First Nations Australia Writers Workshop

By Lucy De Kretser

The Wheeler Centre’s Lucy De Kretser was recently a participant in the inaugural First Nations Australian Writers Workshop in Queensland. She reports back on her highlights, from writers as diverse as Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Anita Heiss and Sam Wagan Watson.

On May 9 and 10 2013, emerging and established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers from across Australia came together on the traditional lands of the Turrbul and Jagara Nations for the inaugural First Nations Australian Writers Workshop. The workshop was presented by the First Nations Australian Writers Network, established to foster a vibrant Aboriginal writing sector. The Wheeler Centre was lucky enough to participate in what were an inspiring few days of listening, learning and discussion at the State Library of Queensland.

From left to right: David Unaipon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal - Kath Walker, Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis.

From left to right: David Unaipon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal - Kath Walker, Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis.

‘It’s about who we are and where we want to be’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia, and yet as chair of the First Nations Australian Writers Network, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, joked in her introduction to the workshop, literature is often seen as the ‘poor cousin’ of the Indigenous arts. This is one of the reasons that the network was seeded in 2012.

‘The depth of talent and experience that exists within our community is extraordinary’ says writer and FNAWN working party member Cathy Craigie, ‘and it is now time for us to work together to strengthen our future’. In this spirit, the workshop began with a tribute to Indigenous writing greats of the past, David Unaipon, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis.

‘It’s about who we are and where we want to be,‘ said Reed-Gilbert.

‘Into the right voice’: Alexis Wright

After a wonderful Welcome to Country by Shannon Ruska, we were treated on Day One of the workshop to an interview via live cross with Miles Franklin award-winning writer Alexis Wright. Dr. Sandra Phillips asked Wright about her writing process, her award-winning book Carpentaria, and her forthcoming release, The Swan Book.

Wright recalled that when working on the manuscript of Carpentaria, she overheard two old men in Alice Springs talking in the same style as her grandmother, and thought ‘[I’ve] gotta write it in our voice. How our people speak. How our Elders speak.’ This meant rewriting the the entire work from scratch ‘into the right voice’, but Wright felt it was worth it. She spoke candidly about her difficulty in getting the book published, saying that it had ‘Aboriginal written all over it in an industry that wasn’t really interested in those voices at that time,’ and credited Ivor Indyk at Giramondo Publishing with taking the risk and believing in the book. Phillips suggested that perhaps it takes ‘a small publisher to do the big books’ and Wright agreed that this might just be the case.

Her forthcoming release, The Swan Book, will also be published by Giramondo. Wright describes it as set in the future, with Aboriginal people still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. ‘That concerns us too, as Indigenous people. It’s our country,’ she said. The book will be released in August.

‘Do people play ‘Indigenous tennis’?’: Herb Wharton

In the afternoon we were lucky enough to hear from some of Australia’s most esteemed writers, in a panel discussion involving Kim Scott, Herb Wharton, Dr. Anita Heiss, and Melissa Lucashenko as chair. The panel discussed what calling yourself a writer means, the label ‘Indigenous writer’, and whether or not these terms are important. Heiss explained that Indigenous people are dealing with boxes and labels all the time, and these are rarely helpful, going on to say that while she is proud to write ‘Indigenous literature’ she doesn’t refer to herself as an ‘Indigenous writer.’ Heiss quoted Uncle Herb, who once responded to the question about whether he writes Indigenous literature with: ‘Do people play Indigenous tennis?’

Uncle Herb read us a poem about Indigenous women drovers and told us about purchasing his first typewriter with an advance given to him by the University of Queensland Press. He also jokingly explained that his excuse for not writing ‘the most famous words’ yet is that it is too noisy where he lives, in Cunnamulla!

Uncle Herb urged that learning to read is just as important as learning to write, and revealed that his poems are ‘like an ungraded bush track’ before editing. Kim Scott agreed that reading is an important part of being a writer, and that writing groups are really important, ‘especially for Aboriginal writers, to nurture each other.’

‘I’m gonna write us in’: Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss

Explaining her motivation for writing, Anita Heiss said that when she read books by non-Indigenous writers, she didn’t see people like her reflected in the literature, and recognised this as a problem. Writing Indigenous people into the literary landscape is one of the reasons she decided to start writing. Kim Scott elaborated on this point, saying that ‘the conventional narrative [about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders] in Australia is something very like defeat’, which is not the truth of Indigenous experience. He believes that writing can be a process of decolonisation, a sentiment echoed by Melissa Lucashenko: ‘Every time an Aboriginal person picks up a pen … it’s always a political act.’

Later in the day, Maori writer Anton Blank explored these ideas further, saying that ‘the shadow of colonisation … positions us as the victim, [but] why not say I am powerful. I am amazing. I am free.’ He explained that in contemporary Maori writing a whole ‘continuum of experience is being represented,’ which is a positive thing. Picking up on Heiss’s point about not seeing herself reflected in literature, Blank suggested that often non-Indigenous writers are ‘scared to touch it, scared to write us in,’ which he sees as a shame and a missed opportunity.

‘Comedy is healing’: Sam Wagan Watson

Part of the workshop involved hearing international perspectives. One of these was offered by First Nations Canadian storyteller and comedian Sharon Shorty. Shorty is from the Tlingit, Northern Tutchone and Norwegian people. She discussed how she was raised with the storytelling tradition of her southern Yukon community. ‘Stories helped us survive, same as here,’ she said, ‘Minus forty [degrees] and forty [degrees] have one thing in common – they’re hard to survive!’ Shorty reappeared later in the day as ‘Grandma Suzie,’ sharing with us some of the traditional stories of the Raven clan and a comedy routine that had the room roaring with laughter over Grandma’s attraction to the fella on Australia’s fifty dollar note, Ngarrindjeri writer and inventor David Unaipon.

Later in the day, poet Sam Wagan Watson spoke about the power of humour, saying that one of his biggest influences was comedian Bill Cosby, who knew the importance of a good laugh. ‘Our mob do!’ he said.

‘But I’m Black/(And I write)’ Lionel Fogarty

Lionel Fogarty, who has written ten books of poetry, explained that the first writing he saw was in Cherbourg, with people writing letters to family and community in gaol, ‘We had an oral tradition until the authorities got involved. Then we had to write to the gaols.’ He described how being involved in political activism eventually led him to poetry, and read a poem by his son ‘But I’m Black’, asking the audience to repeat ‘And I write’ at the end of each line. An enthusiastic audience made this a powerful moment.

In her closing address, Kerry Reed-Gilbert described the three days gathered together for the workshop as ‘pure magic’ and I’m sure all who attended would agree with her. There was a lot going on – workshops, panel discussions, industry roundtables, brainstorming and networking sessions, but the real magic came from the sharing and generosity of participating writers – both established and emerging, who shared their work, insights, humour and warmth in abundance.

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