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Working with Words: Kerry Reed-Gilbert

Read Monday, 19 Oct 2015

Kerry Reed-Gilbert is a poet and the chairperson of the First Nations Australian Writers Network (FNAWN). A Wiradjuri woman, her work has been translated into French, Korean, Dutch and other languages. Here Kerry speaks about the delights and disappointments of working as an Aboriginal writer in Australia today … and why she would like to have dinner with Samantha from Bewitched.


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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Black woman, Black Life, a poetry collection published in 1996.

What’s the best part of your job?

If you want to be the best you have to read the best.

Currently I am the chairperson of the First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN). So, for me, the best part is meeting up with all the First Nations writers, poets and storytellers and knowing I’m making a difference in how Aboriginal people are heard and portrayed within the literary world. It’s also great being able to work with committed non-Aboriginal people involved in the literary sector – people who want to make a difference.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Not being able to pick up an award-winning book from an [Australian] author that doesn’t include a token blackfella. Authors seem to believe they can’t write a good story unless they have included one. As an Aboriginal person, you know that 95% of the time when you pick up a book, the reality is that somewhere within the pages, the storyline has an Aboriginal person being dirty, drunk, lazy or selling themselves for a bottle of beer.

My father, the late [activist, writer and poet] Kevin Gilbert, said if you want to be the best you have to read the best, so I have a habit of always looking for award-winning books and authors. But when I take those books home, I often find that these award-winners have written their story in a way that is degrading to Aboriginal people as human beings. I haven’t seen any nationality as consistently degraded as I have seen Aboriginal people degraded in some books.

I think that the writers, with their portrayal of Aboriginal people, are unknowingly or knowingly (take your pick) feeding the preconceptions that some of their readers have. I am continually horrified at the stereotypical images authors include in their books.

I also believe the professional judges assist in that stereotyping. Why do these judges continue to reward authors for their racist portrayal of us mob? I think people might learn from Kate Grenville, who acknowledges First Nations Australia Peoples as a proud part of the human race. I would recommend that authors have their books assessed for cultural appropriateness prior to publication.

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

Being awarded a two-month fellowship in 2003 by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board for poetry and writing at Omi International Arts Center in New York.

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

The best: just write. The worst: just write – it’s not as easy as that.

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

That I’m deadly and that somebody really loved my poetry or my writing. I find it hard to take compliments.

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

If I’d had the opportunity, I would have been an eccentric artist.

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

Everything can be learned. If you are willing to learn, you can write a bestseller. It helps also if you have an amazing teacher and/or mentor or belong to a writers’ group. Here in Canberra we have the Us Mob Writing Group, a group of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders with a passion to write and share and learn.

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

Go for it. Read and read some more. If you want to be good at something, you have to learn from the best. I always try to buy books that have won awards because I want to know why that book stood out from the rest. Also, it’s a good idea to attend workshops and, if possible, join a Writers Centre. If you’re a First Nations Australia poet, writer or storyteller – join FNAWN.

I am continually horrified at the stereotypical images authors include in their books.

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

Bookshops. There is nothing better than browsing and picking up the book in your hand.

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

Samantha Stevens from Bewitched. I could get her to time travel to all the places I want to go with a twitch of her nose. Then I could write about them all. After that we would have a big feed, she could have a glass of wine, I’d have a Bacardi and Coke and we would talk about all we had seen (all the while, running the storylines through my head).

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

Roots by Alex Haley. It shows the horror and reality of a people’s struggle. It’s about the African-American struggle, but it is similar to ours.

Kerry is working on a memoir, The Cherry Picker’s Daughter, and has been shortlisted for Overland’s Story Wine Competition

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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.