Monday musings on Australian literature: Blak and Bright

I should have written about the Blak and Bright last Monday, as the Festival was held last weekend, but unfortunately I only heard about it – my inattention, I’m sure – a few days ago, via an ABC RN program (which you can listen to online). However, although the actual Festival is now over, I think it’s still a worthwhile topic – and, anyhow, most of you who read my blog wouldn’t have been able to attend, given it was held in Melbourne.

So, what is (was) Blak and Bright? From the website, link above, it is described as the debut event of the Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival. Their “about” page lists sponsors and supporters, and says:

We believe Indigenous writing is relevant and exciting to literature lovers and readers everywhere.

What a simple, straightforward “mission statement”! Unfortunately, there is no program online. However, there is a list of artists, and from that you can locate the sessions they were involved in. Via this method, I found a fascinating variety. Here are a few:

  • 6 Plays in 60 Minutes: six short play readings from Australia’s longest running Indigenous theatre company, Ilbijerri.
  • Blak Book Club: an opportunity to discuss two Indigenous books, Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman & Fleabag and Tony Birch’s Ghost River.
  • Borrow a Rare (Living) Book: opportunity for attendees to have one-on-one sessions with Indigenous storytellers/Elders (Aunty Di Kerr, Uncle Larry Walsh, Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Aunty Judith ‘Jacko’ Jackson).
  • Cross Continental Conversations: explored the international Indigenous writing scene, by discussing the experiences of a contingent of Aboriginal writers who travelled to the Native American literary organisation, Woodcraft Circle, and the Literary Commons exchange in India. Participants were Lee Francis IV, Bruce Pascoe and Ali Cobby Eckermann.
  • Fresh Blak Writers: Maurial Spearim (playwriting), Hannah Donnelly (speculative fiction), and Elijah Louttit (screenwriting) talking about how they got started with their writing.
  • Ellen van Neerven, Heat and light, book coverPublishing and Editing Blak: about the challenges faced by Blak writers working with white editors and publishers, and the challenges faced by Blak editors and publishers. Posed the question: Is there a need to make Aboriginal language or depiction of culture easy for a white readership? It involved Rachel Bin Salleh, Ellen van Neerven (whom I’ve reviewed) and Sandra Phillips.
  • Sistas are Doing It: Tammy Anderson, Anita Heiss, and Kate Howarth share how to “build and sustain a career as a Blak writer”.
  • Yung, Blak and Bold: involved young writers presenting new ways of presenting the world. “Listen”, the program advised, “as we bust stereotypes and discuss how words in new contexts can activate change”. Featured Benson Saulo, Amelia Telford and Nayuka Gorrie. (All new to me, but that’s the point I guess!)

It looks wonderfully varied, catering for all sorts of interests. It involved several writers I don’t know; and some, like Bruce Pascoe, Ally Cobby Eckerman, Gayle Kennedy, who are on my radar to read. Sessions were supported (sponsored I presume) by some wonderful literary “players” like the Small Press Network and the Stella Prize. I would be interested to see an assessment of how it went, recognising that these sorts of events can take a few years to build.

There is a blog on the site. I’m not sure if it will continue post-festival, but in addition to posts about events, it has a series on the topic “Why I read Blak?”:

  • Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Language and Culture at Osaka University, Sei Kosugi: on the global reach of Australia’s Indigenous storytellers, naming a couple of the writers she teaches and why.
  • Writer and crossword-maker, David Astle: on “an important lesson he’s learnt from reading Blak”.
  • Writer Drusilla Modjeska: on the various ways reading Blak has enriched her reading and writing life. She looks more widely, starting with African writer China Achebe’s Things fall apart (which I will be reading and reviewing in a few months – at last!)
  • Our very own Auslit blogger Lisa Hill: on the value to her of reading books by Indigenous Australians. She writes that “I feel as if I am being invited to get to know my country better. I’m being welcomed in to share in an ancient story”.

Finally, in the RN program I heard (link in the opening paragraph), Anita Heiss spoke on why people should read Blak. She has fleshed it out on her blog. It not only gives excellent reasons – such as “we write human rights” and “we write the search for self” – but it provides a useful but by no means complete list of works and authors well worth checking out.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Blak and Bright

  1. Sue, it’s wonderful to find your post about last weekend’s Blak & Bright festival. Especially as on Sunday I attended a couple of the workshops at the amazing Koorie Heritage Trust located at Fed Square, overlooking the Yarra. One: a 4 hour Popular Fiction with Anita Heiss: Popular Fiction; the other: Memoir Writing with Kate Howarth.

    Anita was amazing. Generous, engaging and funny. She set us to work immediately: In 25 words or less, write a synopsis of your project (agh!) Now read it out… (no pressure!). Flip the stereotypes. Don’t shove politics in people’s faces. Reveal in subtle ways – the less-is-more touch. Themes must be personal yet universal. Then we had to create a profile of one of our characters, and read it aloud (we were given prompts – mine, a sparkly choker). We covered structure, chapter breakdowns (are you a plotter or a panster?), research, setting, publishing houses, editors, marketing, and so on. I also met some lovely people!

    Kate Howarth’s session ran for 90 minutes. Author of two memoirs, her delivery was more along the lines of an ‘author’s talk.’ She spoke extensively about her writing process, the legalities (one book in particular required an extensive ‘legal read’ by her publisher’s barristers, then to avoid litigation, a bit of tweaking). When writing memoir, she said, nail your motivation. Use this as your guide, like a mantra. Keep it real. It will be a daunting process. Stick with your perspective. Avoid overt judgement. The subject and writing must be compelling: it must make the reader have to turn the page. “We read to know we’re not alone,” C.S. Lewis, as quoted by Kath (though Googling it now, it seems this gem was attributed to Lewis’ character in the movie Shadowlands). So while there were no writing exercises, Kath shared excellent advice.

    At the end of the day I left feeling buoyed, inspired, and delighted. I too hope this is the first of many Blak and Bright festivals.

    • Oh this is lovely Julie, to hear a first hand account. How funny that you commented on two sessions I hadn’t included in my list! They sound excellent. Was there are good turnout do you think?

      I’ve heard Anita Heiss – at the Canberra Readers Festival a couple of years ago – and she was exactly as you describe. It wasn’t a workshop, but her openness, enthusiasm but clear-sightedness about exactly who she is and what she is doing, made her completely engaging.

      • Yeah, that’s uncanny, Sue. They were the only 2 events I went to. Each had between 8-10 participants, so were quite intimate. Cause I only went to these two, I don’t know if the rest of the festival was well attended. I hope so. Next year I’ll sign on for more, I’m sure.

        • Intimate sessions are best aren’t they? I did notice the popular fiction one but decided to focus on topics that seemed a little different. However, I missed the memoir one, which is a topic that interests me. Indigenous writers have produced some wonderful and often different memoirs (or autobiographical fiction) I’ve found.

  2. Within my family we have quite a number of Aboriginal paintings on our walls, at least partly because it is a different and maybe better way of looking at the remote country in which we work. I think Blak writing will develop in the same way, containing more and more of the Indigenous voice, their oral traditions, and soon be utterly distinctive and completely separate from our own European – centred writing.

    • That’s a good way of looking at it, Bill. I hope you’re right. We have a few indigenous paintings too that we’ve bought over the years. I really like them, though my husband’s tastes and mine are a little different – which means on a couple of occasions we have bought two pieces, one his choice and one mine!

  3. There are so many fantastic Aboriginal authors out there that we miss something if we don’t read them! I especially like Melissa Lucashenko’s novel ‘Mullumbimby’ (she was at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival one year), Nicole Watson’s crime novel ‘The Boundary’ (she couldn’t come, sadly), Tony Birch’s novel ‘Blood’ and his short stories, Kate Howarth’s memoir ‘Ten Hail Marys’ and Larissa Behrendt’s novels ‘Home’ and ‘Legacy’. The latter two are in my book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors.

    • Thanks Annette. I’ve read short stories by some of these writers, and have a Tony Birch on my TBR. I’ve been wanted to read Behrendt for some time but still haven’t got to her. One day. But, you are right, more and more indigenous writers are appearing which is an excellent thing.

      • Sounds like an interesting and wide ranging festival. I am intrigued by the idea of the Living Book and interested to see it featured here. In an ideal world we might not need these promotions – an international, all inclusive republic of letters should be the ideal for readers and publishers…but we don’t live there so I’m glad for the success of Blak and Bright.

        • Thanks Ian. Yes, I loved the idea of the Living Book too. It recognises beautifully indigenous oral storytelling tradition, doesn’t it?

          How nice it would be to have an ideal (or, perhaps almost ideal) world. Perhaps totally ideal would be a bit boring!

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