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Working with Words: Hannah Donnelly

Read Sunday, 7 Feb 2016

Hannah Donnelly created the Sovereign Trax Indigenous music blog and is co-editor of Sovereign Apocalypse, a zine focussing on emerging artists and storytellers. In the lead-up to her appearance at the Blak & Bright festival, Hannah spoke with us about language, family, secret floristry aspirations and the best writing advice she’s received so far.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Reviews were actually my first published gigs. I wrote a piece on Garrmalang Festival in Artery and started posting about our mob’s music on Canadian Indigenous music website Revolutions Per Minute. My creative writing wasn’t published until I co-created my own zine and wrote a story about surviving a climate apocalypse using Indigenous knowledges. 

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of writing is imagining sovereign futures. In my imaginings, water and country are taken to the extreme through climate change and I return the land and flows to our care in the future. I also love that I get to prioritise knowledge that was excluded from my western education. Knowledge from my family’s experiences and what I learned from those around me growing up (on Gamilaroi country) is more critical to my writing.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Sometimes the weight of decolonising things is heavy. It is confronting when you realise how much of your own practice as a writer is colonised and the fact that unravelling it will take a lifetime. The very fact I write in Australian Standard English and Australian Aboriginal English is a big barrier. I hope one day I can write in my language and the onus will be on readers to translate it rather than the other way round.

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

Mostly that other people (not just my mum) want to read my work now. It’s pretty significant for me that anyone is interested in my gwarnghi perspective. I rate other mob reading my work as my measure of success and I’ve had lots of support. It’s also deadly that other people are down for it too – even if I am writing for a black audience.

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

My writing draws on the way I communicate and that is sometimes referred to as Aboriginal English. I also use plural pronouns. I don’t need to define Aboriginal people in every second sentence because I am not the other, I am Wiradjuri. I got a bit upset one time about an editor who was ‘correcting’ my Aboriginal English. That same day [actor/writer/director] Pauline Whyman shared a yarn with me, which is some of the best advice I’ve received. In 1991 Pauline was at a writers’ workshop in Geriwerd. [Author/historian] Ruby Langford Ginibi was talking about advice her mentor, the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, gave to her: ‘Don’t let anybody change your words and change the way you write because they’re changing the way you speak, too’. As Ruby said that, wind blew the sides of the tent open and Oogderoo walked in and said, ‘That’s right, don’t let anybody correct the way you phrase things or say things because that happened when I was a young writer until I didn’t recognise my own writing…’

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

I hope one day I can write in my language and the onus will be on readers to translate it rather than the other way round.

When I was writing a piece for Chart Collective last year I got a really detailed email from one of the editors, Sophie Allan, saying my work had given her goosebumps. Those small personal responses when someone reaches out to tell ya how your work made them feel, can have such an impact. It’s also really motivating.

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

I still work full time in a community-controlled organisation. So the question for me really is: if I wasn’t working would I write more? Yes, but I also think this helps me to be realistic about writing as a career. Secretly I want to do a floristry certificate. I have mad skills in making native wreaths and headpieces.

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

I do think some people are born storytellers. Creative writing is just one form. You can practice and learn skills to improve creative writing. Some people’s rants on Facebook are better yarns than some books I’ve read. Perhaps it depends on what stories you want to consume and how you are consumed by the story.

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

Read. Read more black authors. Don’t listen to teachers or editors when they tell you to write whiter. Don’t waste years trying to stop speaking the way you did growing up. Get your mob to look at your work and provide critical feedback.                                                                                   

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

I do buy a lot of books online especially from [independent Indigenous publisher] Magabala Books. Sometimes bookshops don’t have all the authors I am after. I still go to bookshops cause I like browsing and standing in people’s way. Recently I went to a bookshop in West End while I was on holiday and they had books from every Aboriginal author I was looking for that day. That doesn’t usually happen.

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

Last year I read the spiritual native title thriller The Boundary by Nicole Watson. I worked in Native Title very briefly in an old job. Every single character in that book spoke to a real person I had met and other mob in my life. So I would choose to have a yarn with Miranda from that book and laugh hysterically at the whole system.

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

A few years ago, a mentor back home gifted me a book aboout traditional plant uses, called Bush Tucker, Boomerangs and Bandages by Michelle McKemey and Harry White. That book started my journey of reclaiming that knowledge for my writing.



Hannah will be appearing at the Fresh Blak Writers event on 20 February at the Wheeler Centre as part of Blak & Bright, the Victorian Indigenous literary festival. Hannah’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music culture and the monthly playlist can be found at

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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.