Monday musings on Australian literature: In conversation with Black Words

Today* marks the first day of NAIDOC Week 2014, which will run through to July 13. In honour of this, and of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers, I thought I’d devote this week’s Monday Musings to indigenous Australian writers – and specifically to Anita Heiss’s “In conversation with Blackwords” series.

This series is described on the AustLit website as follows:

In late 2013 Dr Anita Heiss sent a series of questions to contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. The responses she received are at times funny, sad, moving, and always deeply insightful. Universally an important piece of advice was to ‘Read, read, read’ if you want to write. As an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Anita was very happy to see that advice coming from some of Australia’s most admired and read authors.

As far as I can understand from the website, some 20 interviews were gathered, and posted on the site between November 2013 and May 2014. The last interview (to date anyhow) is with Heiss herself. The writers interviewed include some well-known to me like Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, and Bruce Pascoe, and some I’m not at all familiar with like Dub Leffler and Sue McPherson. Heiss starts by asking them about their mob and where they are from, and then asks them about their writing and their reading – about, in other words, all those things other readers and writers love to know.

I haven’t read all the interviews, as they are pretty extensive, but have at least dipped into most, and will read more in the coming days. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things they say:

Samuel Wagan Watson (internationally recognised poet and storyteller) said this in response to “what makes a good writer”:

As far as what makes a ‘good writer’ … I don’t know? I’m an ‘established writer’ yet I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘good’ writer. Should we define a ‘good writer’ as someone who publishes a novel every year or an artist who simply falls in love with language and is a skilled technician who writes a sentence now and then that simply smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye?

Anyone who can write “smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye” must surely make some claim to being a good writer?

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

Kim Scott (author of That deadman dance, among other things) said this about his aims as a writer:

To reach and connect. To provoke, sometimes. To transform, if only a little. As Elizabeth Jolley said, to provide ‘places where people may meet’.

To touch on greater truths. Language and stories shape the world; I sometimes want to flex and remake it again.

He’s won me over, first, by referring to one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jolley. But, I also like his desire to “touch on greater truths”. It’s not surprising that an indigenous writer might also want to “flex and remake” the world.

Ali Cobby Eckermann (poet, and author of Ruby Moonlight) offered this advice to writers:

My advice is to be creative! Turn the telly off and be creative. A half an hour each day has the capacity to achieve remarkable results. Be relentless, and find happiness in honouring your story, the legacy of your cultural knowledge.

Being creative, I think, is easier said than done, but I do love her suggestion to “find happiness in honouring your story”.

Ellen van Neerven (winner of David Unaipon Award in 2013) is a writer I hadn’t heard of before. She said in answer to “who do you write for?”:

Sometimes I could be writing for my younger self. I want people to feel less alone. I want people to feel less confused.

Now, that’s an answer from the heart.

Bruce Pascoe (writer of fiction, non-fiction and YA fiction). I had to finish with Pascoe’s response to the question about his writing process:

Get up, go into room and work arse off. Break for lunch, tour of vegetable garden, back into room. In good weather I write down by the river, especially if it’s a job I’m writing longhand. In my room I’ve got a growing gallery of dead Black friends to watch over me and all the birds who come to the door and want to know if it’s ok if they tell me a story. The Willy Wagtail is good but the Scrubwren is profound, the Powerful Owl haunting, the pelican a bit superior on occasions and the cormorants are always good for a laugh. I get a hell of a lot of story from birds and animals.

With such an imagination, you can sure see why he’s a prolific writer.

I plan a follow-up post on this series of conversations for next week’s Monday Musings to conclude NAIDOC Week.

* Hmm … just realised today is 7 July! NAIDOC Week started officially on 6 July!

15 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: In conversation with Black Words

  1. “Being creative, I think, is easier said than done” is A Very True Thing.
    I love the thought of Bruce Pascoe’ muses … I shall have to hope that a passing pelican, or rainbow lorikeet, or seagull, or even ibis gets to tell me something. 🙂

  2. For me its the Magpies who tell the best stories. Their musical warblings create beautiful stories. I remember reading a story from a Grade Four reader at primary school called, Why the Crow is Black. It is an Aboriginal legend about how a hawk and crow were fighting. The hawk rolled the crow in to the black ashes of a camp fire, and that is the reason why crows are black today.

    • Oh, Meg, I love the fact that some commenters have taken up the birds! Magpies are wonderful I agree – and tell far more interesting stories than the sulphur crested cockatoos!

  3. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2014 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Another inspiring post, thank you! Incidentally, the first time I ever hear of Elizabeth Jolley was as David McComb’s English professor… I’ve since come to enjoy her as a writer, as well 😉

      • I’ve only read Miss Peabody’s Inheritance so far, which I found surprising, in a positive way, so I’m inspired to try more. May have to wait a bit as my to-read list is currently populated by some huge volumes (ack!). I also have House of Fiction on the list, and I would very nearly kill to get my hands on the article about the Jolleys recently published in The Westerly.

  5. Pingback: Wrapping up Indigenous Literature Week 2014 at ANZ LitLovers | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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