Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australian poets

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week. As has become my practice, I’m devoting this week’s Monday Musings to the cause.

NAIDOC Week’s theme this year is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its focus is encouraging First Nations people to continue “getting up, standing up, and showing up” to achieve “systemic change” and to “narrow the gap between aspiration and reality, good intent and outcome”. They also say,

The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non‑Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.

I would like to think that our blogs help in some way by sharing our engagement with First Nations Australian writing, and hopefully inspiring others to engage too. There is a lot of truth-telling in First Nations writing and I greatly appreciate what I am learning. Although it can be confronting at times, it is exciting to feel my understanding expanding and deepening.

Book cover

And this brings me to this post, because my introduction to First Nations Australians’ experience and thinking came through poetry. It was in my teens in the late 1960s. I had become interested in racial inequality, and discovered the work of Kath Walker, as she was known then.

Kath Walker was, of course, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993). According to the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Walker “readopted her tribal name” in 1988 “as a protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and a symbol of her Aboriginal pride”. Heiss and Minter say that her 1964-published collection, We are going, “was the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal writer and the first book by an Aboriginal woman”.

Book cover

For Poetry Month last year, you may remember that I asked people to share their favourite poem (or poems). One of mine was Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s “We are going”, and I see that it is one of the eight that Heiss and Minter selected for their anthology. As they say in their introduction to her, “Oodgeroo was politically active from the late 1940s and became one of the most prominent Aboriginal voices”. Her poetry reflected her politics, as is common among poets from marginalised, disempowered people. Poetry, after all, is a powerful tool. It can make points succinctly, and do so in ways that you want to repeat. Listen to the end of “We are going” – the repetition, the rhythm and tone it creates, and the final line. Wham!

We are nature and the past, all the old ways 
Gone now and scattered. 
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter. 
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. 
The bora ring is gone. 
The corroboree is gone. 
And we are going.

Oodgeroo varied her style, and often used rhyme, but here she uses free verse to such rhetorical effect.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t read much First Nations poetry again for a few decades, until I read contemporary poets like Ellen Van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckermann and, right now, Evelyn Araluen. However, First Nations people were writing poetry right through, and Heiss and Minter include many in their anthology. These writers include Jack Davis (1917-2000), who wrote a poem titled “Walker (For Kath)”. It starts, “Fight on, Sister, fight on/Stir them with your ice”.

Then, there’s Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) and his daughter Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019), and Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), who also wrote a poem for Oodgeroo titled “Kath Walker”. It starts, allusively, with “We are coming, even going”. There’s Tony Birch (b. 1957), some of whose prose I’ve reviewed, and Sam Wagan Watson (b. 1972), son of novelist Sam Watson (1952-2019).

There are writers I don’t know so well, like Lisa Bellear (1961-2006), who, say Heiss and Minter, was a “notably political poet”. (But, then, how many weren’t and aren’t.) Her poem, “Women’s liberation”, speaks to that issue of the movement being largely for and by white middle-class women. It’s witty and pointed. You can read it at Poetry International.

“got something for you to swallow”

(from “Gather”, by Evelyn Araluen)

I have, though, written on First Nations poetry in this blog. My post on the digital publication, Writing black, that was edited by Ellen Van Neerven, includes references to several of the poets I’ve named above, including Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Lionel Fogarty. I enjoyed Writing black especially because it introduced me to some of these voices I’d heard of but had not yet read.

Book cover

Ellen van Neerven is a well-recognised First Nations poet. Indeed, she was caught up in a controversy when her poem, “Mango”, unbeknownst to her I believe, was included in an HSC exam a few years ago. You know you have arrived on the Australian literary scene when you’ve been embroiled in a controversy. Anyhow, her second poetry collection, Throat, was shortlisted for several literary awards. Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly) has reviewed it, describing it as “a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice”.

Another collection I haven’t read is Alison Whittaker’s BlakWork, which won the 2019 Judith Wright Calanthe Award. Bill (The Australian Legend) and Brona (Brona’s Books) have both reviewed it. Brona, in particular, connected with it.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother

However, I have read some contemporary First Nations poetry, including Ali Cobby Eckermann’s historical fiction verse novel Ruby Moonlight (my review) and her collection Inside my mother (my review). I’m currently reading Evelyn Araluen’s 2022 Stella Prize winning Drop Bear, which Brona has reviewed. Like much First Nations poetry it’s political and powerful, but is also witty.

This has been a brief and selective survey. There are many First Nations poets I haven’t mentioned, but if you are interested to hear what First Nations people are thinking, you won’t go wrong if you check out some of their poetry. I hope this post offers those interested some ways in.

Do you have any favourite First Nations poets – or, even, poems?

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for my previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch, with Irma Gold

Local performance poet-novelist-artist Omar Musa’s latest book, Killernova, had two launches in Canberra this weekend, one with Polly Hemming and the other with Irma Gold. Being Gold fans, Mr Gums and I booked her session, and it was both engaging and illuminating, but I have it on good authority that Polly Hemming’s session, though different, was also well worth attending.

Omar Musa has three poetry collections, a Miles Franklin Award longlisted novel (Here come the dogs), and a play to his name. He has also released solo hip hop records. And now, he has turned his hand to woodcuts and woodcut printing. He is, you’d have to say, multi-talented – and it comes, I think, not only from a curiosity about the world, but a desire to find his place, to engage with it, and to explore ways of expressing the things that he feels strongly about.

Not surprisingly, then, this was not your usual “in conversation” launch. It started with Musa performing some of his poetry, and a song. There’s nothing better, really, than hearing a poet read or perform their own writing, and Musa is a polished performer. So there was that. Then there was a display of his woodcuts, most of which appear in his book, and home-made sambal for sale, along with the book, not to mention the conversation with Irma Gold.

The performance

It was such a treat to have Musa perform some poems. I’ve heard him before, and love his heart and his ability to convey it so expressively through words and voice. His poetry is personal but also political, carefully crafted yet fresh too. Here’s what he performed:

l am a homeland: Musa, who has Malaysian and Australian heritage, started with this poem that explores home and belonging, when you don’t have one place, and got some audience participation going, asking us to breathe in its meditation-inspired refrain, “inhale”, “exhale”:

Inhale – I am singular
Exhale – I appear in many places

UnAustralia: Musa explained that he is often criticised as being UnAustralian because he (dares to) criticise Australia. This poem is his answer to that, and perfectly examplifies his satirical way with words:

Come watch the parade!
In UnAustralia
Land of the fair-skinned.
Fairy Bread.
Fair Go.

Rose gold lover: this one was a song – part ballad, part rap, and beautiful for that. (You can hear it performed with Sarah Corry on LYRNOW)

Hello brother: Musa dedicated this poem to Haji-Daoud Nabi, who, with the words “Hello, brother”, warmly welcomed to Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque, the shooter who went on to kill him and 50 other people.

Flannel flowers: Musa introduced us to a rare pink flannel flower that grows in the Blue Mountains. It flowers only when “specific conditions … are met … fire and smoke, followed by rainfall”, making it bitter-sweet – and an opportunity to contemplate both the environment and our mortality.

The conversation

So, I’ve introduced Musa, and Irma Gold needs no introduction, as she has appeared many times on this blog, including for her debut novel, The breaking (my review). Click on my tag for her to see how active she is. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.

Musa and Gold, National Portrait Gallery, 27 November 2021.

Gold commenced by introducing Musa as a multi-talented artist, poet, rapper. She also praised, as an editor, the book being launched, Killernova. It’s a collection of diverse poems and woodcuts, and yet flows seamlessly, she said.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that, with Gold’s warm and thoughtful questioning, covered a lot of relevant ground.

The woodcuts

Given woodcuts feature strongly in the book, and are a “new” art for Musa, Irma started with how he got into woodcutting. He explained how he’d been in a dark place – had started to hate what he was supposed to love, writing and performing – so was visiting his father in Borneo, when he came across Aerick LostControl running a woodcut workshop, and joined in.

He spoke of the leopard which appears – often playfully – in his woodcuts (including one on top of Canberra’s iconic bustop.) So much of his writing, he said, focused on the ugliness of humanity, on racism, depression, so he wanted to do something beautiful. His first woodcut depicted the local small leopard (Sunda clouded leopard, I think). Although he felt it was “childish”, his teacher saw talent – what a surprise! – and a new form of expression for Musa was born.

Gold also asked him about the practice of “stamping the spirit into the works”. This is, Musa said, the traditional Southeast Asian way of printing woodcuts, and is still used, I think he said, by Indonesian protest poster-makers.

Musa then talked about taking the craft of writing so seriously it can lead to paralysis. Language is so imprecise you can just keep going, tweaking, tweaking the words. In woodcutting, if you make a mistake, you have to move on, as what is done is done. To make art, you have to take risk. He’d been taking himself too seriously, he felt, so wanted (needed, too, I felt he was saying) to be playful.

At the end of the conversation, but I’m popping it in here, Gold asked about how woodcarving deepened his connection with heritage. Musa said that he “would like to say it felt like homecoming but it felt more like tourism”. Some of this tension is conveyed, he said, in the first poem he performed, “I am a homeland”. It explores how we can inhabit different identities. A box limits you, he said. He prefers fluid identities.

The writing process

Gold asked whether, given he’s a performance poet, he reads aloud when he is writing? Musa said he writes in a “trancelike state” then “sculpts” his work. “Write in passion, edit in cold blood” is his practice. He also shared the philosophy of his favourite poet, Elizabeth Bishop – write with “spontaneity, accuracy, mystery”.

On whether he ever edited a poem further after performing, I think he said yes! (Given I sometimes post-edit my blog posts – because I can – I say, why not?)

Art and creativity

Gold referred to the poem, “Poetry”, because she related to its ideas. In it, he plays with the traditional recommendation to “write what you know”, shifting it, first, to “write what you know about what you don’t know”, then rephrasing it to “write what you don’t know about what you know”, before finally getting to the crux – and I like this – “write a question”.

The best art, he said, makes us ask questions about the world around us, but he likes to start with a question about self, with something that tests one’s preconceptions. Art, he believes, does not have to provide answers, just ask questions. Yes.

Gold then asked him about the role of alcohol and drugs in creativity, something Musa has spoken about. Killernova, he responded, is partly about undercutting mythologies in the art scene. One is the singular genius writer or artist. It’s b***s***, he said. All artists are products of their environment, so, this book includes collaborative poems. Another concerns the “addict musician, drunk poet” which he had bought into, but this book was “written when clean”.

The environment

Gold noted that concern with desecration of the environment runs through book, and asked Musa about the role he saw for art. Art, Musa believes, both holds a mirror up to world as it is and as it can be.

There is a Utopia in Killernova, Leopard Beach. Are Utopias dangerous, childish ideas that distract us OR could they project the world as it could be? he asked. Good question. He described a successful turtle sanctuary in Borneo, which was the result of someone’s dream. Through art, we can reimagine the world, and make us feel less alone.

Can art change people’s minds?

Musa responded that Werner Herzog said no, but he thinks it can, through asking questions. However, this needs to go hand-in-hand with collective action.

The end

Musa gave us one more performance to end with. It was a collaborative poem (“after” Inua Elliams) about pandemic, F***/Batman. Loved it, with its wordplay on masks (“we could finally drop our masks”) and references to toilet paper, Zoom, jigsaws; its exploration of the positives, negatives, and potential contained in the pandemic; and the idea that we “grew madder yet clearer headed”. What will we do with this, though, is the question. A provocative end to a great launch.

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch with Irma Gold
National Portrait Gallery
Saturday 27 November 2021, 3-4pm

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2019 Winners; and Vale Les Murray AO (1939-2019)

I decided to replace today’s Monday Musings with an awards announcement, because the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were being announced tonight, and they comprise a swag of prizes, many being of particular interest to me. But, then I was shocked to hear that Australian poet Les Murray had died, and I couldn’t let that pass either, so you have a double-barrelled post tonight!

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

I will only report on a selection of the winners, but here is a link to the full suite. And, if you are interested to know who the judges were, they are all listed on the award’s webpage.

Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeBook of the Year: Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review).

People’s Choice Award for Fiction: Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review)

The Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction: shared between Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeThe UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review). I love that in his thank you speech, he spoke about the time he spent with Les Murray in 2014. Murray, he said, shared his poem Home Suite, telling Dalton not to be afraid to go home. Going home, he said, is exactly which he did in his novel.

Multicultural NSW Award: Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs.

Translator’s Prize (presented every two years, and about which I posted recently): Alison Entrekin.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsSpecial Award: Bherouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains (translated by Omid Tofighian). This award is not made every year, and is often made to a person, but this year it went to a work “that is not readily covered by the existing Awards categories”. The judges stated that it

demonstrates the power of literature in the face of tremendous adversity. It adds a vital voice to Australian social and political consciousness, and deserves to be recognised for its contribution to Australian cultural life.

Some of you may remember that I recently wrote about taking part in a reading marathon of this book.

Congratulations to all the winners – and their publishers – not to mention the short- and long-listees. We readers love that you are out there writing away, and sharing your hearts and thoughts with us. Keep it up!

Vale Les Murray

As I said in my intro to this post, I was shocked to hear this evening that one of Australia’s greatest contemporary poets, Les Murray, aka the “Bard of Bunyah”, had died. He was only 80.

His agent of 30 years, Margaret Connolly, confirmed the news, saying that

The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing.

Les Murray, Best 100 poemsI don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Black Inc, released a statement saying

Les was frequently hilarious and always his own man.

We mourn his bundles of creativity, as well as his original vision – he would talk with anyone, was endlessly curious and a figure of immense integrity and intelligence.

Although I don’t write a lot about poetry, Les Murray has appeared in this blog before, most particularly when Mr Gums and I attended a poetry reading featuring him. What a thrill that was. He was 75 years old then, and the suggestion was that these readings were probably coming to an end due to his health. I have just two of his around 30 volumes of poetry – The best 100 poems of Les Murray and an author-signed edition of Selected poems, both published by Black Inc – and dip into them every now and then.

His poetry was diverse in form, tone, subject-matter. He could be serious, fun, obscure, accessible. You name it, he wrote it. He was often controversial, being, as Black Inc said, “his own man”! In other words, he was hard to pin down, not easy to put in any box. David Malouf, interviewed for tonight’s news, said that he could be “funny”, he could be “harsh”, but that he said things “we needed to hear”. And that, wouldn’t you say, is the role of a poet, particularly one considered by some to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature?

If you would like to find out more about him, do check out his website, and if you’d like to read some of his poetry (though it would be better to buy a book!), you can check out the Australian Poetry Library. Lisa ANZLitLovers) has also written a post marking his death.

Meanwhile, I’m going to close with the last lines of a poem called “The dark” in his Selected poems (which he chose in 2017 as his “most successfully realised poems”):

… Dark is like that: all productions.
Almost nothing there is caused, or has results. Dark is all one interior
permitting only inner life. Concealing what will seize it.

Seems appropriate for today.

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 2: Two panels

My next two festival sessions were panels – firstly at the National Museum of Australia, and then after a quick jaunt over the lake, chauffeured very kindly by Mr Gums, at the National Library of Australia. This Festival is spread too widely, geographically speaking – but I’ve said that before …

The power, politics and passion of poets: John Foulcher, Melinda Smith & Lesley Lebkowicz, moderated by Geoff Page

Moderator and local poet Geoff Page (whose verse novel The scarring I’ve reviewed) introduced the session. Noting the theme, he said that despite recent events (which I explained in my first post) poets tend not to be driven by transient events. He then briefly reminded us of the depth Canberra’s poetic tradition, with the likes of AD Hope, David Campbell, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, among others.

Canberra Poets

Lebkowicz, Foulcher, Page, and obscured by the curtain, Smith

To get us in the mood for the theme, he shared a few ideas about poetry: Shelley’s comment that poets are the “legislators of the world”; Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen”; and Brecht’s poem “The solution” in which he suggests it might be easier for “the government/To dissolve the people!”

Finally, he kicked off the session with an appropriate political poem of his own, one I’ve read and enjoyed before, “Call yourself a socialist.”

The session comprised three local poets reading a selection of their poems – some published, some not (yet) – that relate in some way to the alliterative theme of the three Ps! It was a well-moderated session – that is it flowed well and finished on time. I liked that the poets often explained the form of their poems, as well as why they’d chosen them. I will list the poems they read as best I can, from the notes I took while trying to hear the poems. I do enjoy hearing poets read their poems.

Lesley Lebkowicz

Lebkowicz is, Page introduced, a poet, ceramicist, reviewer, and essayist, whose work is informed by her Buddhist practice. Her next book is Mountain lion. I have reviewed her Petrov poems here.

Lebkowicz started by commenting that it was nice reading to “different people”. She then read her poems, some  humorous and most drawing on women’s experiences:

  • “Butter”: a humorous poem satirising British snobbery about “the colonials”, by positing dairy-farming kangaroos.
  • Suite of poems relating to Mary Alice Evatt, artist and the wife of HV Evatt (Australian politician and judge). Lebkowicz had initially wanted to write her Petrov poems from the point of view of women, but Vladimir Petrov’s voice proved too strong, so she developed this suite of poems separately. The poems reference either paintings by Evatt or information Lebkowicz gleaned from her research, and included “Mt Solitary”, “Portraits 1930s Various sizes”, “Notes for a picture jam/flood”, “Woman seated on grass”, and the delightful “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth” (which you can read here, including its inspiration – do click on the link, you won’t be disappointed.)

Melinda Smith

Smith has a long, impressive CV, including winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry in 2014 with her collection, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call.

She started by saying she didn’t normally write political poems so her first poem would be about passion! Smith is, I’ve discovered before, pretty cheeky (in the best way.) She said that traditionally she’s not been interested in poems about recent issues because, by definition, they don’t last, but she feels that our current times calls for such poems. Her poems were:

  • “Splinter”: a very cheeky poem equating a splinter in the hand with a love gone wrong.
  • “Baby Joy”: a found poem, using Barnaby Joyce’s words to frame an apology to the gay community that they’ll never get otherwise from him.
  • “Sweetheart”: a found poem using misogynistic statements from the Ernie Awards, mostly from the 1990s, but they are strangely still applicable – she said.
  • “Newcastle reckoning”: a personal and political poem about the shock of seeing yourself as you are. It has a powerful refrain – “Having neither sought nor received permission” – referring to being on indigenous land without permission.
  • “No bed”: ending again on passion. A poem I’ve read – and in fact quoted from – before.

John Foulcher

Foulcher has published eleven books of poetry, the last being 101 Poems. He has also been a teacher for 40 years – a microcosm of politics and power!

His poems were:

  • “Fits and starts”: a very entertaining poem comprising the first words said by teachers to classes, from Grade 7 to 12. It garnered many knowing laughs from the audience.
  • “Why Ryan is on detention”: written around 2000 and unfortunately still relevant in these “Me Too” days.
  • “A revolutionary calendar”, his poetic biography of the French Revolution’s Robespierre. Architect of “the terror”, he had none of the obvious vices, but succumbed to power, and he too ended up at the guillotine. All dictators know, Foulcher said, that eventually the terror turns on you. The poems follow a calendar, and Foulcher read three: “Ventos” (month of wind), “Floreale” (month of flowers), and “Thermidor” (month of heat).
  • “The woman who danced with Stephen Hawking”: a monologue about a different power, one of mind, passion and body.

Before I end on the Q&A, I’ll share a line from Lebkowicz’s “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth”:

 Art, she knows, makes all things better.

If only our politicians knew, eh?


A questioner asked what advice – that you might not find in books – would the poets give to a poetry workshop. They said:

  • Foulcher said that there are two types of poems – the ones where you know what you want to say at the start (bad), and the ones where you work out what you want to say as you write (good)
  • Smith suggested that attendees be asked to find a feeling they can tap into.
  • Lebkowicz said be true to yourself, know what you feel and believe, be patient and write with integrity.

Another questioner asked about separating one’s own emotions from those of a character. Foulcher said it’s impossible, that you are always writing from within, and Lebkowicz admitted that for all her research into the Petrovs, the poems ended up revealing much of herself. Smith made the political point that you need to be careful about “whose microphone you are taking.” She has written in the voice of a dead 10th century Iranian, she said, and that was okay, because “my ancestors haven’t repressed her.”

The Prime Ministers 2017 Literary Award Recipients

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

The intended line-up for this session was Ryan O’Neill, Anthony Lawrence, Wendy Orr and Peter Cochrane, with  Sue Whiting as moderator. One of the main reasons I chose this session was to hear Ryan O’Neill, author of Their brilliant careers, but unfortunately his father had died necessitating his going to Scotland. I’m very sorry for him – but fortunately the session was very enjoyable, anyhow.

Whiting, the moderator, commenced by explaining the session’s aims, and then gave a brief history of the awards, which were 10 years old in 2017. They are among the best remunerated ($80K for the winner, at present) and are, uniquely, tax-free. She then asked the panelists to speak briefly about their prize-winning works:

  • Lawrence described his poetry collection, Headwaters, as a miscellany comprising various forms, and not having a particular thematic arrangement, but all represented a visceral reaction to the natural world. It’s eco poetry, though this is a new term for an old form! The poems are about the natural world, a place where animals, birds, trees and humans interact, and all explore the same problem, a physical reaction to the natural world, which his body and mind then work through.
  • Orr said that Dragonfly song, which is partly written in free verse, is the book she’s been writing all her life. It’s about an outcast, and has the standard hero tale trajectory. She realised later that it had come from her own sense of exclusion and despair after she’d broken her neck in a car accident.
  • Cochrane explained that his book, Colonial ambition: Foundations of Australian democracy had been commissioned for NSW’s Sesquicentenary. He talked about the challenge of finding drama, because there was “no mud and blood” as other countries have experienced. (I question that, given what we know about indigenous massacres.) Anyhow, he said he realised there was a great human drama, and there were rich biographical records for a few characters, including WC Wentworth, to tell it. To attract readers, he said, you need to include personal lives. Wentworth had the “driving theme of vengeance”, which of course got a laugh given last week’s political events.

Whiting then asked them to share how they felt when their names were read out as winners:

  • Orr was in a daze, not thinking it would be her. The neighbours gave her a party, she said, which hadn’t happened when she’d won CBC Awards.
  • Lawrence had forgotten the advice to have a speech prepared. He was ribbed by his mates because he’d been their maverick. The money was wonderful, he said, because poets don’t make money – they never expect royalties. But it is a “bit of a chook raffle.”
  • Cochrane, who won in 2007, has vivid memories because he was sitting at a table next to John Howard, and opposite Julie Bishop with her eyes. He was relieved to escape them when his name was called.

Whiting then asked about what the prize money, which is significant, meant to them. It was clear that it was meaningful for them all, but none, really, expressed that absolute depth of need that Luke Davies did when asked that question after winning in 2012, the first year poetry was included.

Whiting followed this by asking whether the prize had other benefits:

  • Orr said you need two forms of energy needed to write – physical (money) and emotional (including confidence). The award gave her confidence, largely because, although she’s lived in Australia all her adult life and although all her books have been written here, journalists are continually told they cannot call her an Australian writer. (What the?) This award took all that hurt away.
  • Cochrane said it brings your book to greater attention – both public and academic. He said the feedback from peers was surprisingly important. One reviewer said that it read like a fast-paced novel, which, in fact, encouraged him to write fiction, as he has now done.
  • Poet Lawrence was more circumspect, saying that “you would like to think a gold sticker would increase book sales, but sadly not.” It was, though, wonderful for his confidence, and awards like this do raise the profile of poetry, he said. Poetry is on the rise, he feels.


One questioner asked about the fact that, of all the prizes, this is the only one that has had political interference controversies. The panel explained that it’s due to the terms of the award: the judging panel makes a recommendation to the PM. Those recommendations have normally been accepted, with three exceptions to date, the most egregious being Frank Bongiorno’s “red-carding.”  (Feudal behaviour, said Cochrane.) In the other two cases, the PM intervened to force a joint winner. The terms of reference need to be changed, the panel agreed.

Whiting followed this up by asking whether judging literary merit was fundamentally flawed, but this was not really explored – at least from the philosophical point of view. Lawrence did talk about the value of blind judging, and Orr said that awards are important because they increase sales, promote literature, and get the public talking. 

Another interesting session. More analysis would have been good – how diverse have these awards been, for example – but time is always an issue.

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 1: A memoirist in conversation

It’s the last weekend August which means it’s the Canberra Writers Festival. This could become a habit. Wouldn’t that be nice – to have a regular writers’ festival here again, I mean. The Festival’s ongoing theme is Power, Politics, Passion, which is particularly appropriate this year, given last week’s shenanigans in Australian politics. (For those of you from elsewhere, we – though I use the term generally – managed to ditch yet another Prime Minister mid-term … but let’s not go into that now. The Festival is far more interesting.)

Do oysters get bored: A curious life: Rozanna Lilley in Conversation with Karen Middleton

Karen Middleton and Rosanna Lilley

Karen Middleton and Rozanna Lilley (against a bright background)

My first session was a conversation with Rozanna Lilley about her memoir Do oysters get bored: A curious life. The interviewer, political journalist Karen Middleton, has appeared here before when she was the “participating chair” of a panel at the Festival Muse in 2017. It was good to see her again.

Now, this was an interesting session because Lilley’s book caused quite a flurry in the media when it was published. I haven’t read the book – and unfortunately the National Library had sold out of copies – but I understand that it was intended primarily to be about her autistic son Oscar. An interesting topic, and one very much to the moment I’d say given the increased awareness of autism in our time. But, the thing is that Rozanna Lilley was also the daughter of writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, who just so happened to live a determinedly libertarian bohemian life, one in which their two daughters, Rozanna and older sister Kate, were actively included. And by actively included, I mean they were “encouraged”, in this pro-free-love household to have sex from a very young age. Given the literary reputation of her parents, and the current awareness of sexual abuse of children and women, this issue captured the interest of commentators and reviewers. The “gutter press”, Lilley said, started talking about pedophile rings, but worse, I think, is that she also became the butt of trolling.

Fortunately, Middleton took a more measured approach to her conversation, and explored the breadth of the book’s subject matter, but she did start by asking whether there was a therapeutic element to writing the book. Lilley said that it wasn’t a “therapy” book, but that she was seeing a psychiatrist at the time she wrote the book, and that that had “opened up the past as a space for reflection”. However, she laughed, she had initially conceived of the book as a gently humorous take on her eccentric family – à la David Sedaris – but that a friend had suggested it was more Augusten Burroughs’ Running with scissors! It did, she admitted, become darker in spots than she’d initially planned.

Middleton also asked whether she felt any pressure to live up to her literary heritage. Lilly agreed there was an element of that, but, she said, it was also an advantage growing up in a literary household. It gave her “good cultural capital.”

Then we got to the original inspiration for the book, her son’s autism. Lilley, who is a social anthropologist and autism researcher, talked about her son’s diagnosis, and her response to this; about the value of diagnosis (saying that clinicians will usually only diagnose autism if they see distress and dysfunction); about mainstreaming; and about the impact of (adjustments you make) living with an autistic person. There was some discussion about the whole labelling issue, particularly given Lilley’s academic work is about “exclusion and stigma.” As she apparently tells in the book, she has sometimes explained her son’s autism when he has behaved inappropriately, which results in a positive change in people’s attitudes to him. The pluses and minuses of labelling!

The conversation then returned to Lilley’s parents and her experience as an exploited young child and teenager. She laughed about going from being a “serially exploited young teen… to a perimenopausal mother … doling out unwanted sexual advice to my son.” Middleton suggested that Lilley doesn’t really describe her feelings in the book about what had happened to her as a young girl. Lilley responded that it was “just the times”, but admitted that “men benefited” from the “strange sexual competition” between the mother and her daughters. She said that she has always stressed her agency, not liking to be seen as victim, but that in working through it with her psychiatrist she’s come to see it a little differently. But, she said, she is perhaps more generous about it all “on the page” than she is in real life.

At this point, Middleton asked her to read a poem, “Coming of age”, from the book. It ends, pointedly, on the line ”tangled in my billowing broken girlhood.” During the Q&A, Lilley said the voice of the book’s memoir pieces is more humorous, while the poetry comes more from pain and reflection.

Middleton asked more about Lilley’s parents and their impact on her. Her parents had, Lilley said, “enormous personalities”. She described her autodidact father as having “an unusual perspective on life”. In other words, he could be enormously kind but he could also be hard and cruel. However, she doesn’t like to see people as heroes or villains. Life is more complex, she said.

There was more, including in the Q&A, about

  • her son’s attitude to the memoir (she had discussed it with him);
  • the writing process (it took 7 years, she grew up in a family looking to for stories in their experiences, and she had kept diaries having being trained, as an anthropologist, in taking field notes);
  • the increase in diagnosis of autism (partly because the definition has been expanded, and partly because past mental retardation diagnoses are now diagnosed as autism, but definitely not because of vaccination, as the questioner wondered.)

She explained that some of the pieces in the book had been published before – including in Best Australian essays – but that these were all pieces about her father, not about her son. Publishers shy away from mothers writing about autistic children, fearing sentimentality – the-autistic-child-is-a gift-that-taught-me-a-lot trope. There’s some of that in her book she said, but she doesn’t believe she’s sentimental!

Finally, explaining why she had written the story of her childhood experience now, she said that she didn’t feel free to talk until her parents had died. Now, I know this is a touchy issue for some. It is of course the stuff of many memoirs, but is it fair or right to “air” such stories about one’s family or friends? I think it can be (with certain provisos), but what do you think?

All in all, a well-moderated, warm-hearted but thoughtful session that got my Festival weekend off to a good start.

Note: One of my blogger mentees attended this session too, and plans to explore another aspect of this “story”. When her post is published, I’ll share it with you.