On Saturday 19th March the NSW Writers' Centre was the venue for Guwanyi (to tell) the 3rd National Aboriginal Writers’ Festival there were well-known names in Aboriginal writing, such as Anita Heiss and Kim Scott, along with brand new names, such as Ricky Macourt, and (to this reader) a previously unheard voice such as poet Ali Cobby Eckermann.
The day opened with Anita Heiss and Peter Minter talking about the process of editing the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. They began with Peter Minter reading the first text in the anthology, Bennelong's letter to Governor Phillip, the first recorded written text by an Aboriginal author.
The letter, much like the man who dictated it, prompted discussion and divergent responses. Minter saw the letter as exemplifying the twin themes of the anthology - the way in which Aboriginal people used the language of the colonisers strategically in order to negotiate survival and also as a way of preserving culture.
Minter read the letter as an example of a man attempting to strategically negotiate with authority in a new language, whilst also trying to establish a sense of reciprocity, of exchange, in an attempt to preserve culture. For others the letter prompted tears of sadness, whilst some felt strongly that Bennelong was a collaborator.
The discussion about Bennelong, known to white Australia through school texts and place names, proved that he is still a contested figure. So, it did seem like the universe was stirring the possum when, the following day, the Sunday papers led with headlines that after 198 years the site of Bennelong's grave had been located in the front yard of a house in suburban Putney.
Anita Heiss talked about the editorial process of choosing what went into the anthology, narrowing down from 3,000+ pieces to 81. Their approach was that Aboriginal literature is about self- representation, so they pushed the boundaries of what was regarded as "literature" by including letters, petitions, manifestos, song lyrics, plays, autobiographical and biographical materials as these were where the voices were located.
The second session chaired by Melissa Lucashenko was about how to use genres and included
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) and their publishing arm the Aboriginal Studies Press. Ricky Macourt spoke about writing his life as a boy from Nambucca Heads who winds up as a boarder at a Sydney private school into Jali Boy, part of the Yarning Strong series by Laguna Bay Publishing. He is now studying law at Bond University, and his ambitions to be Australia's first Aboriginal Prime Minister (or President) do not seem unreasonable.
The third panel member, Ali Cobby Eckermann, spoke about the battle to find her family in her thirties, an event she believes saved her life. Growing up with a family that loved her but denied her their knowledge of her birth family triggered her writing. She talked about her "need to tell" as greif and anger were blocking her ability to live her life. She then read some of her poetry, which contained the heartbreak and the humour of an extraordinary woman and gifted writer.
Lunch was accompanied by some open mike poetry readings on the verandah from the stars of the next festival, then it was time to return for the afternoon sessions.
A session asking Is there a future for Indigenous Literature? - was sure to provoke lively discussion, and it did. Melissa Lucashenko argued that literature should not be narrowly conceived, that is should be an account of "What it is to be alive in this place where so many have lived before." In thinking about what story is for, she believes it is for building a society that works.
Philip Mclaren talked about subject matter determining readership, using the example of Martin Cruz Smith, a Native American writer who sells millions of his straight thriller novels (Arkady Renko) and considerably less of his Indigenous themed work. Same writer, same talent, same skill. Mclaren suggested Indigenous Australian writing should consider writing their own "Gorky Parks" which got the debate off to a flying start.
Bruce Pascoe said he felt confident and hopeful about the future. He pointed out that ten years ago this festival wouldn't have happened, so it was a concrete sign that Aboriginal Literature was strong and getting stronger. He believes that the country, the landscape itself, was changing White Australia.
Cathy Craigie chaired Kim Scott, fresh from his success as the winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the best book in south-east Asia and the Pacific, and Leanne Tobin, whose research into her family history uncovered a wealth of documents charting negotiations over land in "Blacks Town" Western Sydney conducted by a strong Aboriginal woman Maria Locke.
Kim Scott talked about how his novel That Deadman Dance grew out of a decade of reading the historical archives, his project on "cultural maintenance," such as his book with Noongar elder Aunty Hazel Brown. It became clear to him as he read that the protagonists in these archives were not victims, and that, for a short time, the oldest civilisation in the world and the newcomers had conducted relations across a friendly frontier.
He realised this might be a bit of a controversial take, as "the dominant yarn is the story of defeat", but from his point of view, "the story is not over" it's a "long yarn." The resistance warrior stories have appeal but Scott fears that these stories are not perhaps the most nurturing for angry, damaged people to tap into, and are in many ways similar to the Gallipoli stories white Australia tells itself.
The overwhelming sense of confidence that he drew from the archives, stories about strong people, people who were so confident, people of their place, were the source of his approach to the book. The colonisers were outnumbered and scared and, as Scott put it, "When we had power - how classy we were."
Cathy Craigie compared the Noongar encounters with the story that emerges from Cpt. Dawes' diaries and his encounter with Patyegarang. The themes of exchange and reciprocity, adaptability and ambassadorial roles felt like we had returned full circle to the first story of the day in Bennelong's letter.
Kim Scott spoke about creating a new narrative, the Recovery Narrative, and his desire to story it in a way that empowers the whole community.
There was more, a lot more, but perhaps it's best to seek out some of the works mentioned and read them, and check out your local festivals for these, and other names, and listen to them.
Ali Cobby Eckermann signed my copy of her book of poetry, and I'll quote her inscription to finish off:
Palya - travel true.