The dark-rimmed glasses and sloppy cardigan convey a studious look befitting her role as an academic. This university head of department is about to jet off to The Philippines to deliver a paper, in between reading 50 manuscripts for a literary prize, supervising research projects and fretting over tertiary funding. She's also trying to write a novel but hasn't enough hours in the day to complete it. On weekends she paints, for sanity's sake.
But Professor Sally Morgan is not your typical academic. Who else can claim to have written a book that has just quietly notched up its half-millionth sale in Australia, with yet more sales in eleven other countries? A book that so captured readers' imaginations that it was being reprinted before publication week ended, and within months had been reprinted seven more times? The book was My Place, Morgan's profoundly moving account of how she cajoled and gently bullied her family towards the truth about their collective Aboriginal identity. "Can't you just leave the past buried? It won't hurt anyone then", went her mother Gladys's now-famous plea. But "Glad's" inquisitive first-born child couldn't let it alone - she demanded to know why Glad and Sally's grandmother, Daisy, had been scared of authority all their lives. She wondered why she hadn't realised until she was 15 that "Nan" had dark skin. "If she wasn't white, then neither were we. What did that make us, what did that make me?"
Morgan pieced together a picture of generational dispossession and denial - of land, of kinship, of successive children stolen away, of wealthy white men who disowned them. But this was no fusty history lesson from a half-forgotten era. The story was being told by a fresh-faced, intelligent young Australian woman who had passed for white - or, her mum told her, Indian - all her growing years in the 1950s and '60s in suburban Perth. The simple and direct telling of the story affected almost everyone who read it. It was so sad, so unadorned, "so innocently written", one reader explained to me, "as if it could have happened to anyone. An ordinary family that had been lied to."
My Place has earned a place in Australian publishing history - on November 1, Fremantle Arts Centre Press will release a special hard-case gift edition to celebrate passing the half-million milestone. The original book's launch in July 1987 was followed by a stampede of fans, journalists and academics towards an Aboriginal voice with striking public appeal. The shy, dark-eyed woman pictured on the inside cover was completely unprepared - how would she ever reclaim her privacy?
Twelve years on, a relaxed Sally Morgan is swivelling round on a chair in her office at the University of Western Australia. She passes me the latest annual report for the Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts, where she is director. She's long since learned to "manage" her shyness, for her job requires endless public speaking gigs. She usually shuns interviews, except this one as a favour to her publisher. It took years for the shock of My Place 's popularity to wear off, she tells me. "No-one anticipated its success, certainly not me! We were just ordinary people, we weren't used to the social things we were exposed to, and that's what made it difficult." Talking to the nation on The Mike Walsh Show was one thing; dealing with complex family responses to the airing of its intimate story was another. The aftershocks are still being felt, but the family consensus is they're not for public consumption.
Morgan is now 48, outwardly stronger and more purposeful than ever. Life has been eventful since her sudden rise to prominence - she "grew out of" her Christian faith and into a deep Aboriginal spirituality rooted in "the old people and the land". Her marriage has long since ended (although she retains her married surname), and her three kids have grown up. "I recognise that thoughts have power, and I let negativity pass through me. And when things get too heavy, I go bush."
She's intensely proud of her centre, Australia's only research outfit specialising in indigenous oral history and arts "with an all-indigenous staff". It came about when the Howard Government decided to honour an undertaking by its Labor predecessor to set aside funds for the creation of six indigenous research centres around Australia. Morgan, her sister Jill Milroy and others drew up the bid, which netted $1.72 million over three years to run a centre at UWA. Milroy, an educationalist, whose office is three doors down from Morgan's, has been there longer. As director of UWA's Aboriginal Programs, she provides Aboriginal expertise and input to other disciplines on campus.
"We've really broken down the barriers between indigenous people and the university - people were nervous about coming on to the campus," says Morgan. The centre has focused on Aboriginal intellectual property rights to tackle the commercial rip-offs of artwork that Morgan has herself suffered as an artist. Biological property rights are another target. "Scientists in Western Australia are already looking to native plants as a source of unique chemical properties."
Many Stolen Generation people contact the centre wanting to find out where to access family photographs. "They have no idea where to look," says Morgan, so the centre has compiled a community guide to WA's history and library archives. Also under way are three booklets on how to write oral histories, attain copyright, edit and publish work.
People often approach Morgan, telling her "Grandma won't talk to me", or "Auntie gets upset if I ask her" - "exactly the same things I had to confront when writing My Place ". When the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families released its report, Bring Them Home, in 1997, "everyone felt very powerless", says Morgan. So she sat down and underlined each recommendation; "I picked out the ones we could possibly make relevant to the centre's charter, and were achievable." To publicise the report, the centre held a major exhibition of artists who had themselves been removed, or who had "stolen" family members. Morgan wrote in the catalogue's introduction: "When the documentary record is either unhelpful or unavailable, then we turn to other methods. Is there someone out there who looks like me? Do I feel drawn to that person? What are my dreams telling me? What secrets remain untold that might help me? If they are secrets belonging to powerful non-Aboriginal families, then how can I access them?"
They are all questions that today appear obvious, even innocuous. Yet when white Australia read them in My Place more than a decade ago, they seemed poignant, strangely novel and - for some - dangerous.
Historian Tom Stannage has known Sally Morgan and her sister Jill for many years, working with both women on history research projects through their respective centres. A respected authority on WA history, Professor Stannage was raised on books such as Dame Mary Durack's Kings in Grass Castles, the stirring story of the forging of the Durack pastoral kingdom in the Kimberley region. "When Sally Morgan's My Place popped up, you had a book that was equally powerful," recalls Stannage. "And suddenly, against the whole presentation of pastoralists and gentry families was an Aboriginal point of view."
Stannage, for one, was relieved. Two years earlier, in 1985, he'd given a lecture at UWA entitled "Western Australia's Heritage - The Pioneer Myth". Mary Durack was sitting in the front row. "It almost rail-roaded my career in this state," recalls Stannage, chuckling. He had dared to state publicly that West Australian history had been hijacked by the pioneer myth, "which leaves out and insults the Aborigines" and grossly distorted what really happened between white and Aboriginal people.
Such themes were already being widely explored in Australian history circles, notes Stannage, yet the reaction in Perth was extraordinary. "My talk was taped illegally and a transcript was circulated to various right-wing elements who sought to close me down. My wife confronted someone on the front verge of our house, we had to take a silent phone number to prevent the nuisance calls coming in, and I had to appear before the vice-chancellor and explain what evidence I had for what I was writing."
Ironically, Morgan's well-received book contained an identical message, buried inside a family saga. Like Stannage, Morgan had done something brave; only Western Australian society really knew the gravity of it. But she had poked an impudent black finger into a hornet's next marked "white family secrets" with the publication of My Place . She had traced the life stories of her mother and grandmother, Daisy, back along a road that led directly to the gate of a white pastoralist pioneer, Alfred Howden Drake-Brockman.
"Perth is unique," a historian friend tells me. "There's a section of old establishment families that always kept their secrets wrapped up. Sally broke through that." The Drake-Brockmans had established Corunna Downs station near Marble Bar in the state's north at the turn of the century, largely with Aboriginal labour. Daisy was born there to a full-blood, Annie Padawani, and was sent down to Perth to become the Drake-Brockmans' domestic servant and child-carer when she was 16. When Daisy bore a child, she no more owned her daughter than she owned her own destiny. The infant Gladys was taken from her by native welfare officials and put in a children's home in Perth. Daisy kept the identity of Glady's white father a secret. As for Daisy's white father, Morgan's probing revealed that he was almost certainly Alfred Howden Drake-Brockman. It was an explosive revelation, though Morgan laid down the facts not with hatred, but out of anger and sadness that her family had been silenced by fear for so long.
Fremantle Arts Centre Press editor Ray Coffey was acutely aware of the controversial nature of Morgan's revelations about black-white sexual relations: "It had not really happened before, but it wasn't done hysterically. It was straight - and it was notable for the way it didn't attract criticisms." As for the short-lived threat of legal action by the surviving members of the pastoralist family, Coffey says, "I believed what Sally had written, and we had advice that there was nothing that libelled them." These days, contact with the Drake-Brockman family is "non-existent", Morgan says. "Their view is that my book is just lies."
Daisy died in 1983, but Morgan did eventually get hold of her native welfare file "that it's all documented in there that Nan was their servant". Recently, in an SBS mini-documentary, Glad (produced by Jill Milroy), Gladys publicly reiterated that Drake-Brockman was her grandfather. "They say he wasn't, because white people didn't sleep with black women. I don't know where the half-castes came from," she added sardonically, "but that was their argument."
If My Place had never emerged, would it have mattered? Did not similar stories await exposure? "If My Place came out now ..." I began, "... it wouldn't have the same impact," Morgan continues. "I think it encouraged other people to tell their story, and to reunite with lost family. I've been involved in quite a few cases where this happened - it's almost like it gave permission to people. It just seemed like the right time."
Timing was important. My Place emerged in the year the federal government established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which found that well over half those prisoners died in WA had grown up on missions. (This overlap between deaths in custody and childhood removal led to the 1997 Stolen Generation inquiry.) A year later, Australia's Bicentennial celebration prompted a huge outpouring of creative works about the experience of Aboriginal Australians under white domination.
Given a choice, Morgan would prefer to promote the works of other Aboriginal writers. "My Place has been talked about a lot, and I think there are other indigenous works that get overlooked and should be examined more closely." She cites another West Australian author, Glenyse Ward, whose revealing autobiography, Wandering Girl, was published in the same year as My Place . Ward was inspired to write by Jack Davis, one of Australia's most important Aboriginal playwrights who wrote a series of plays in the '70s and '80s about the Nyoongar (West Australian Aboriginal) experience.
Davis was also a mentor to Morgan when she wrote her first play, Sistergirl, for the 1992 Festival of Perth. Morgan's brother, David Milroy, wrote the play's music, and the siblings again collaborated to create Cruel Wild Woman for the 1998 Perth Festival, a satire about Pauline Hanson set in a suburban Aboriginal family's living room. Stannage says the play confirmed Morgan's rare power "to communicate at all levels", through humour and pathos, in words and through imagery in her powerful paintings, which are represented in most public and private art collections around Australia.
Morgan published a second book in 1989, Wanamurraganya, about her elderly relative Jack McPhee, and after that five books for children. But My Place remains her most influential work, not least because it broke new ground as a model for other writers. From the earliest draft, Ray Coffey says he recognised "a potential for a very distinctive book, something never done before". Coffey, with fellow editor Clive Newman, had uncovered work of rare power before with Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life, the publisher's all-time bestseller before My Place .
Both manuscripts were about humble people and ordinary lives made extraordinary by their experiences. Both manuscripts needed a lot of work; in Facey's case, it lacked any punctuation. But Morgan's problem was simply working out the order in which to tell her story. "I told Sally to write it as if you were telling somebody the story," recalls Coffey, "in which you're jumping back and forward." Morgan's departure from strict chronological narrative was a revelation to writers - including award-winning Perth author Carolyn Polizzotto, who was at the time struggling for new ways to approach stories that didn't fit the "male life of fame and fortune". Polizzotto recalls the impact reading My Place made on her while tackling her own book about a West Australian artist, Elise Blumann. "I felt the 19th century literary tradition, where your character started with the log cabin and ended up in the White House, wouldn't work." My Place, she says, was an inspiring example of how you could "celebrate a life that doesn't fit such a narrative structure".
"In many ways, My Place was only the beginning," comments Jill Milroy in her documentary, Glad, in which she and her mother Gladys retraced the journey northward that Sally and Gladys had made during the research for My Place. Perhaps a sign of changing times, Milroy chose video to record this journey - manuscripts take too long for elderly, often ailing, Aboriginal people with urgent stories to tell. Twenty years after Morgan started piecing the story together, Gladys is still searching for relatives, visiting remote places with Jill in pursuit of scraps of information. The problem for the Stolen Generation, all three women would say, is that it's never over.
And new knowledge brings new grief. In the documentary, Gladys tells how she would sit "and wait and wait" for her mother to visit her at the children's home on Sundays "and pretend [I] didn't care when nobody came". Now, she realises her mother probably never returned because she was pregnant. "Sometimes it seems all so hopeless," she says tearfully, standing in a Port Hedland cemetery after a fruitless search for an unknown sister's grave. "Where do you look? You look in life and you look in death, and everywhere you seem to come up with [no] answer."
Morgan says such pain is hard to heal. "You must remember that the Stolen Generation inquiry was not funded to offer any emotional support for anyone who testified. So it opened up all the wounds without offering any healing mechanism."
I ask Morgan whether she thinks some Australians cannot fathom that pain, and will tire of too many Stolen Generation stories. "I think a lot of people already think that," she responds. "But to my way of thinking, the problem is not that there's been too much of it, but too little. The reason people are sick of it is because it's all come in a rush. Why we need all those stories to continue is that in 50 years' time, that rush of material won't have been enough. Further down the track, it'll be appreciated."
Ten years after My Place appeared, the Council for Reconciliation convened a national conference in Melbourne. Morgan wanted to be there, but instead watched the televised session in which John Howard infamously (and, he now says, regrettably) lost his temper. "Howard missed a moment in Australian history," she says emphatically, "because the groundswell among lots of Stolen Generation people was that if he could [apologise] as the national leader, they could walk tall. It was a very crucial moment, and lots of people tuned into that convention. And when he didn't, when he let everyone down, it was an act of moral cowardice. It caused enormous destruction for these people."
So what does she make of the federal government's more recent "deep and sincere regret" for past policies? "For some people, like Louis O'Donoghue - and I respect her - it's better than nothing. For my Mum, I think it's too little, too late. The moment was two years ago for a lot of Stolen Generation people."
And what would it have meant for Daisy Corunna? "For my grandmother, it would be a meaningless gesture because the loss was too great. When I wrote My Place, we thought Nan had only one child. We've since found out that she had at least six children, and they were all taken away. We're still tracking some of that stuff. So I think for people like my grandmother, there's nothing that could compensate for that scale of loss." This revelation is delivered with the same directness as Morgan's book, but the idea of someone bearing six children and losing them all is momentarily breathtaking. "And the thing is," Morgan adds after a pause, "Nan's story would be a very common story, not exceptional. There was no birth control in those days."
Throughout her childhood, Sally Morgan and her four siblings were exhorted to "make something of yourselves". During troubled teenage years, Morgan told her mother, "I've got no ambitions, I can't see myself doing anything." But "Glad's kids" have all done well. David Milroy is a theatre director with Yirra Yaakin, Western Australia's first full-time indigenous theatre company; brother Bill is a senior public servant in the Ministry of Justice, and sister Helen is a child psychiatrist. Daisy Corunna's great-grandchildren, too, are thriving, including Morgan's daughter and two sons. Like their mother, they all dropped out of high school but later joined a tertiary bridging course. Twenty-four-year-old Avril is now a lawyer, 21-year-old Blaze a UWA history graduate, and surfer Zeke is "specialising in being 16", Morgan laughs. "My kids have grown up knowing their history," she adds quietly. The fate of the Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts is in limbo. Morgan has saved enough of the current funds to stretch into next year, but not beyond. Stannage, now executive dean at Curtin University, suggests "a rich university like UWA should make a strong commitment to all aspects of Aboriginality, and I think there's support in the vice-chancellery. The work that Sally, Jill and others have set in motion is too important for our institutions to turn their backs on".
Like so many Aboriginal public figures with an impossible, self-imposed workload, Morgan's physical health has taken a battering. She wants a rest - and time to write the novel that demands to be written. It will describe a year in the life of a teenage girl, taken from her family in the 1920s, who becomes a domestic servant "like my grandmother". But this time Morgan will savour the freedom of fiction - "when you're doing oral history, other people must have the power to say what can go in and what can't".
The Stolen Generation legacy will live on for many more years, she observes. "I am the next generation, and that I feel I have to write this book means it's not finished for me."