The best books about Indigenous Australians

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Indigenous Australians and why they recommend each book.

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The Songlines

By Bruce Chatwin,

Book cover of The Songlines

Chatwin left his cushy job at Sotheby’s in London to do something far more interesting and important than evaluating and selling rare and precious objects to wealthy collectors. He set out to explore and celebrate the uniqueness of other cultures, in this case, those mysterious dream-tracks which Australia’s Aboriginal peoples memorized, musical maps of their territory, which they sang or recited as they crossed the land from one tract to another. He has a great ear for listening to stories or conversations and, of course, an even better eye for noticing and recording the specifics of landscapes and human behaviour. In addition to inventing a friend, Arkady, as a sort of alter-ego, Chatwin, a witty, self-taught social anthropologist, reminds us of the need to clean our glasses regularly and fine-tune our antennae.

Who am I?

After writing and editing fifty books and being the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, it’s obvious that I’m not so much a travel writer as a writer who travels a lot and is sometimes compelled to share what he discovers, or fails to discover, along the way. I’m not one of those “lonely tourists with their empty eyes / Longing to be filled with monuments,” that poet P.K. Page describes. I constantly ask myself: “What compels you to abandon the safety and comforts of home for the three Ds of travel: Danger, Discomfort, and Disease?” Itchy feet, insatiable curiosity, or the desire to step outside the ego and the routines of daily life? All of the above. I avoid the Cook’s Tour, travel light, and live on the cheap. 


I wrote...

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas

By Gary Geddes,

Book cover of Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas

What is my book about?

Confucius said those who live within four seas are brothers (or sisters). I take this as gospel, so I could never accept Columbus as the first outsider to reach the Americas. As a kid, I found glass Japanese fishing floats on the beaches in Vancouver carried over here by the Kuroshio Current, so why not boats, explorers, crazy individuals like myself arriving here by accident or design?

Then I discovered the story of Huishen in the records of the Liang Dynasty, an Afghan Buddhist monk, who sailed 20,000 li (7000 miles) to the east in 458 A.D., more than a thousand years before Columbus. I cashed my advance and picked up a visa to Kabul from the Taliban embassy in Islamabad so I could follow Huishen’s ostensible route over the Himalayas to China, across the Taklamakan Desert, then over the Pacific to Canada, the U.S., and Latin America. One thing I hadn’t anticipated along the way was 9/11.

The Other Side of the Frontier

By Henry Reynolds,

Book cover of The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia

A confronting history of the British invasion of Australia, documenting the massacres but also the resistance of indigenous people across the continent as they defended their tribal lands well into the twentieth century. No longer could anyone imagine that Australia had been settled peacefully. The book had a profound impact on Australians’  understanding of their history, but also on the continuing political struggle for indigenous rights.


Who am I?

I'm a political historian who writes for my fellow citizens and I have chosen books by writers who do the same. Books which are written with passion and purpose: to shift political understanding, to speak truth to power, to help people understand their country and the world, and to inspire a commitment to improving them.


I wrote...

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

By Judith Brett,

Book cover of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

What is my book about?

Australia is the only English-speaking democracy to make voting compulsory. Australians do not see this as a contradiction of democracy but its embodiment, that the government is selected not just by the majority of people who turn out but the majority eligible to vote, and turnouts are regularly above 90%. Compulsory voting is accompanied by compulsory voter registration, preferential voting, the non-partisan administration of elections and voting on Saturdays, with barbeques and cake stalls at polling stations, and election night parties that spill over into Sunday morning. The benefits are immense. Compulsory voting brings to the polls the poor and marginalised, young people and new citizens, and busy people with no axes to grind who dilute the impact of polarising zealots and moral crusaders.

The White Girl

By Tony Birch,

Book cover of The White Girl

I had the privilege of interviewing Tony Birch at Perth Festival 2020, just before COVID struck with force. I was deeply moved by The White Girl and felt so much for the characters, especially the matriarch, Odette, and her love for her granddaughter. Seeing the world through Odette’s eyes was a powerful way of exposing how prejudice, policing laws and the removal of children impacted Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. Tony spoke beautifully in our interview about the strength of the Aboriginal women in his family and how those experiences inspired the award-winning novel.


Who am I?

I studied Human Zoos, the subject of Paris Savages, for my PhD. Tens of thousands of performers were transported to Europe and America for exhibition, reaching a peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the stories of this time are largely Eurocentric. I sought to shine a light evocatively into this largely forgotten part of history, and to see it through fresh eyes. Paris Savages is an epic and very human tale that saw me reflect on teenage memories of exploring Fraser island. I also travelled to Europe to follow in the footsteps of the three Aboriginal performers the story is based on: Bonny, Jurano, and Dorondera.


I wrote...

Paris Savages

By Katherine Johnson,

Book cover of Paris Savages

What is my book about?

Based on a true story, Paris Savages takes us from beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, to belle-epoque Europe in 1882, where three young Aboriginal (Badtjala) people were taken to perform as mass entertainment. "This is a story that needed to be told." Rohan Wilson, The Australian.

When Louis Müller offers to sail eighteen-year-old Bonny, Jurano, and his niece, Dorondera, to Europe, Bonny agrees. He hopes to ask the English Queen to stop the massacres of his people. Accompanied by Müller’s daughter, Hilda, the group journey to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, and eventually London, but the enthusiasm of the crowds and scientists is relentless. A story of love, bravery, and the fight against injustice, Paris Savages brings a little-known part of history to blazing life.

Remembering Babylon

By David Malouf,

Book cover of Remembering Babylon

The book provided instructive reading when I was researching my book. In particular, I was interested in Malouf’s way of approaching the story of colonisation in Australia through an ‘in-between’ character, Gemmy, modelled on a real-life ship’s boy cast ashore in northern Australia in the early nineteenth century. The boy is raised by Aboriginal people. He loses his mother tongue and, when confronted with white settlers, is treated as a ‘savage,' a theme the book explores through a range of points of view. Who are the true savages in the story was a question I was interested to pose in my own book


Who am I?

I studied Human Zoos, the subject of Paris Savages, for my PhD. Tens of thousands of performers were transported to Europe and America for exhibition, reaching a peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the stories of this time are largely Eurocentric. I sought to shine a light evocatively into this largely forgotten part of history, and to see it through fresh eyes. Paris Savages is an epic and very human tale that saw me reflect on teenage memories of exploring Fraser island. I also travelled to Europe to follow in the footsteps of the three Aboriginal performers the story is based on: Bonny, Jurano, and Dorondera.


I wrote...

Paris Savages

By Katherine Johnson,

Book cover of Paris Savages

What is my book about?

Based on a true story, Paris Savages takes us from beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, to belle-epoque Europe in 1882, where three young Aboriginal (Badtjala) people were taken to perform as mass entertainment. "This is a story that needed to be told." Rohan Wilson, The Australian.

When Louis Müller offers to sail eighteen-year-old Bonny, Jurano, and his niece, Dorondera, to Europe, Bonny agrees. He hopes to ask the English Queen to stop the massacres of his people. Accompanied by Müller’s daughter, Hilda, the group journey to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, and eventually London, but the enthusiasm of the crowds and scientists is relentless. A story of love, bravery, and the fight against injustice, Paris Savages brings a little-known part of history to blazing life.

Progressive New World

By Marilyn Lake,

Book cover of Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform

Australia, like Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, was settled as a White Man’s land, where the inequities and corruption of the Old World would be replaced by the egalitarianism and democratic commitments of New World progressivism. But there was no place for Indigenous peoples who were deemed backward and primitive. Lake explores the links between American and Australasian reformers at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century and the way they combined racial self-confidence with a commitment to forging an ideal social order. Lake shows that race and reform were mutually supportive as Progressivism became the political logic of settler colonialism.


Who am I?

I'm a political historian who writes for my fellow citizens and I have chosen books by writers who do the same. Books which are written with passion and purpose: to shift political understanding, to speak truth to power, to help people understand their country and the world, and to inspire a commitment to improving them.


I wrote...

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

By Judith Brett,

Book cover of From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

What is my book about?

Australia is the only English-speaking democracy to make voting compulsory. Australians do not see this as a contradiction of democracy but its embodiment, that the government is selected not just by the majority of people who turn out but the majority eligible to vote, and turnouts are regularly above 90%. Compulsory voting is accompanied by compulsory voter registration, preferential voting, the non-partisan administration of elections and voting on Saturdays, with barbeques and cake stalls at polling stations, and election night parties that spill over into Sunday morning. The benefits are immense. Compulsory voting brings to the polls the poor and marginalised, young people and new citizens, and busy people with no axes to grind who dilute the impact of polarising zealots and moral crusaders.

The Broken Shore

By Peter Temple,

Book cover of The Broken Shore

Crime but with such achingly good prose, I sometimes have to stop and re-read a sentence just to admire the way Temple wrote it. It’s a slow-burn, with a very dark, noir feeling, and the more you learn about the backstory of protagonist, Detective Senior Sergeant Joe Cashin, the more intriguing he becomes. A great plot, and I love the way Temple weaves different threads together to bring about the slick resolution. If you’re unfamiliar with Australian slang, expect a crash course in the first part of this novel. What makes this book one I return to again and again is the way Temple takes the standard formula of crime fiction and bends it to his will. This is not just a great crime, it’s a great novel.  


Who am I?

I’m an Australian crime writer and I love reading crime with a real sense of place and/or time. Growing up in Australia, most of the time I read international authors, so finding fabulous books by local authors was a thrill every time, and that excitement has never left me. This list crosses the genre from cosy to hard-boiled crime, which hopefully means something for everyone. If nothing here grabs you, there’s a lot more fantastic Australian crime fiction to discover (did you know Australian author Charlotte Jay won the first ever Edgar Award in 1954?) and I can passion-talk about it anytime!


I wrote...

The Shifting Landscape

By Katherine Kovacic,

Book cover of The Shifting Landscape

What is my book about?

Art dealer Alex Clayton travels to Victoria's Western District to value the McMillan family's collection. At their historic sheep station, she finds an important and previously unknown colonial painting - and a family fraught with tension. There are arguments about the future of the property and its place in an ancient and highly significant indigenous landscape.

When the family patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances and the painting is stolen, Alex decides to leave; then a toddler disappears and Alex's faithful dog Hogarth goes missing. With fears rising for the safety of both child and hound, Alex joins searchers scouring the countryside. But her attempts to unravel the McMillan family secrets have put Alex in danger, and she's not the only one. Winner of the 2021 Sisters in Crime Australia Readers’ Choice Award.

Terra Nullius

By Claire G. Coleman,

Book cover of Terra Nullius

This is a really tricky book to write about without giving away too many of the surprises in the plot – as for much of the book you don’t even realise that you are reading an alternate history. I was convinced I was reading about the violence of colonisation in early Western Australia – until the moment I discovered that I wasn’t. Claire G. Coleman is an indigenous writer which adds a particular strength to this amazing and surprising story (sorry, no spoilers allowed!). 


Who am I?

I am an Australian author and I love messing with history – just about as much as history seems to love messing with me! I am fascinated by the different paths that history could have taken and those single moments upon which history often turns. I am also passionately interested in telling the histories of the First Nations people, whose stories have often been left out of many histories. As a result, I partnered with Indigenous author Harold Ludwick to write this book – not just providing an alternate history of early Australia, but telling it in both blackfellah and whitefellah voices. 


I wrote...

On a Barbarous Coast: What If There Was an Alternative Ending to Captain Cook's Story?

By Craig Cormick, Harold Ludwick,

Book cover of On a Barbarous Coast: What If There Was an Alternative Ending to Captain Cook's Story?

What is my book about?

On a night of raging winds and rain, Captain Cook's Endeavour lies splintered on a coral reef off the coast of far north Australia. A small disparate band of survivors, fracturing already, huddle on the shore of this strange land - their pitiful salvage scant protection from the dangers of the unknown creatures and natives that live here.

Watching these mysterious white beings, the Guugu Yimidhirr people cannot decide if they are ancestor spirits to be welcomed - or hostile spirits to be speared. One headstrong young boy, Garrgiil, determines to do more than watch and to be the one to find out what exactly they are. Our book tells an alternating whitefellah/blackfellah narrative of what might have been Australia’s first settlement history. 

The Yield

By Tara June Winch,

Book cover of The Yield

When August’s grandfatherthe bedrock of a multi-generational Wiradjuri familydies, she must return to Australia, and to the town of Prosperous. There, she comes face-to-face with the things that have driven her out, a process that began long before her birth. The book’s three narrators chart the casualties of colonialism: the loss of indigenous culture, the stamping out of language, the land that is taken and forever altered. But the book is so much more than a catalogue of losses, and Winch’s song is ultimately one of identityand historyreclaimed.  


Who am I?

My mother, father, and I were each born in different countries, and into different languages. In my childhood, we were a hybridized wonder—one part jetsam, one part flotsam—and a country unto ourselves. Our house was filled with all kinds of books, our dinnertimes with lively conversation (and occasional shouting), our plates with food cooked according to the recipes of family ghosts. I can honestly say that no other family was like ours, especially not in the American suburbs of the 1980s. As a writer, I have always been fascinated by the tug-and-pull of intergenerational trauma, and by the dislocation of immigration and exile.   


I wrote...

The First Rule of Swimming

By Courtney Angela Brkic,

Book cover of The First Rule of Swimming

What is my book about?

Set both in New York and on a fictional Adriatic island, the novel follows two sisters. When Jadranka, the younger, leaves Rosmarina to work as an au pair in the United States and subsequently disappears, Magdalena must begin a search that leads her from the safety of Rosmarina to New York’s thriving but unrooted immigrant communities. The book explores the legacy of a Croatian island where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, where nonconformityespecially by women—is stifled by cultural taboo, and where the lure of leaving is countered by the summons of family and home. It is part literary mystery and part meditation on what it means to remake oneself in a new world.  

The Sydney Wars

By Stephen Gapps,

Book cover of The Sydney Wars: Conflict in the early colony, 1788-1817

By the latter decades of the twentieth century, the so-called ‘history wars’ pitted those Australians who acknowledged the violent foundations of the Australian nation against others who denied that the frontier wars ever took place, and who advocated instead that Australians ought to celebrate the heroism of white colonists. The story of Australia’s founding as a nation starts in Sydney. It was the site of the initial encampment established by the British when they invaded a tiny area on the eastern edge of Australia in 1788, then claimed the entire east coast of the continent for the Crown. Stephen Gapps carefully analyzes a wide range of historical evidence to demonstrate how Sydney and its surrounding regions were the initial sites at which British and Aboriginal forces refined their military tactics during violent strategic encounters along the expanding frontier. These violent encounters set a pattern that played out, with local variations,…


Who am I?

Kristyn Harman is an award-winning researcher who successfully completed doctoral research investigating the circumstances in which at least ninety Australian Aboriginal men were transported as convicts within the Australian colonies following their involvement in Australia’s frontier wars. She has published extensively on historical topics, and currently lectures in History at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. Having lived in both countries, Kristyn is fascinated by the different understandings that New Zealanders and Australians have of their nation’s respective pasts. She is particularly intrigued, if not perturbed, by the way in which most New Zealanders acknowledge their nation’s frontier wars, while many Australians choose to deny the wars fought on their country’s soil.


I wrote...

Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles

By Kristyn Harman,

Book cover of Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles

What is my book about?

Many people have heard about the tens of thousands of English and Irish convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies. Far fewer are aware that Australian Aboriginal men and Māori from New Zealand were also transported to, and within, these penal colonies. This book reveals for the first time how warriors were arrested and taken into custody following their involvement in the frontier wars fought across Australasia (Australia and New Zealand) between the British colonists and First Nations people, and also following frontier conflict at the Cape colony. Rather than being treated as prisoners of war, these warriors’ militant actions against the invaders were criminalised. After standing trial, a few were hanged. Others were sentenced to transportation. Most Aboriginal convicts died in custody. Very few survived to return home.

The Boy from the Mish

By Gary Lonesborough,

Book cover of The Boy from the Mish

This is a heartwarming contemporary story about a gay Aboriginal teen exploring his sexuality and falling in love for the first time, set against the vivid backdrop of a fictional, rural Indigenous community. It’s evocative and heady and compelling. It’s one of those stories that makes you want to reach into the book and hug all the characters and tell them everything is going to be okay. Such an important story from a brilliant new voice in Australian YA.


Who am I?

As someone who grew up in Australia without any gay literary characters to relate to, I’m incredibly passionate about queer stories set in our beautiful country. We now have a wealth of brilliant books by LGBTQ+ authors, and I hope that by sharing my recommendations, our stories find even more of the readers they’re meant to find. I’ve focused on books featuring gay male protagonists, as that’s how I identify, and they’re the type of queer stories I relate to the most. Some of the books are fiction, others are memoir, some are written for teens and others are for adults, but all of them share an incredible level of authenticity.


I wrote...

Anything But Fine

By Tobias Madden,

Book cover of Anything But Fine

What is my book about?

Luca is ready to audition for the Australian Ballet School. All it takes to crush his dreams is one missed step... and a broken foot. Jordan is the gorgeous rowing star and school captain of Luca's new school. Everyone says he's straight - but Luca’s not so sure...

As their unlikely bond grows stronger, Luca starts to wonder: who is he without ballet? And is he setting himself up for another heartbreak?

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