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January 13th 2009 print

Michael Connor

Bernard Black – a profile

You know Bernard Black. Everyone knows Bernard. The writer you think of whenever the words “Australia’s Leading Indigenous Writer and a Living National Treasure” pop into your mind.

You know Bernard Black. Everyone knows Bernard. He is an indelible image on the history of our time. The writer you think of whenever the words “Australia’s Leading Indigenous Writer and a Living National Treasure” pop into your mind. Who could forget his towering, gum leaf encrusted, Akubra hatted presence at the Reconciliation Conference or the close-up televised image of the tears dropping from his sensitive, smoothly clean-shaven, manly face, projected onto huge screens all around the country, as the Prime Minister said “Sorry”.

He is a fixture at writers’ festivals. No word-fest is complete without his long, flowing, dark locks – that make him seem like the tribal elder of all Australia. The great wooden staff from his birth-tree, which he bought from a Peking street-stall, gives him the air (say the broadsheets) of a modern Moses leading his people on their journey of reconciliation from the central Australian desert to Canberra. The accusatory monologues, during on-stage literary conversations before cheer squads of elderly book buying ladies, have been unforgettable. Bernard has turned bookish symposiums into personal sacred sites. So permanent is he, so likely to be chatting when you accidentally come across a discussion of indigenous art and culture on radio or television, that you may have forgotten how recently his Akubra rose in the literary firmament.

Not long ago he was known but not well known. If you came across his name, as sometimes happened, you would have had a vague idea of who was meant and then your eyes would have moved on. Often his name appeared in print out of the simple (but unlikely) goodness of someone wishing to do a good turn by making reference to him, or (more likely) to avoid mentioning a hateful rival when extra text was needed to pad out an overblown article in a funded literary review which paid by the word.

He was a serious man, his life devoted to writing. He had tried poetry, plays, short stories , novels (including an inept Mills and Boon) and even a rock opera. A great saga was plotted and started but ran out of steam by page 150 – just when he had arrived at the end of explaining the family tree and his hero’s mother-to-be was about to be raped underwater by the father-to-be. Bernard wrote earnestly but without great talent, though it was said he was good with commas. He wrote desperately on fashionable themes, but always lagged behind the wave of interest. Literary fame he desired but no matter how passionate his advances it always eluded him.

Perhaps you read the lavishly photographed article he published recently in one of the newspaper weekend magazines. Called “Me and My Indigenous Roots” (or something like that) it wasn’t about his love of gardening with natives but about discovering his inner Black. The real story was far more interesting. There really was a moment in his life when Fate intervened and changed his life. The epiphany occurred at Byron Bay.

Bernard was on holidays. He had arranged to meet some lady librarians, detritus from a writers festival he had attended as an audience member, in a local coffee shop. He was early, they were late. At the table behind him were three people. The centre of attention, the vivacious one, was a light fleshed, blonde haired young woman. He was bored and from time to time his eyes were drawn to a mirrored wall which showed him very clearly the young woman, who was doing most of the talking. He listened.

She was showing off, delighting in her good fortune. The conversation, which he could not help overhearing, was about wonderful and exotic overseas destinations. Cities she had recently been, places she was soon to go. The conversation was heavily autobiographic. She was an artist. The marvellous ports of call were itineraries in her career. Magic words like fellowships, artist residencies, indigenous prizes fell from her ruby lips. He didn’t know who she was but it was obvious the Australia Council found her enchanting.

A question from one of her listeners elicited more biography. It seemed that only late in adolescence had the magic doors opened when she had discovered that she was of the elect who had Aboriginal blood running in their veins.

Bernard’s ladies arrived. They recognized the artist and supplied a name. They talked of other things.

Now aware of her existence her name seemed constantly to leap out at him. Every magazine, every newspaper, every ABC broadcast seemed to drop an admiring reference to her. She was Cate Blanchett with oil paints. Privately he found her appalling. The art work she produced was shoddy, her public utterances facile, she became for him a figure of fun and contempt. But.

His mother was fading. He asked her questions of bloodlines and families. She denied any dark connections, which only confirmed his suspicions. He wondered about the significance of his surname. He looked in the mirror. He wandered around the local district and made certain friends and acquaintances. They agreed with him that such things were possible, even probable. He conceived a book. He wrote that book, whose name you will remember from the glittering prize it won. It was no better than other things he had done, which had not been much remarked on, and was probably a great deal worse but with it he became Indigenous. He had built a gleaming Black barque and crossed the Rubicon. He was a literary celebrity, and he loved it. Within twelve months of its publication he was on the indigenous literature board of the Australia Council deciding who did and, more importantly, who didn’t get the cash and the holidays in Paris.

Winner of the prestigious Pemulwoy Award three years running he revels in being Black. The persona he has created clings to him as a liberating mask of freedom. Who else but Bernard Black would have had the courage and integrity to appear at the National Book Council dinner dressed in a sheet? Or give the annual Langton Oration at Sydney Pen dressed in a pair of non-designer red undies? It would be considered racist, in Australia, for anyone to notice that his skin is fair and that his fleshy red nose is susceptible to sunburn. Once, far from an ABC microphone a questioner in his audience used the frightful phrase “tribal initiation.” Bernard, well prepared, gave a monologue on Eurocentric settlers destroying a superior culture. There was applause. Who cares if he can’t write and is a fraud, he is a genuine literary hero of our time.

Bernard Black has arrived and means to stay. Sometimes at night he lies awake, like a certain ex-Prime Minister, planning his own state funeral.