apart from other publishers. Our program of professional development is unparalleled in the industry.” This suggests a vital indigenous working team of, at the very least, black editors and book designers and marketing staff—and, after all the ink that has been used talking of the importance of “country” they should all live in the Kimberley, but this does not seem to be the case. Understandably the books are warehoused and distributed to bookshops through a Sydney publisher, but the creativity should be in Broome.

Over the years since publishing began in 1987 the books produced have become much more professional-looking but this appears to have happened not through training and then employing young Aborigines but by contracting skilled white designers and publishing professionals in places far from Broome. This is what they say:

A lot has changed since our beginnings over three decades ago—in technology, in the industry and in national reception—but our longstanding vision to ensure Indigenous people control their own stories and that the benefits flow back to the right people, still stands—and is as important now as ever.

But this is how Dark Emu was published:

2014: The first edition of Pascoe’s book was called Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? The book was designed by Tracey Gibbs, featured a cover photo by Pascoe’s wife Lyn Harwood, and was printed in China. A line illustration of yam and tuber used in the book, by Adelaide academic John Conran, would be reused for the cover of future editions. Aboriginal art is represented by a photo titled “Possum Skin Revival”—it shows painted lines on the back of a possum skin, and the photograph is placed between Aboriginal-looking artwork. The Aboriginal art is by Bruce Pascoe, photography by Lyn Harwood. Possums are protected animals in Victoria and the pseudo-Aboriginal art is an offensive caricature. The publication was funded by the Australia Council, the West Australian Department of Culture and the Arts in association with Lotterywest, and as with other Magabala books there is no acknowledgment of financing from the rich Aboriginal corporations around Australia.

2018: A new edition is published and the title changes slightly: Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture. The new edition has an attractive cover design by Joanna Hunt using the Conran plant illustration and has very clear and well laid-out typography from the Post PrePress Group. This edition is printed in Australia by Griffin Press. The Pascoe possum art is again used and there is not a single pre-contact example of Aboriginal rock art showing agricultural activities.

2019: Magabala published Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu. The book was packaged by Ballantyne Rawlins “in association with Magabala Books”. Supported by Australian taxpayers, the attractive hardback was printed in China. The fake Aboriginal art occupies a full page and is simply called “Possum Skin”—on the page Pascoe is not credited as the perpetrator. No pre-contact Aboriginal art is used.

2019: An appalling new publication called Dark Emu in the Classroom by Simone Barlow and Ashlee Horyniak—neither author is credited with membership of any Aboriginal group. Cover design by John Canty and again book design and layout by Post PrePress Group. The printer’s name is not credited.

In its 2018 annual report Magabala made a clear statement of purpose:

We educate the Australian and international community on the multiplicity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and voices. We do this through the publication and distribution of quality titles by Indigenous writers, storytellers, artists and illustrators from all over Australia, and by supporting their professional development.

So much professional development and so few jobs in Broome. The Dark Emu publishing story rests on white expertise. Over 250,000 copies have been sold and there are two further spin-off titles being marketed yet there seems minimal input from creative Aborigines and maximum involvement of highly skilled white publishing professionals.

Publishing with Magabala endorsed Bruce Pascoe’s claims to Aboriginality: “Magabala Books is Australia’s leading Indigenous publishing house. Aboriginal owned and led, we celebrate and nurture the talent and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.” In tolerant and racially mixed Broome their basic criterion for publication is racial discrimination: “If you are a non-Indigenous author your submission to Magabala Books will not be considered.” This means that publisher Rachel Bin Salleh could publish a book (she has) but her mother could not.

The entry conditions for the Daisy Utemorrah Award, conducted by Magabala for an unpublished manuscript for junior or young adult fiction, offer the company’s own very clear guidelines for establishing racial eligibility:

Applicants must be an Aboriginal person and/or Torres Strait Islander person; entries must include a copy of a Confirmation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage/ or a Letter of Confirmation with a common seal from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander incorporated community organisation OR a statutory declaration confirming Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage signed by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander incorporated community organisation. Please contact Magabala Books if you have any questions about this requirement.

Pascoe began publishing with Magabala in 1996 with his novel Ruby-eyed Coucal. Presumably he was accepted as being Aboriginal on self-identification alone. It was around this time that Leon Carmen revealed that a prize-winning Magabala-published novel, My Own Sweet Time by Wanda Koolmatrie, was actually written by him—a white taxi driver. In the ensuing scandal it was never clear whether he offended more by being white or being a taxi driver.

Dark Emu is widely accepted largely because of the belief that its author is an Aboriginal elder. Magabala Books assure readers that Pascoe has Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage. The publication and publicity have made Pascoe into perhaps the best-known Aborigine in Australia. In the year the Voice is to be voted on it hardly seems controversial to ask the Magabala directors to please speak up and produce the evidence confirming the accuracy of these claims.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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