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Working with Words: Nardi Simpson

Read Monday, 9 Nov 2020

Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay novelist and musician. She’s a member of the acclaimed musical duo Stiff Gins and the author of a new novel, Song of the Crocodile. Nardi spoke with us about oral storytelling, writing long-hand and the many qualities of Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. 

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of novelist and musician Nardi Simpson

From a very early age, I was surrounded by spoken stories. These were intimately connected (of course) to the person sharing them, but also really grounded in a specific time and place, whether part of the narrative content or the ‘performance’ of the story itself. I have vivid memories of laying on a mattress in the front yard of my nan’s house in Walgett, listening to adults share information through storytelling. I listened to those words and wondered why they filled me with so much emotion. Those early exposures to oral storytelling really initiated an interest in the power of words and their exchange. Although they weren’t written, they were my introduction to the world of narrative.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I did a lot of creative writing during my primary school years thanks to wonderfully supportive teachers. I wrote about my family and I wrote about places. I think it was a way for me to navigate the two learnings I was being exposed to – oral and written. My teenage learning years were a write-off. The formality of English classes didn’t suit my style of learning or expression and so I turned to music, expressing my creativity that way. In fact, the gains that I had made in storytelling in primary school were completely wiped away by my high-school education. As a teen, I went backwards writing-wise. I lost any confidence I had and disconnected with the written word altogether.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

Early exposures to oral storytelling really initiated an interest in the power of words and their exchange.

I’ve been a shelf-packer at Woollies, worked in retail, even in a chicken factory, but those mainstream manual jobs had little effect on my writing. The work that has influenced me most has been jobs with cultural people, knowledge and material. I was a guide at the Australian Museum for three years and during that time interracted daily with cultural materials, knowledge and makers. Then I worked at the zoo for ten years, with a program for Indigenous kids in care. I also had gigs teaching gardenening, music and language lessons with preschool kids through to adult learners. My experiences interacting with culture have been the most influential times of my adult life.

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

I’d be doing something creative. Music and performance suit my personality and my mind. I think I would have found my way to some kind of career backstage in the theatre – probably after trying desperately and failing as an actress!

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

I have been incredibly lucky in the people I have met in my career and have only received great advice and generous support so far. One person did suggest not beginning any new creative projects while I was working with my editor, but I did (out of boredom and necessity) and I found that it really helped me to focus on the editing work more.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I never have. I would so like to be the type of person that does, but my natural tendencies are to be relational and reactive to my surroundings. This means my life is full of new, unplanned things and slightly chaotic. A regular commitment to diary-writing is something that seems a little out of reach of the way I prefer to work – and I’m so stubborn that if I can’t do something right or well, I won’t do it. I think my writing is very self-reflective, anyway. I’m happy to explore that way.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I don’t approach other people’s work in that way. As a First Nations woman I am highly aware there are differing models of ‘success’ for everyone. I resonate with some stories more than others, but I don’t rank or judge them according to my own worldview.

I resonate with some stories more than others, but I don’t rank or judge them according to my own worldview

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I always write long hand and believe the physical movement of hand and pen across paper is an invitation to ancestors to become part of the creation process.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I’ve only done one book, so (thankfully) no. But even if I had created work I wasn’t happy with, I am pretty good at seeing that as part of a learning journey. You need the crappy ones and their lessons to get you closer to the good ones, I reckon.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

I’d love to have dinner with Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. She is insightful, wise, patient, compassionate, selfless and accepting. She could give me some tips.

Nardi’s debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, is out now with Hachette.

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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.