Mudrooroo was born in 1938 at Narrogin, Western Australia. He lived in Melbourne in the 1950s, and travelled throughout south-east Asia, particularly Thailand. He spent six years in India, three of those years as a Buddhist monk. He has had a successful academic career and instigated Aboriginal studies courses in many Australian universities.
Mudrooroo has been known by three other names: Colin Johnson, Mudrooroo Narogin and Mudrooroo Nyoongah. He has retained “Mudrooroo” as his nom de plume. The name changes were a political decision prompted by the Australian Bicentenary of 1988. “Mudrooroo” means “paperbark”, “Narogin” is after his place of birth, and “Nyoongah” is the name of the people with whom he claimed identity.
Mudrooroo has produced many works of fiction and poetry, as well as plays and critical studies. His three most successful novels are Wild Cat Falling (1965), Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983) and Master of the Ghost Dreaming (1991). Wild Cat Falling was considered to be the first novel by an Aboriginal author, and is the story of an Aboriginal youth in the 1960s. Doctor Wooreddy is a fictional revision of Tasmanian history, especially the myth of Aboriginal extinction in that region. As such, it acts as a counter-history of white settlement, presenting it as an invasion rather than a discovery. The story of Doctor Wooreddy is retold in Master of the Ghost Dreaming. Mudrooroo disliked the realism of Doctor Wooreddy and recast the narrative in magic realist mode. The end result is both subversive and fascinating. Both of these novels suggest an alternative way of knowing history, and show how writing can perform acts of decolonisation.
Any discussion of Mudrooroo's work, however, is accompanied by the controversy surrounding his identity. His sister went to the media denying Mudrooroo's Aboriginality – she claimed that he is of African-American ancestry, rather than Aboriginal Australian. Mudrooroo replied to this saying that his dark skin ensured he was always regarded as Aboriginal by society and was treated as such, and therefore his life experience was that of an Aborigine. A huge public debate followed about definitions of Aboriginality. His claim to Aboriginality was challenged by members of the Nyoongah community, and much was made of Mudrooroo's uncertain identity by the media, particularly in relation to his position as a prominent author and activist. Mudrooroo's prior statements about Sally Morgan did not assist his cause; he had said of Morgan's My Place (1987) that it made Aboriginality acceptable so long as you were “young, gifted and not very black”.
Mudrooroo retired from public life following the controversy. However, his contribution to both Australian literature and the ways that indigenous people can use literature for empowerment as a social and political act remain. He has also sparked debates about important issues for Australian race relations and the role of literature within those relations.