Anitia Heiss’s Who Am I? is a middlegrade historical fiction novel set in Sydney in 1937, and is the fictional a diary of Mary Talence, a member of the Stolen Generation. It was originally published in 2001, and has been re-released as part of reconciliation week this year. I read this in one sitting last week, at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has been increasingly in the media. It feels kind of weird to do this review and talk about this book without mentioning that context (which I absolutely support, just to be clear). I know that a lot of people have been more intentional at the moment about searching out stories from Black and Aboriginal voices right now, and this is absolutely one to add to your list.
I woke up this morning and I couldn’t stop crying, cos this place is not my home, even though everyone says it is. When I was a little girl Mum would always hug me when I cried and tell me everything would be all right. Who’s gunna hug me here?
Mary lives with the Burkes, but they’re not her real family. She hasn’t seen her real mum and dad since she was taken away from them five years ago. Everyone tells her to forget about them but she can’t. She wants to find out why she was taken, and where she really belongs.
This book is about issues that I felt like I knew something about, but I feel like Mary’s story, and the way it is told in her voice, helped my heart to start to understand some of the things I thought I knew. I knew that children stolen from their families were cut off from their communities, and completely disconnected from their culture – and this is just so horrific and such a disgrace, and I knew of the grief and pain this caused then and continues to cause for so many now. This story not only expanded on that, but also made me think about all of the shame and guilt that was piled on to these children over and over again – shame for being Aboriginal and guilt as they were expected to be grateful that their lives were “improved” by being removed from their comunities. While I know Mary is fictional, and her story was imagined, I also know that this was a true story for so so many people, and the shame and the guilt and the grief have all really stuck with me since reading it.
The other thing that has really stayed with me since finishing this book was the Mary’s strength and pride in who she is. Despite being pushed to forget her roots by almost everyone around her, she continues to push to learn more about the family and culture she was taken from, and remains proud to be Aboriginal.
The writing style Heiss has used, with the story being told in diary entries from the perspective of 10 year-old Mary, makes this a really accessible read – I feel like it presents issues in a way that young readers will be able to understand and in some ways relate to, but there is also plenty in here for adult readers to learn from. It would also be an excellent book to read with a child to start or support broader discussions about race and racism in the Australian context.
This is really kind of a little book, and it didn’t take long for me to read, but at the same time big and important and moving in a way that I feel like my words are inadequate to describe, and I hope I have done it justice. I absolutely can’t recommend it enough. I’m not sure whether it is on school reading lists yet, but I think this should absolutely be in homes and classrooms and libraries across the country.
Who Am I? by Anita Heiss
Source: I received a free copy from Scholastic Australia (Thank you!)
Category: Children’s (middlegrade-ish) historical fiction
Themes: racism, family, Stolen Generation