ON THE COUCH ... Alexis WRIGHT
A Ray of Light
ERIC FORBES talks to Miles Franklin Award-winning Australian novelist ALEXIS WRIGHT about her prize-winning novel, Carpentaria, among other things
AUSTRALIAN NOVELIST Alexis Wright won the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her sprawling second novel, Carpentaria, a complex piece of fiction which was turned down by every major publisher in Australia before Giramondo took it on, beating Peter Carey, Gail Jones and Deborah Robertson for the most prestigious prize in Australian fiction. The novel also won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, the Victorian Premier’s Award for Fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction, and the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year.
Carpentaria is about a deadly fight for Aboriginal land rights and at the same time “a stunning evocation of a sublime and often overwhelming tropical world that is still inhabited by traditional spirits.” The novel’s portrait of life in the precariously settled coastal town of Desperance centres on the powerful Phantom family, leader of the Westend Pricklebush people, and its battles with old Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob on the one hand, and the white officials of Uptown and the neighbouring Gurfurrit mine on the other.
Wright’s storytelling is operatic and surreal: a blend of myth and scripture, farce and politics. The novel teems with a cast of eccentric characters—Elias Smith the outcast saviour, the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman, the murderous mayor Stan Bruiser, the moth-ridden Captain Nicoli Finn, the activist and prodigal son Will Phantom, and above all, the queen of the rubbish-dump Angel Day and her sea-faring husband Normal Phantom, the fish-embalming king of time—figures that stride like giants across this storm-swept world.
Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A writer, researcher and social commentator, she has been widely published in magazines and journals. She has worked for many years on campaigns for Aboriginal land rights, Indigenous self-government and constitutional change in the Northern Territory, and for the prevention of Indigenous injury. Her books include Grog War (Magabala Books, 1997), a study of the problems associated with the excessive availability of alcohol in the outback town of Tennant Creek, and she was the editor and compiler of Take Power (Jukurrpa Books, 1998), an anthology of essays and stories exploring Aboriginal land rights in Central Australia. Her first novel, Plains of Promise (University of Queensland Press, 1997), was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Age Book of the Year Award and the NSW Premier’s Award for Fiction.
She holds the position of Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Western Sydney, Writing and Society Research Group, College of the Arts.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I did not grow up with the idea of wanting to be a writer, or of becoming anything in particular. I grew up in a small country town in a fairly remote area of Australia and I wanted to work with animals, following in my father’s footsteps. He was a cattleman and he died when I was quite young.
My grandmother gave me a rich grounding in storytelling when I was a child, so I have always loved listening to stories. She always told stories about her experiences of places and people in a way that I could only imagine what she saw. Her stories were about the experiences of reality that she could only explain through her cultural beliefs. I simply had to imagine her stories about our ancestral homeland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I also had to imagine what she believed to be true about other people. She was a woman who was truly loved by all members of our family and by everyone who knew her in our region.
I loved poetry and art as a child at school. Poetry was full of wonderful images that could take me on journeys to places that were beyond my imagination. I would visualise lines from poems and fly away in my imagination, just as I did when my grandmother told stories. I was often bored at school. Imagining other worlds probably had something to do with childhood desperation of not knowing where my life was heading, or how to get there.
The practice of reading and writing was something that I learnt to love as a young woman when I was working with senior Aboriginal people in our communities and organisations. This was where my real work and education began—in my home area in North West Queensland after I left school. This region includes my family’s traditional homeland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I was asked to use the literacy skills I possessed to listen and record, read and write basically, for our people.
It was from this beginning that my interest and work started to require in-depth research and analysis of complex issues of Indigenous rights, because this was what we were dealing with. I simply had to become better educated, informed and skilled, so that I could work more efficiently, if that was possible in the huge battles we were having, and that we continue to have to this day. I am deeply grateful for the trust that was placed in me to do the work that I was asked to do at a very high level of working for constitutional rights in the Northern Territory, where I researched, developed and coordinated the Northern Territory Aboriginal Constitutional Convention—Today We Talk About Tomorrow in 1993, and again, in 1998 for the Kalkaringi Convention. The Convention held at Kalkaringi which is in the northwest of the Northern Territory, was conducted in eight different Aboriginal Nation languages. Aboriginal people came to this very isolated area for several days to talk about and oppose the Northern Territory from becoming the eighth state of Australia, unless the Rights of Aboriginal people were included in a modern constitution for statehood. It was through the work of the elders from the communities in Central Australia, which spearheaded a campaign to defeat a Northern Territory statehood referendum.
My love of literature grew from a deep interest in other people and countries in the world. We are just a small population in Australia and spread out across a large continent. There is so much that is happening in the world and I wanted to find out how other people live and think and how to ask the right questions, and of course, to be able to search widely for answers. I felt that I would never travel to other places in the world so I read to explore the ideas and creations of other writers. I also wanted to understand how we could place something of our humanity and culture in the literature of the world.
I thank my own people for the direction and education that they gave me. They really taught me how to read and write and if they had not intervened, who knows what I would be doing now. Probably baking cakes, or rounding up the cattle and camping under the stars like my father did, and that would have been all right, too.
This was where my interest in literature began—as a traditional and cultural lesson of learning, given to a young person to develop a sense of respect, understanding and knowledge.
Was it difficult getting published? Did you experience difficulty finding a publisher?
It was difficult finding a publisher for Carpentaria. All the major publishers in Australia were not interested in the manuscript when it was offered to them. I think this was because they looked at it and saw all the things they were not interested in publishing at the time. It was a huge manuscript and nobody wanted big manuscripts. It was too different and this was perceived to be too difficult. It was also too Aboriginal—basically, a book about everything from an Indigenous point of view.
To be fair, part of the problem was that it was a bad time in the publication of serious literature in Australia. It must have been hard for the commercial publishing world to have a moral obligation to the nation by publishing literary fiction in a morally bankrupt political era. I feel that there still needs to be a lot more serious thought given about the possibilities of contemporary Indigenous writing, except perhaps, how to homogenise it into forms of postcolonial studies. I do not think there are too many people in the publishing world giving thought to questions of why, or how dynamic it might be to experiment with different styles in literature. Carpentaria would have looked like it had come from another planet. I think that more recently there has been a sea change, small ripples in the tides in literary publishing, because there is, as there has always been, big interest across the world with readers for good quality Australian literature.
It was important to me that Carpentaria went to the right publisher, and I got the best in the end. It is true that Professor Ivor Indyk from Giramondo is a very brave publisher, but he also has a great mind for the place and work of literature in society. He ensured that Carpentaria was published with the integrity of the work left intact, whereas if it had been published elsewhere by a publishing house with more status quo interests and disinterest in trying to understand the work, the ideas of the work might have been destroyed, and this would certainly have killed the book.
Professor Indyk is held in the highest esteem in the Australian publishing world for his great intellect and knowledge in the field of literature, and as an enormously gifted publisher, which is in itself a fine art. Giramondo, his imprint, is growing very quickly, but he limits the number of books he publishes in a year. He is the publisher whom many Australian writers respect and also would like to publish with. I was very nervous when I started working with him because he is very smart and I thought he would start to think that the book was rubbish. It was an enormous challenge for him and me to see this book on its way.
What was the first thing you did when you found out that Carpentaria had been shortlisted for the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award?
I could not believe it. Somehow, it seemed surprising for anything good to happen after the time I had taken to write the kind of book that Carpentaria is, and experiencing the difficulty of having it published. It took me six years to write, and two years before that just to think about how I could write it. It was never an easy journey because of the ideas I was trying to work with, even though I did enjoy writing the novel, and living within its landscape. The characters of Norm Phantom, Angel Day and Mozzie Fishman were like an anchor and a home place for my mind for a long time. It was a hard book to have published in a hard place for Aboriginal people. There were times when I felt bad about writing the book when it looked as though it would not be published, even though I thought it was a good book and I had worked hard on it. Many times I felt that I had wasted my time when I should have been working, doing something useful like bashing myself up against the same old wall, campaigning for Aboriginal Government in the Northern Territory. I was not fine wired to success. My wonderful husband took over and turned this good news into a joyous occasion for our family. He bought me flowers and we went out to dinner at our favourite local restaurant, which is down the road from where we live.
What was it like winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award? I believe it was the first time a novel by an Aboriginal writer had won it outright. (In 2000, Kim Scott’s Benang shared the prize with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) What does it mean to you?
It was both unbelievable and strange. Any of the other novels shortlisted could have won, and I thought they would. I was just very happy to be on the shortlist. It was a great honour.
Aboriginal people around the country were pleased and proud to see one of their own win the country’s major literary prize at a time when we were being constantly demonized as people incapable of doing anything for ourselves by the previous government and their supporters through the media.
The Miles Franklin Award and the other awards that Carpentaria received have opened many doors for my work throughout Australia and across the world. I spent the following year travelling continuously to events across Australia and many other countries. The novel was recently published in the U.K. and has received good reviews, and will soon be published in the U.S., Italy, France, Spain and Poland. I am overwhelmed by the huge interest in the book and the feedback from readers in Australia. I live in Melbourne and people would recognise me in the street and say nice things about the book. I receive wonderful letters and it is a good feeling to know that other people have enjoyed it.
I was surprised by the enormous respect and interest that people in other countries have shown for Aboriginal people in Australia and in my work. However, I now understand more than ever, that even though the success of a book is good, it is not what is most satisfying to a writer. It is the questions that you ask of the world and what you learn through all of the processes and possibilities of understanding and thinking as you write, which is the real goal and gives a greater sense of achievement. I feel this very strongly as I am now alone again and working on a new novel. Publication is good and is a fantastic reward, but it is not the main game for a writer. Once a book is published it begins its own life, and with Carpentaria, I found it hard to keep up with its journey, and in the end impossible.
I have now taken up a position for five years to write at the University of Western Sydney in the Writing and Society Research Group of the College of the Arts. This position is one of several positions newly created for writers and translators to promote Australian Literature. This initiative places the University of Western Sydney at the very top of the field as a world leader of innovation in literature. A huge precedent and challenge has been set to other learning institutions to place a similar high value on the importance of how literature is produced for the country of origin, and the standing of that literature in the world.
I am not sure what the future holds for me, though I will continue to write with intensity and joy of working on a book.
What is the history or state of Aboriginal writing in Australia?
There is a new publication in Australia titled the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, edited by Dr Anita Heiss and Dr Peter Minter (Allen & Unwin, 2008). This book is a rich collection of Aboriginal writing over the last 200 years, and shows that we have very good writers and a very sophisticated culturally motivated people. I think that the work of many of our writers, poets and thinkers are in need of wider analysis to broaden the possibilities for Indigenous writing. I also think that there should be a lot more Indigenous writers. We have a serious situation of poor educational standards for many of our people, and where a lot of our people have not benefited from the state’s education system for a very long time.
What continues is the decades of neglect and misunderstanding about what our children require and the kind of support they need. For several years now, there has been a running saga of commentary in the newspapers about all of these issues by just about every Tom, Dick or Harry who has an opinion about Aboriginal people, but you know, there is very little that is actually been said by Aboriginal people. The script is politically motivated and its intent seems to be aimed at destroying the Indigenous voice.
I really believe that the most positive change how our children are educated will come from official recognition of our own forms of Aboriginal government. This Indigenous right still does not exist in Australia although many other countries have been able to embrace, support, and seen the benefit in terms of improved statistics in health, education, economic independency, etc., by recognising the right of Indigenous people to have their own governments. Important leadership and good energy will emerge when Aboriginal people are officially and fully supported to work to own vision of the future. Otherwise, if there is progress under the continuing dysfunctional policymaking methods that have been developed and implemented outside of the Indigenous world, it will always be slow and incremental, not balanced, and the threat, if this continues, is just going to be further deterioration to the well-being of Aboriginal people and culture. This will be a great loss to Australia.
The challenge for Aboriginal people is how to make our culture work in all of the complexity of the modern world. I am confident that we have the answers about how to do this and I have seen our elders working on this very question in Central Australia, but they are continually ignored by the status quo of how government policies work in their communities and homelands.
I think our writing will be able to contribute to an understanding of how we define our own future. The challenge for our writers will be to ask the questions, to be fearless and unrelenting, and to fully investigate how to make ideas work.
Who are some of your literary influences?
The work of the ancestors. The epical stories that come from our culture are probably the oldest literature in the world. I like hearing the voices of our own people telling stories. I have tried to replicate their voices, speech rhythms and regional influences in my writing. I have also learned from writers across the world and have looked at their work to examine questions about how to write. These questions have been about time, place, style, voice and writing from the perspective of belonging to long, ancient cultures. I have really enjoyed the work of James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, W.G. Sebald, and many South American writers and poets including Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Eduardo Galeano and José Saramago’s Stone Raft. I have admired the theorists Edward Said, Édouard Glissant, Franz Fanon and Albert Camus. I also love the work of the French Caribbean writer Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and Solibo Magnificent, and last year, I became interested in the writings of Orhan Pamuk. I read widely and eclectically, both fiction and nonfiction, and poetry. My interest is wide ranging but it is usually directed towards the literary influences of writers I have found the most interesting. I always have a never-ending stack of books to read and I often go back to the old classics when I just sometimes need to go there.
Was there much research to do in writing Carpentaria? And how did you do it?
The book is a work of imagination, but yes, there was quite a bit of research. Some of this research was on the ground in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I continued to ask a lot of questions as I was writing the novel. I needed to really understand the sea, climate, wind, cyclones, fishing and navigation and I became fully immersed in these topics.
I needed a certain degree of accuracy when writing about the local fish, birds, etc. I spend a lot of time observing the natural world to try to understand what was happening in it. It is a passion I have to search for some small thing that you can only find by being in a natural environment such as another way of looking at how spear wood trees bend in the wind. Or, how to interpret natural phenomenon when you might just simply by chance see the bushland swarming with tiny butterflies or grasshoppers.
I remember phoning a professor of zoology in another state who was an expert on fish to ask him about Gropers. He did not have many answers to my questions because Gropers were not a commercial fish in Australia, and so there had not been much interest in studying its life cycle, etc. So, I spoke to one of my countryman and he told me some of the local stories of what our people believe about this fish and its life cycle.
I had very big characters to work with in the novel, and they were far more capable than I could ever be on tracks of country or at sea. They were fearless but had very different personalities. I had to learn as much as I could about what these characters were capable of doing and their motivation to write their characters.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I did not grow up with a lot of books in the home, but I did grow up with the freedom to imagine, and a rich library of stories told by our own people.
Which author occupies the most space on your bookshelf? Who are some of your favourite Australian writers? And why?
I have among my books titles of writers from all parts of the world. I have read widely for many years and have a wonderful collection of books by authors from South America, the French Caribbean, Ireland, Africa, Asia and from many parts of Europe. I have a long-held passion for needing to understand other people, places and ideas that I think are new and exciting. I imagine that reading belongs with the art of writing. Some books have stayed with me for years. These treasures include Keri Hulme’s Bone People, Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Joyce’s Ulysses, Bill Neidjie’s Story About Feeling, and Czechoslovakian writer Ota Pavel’s How I Came to Know Fish.
I admire many Australian writers and respect the long tradition of good literature that has been produced in this country. I can name many wonderful Australian writers and right now just to recall a few whose books are favourites, include works from Patrick White, David Malouf, Nicholas Jose, Gail Jones, Thomas Keneally, Christos Tsiolkas, as well as Indigenous writers like Tony Birch, Kim Scott, Anita Heiss and Tara June Winch. I also love the poetry of some of our fine poets, including Indigenous poets Sam Watson and Lionel Fogerty, and also contemporary poet Barry Hill, and the old poems of A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and James McAuley.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have been reading Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words and The Library at Night. I am also reading recently published books on the writings of Fuentes and Márquez, and Wellsprings, a small volume of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa. I am reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry and a selection of his prose, Finders Keepers, and I have also been reading a book on Buddhist poet monks of China, The Clouds Should Know Me By Now. I have just started reading Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem. I have on my bedside table Louise E. Robbins’s Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Christine E. Jackson’s Peacock: Animal Series and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
I am working on a new novel. It is a good feeling to be writing again, but I am also in a constant state of anxiety because I continuously ask questions about what I am doing and whether the novel will convey what is happening in the world of my imagination. This is part of the process for me. I usually find the answers but it takes time. I have immersed myself in the research and ideas for this book over a long time, and that has been a wonderful thing to do. It is truly a wondrous experience to indulge in the fantastic world of creating new literature.
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with a publisher in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine