No Sunlight Singing

About the book

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No Sunlight Singing is an Australian novel about a young Aboriginal woman, and the brutal treatment inflicted on her and her people in northern Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. First published in October 1960, it was hailed as "probably the most merciless exposure of the 'aboriginal problem' to date".

Long out of print, No Sunlight Singing is now made freely available on this website.

Based on the first-hand observations of the author, Joe "Yorky" Walker, the book tells the story of Mary, from her childhood on a cattle station and on an enforced "walkabout" though the harsh desert, through mission schooling and life as a domestic servant, to its final scenes in tropical Darwin where Mary, now with a new baby, struggles to find a way to secure a better life for her daughter.

The cruel dilemma faced by Mary, and her part Aboriginal mother, Polly, before her, was that the only hope they could see of freeing their children from a life of injustice would be if they could manage to be accepted as whites. But this could only be done by making a complete break with their Aboriginal people, and shunning the family and friends they had grown up with.

Yorky Walker in later life

Yorky Walker around 1965.

A criticism of the book made by many readers, before and after publication, was that it surely exaggerated the cruelty inflicted on the Aborigines, and the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women. Walker always maintained that his book was true to life, and that if anything, he had toned down the descriptions of brutality and injustice. Since No Sunlight Singing was first published, several factual books about the period have appeared, painting a picture at least as grim as that of the novel. Some examples are listed below, under Factual basis.

More fundamentally, Walker's aim was not to depict whites as sadists, but as people who did not recognise the common humanity of themselves and Aborigines. In a letter to an early reader of the manuscript he said, "Almost all white people in the Territory treat aboriginals as animals. Treat them carelessly, ruthlessly, brutally or kindly — just as they would treat animals."

Yorky Walker wrote No Sunlight Singing so that white Australian readers might get an inkling of what it would be like to be treated as less than human — to ask, as Paul Keating would later put it, "how would I feel if this was done to me?"

The last fifty years have seen the appearance of many literary works dealing with Australian Aboriginal life, many of them by Aboriginal writers. However, when No Sunlight Singing was first published, in 1960, almost all attempts to depict the conditions faced by Aborigines had come from a handful of white authors. This book is a noteworthy, but largely neglected, part of that history.

Beyond its historical significance, this novel may still have things to say to us today. You, the reader, can be the judge of that.

Factual basis

Readers of No Sunlight Singing who would like to learn more about the situation of Aborigines in northern Australia in the mid-20th century can consult a number of books that have appeared since the novel was first published. Here are some of the most directly relevant titles.

Catherine and Ronald Berndt: End of an Era: Aboriginal Labour in the Northern Territory, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1987.

As young anthropologists, Catherine and Ronald Berndt investigated conditions on the Vesteys cattle stations in the Northern Territory in 1944-46. Their findings were not published for forty years, for reasons connected with their meticulous exposure of the exploitation and mistreatment of Aborigines on the stations. They describe how the full-time Aboriginal workers generally received no wages at all, and the rations issued to them were often insufficient to sustain healthy life. Other Aborigines living on the stations were even worse off. The station owners claimed the cost of supporting these "dependants" as a reason for denying wages to the workers, but the dependants were often forced to work part time to receive even a few scraps of offal. Those who were too old or infirm to work had to rely on a share of the meagre rations given to others. Aborigines were drawn into the station camps because their traditional way of life was no longer possible since the pastoralists had taken over the best land and water sources. Once there, they became habituated to items like flour, tea and tobacco, that were only available from the white man, however stingily they were doled out. Aborigines were born and died on the same station, reluctant to leave permanently because they wanted to stay in their own "country". In any case, the station owners regarded "their" blacks as a part of their property, and any attempt by Aborigines to move to another station would most likely result in them being returned by other station owners or the police. However, the Aborigines were sent away from the stations on "walkabout" at times of the year when their labour was not required. Housing was usually cobbled together by the Aborigines themselves out of scrap materials. Sanitation was often non-existent. Physical violence was regularly used as a means of disciplining Aborigines. Aboriginal children received no education other than being trained as stockmen (or "stockboys", as they were called throughout their lives) or domestic servants. Prostitution of Aboriginal women was widespread, and white men took it for granted that Aboriginal women — and in some cases, under-age girls — would be available for their sexual gratification. When the Berndts carried out their study, Aboriginal populations on the stations were in steep decline because of low birth rates and high maternal and infant mortality rates. Their advocacy of better conditions was brushed aside by Vesteys management, who thought the solution to their labour force's dying out was to recruit more Aborigines from among those still thought to be living in the bush.

Frank Stevens: Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry, Australian National University Press, 1974.

Another survey in the 1960s showed that conditions had not greatly improved in twenty years. The Government had started making some payments to station owners to subsidise the support of non-working Aborigines. In some cases the amount actually spent on supporting the Aborigines was only a fraction of that received from the Government, so that the station made a profit on the arrangement, a practice known as "nigger farming".

C. D. Rowley: The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Australian National University Press, 1970.

This is the first part of a three-volume work, Aboriginal Policy and Practice, a project of the Social Science Research Council of Australia. This volume covers developments from European settlement till the years just after the Second World War. It includes some of the history of the Aboriginal Ordinances, which kept Aborigines in the dependent status referred to by characters in No Sunlight Singing as being "under Native Affairs". From 1936, the "Chief Protector" of Aborigines for the Northern Territory had the power to exempt a part-Aboriginal from the provisions of the Aboriginal Ordinances, but only a handful of exemptions were granted each year. All other people of Aboriginal descent were subject to sweeping controls as to where and how they could live. This discriminatory legal framework did not start to change until the 1950s.

Andrew Markus: Governing Savages, Allen & Unwin, 1990.

This book looks at relations between whites and Aborigines in the Northern Territory since the Commonwealth Government took control of it in 1911. Making extensive use of government archives, it focuses on white attitudes and the resulting government policies. The background to official thinking through much of this period was the White Australia Policy. In 1935, Dr Cecil Cook, Chief Protector of Aboriginals of the Northern Territory wrote that, "the native actually has become an intruder in a white man's country. Politically, the Northern Territory must always be governed as a white man's country, by the white man for the white man." (page 90) The book has chapters on the missions and the criminal justice system, as well as the pastoral industry.

Deborah Bird Rose: Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991.

Combines oral history and archival material to paint a picture of violence against Aborigines, exploitation of black labour and sexual abuse of Aboriginal women, leading eventually to the land rights walk-outs of the 1960s and 1970s.

Publishing history

Cover of first edition

1960 hardback edition

Cover of Dutch edition

1962 Dutch translation

Cover of paperback edition

1966 paperback edition

The first edition of No Sunlight Singing was published in hard covers in London in 1960 by Hutchinson. The cover art was by the Australian painter, Arthur Boyd.

A Dutch translation was published in 1962 by Erven JJ Tijl NV, of Zwolle in the Netherlands, under the title De Zon is Wreed (the sun is cruel). The translator was Marijke van de Merwe and the jacket design was by P. A. H. van der Harst.

e-book cover

2010 electronic edition

In 1966 a paperback edition was published in London by The New English Library, under the Four Square Book imprint. Evidently aimed at the mass market, the cover featured a rather Eurasian looking heroine showing plenty of cleavage, under the tag "Her choice — a brutal husband or disgrace?"

For several decades the book was out of print, and available only from a handful of libraries and second-hand dealers.

In 2010, a free electronic edition was released on this website, in a variety of digital formats.

Critical reception

No Sunlight Singing was reviewed by Australia's two premier literary journals, Meanjin and Overland (both, happily, still being published fifty years later), as well as in several mass-circulation newspapers and magazines.

The book received little critical attention after these initial reviews. It is not discussed in either Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (2nd edition, 1989) by J.J. Healy, or Black Words, White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929 to 1988 (1989) by Adam Shoemaker (although it is listed in the bibliography of Healy's book).

Extracts from some of the reviews of No Sunlight Singing appear below.

From the review by Len Fox in Overland, No 20, April 1961:

Australian writing in recent years has seen a number of novels on our Aboriginals. But the "Aboriginal problem" consists of so many different problems that there is plenty of room for more books, and Joe Walker's "No Sunlight Singing" (Hutchinson, 20/-) is a welcome addition

Written by a worker who has knocked around the Inland for many years and has been a union secretary and editor in Darwin, this book is at its best when describing white attitudes towards the Aboriginals. At times this is done effectively by incidents (stark and sometimes almost horrifying) a little off the main plot. At other times it comes through the curt dialogue of the Aboriginal people as they talk to one another ...

White society in the North is depicted vividly. The author is not so convincing in his depiction of the part-Aboriginal girl Mary who is his heroine; perhaps he sees the Aboriginal people too much as people identical with white people except for skin color, instead of as people basically equal but with differences due to different background and environment.

But in the main the story has life and reality, and if the ending lacks something in dramatic power, it correctly ends on a note of dilemma — for to many Aboriginal people our present policies mean that they find acceptance (and partial acceptance only) with white people only by rejecting worthwhile values of their own people.

From the review by Marjorie Barnard, in the twentieth anniversary issue of Meanjin, December 1960:

... No Sunlight Singing by Joe Walker is the sort of novel most calculated to be unpalatable to the national ego. It is written with an avowed purpose, to show up the ill-usage of the aborigines, particularly the women, by the master white race. It is horrifying in the cruelty it portrays and still more horrifying in its hopelessness. There is no way up for a half-caste girl; even normally kind and well intentioned people have no kindness or understanding for her. Yet, in the terms of Shylock's famous outburst, she breathes and feels like any other human being.

No Sunlight Singing is, admittedly, a piece of special pleading. Almost all the aborigines are drawn as gentle, good, long-suffering, brave. The whites, almost without exception, are brutal, lecherous and hard-hearted. It is not possible for me to gauge the full authenticity of the picture, and on its authenticity much of its effect depends.

The story, apart from the propaganda, is a tragic one. It begins with a half-caste child playing in the dust; a passing stockman, for no particular reason, lays the lash of his stock-whip across her back. The moral is 'keep away from white men'. Mary's whole life is a struggle to turn away from her black heritage and be accepted into the white race. With the dark people there is kindness, but everything else is the heritage of the white people.

Hers is the pitiful struggle that persists through every cruelty and indignity. Mary does climb into the world of her choice, but at a sacrifice that robs it of all victory.

Although this novel has a mission, Walker is wise enough not to preach. He lets the story speak for itself. It sticks like a burr in the reader's mind and in so far it is a success...

From a review by Roland Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 1961:

Joe Walker's novel on the dispossessed aborigines of the Northern Territory, "No Sunlight Singing," ... is probably the most merciless exposure of the "aboriginal problem" to date...

The author has battled around the Territory since 1928 in almost every conceivable kind of job, and has lived and worked among the aborigines. This reviewer remembers him in Darwin in 1948 as an extreme Left-wing union secretary and editor of the "Northern Standard" newspaper...

The city reader will probably ask: "Does this novel present a true and fair picture of the plight of the aborigines in the Northern Territory?" "Is it based on facts?" To both questions, the answer is an unequivocal "Yes!"...

"No Sunlight Singing" is mainly concerned with the degradation of aboriginal mission-trained girls who are sent out to stations as domestics...

Mr Walker's grim novel is well worthy of attention from all those who are prone to feel that South African apartheid and Little Rock prejudice have no place in this country.

From a review by Alan Nicholls in The Age, 18 February 1961:

... Joe Walker is no mere tub-thumping propagandist. He knows his subject intimately, and he knows his people. Out of this come cruel but wholly credible pictures of the doomed dark race and of the sadistic men who have bullied and beaten them into submission...

Joe Walker has not only produced a passionate plea for the oldest Australians. He has also written a novel of power, beautiful at times, in spite of, or because of, its anger.

From a review by Gordon Williams in the Australasian Post, 18 May 1961:

... This is a book that tells frankly and shatteringly of the way of the white man — or of many of the white men — with the aboriginal in the "recent past," and we who now hold the aboriginals' country will not find much comfort in it.

Primarily, the story is of the trials of aboriginal women and girls, and girls of mixed blood, in the raw outback, when such women were treated as "things" to be used, and thrown aside...

Many readers may think that the story is overdrawn, overcolored — but it is not more than a decade since the present writer saw, or was given indisputable evidence of, many of the things that Mr Walker details in No Sunlight Singing.

This book has its challenge, and its message, for today.

From a review by Velma McIlraith in Truth, 3 December 1960:

Joe Walker ... has written an angry protest, besides which the works of "angry young men" pale into insignificance.

His novel is shocking to the point of revulsion. It is fuller of sex and sadism than a Micky Spillane thriller.

It contains little that could be classed as fine writing ... Yet it is very nearly a great book.

In some ways it is reminiscent of Xavier Herberts's Capricornia, one of the few significant Australian novels of the past 30 years, but it carries the indictment of the white man further...

From a review in a news-sheet of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria), February 1961:

This novel, published late last year, is strongly recommended to members. The author, a foundation member of this Council, spent many years in different parts of the Northern Territory. In that time, he learnt much of the realities of life for the Aboriginal people of that state. This powerful book gives a grim but accurate picture of these realities. The exploitation of the young Aboriginal girls has been one of the saddest aspects of the degradation of the tribal people, and this novel uses this as its central theme.

This book is particularly valuable as a vivid and living picture of just what assimilation means as the present terms offered by the Federal Government. On these terms, all loyalties to Aboriginal friends and family must be abandoned before the individual Aborigine is grudgingly and patronizingly accepted into the non-Aboriginal community.

This moving account of the present tragedy of our Aboriginal people should be an inspiration to all who read it to work harder to make a proper place for them as a people whose culture and traditions are to be respected.