Isabel Flick and Heather Goodall, Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2004
Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman, by Isabel Flick and Heather Goodall, and published by Allen & Unwin, is, as Linda Burney says in her Foreword, the story of an Australian hero. It is also an outstanding example of a collaboration between its subject, Isabel Flick, and her chosen interviewer, adviser and editor, Heather Goodall, in which it remains Isabel's autobiography despite her death halfway through the process. Before she died, Isabel Flick asked Goodall and her family to complete her story. The result is a multi-layered account of her 'many lives' which accurately reflects the circles of family, friends, communities and political organisations that Flick sustained and within which she worked. Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman does what a good biography or autobiography does: it tells the story of a life, and through that life it tells the story of a family, a community, a series of networks, and a nation.
Isabel Flick was, indeed, an extraordinary woman. She was born in Goondiwindi in 1928, and was brought up on the banks of the Barwon River outside Collarenebri, in the Aboriginal settlement called the Old Camp. The story she tells is of her struggle to be educated - of not being allowed to attend the white school in Collarenebri, of having to leave her family and community to get three years schooling at Toomelah Mission - and then, when she has children of her own, of working as a cleaner, first in Collarenebri and then in Sydney, to make sure they get a good education. And through all this, she traces her gradual politicisation, as she discovers her lack of rights and works out her strategies to deal with this lack - speaking up, negotiation, and putting past injuries behind her. One extraordinary part of this story is how she became an advocate for the rights of Aboriginal children when she worked as a cleaner at the Collarenebri school, speaking out whenever she saw them treated badly, and becoming a valued adviser to the Parents and Citizens Association of the school.
Gradually the shy young woman who trembled with fear when she first spoke to a policeman became the centre of groups who demanded better health services and housing, who refused to sit in the roped-off section at the local pictures, who organised fundraising, who began to become involved in welfare organisations such as the Far West Scheme, and learned to speak up for what her people wanted to politicians, police, welfare and lawyers. As she told Heather Goodall, "I started to get gamer and gamer." When Goodall met her in Sydney in 1974 she found an "astute and shrewd" community activist who was also an "hilarious" storyteller.
When Isabel Flick returned to Collarenebri in 1978 she remained at the centre of local and national networks concerned with housing, education, deaths in custody, land rights and women's welfare. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1986.
When Isabel Flick asked Heather Goodall to help record and edit her life story, they had been friends for many years. They had met in 1974 when Heather was a graduate student recording Aboriginal oral histories. Since then she had become a prize-winning scholar of Aboriginal history and was an Associate Professor of History at the University of Technology, Sydney. Beginning in 1997, they recorded Isabel's memories, visited important sites, and had many group discussions with family and friends. Their recording sessions had only reached 1972 when Isabel died of lung cancer in February 2002. The book therefore is mainly in Isabel's voice in the first five chapters and has more of Heather Goodall's voice in the final seven chapters. But as Goodall says in her introduction, "it has been important for me that it remains Isabel's book, with an autobiography at its core which explores the questions she wanted to ask about her life." She has succeeded admirably in this, drawing on Isabel's carefully saved papers, on conversations with Heather over the years and the vivid and eloquent memories of those who knew her well, to make a seamless book that remains, very much, Isabel's.
The book is beautifully produced by Allen & Unwin, with good quality paper and an attractive font. The narrative flows smoothly through Isabel's words, Goodall's contextual links (marked by italics) and the interspersed narratives of others (marked by a line at the side). Sustaining the differences of tone and point of view in this syncretic melding of voices is one of the book's most remarkable achievements, as events are recounted by more than one participant and the angle of view shifts. The multi-planed portrait of Flick that emerges is a testimony to the worth of such embedded, multi-voiced biography, drawing on the collective model of ethnography and yet sustaining Flick's own account of herself and her life as its centre. There are charming and helpful maps, a family tree and numerous photographs drawing on family albums and other archival sources.
Heather Goodall is currently an Associate Professor in Social Inquiry and a member of the Centre for Trans/forming Cultures at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has worked in collaboration with Aboriginal people on many projects since the early 1970s. Her book, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, was awarded the NSW Premier's Prize for Australian History in 1997.
As Ann Curthoys says in her tribute at the front of Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman, this is a wonderful book that made her laugh, cry, and think afresh. This is what the best life stories can do, and that is why this book has been awarded the inaugural Magarey Medal for Biography.
Professor Desley Deacon, History Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University (Chair)
Associate Professor Barbara Milech, Communication and Cultural Studies, Curtin University
Dr. Nicole Moore, Department of English, Macquarie University