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Working with Words: Daniel Browning

Read Thursday, 18 Feb 2016

Daniel Browning is a radio broadcaster and arts writer and a descendant of the Bundjalung and Kullilli peoples of far northern New South Wales and south-western Queensland. He produces and presents Awaye! on RN and has guest-edited contemporary arts journal Artlink. In the lead-up to the Blak & Bright festival, Daniel chatted with us about radio storytelling, creative writing and why Miss Havisham from Great Expecations is one of the saddest people in fiction.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

This is embarrassing but my first published piece of writing was something dreadful I wrote for a university poetry competition. I won’t elaborate further except to say it was gothic, overblown and adjectival.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best thing I get to do is to work with some of the most interesting, passionate and creative people working in this country today. If it weren’t for the people I meet and interview on the radio, I wouldn’t do it. I’m constantly surprised by the depth of talent and humility in the Indigenous arts community, nationally. There is such a strong vein of storytelling in everything that we do as creative people in the arts. Everyone I speak to is passionate and committed to something other than themselves. I find that incredibly humbling.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst thing is that often – for the imagined appetite of a radio-listening audience – we have to cut things down to a more listenable length. The fashion now is for shorter pieces, which people are more likely to listen to on mobile devices. I think some stories unfold slowly, and the reward is often at the very end. Story is not instantaneous. 

I don’t think of my job as necessarily creative. I write everything I say on the radio before I say it, generally. In an interview I often go off-script, though. You can prepare only so much, then you have to listen to find the tangents where you should go – the unfolding of story.

I get to work with some of the most interesting, passionate and creative people … I’m constantly surprised by the depth of talent and humility in the Indigenous arts community.

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

This is not so much as a moment as a period in my life. I lived in China very briefly in 2014. I’d taken leave without pay from the ABC and decided to try my luck overseas. I applied for an internship as a staff writer and creative consultant for an international art collective called island6, based in the art district in Shanghai. I was hired on the basis of the published work I’d done for the contemporary arts journal Artlink – I’d edited a few specialist Indigenous issues of the magazine. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my job in Shanghai was to generate stories – which they called ‘blurbs’ – about artwork being produced in the gallery. I got to write creatively, where truth didn’t particularly matter. It was entirely a work of the imagination, untrammelled and free. At the same time, the blurbs I wrote will be discarded and overwritten.

One ‘blurb’ particularly sticks in my mind. It was a painting of a Chinese vase on antiqued rice paper with LED butterflies circling from the neck of the vase, a recurring motif in the gallery. I called the artwork Freudian Instinct and I likened the sinuous curves and fluted neck of the vase to a warm naked body. It could be a metaphor for death and rebirth or it might be a reliquary for the ashes of a loved one. It was about seeing objects as ciphers for emotional states, and the difference between the object and its representation – in 100 words or less!

Closer to home, I was asked to present some writing for a series of talks called ‘Country, Sky, Water, Fire’ by Indigenous writers in 2013 at the Wheeler Centre, meditating on the subject of water and the Aboriginal notion of country. I identify strongly as saltwater, and the sea particularly shaped my identity as an Aboriginal person, because I originate from the far north coast of New South Wales. Bruce Pascoe and Tony Birch invited me to be one of the writers, along with Alexis Wright and Dylan Coleman. It was unnerving to be in such company. I went ahead and wrote a piece about my sense of country being tidal, almost under the waves. I drew a parallel between the near-death experiences at sea of three generations of men in my family, and my own near-drowning as a child. I was pulled from the shallows by the undertow into a crevice in the basalt headland at Fingal. Luckily, I was spat out!   

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

The best and worst advice is the old KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid. We often hear this in journalism. But most of the time, it’s just not that simple.

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

I’ve been criticised for being timid. I’ve certainly overwritten. I’m generally not surprised by criticism – I try to understand when I make a mistake.

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

I’m quite introverted so I think I’d be hiding in an archive somewhere. I always wanted to work in a library.

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

Certainly it can be taught. But I think the best creative writers are naturally adept at it from childhood, and for them, the imagination is where we go to escape the ordinary and the everyday. I think the best writers dwell in the imagination, where everything is possible.

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

I think the best creative writers are naturally adept at it from childhood, and for them, the imagination is where we go to escape the ordinary and the everyday.

Read as much as you can. 

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

Both – but there’s nothing quite so tactile as the leaves of a old book, with indecipherable handwritten notes in the margins.

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

Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, who has to be one of the saddest people in fiction. I find her utterly believable, yet deeply disturbing. She is twisted and abject, the perpetually heartbroken victim of misplaced love. 

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

It’s a bit obscure but I was deeply affected by an essay about ethnocide by Pierre Clastres, a French anthropologist who worked among Indian populations in South America. He argues that the west is ethnocidal precisely because it is capitalist, and that industrial society is a destructive machine. It’s quite a sobering read.

Daniel will be presenting the Big Stories, Big Genres discussion with Tony Briggs and Bruce Pascoe on February 20 as part of Blak & Bright, Victoria’s Indigenous literary festival.

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Acknowledgment of Country

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.