Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Classics

Over the years I have written several posts on publishers who have made a commitment to publishing Australian classics, such as Text, Allen and Unwin and the Sydney University Press, to name a few. I was thrilled last week to come across another one, this time from UQP, the University of Queensland Press, which has announced a First Nations Classics series.

UQP is well-known for its longstanding support of First Nations writing – both through publishing and through its sponsoring the annual David Unaipon unpublished manuscript award for First Nations writers. Indeed it describes itself as the first mainstream publisher “to set up a list specifically for Indigenous authors, the Black Australian Writers series”. Now, with this Classics initiative, it is going the next step.

The first set in the series comprises EIGHT titles which will be published in 2023. They are award-winning or shortlisted titles, dating back to 1988, and are well-priced at $19.99 each. Here’s the list (from UQP’s own blog):

(Links on the introduction writers are to my posts on those writers.)

As you can see, like the Text Classics series, for example, this comes with new introductions from contemporary authors – a true value-add. UQP says on its blog that this first set of books includes memoir, novels, short stories and poetry. Some are Unaipon Award winners, including the inaugural 1988 winner, Graeme Dixon’s poetry collection Holocaust Island, which is currently out of print.

You will also notice that among the bloggers I know, we have reviewed five of the eight titles. The three we haven’t, Graham Dixon’s Holocaust Island, Archive Weller’s The window seat and Herb Wharton’s Unbranded aren’t known to me, though I have heard of Archie Weller. So, given you have no reviews for them to click on, here is a little more on them:

  • Dixon’s Holocaust Island (1990): “a dynamic collection of poetry” that speaks out “on contemporary and controversial issues, from Black deaths in custody to the struggles of single mothers. Contrasted with these are poems of spirited humour and sharp satire”. (from GoodReads)
  • Weller’s The window seat, and other stories (2009): “a collection of Weller’s best short fiction and a tribute to his contribution to Australian literature. The stories are honest, brutal and moving” (from UQP website).
  • Wharton’s Unbranded (2000): a novel which offers “an Aboriginal viewpoint on the pastoral industry and race relations … by a masterly yarn teller” (from the book cover on the UQP website)

Now, back to the series – UQP’s publisher Aviva Tuffield articulates, on the above-linked blog, their ambition for this project:

This series will generate renewed interest for these books and their authors – both individually and collectively – and ensure them the contemporary audience they deserve.

She also explains that they’ve been assisted with funding from the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. I love the work that the latter does, in particular. Over the years of this blog I have referred to many varied programs and projects supported by the Copyright Agency.

The editor of the series is First Nations writer and editor Yasmin Smith who reiterates Tuffield’s ambition:

I hope this series will provide readers a renewed appetite, a greater awareness and a new thoughtfulness towards Indigenous stories and culture. The First Nations Classics are essential reading for all generations.

The blog implies UQP’s selection criteria for the books when it describes them as “some brilliant, timeless books – across all genres – that are as important, engaging and relevant today as they ever were on first publication”.

The blog also shares a little about the cover design for the series, by Jenna Lee, “a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman with mixed Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Filipino) and Anglo-Australian ancestry”. The aim of the design is “to highlight and showcase the vibrancy, diversity and nuance of First Nations authors, their voices, and the important stories they share”. The covers are intended “to make sure they are recognisable as a collective set but still allow for individuality to feature, with unique colour combinations and illustrative patterns giving the reader a window into the story within”. I’ve had a look at them, and think they are gorgeous and accessible. Click on the pic and see what you think.

Now, over to you. What – looking at UQP’s inventory – do you think should be in the 2024 set?

(If you are not Aussie, you are welcome to select a First Nations work from your own country if relevant. Of course, you can also name a non-UQP book, as an intellectual exercise, but I’d love to see how close we get to what is selected.)

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Classics

  1. Terrific venture. I don’t have anything like enough reading knowledge to comment in the right vein; but I must, in my usual way, mention
    “Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Don’t take your love to town”
    because I adored that song ! In its day I would rush to the radio whenever it came on ..
    It’s so clever to have given one’s book a title that necesitates using one’s name !! 😀

        • Being late to reply I can comment on the comments. My own thought was that Alexis Wright and Kim Scott were so important that they were outside the scope of this series (I wasn’t paying attention when you said just UQP); though their first novels could do with reissuing – respectively Plains of Promise (from UQP!) and True Country.

        • Why, disregarding the UQP, issue, Bill, would they be outside the scope – unless you think they are still well enough in print to not warrant being brought to the fore again? Is that what you mean?

        • I was thinking the reissuing might be for books that might otherwise fall off the radar. I hope we (Australians) are not such peasants that that fate ever befalls Benang, That Deadman Dance, Carpentaria or The Swan Book.

        • Ah, that probably is part of it – but still the word “classics” does carry an imprimatur that’s important. Text classics includes books that have not fallen off the radar and those that have. For me, that’s a good model. If you’d published That deadman dance, it would be weird to create a First Nations Classics series and not include it, don’t you think? Hence, l think that an intellectual exercise should include it – and those others?

    • Good choice Meg … given it’s only a year or so old, it’s probably one for their set a few years down the track, but it’s one that deserves to be kept in print when its initial flurry has past.

  2. To my knowledge, the U.S. does not have a major press devoted to first nation’s peoples, nor do we have an award specific to them. I see Canada doing more with indigenous people, but for some reason, we in America just aren’t getting together on celebrating and highlighting important lit from Native Americans.

  3. I would hope Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence is always available somewhere. Surely it’s read in schools (and thank you for linking my review). And Heat and Light is definitely a classic. One for 2024? How about Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act and Claire G Coleman, Terra Nullius.

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