Writing Alice Springs: An interview with Eleanor Hogan

Eleanor Hogan lived and worked in Alice Springs for several years. She came back to urban life with a book, recently published in the New South Cities series, a nuanced understanding of issues like the Intervention and the myriad challenges faced by the NT’s Aboriginal population, and a sense of perspective about the things that matter.

We spoke to Eleanor about the process of creating her book and life in the frontier town of Alice Springs.

You came to Alice Springs in search of a ‘desert change’. What was it about Alice Springs that attracted you?

I say in one of the early chapters of my book that I was ‘seduced by the landscape’: the pull of the desert and arid zone country is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. I still feel a sense of exhilaration on the plane, flying over the ocean of burnt earth to Alice Springs.

I had been working in the ‘Aboriginal industry’, as it’s sometimes laconically called, on the east coast for about six years. Some of the research I conducted took me to Alice Springs to collect information about issues such as petrol-sniffing, family violence and income management in remote areas. Although this research was interesting, it was quite abstracted from the situations at hand and I felt that I would be able to engage more meaningfully with them if I was in central Australia. Remoteness also possesses certain challenges and layers of additional complexity that makes it quite a fascinating context to work in.

However, Alice Springs exerted its own curiosity. Apart from its striking setting in the MacDonnell ranges, I was aware on my early work trips of glimmers of the ‘life’ there: I remember seeing a banner advertising the Cycling Club and attending a torchsong night at a resort. I knew about the history of the Central and Western Desert art movements associated with the Centralian region, and there were clearly lots of hippies, ferals and arty types (‘bush fairies’, as a friend calls them) drifting around town and cafes. Not to mention all the lesbians: how did the country’s largest lesbian community per capita end up in the middle of the outback?

What made you want to write a book about Alice Springs?

I would say the aspects of life in Alice Springs that drew me to live there were similar to those that made me want to write about the place. I was particularly interested in the idea of Alice as a microcosm of national identity and history. It’s not a metaphor that you can take to literal extremes, but there are plenty of conundrums and paradoxes about life in Alice as the premier outback town at the heart of the country that intrigued me.

I like to think that what’s metaphorical or abstract about national identity becomes a reality when you’re living in Alice Springs. It’s the meeting place of battlers, blackfellas and do-gooder urban types such as myself. If you’re an urban professional, you often have a better quality of life than you would in your home town, but find yourself slap bang up against indigenous disenfranchisement, the schism the nation is built on. I felt that both indigenous and non-indigenous populations were to some extent traumatised by the past and present realities of frontier life, and that certain aspects of this – like violence, alcohol abuse, racist attitudes – had become normalised as result.

How did you feel when your publisher suggested it become part of the New South Cities series? Did that change the way you approached the book at all?

I was thrilled when the book was included in the Cities series, but New South made the decision after I had submitted the manuscript, so it didn’t make a huge difference to my basic ‘take’ on Alice. As far as I’m aware, the publisher still doesn’t think Alice is a city, and included Alice Springs in the series on the grounds that it was an iconic place. Personally, I think of Alice Springs as the capital of the forgotten state of Central Australia.

However, to conform to the length of the books in the series, I had to remove about twenty per cent of the original manuscript (16,000 words), which may have made it more focused in certain ways. I discussed the editorial cuts beforehand with the publisher, and we came to an agreement about what should stay and go. Some of the material I removed was the more hard-core stories about violence and social dysfunction: I was concerned that the parts of the book might be verging on a journalistic genre that’s been called ‘indigenous violent porn’. However, I wanted to include material about the indigenous experience of different aspects of life in Alice Springs, so that stayed across all dimensions.

My original conception of the book was that it would capture the bittersweet nature of living in the place, and I saw art and sport being as two major redemptive forces in Alice Springs. My regret in removing some of that ‘lifestyle’ material is that the book mightn’t have quite as much ‘light’ balancing the ‘shade’ as I would have liked.

You wanted to move ‘beyond the polarities and media debates’ about Alice Springs with this book, to throw light on the everyday texture of the town. What were some of those things you were writing against – and how is the reality more complex and nuanced than they are portrayed?

Alice Springs tends to emerge sporadically in national consciousness, often through dramatic media stories about violence, substance abuse or some form of social dysfunction. Central Australia has historically been a site for metropolitan projections, as the country’s literal and symbolic centre, as the book’s epigraph from Patrick White’s Voss suggests: the explorer’s fantasy that nothing was there except sand, a few flies and some blackfellas.

The Northern Territory Intervention is the most obvious recent example of this phenomenon: when it was implemented, central Australia and the NT suddenly became in vogue as the focus for urban people’s anxieties or aspirations about neo-liberal social policy. Once again, it’s as if central Australia is a giant petri-dish of orange dust with a few blackfellas and flies out there, available in this case for social experimentation.

I believe the Intervention has unhelpfully polarised the discussion of remote indigenous issues and led to some oversimplistic solutions being pedaled. There’s the neo-liberal agenda, one on hand, that all Aboriginal people need to do is get off the grog and the welfare then they’d get a job. And the left-wing denialism, on the other, about the degree of dysfunction that exists in some communities, accompanied by ideas that all that needs to be done is reinstate the RDA in its entirety, scrap the BasicsCard and resource the outstations, and all would be peace, joy and mungbeans for the noble hunter-gatherers. Both approaches contain certain ‘truths’, but the overall situation is too complex to be remedied so easily.

Alcohol consumption is viewed as an endemic problem for Aboriginal people living in Central Australia, but you share figures that indicate alcohol consumption for non-indigenous residents is 52 per cent higher than the national average. And you report drinking more while living in Alice Springs. Why do you think that is?

Drinking is strongly embedded within frontier life: it’s a form of entertainment, brought to the Centre mainly through Anglo-Celtic culture. Its place in local life relates partly to the image Terry Mills is currently trying to evoke of equality for Indigenous Territorians: the right for everyone to relax with a beer at the end of a hard day’s work. It’s also akin to the Irish idea of ‘having great craic’: you sit round having a drink with your mates, telling stories and seeing who can raise the biggest laugh.

Drinking is also a coping mechanism: although the Territory offers a good life, it can be a tough one, physically and psychologically, with a degree of isolation, especially if you’re not a ‘born and bred’ or if you’ve been cast adrift from your traditional country. Drinking provides an escape valve for frustrations and difficult emotions, or a form of self-medication, as it does elsewhere, but there certainly plenty of drivers for all these in central Australia.

Why do we perceive it as purely an indigenous issue?

Aboriginal drinking is more visible in Alice Springs because it’s more public: there are less safe indoor places where Aboriginal people can drink (e.g. dress codes can be prohibitive) and Aboriginal people often lack accommodation (as temporary or permanent residents), so they camp and drink in public places like the riverbed.

There’s a body of research that suggests Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have different drinking styles, but roughly speaking, less Aboriginal people drink per capita than non-Aboriginal people and Aboriginal drinkers tend to consume a higher volume of alcohol. Around a quarter of the Territory’s indigenous population indulge in extreme drinking practices (e.g. round-the-clock drinking), so they experience a higher rate of more immediate, dramatic effects, like hospitalisations for violent assaults (on estimate, one every second day in Alice Springs).

By contrast, the main pattern amongst the non-indigenous population is binge drinking (e.g. extreme weekend drinking), so the effects tend to be more intermediate or long-term. For example, there are high rates of breast cancer across the Territorian population. This could be because of a lower early detection rate due to fewer opportunities for screening, but it could also relate to consistently high levels of alcohol consumption.

The upshot of this history and these differences is that drinking tends to be seen as the problem of the ‘grog mob’, the smaller section of the indigenous population who drink to excess, because of the more public and dramatic forms it takes, rather than an issue across the whole community.

You write about ‘the guilt and discomfort of living so close to a group of people on whose behalf I claim to be working but with whom I have few meaningful encounters’. How did you deal with that guilt and discomfort?

At a personal level, I often tried to deal with the difficult emotions and issues that arose while living in Alice Springs by going for a mountain bike ride at sunset as stress relief. Many, if not all people I interviewed for the book, seemed to have a substantial creative or sporting interest which provided some sort of outlet for them.

In Alice Springs, we (in the social justice industry) also spent a lot of time at other people’s places, just talking and analysing things that happened in town or at work. I’m still taken aback when I visit Alice by how people calmly discuss over dinner something like a rape or an assault or youth suicide, or some dramatic incident that’s happened in town. Plenty complain, however, that there’s never any escape from ‘work’ in Alice, and that’s all people talk about, or some heavy-going issue like the Intervention. I got to a point where I wished we could talk about shoes or the Kardashians or something frivolous for a change.

When you work in policy and research, you’re one remove from issues that people in the ‘front line’ of service delivery work with. Those in service delivery often say they hope to make a difference by making small changes to people’s lives or focusing on the person directly in front of them.

You don’t have that direct contact in social policy, but you hope that the project you’re working on will make some positive impact on people’s lives and there are ways of assessing programs. The introduction of Opal unleaded petrol, accompanied by diversionary youth programs, is an example of a policy initiative that’s been startlingly effective in reducing petrol sniffing in central Australia. It can be interesting to look back on shifts in policy paradigms, to consider what has and hasn’t been effective (including what’s been effective that’s since been dismantled).

I think what’s galling for those of us who were involved in the self-determination policy regime is the now entirely valid questioning of how effective it was in bringing about social change in Aboriginal people’s lives and how career professionals, black and white, may have benefitted from this regime.

Alice Springs is a patchwork of many different lives and encounters, told through the framework of your own experience. Did you have to consider any ethical issues to do with incorporating the stories of others? How did you decide what you would include and what you would leave out?

When I interviewed people I asked them if they would like to see a copy of the transcript and the final draft of the interview: I encouraged them to read the latter, and I chased them up if I thought there was anything in the interview that might be controversial or that they might be uncomfortable with. There is a fair amount of ‘vox pop’ material in the book, and I changed all the names of people and some places in the conversational material that I used.

Some people, white and black, declined an interview or didn’t answer calls and emails, which is par for the course with journalistic projects but disappointing when you would have liked to hear some significant figures’ views on certain issues. At the same time, I didn’t want to descend into a general survey of the population and end up publishing a palimpsest of quotations so I tried to be strategic about whom I approached. I also tried not to interview people whose opinions were already substantially represented in the public domain (e.g. on Radio National, in New Matilda, etc).

I avoided including commentary on areas where books had already been published: for example, IAD has published several books where traditional Arrernte talk about their culture and spirituality, an area where I would have been entirely out of my depth and which I felt would be inappropriate for me to cover.

You live in Melbourne now. Has living in Central Australia changed your view of urban Australian culture and values at all? If so, how?

One of the good things about central Australia is that it’s a ‘broad church’: you can’t avoid your own ‘other’ and you get used to socialising with people who don’t hold the exactly same views as you. Alice Springs has a certain grittiness that makes it easier to live more honestly. It’s not just the higher density of ‘call a spade a spade’ types in the outback environment: you are thrown back on your own resources and challenged about your basic views, including whether some of your ideological beliefs work – or have worked – in their application.

I’m wary of getting into the ‘first world problems’, holier-than-thou stuff, but living in central Australia made me wonder about some of the issues we prioritise in urban contexts: surveillance by Myki, the perils of shopping for sour dough bread, and so forth.

I want to be careful saying this, because I know people who work in the humanities (and who feel undervalued by the rationalisation of the Australia academy) and I don’t want to discount their work wholesale. However, my time in central Australia led me to think there was a lopsided emphasis among urban elites on media representations and symbolic issues at the expense of a focus on basic need, especially in relation to social justice and difference. The majority of urban Australians are immensely privileged, without really acknowledging it: the country continues to skip like a stone across the stormy waters of the GFC. Yet two million Australians live in poverty and remote-living indigenous people experience the worst circumstances of all.

I would like to say I came back from central Australia a changed and better person – a kind of enlightened, post-colonial Rip van Winkle, who no longer sweated the small stuff. I’m not so sure about that, but I think Alice gave me more of a sense of perspective about the things that matter.