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Working with Words: Alison Whittaker

Read Friday, 11 Mar 2016

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi woman from Gunnedah and Tamworth in north-western New South Wales. Her debut poetry collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, has just been released through Magabala Books.

Alison spoke to us about the joys of lingering, owning the label of ‘self-righteously aggro’, and the earth-shattering opportunities made available to her through the black&write! fellowship program.

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Photo of Alison Whittaker

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The very first was an A4-Reflex spiral-bound anthology that my high school writing class made as a memento in 2010. It’s mouldy now, but I still read it now and then. My first piece of writing that wasn’t self-published was a triptych of poems about legacy, community and rebirth in my university magazine. These were the modest building blocks of my most recent publication, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, and went on to also form part of a recent memoir in Meanjin.

What’s the best part of your job? 

Writing makes a job out of overthinking – so I get to percolate all that messy inner stuff as part of a (mostly) paid and respected intellectual tradition. It’s very indulgent. If I wasn’t a writer, that would be called angst.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Writing makes a job out of overthinking – you have to work hard to peel your life away from that.

I was once told that my work was ‘self-righteous aggro’. As a young writer, it threw me into detached writing for a long time. Now I think of it fondly. Who doesn’t want to write stuff that’s aggressive or self-assured?

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

A two-part moment – receiving a black&write! fellowship from the State Library of Queensland in early 2015, and the release of the manuscript that emerged afresh from the fellowship, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, just this month. Both were pretty personally earth-shattering.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

To linger. It was the best advice.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I can’t say that I’ve read or heard anything altogether surprising about my work. I was once told that my work was ‘self-righteous aggro’. As a young writer, it threw me into detached writing for a long time. Now I think of it fondly. Who doesn’t want to write stuff that’s aggressive or self-assured? Isn’t that, more or less, the goal?

Book cover: Lemons in the Chicken Wire

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Trying to learn, and quickly giving up, different musical instruments.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

In the sense that creative writing is a little, invisible part of even an average day and life – I think the question of whether or not writing can be taught is precarious.

Sure, it’s difficult to teach something that we slowly pick up through conversation, life and the quiet stuff, but in my mind, that’s only because there’s not much to build upon beyond that adaptive, formative voice that everyone has. Writing happens in a context that prioritises and values certain ways of making that voice. If we just try to teach that very institutionalised literary way of writing, then we are wasting what’s brought to the table.

Teaching writing can and should be more. Making the creative process visible and malleable for those who create is at once crucial and notoriously difficult. Once it’s visible, you can almost trace how creativity gets made and harness that methodology.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write volumes and volumes, and be bold in writing bad things. The infinite monkey theorem is right – good writing is a numbers game involving a lot of awful writing.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both! If I’m after a particular book, I’ll shop online. If I’m looking to broaden my tastes, I go into a brick and mortar.

Write volumes and volumes, and be bold in writing bad things.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

Interpreting fiction widely, I would have to say Madison Paige from the narrative game Heavy Rain. Her character was so under-explored – especially for a game that had so many lush branches of consequence and development. She was an insomniac investigative photojournalist turned accomplice whose role was inexplicably to nurture men, be ogled by men and then be tortured by them. The deeper I went into the story, the more I hoped for glimpses of growth or complexity that never came. There should have been more to her. I’d want to know what that was.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I’m not sure it would have the same impact if I re-read it now, but Dale Peck’s The Law of Enclosures broke ground with me when I was quite young. I was starved of both queer and broadly experimental writing when I started writing broadly experimental and queer things. It gave me a taste for malleability of form between fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry. It also made me hungry for viscera and sentimentality in writing, but not in a violent or gooey way. I can still remember the opening lines of one chapter, ‘Rolling Back the Stone’: 

‘Now I enter my father. The skin which has served as his fortress all his life and protected him against me offers no resistance, and I crawl through all the holes left open … From every orifice I take something out with me.’ 

It was inspiring in ways, but it left a space where race should be that I’ve since been trying to fill in my writing. The Law of Enclosures challenged my writing by what it was and what it failed to be.

Lemons in the Chicken Wire, Alison Whittaker’s collection of poems about love, sex, culture and the rural borderlands, was released by Magabala Books in March 2016.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.