A new book detailing the history of black women in Australian music has been killed by its publisher after several of the women featured in its pages made explosive claims it was inaccurate, and that the author did not speak to them at all during the writing of the book.
Deadly Woman Blues, by Clinton Walker and published by NewSouth Books, is a compilation of short biographies and images of black females involved in Australian music — from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to overseas influences like Marcia Hines.
The book claims to tell their “forgotten history” to “re-birth” the stories of black female musicians, but four of the women featured in the book told NITV News that rather than empowering, the book is offensive and exploitative.
"We are deeply sorry for any hurt or distress this has caused the women concerned and apologise to them unreservedly.”
- NewSouth Publishing
Aunty Marlene Cummins, Deborah Cheetham AO, Dr Lou Bennett from Tiddas and Nardi Simpson from the Stiff Gins have called out the author and publisher for not consulting and not fact-checking with them during any stage of the writing process.
Dr Lou Bennett told NITV News she felt “violated” by the book’s chapter on her award-winning group Tiddas, which incorrectly said they were “dropped” by the label PolyGram.
“He refers to us in the past tense… he uses outdated terminology. He stuffed up good and proper," she said.
"It makes me feel violated as an Aboriginal woman. It makes me feel that again my voice has not been heard. It makes me feel angry."
Deborah Cheetham AO has only just been able to read the section about herself in the last week. She described what she read as “deeply distressing” and “damaging”.
“For me, the false statement that I was born on Cummeragunja is particularly distressing, as it denies the experience of my mother Monica who gave birth to me in Nowra District Hospital, only to have me taken from her 3 weeks later,” Ms Cheetham wrote on Facebook.
“In falsely stating that I was born on Cummeragunja also denies the experience of my grandmother Francis who walked off Cummeragunja along with her husband James and their first-born Jimmy (Little) along with 200 other Yorta Yorta people in the 1939 Walk-Off.”
On Monday, the University of New South Wales publisher responded to the women’s demands by agreeing to pull the book from the shelves and issue a correction on its website.
“NewSouth published Clinton Walker’s Deadly Woman Blues: Black Women and Australian Music in February 2018 and a small number of books have sold since then,” a statement from the publisher reads.
“We have been made aware that not all the women who appear in the book were consulted about current biographical details and that some entries contain errors of fact. We are deeply sorry for any hurt or distress this has caused the women concerned and apologise to them unreservedly.
"NewSouth is reviewing its processes for publishing books with Indigenous content".
Clinton Walker has since issued a statement to NITV expressing his remorse for the "distress and anguish" caused by Deadly Woman Blues, and taking responsibility for factual errors.
"I have been devastated to learn that my failure to consult with many of the women in my book Deadly Women Blues has caused such distress and anguish to them and to their friends and families," the statement reads.
"I will be personally approaching some of these women, whose music has meant so much to me over decades, to apologise over the coming weeks.
"I should have followed protocols and consulted and checked and am now reflecting on my processes as a writer. Given all this, withdrawing the book from sale is the right decision. I apologise unreservedly to the women for any hurt I have caused."
'They are exploiting us'
Many of the women said they heard about the book for the first time when media began contacting them for joint interviews with the author for the book’s launch.
“Those days have to go. They are exploiting us. This man is symbolic of what’s wrong with the system, and the literary world.”
Marlene Cummins said it was then that she asked a producer from the ABC to read the section about her over the phone. Straight away she heard inaccuracies about her life.
“It said I was born in Cherbourg, I wasn’t. He revealed personal issues that he has no right writing about. He said I borrowed money off Eddie Mabo. That’s not true,” she said.
Ms Cummins rejected the ABC's interview request but asked that her number be passed onto Clinton Walker. He called her that afternoon.
“I asked him why he didn’t consult with me. He was very defensive, and he said more or less that he thought he was doing me a favour.”
“Those days have to go. They are exploiting us. This man is symbolic of what’s wrong with the system, and the literary world,” Ms Cummins told NITV News.
Ms Cummins posted about her experience on Facebook and soon discovered she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been consulted for the book.
What angers Dr Lou Bennett the most is what she describes as "disgusting practice" by the author who she says did not approach her for an interview.
"For me it's unlawful, it's unethical, it's immoral... to just pull stuff from the Internet is just really slack and bad practice ... Where was the fact-checking? I think it's an abomination," she added.
Nardi Simpson from Sydney group the Stiff Gins heard about Deadly Woman Blues in November last year and had been trying to get in touch with Clinton Walker to read the chapter on her music for months before its publication in February.
She sent an email to the publisher last month detailing "six inaccuracies" in the less than 400 words written about the Stiff Gins, which she said, "undermines the publication’s assertion of the work being 'encyclopaedic' in approach".
"You just feel no good about yourself," Ms Simpson told NITV News.
"There are very structural things in the publishing industry and music industry, in mainstream Australia that let people think that they know best."
Ms Simpson said the silver lining for her has been the reaffirmation of connection and sisterhood among the musicians affected by the book.
"We were always linked, our stories follow on from each other. We are all the same songline, and it's just reaffirmed that — our connection to one another as song women."
NITV News has heard that the decision to pull the book has been welcomed by the women, but questions are still being raised about the processes and lack of cultural protocols which allowed the book to be published in the first place.
“Thanks are due to everyone who spoke out about the injustice of this lazy and disrespectful attempt at celebrating such an important part of Australia’s life - it’s female musicians who have given their all to ensure that there is a voice and soul at the heart of this country,” Ms Cheetham told NITV News.