For those who feel the loneliness of the desk …

A guest post by Debra Eckerling Most writers would agree: it’s a lonely profession. If you’re lucky, you get to spend lots of time behind the computer writing articles, prose, books, screenplays, etc. The drawback: you spend lots of time behind the computer. It’s essential for writers to connect with others for various reasons. Building…

via How to Develop Relationships with Other Writers — Aerogramme Writers’ Studio

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And life gets in the way

With all good intentions, I committed to writing a weekly round up of the ‘Writing across borders’ course I was teaching last semester – but life got in the way.

I find blogging a curious practice. I’m still unsure as to whether it adds or subtracts from my writing – time, ideas, ability and confidence. Often I find the conversational mode not suited to the writing I want to post. Sometimes, the blog is the only writing I do for weeks but then I spend time polishing the posts and never wind up posting. Yes, it has been a long year already – health, work, home issues abound. Its been a marathon.

So, that’s part of the excuse of the hiatus in my posts about the course. The other part of the excuse is that I take quite seriously the notion that any form of ‘publishing’ – a blog, a tweet, a Facebook post – are all considered and part of my engagement with words. If I publish something then it is ‘published’, final in that form, and even if I then (as I often do) use these same topics, ideas or responses to inform other writing, the iteration needs to be substantially different. This meant that when I decided to write an academic paper about my teaching of the course, I stopped thinking and posting blog updates on the course.

I decided to write the paper, in part because of the reaction of some students – their resistance to the subject grew from week to week – so that I could think through my experience of teaching the material. I wrote it and the paper was accepted for the Australasian Association of Writing Programs  conference in November this year. Fun huh!?

The writing of the paper took centre stage and the blog moved to the side.

dingo-1

Dingo crossing the road, Uluru, June 2014

I also finalised an essay ‘Australia Twice Traversed‘ on my experience of visiting Uluru. It was published this month in Mascara Literary Review, along with a book review I wrote of Natalie Harkin’s superb book of poetry, Dirty Words.

I do believe that finding the right form for your story is crucial to telling it – perhaps blog posts weren’t the right form for my story of the course? I’m not sure. I will, though, be picking up some of the threads from the course over the coming months on this blog.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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Week 2: Who can speak?

With the second week we began the block of the course that focused on ‘Narrator: Self, Other and Character’. This section drew from the first part of Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance (p. 7-63).

In the lecture I walked students through the trajectory of Indigenous writing in Australia, going back to David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Aborigines in 1930, Jack Patten’s speech for the Aborigines Protection Association on the first national Day of Mourning, 26 January 1938, and the Yolgnu Bark Petitions in 1963. Of course, Aboriginal people were engaging with the English language from the early days of the colony and as Scott makes the point, the old Noongar man who danced with Flinders’ men on the WA beach in 1801 is one form of cultural engagement and cross-fertilization.

But as I explained to my students, Aboriginal writing in English really started with memoir in various modes of genre, Jack Davis plays and poems, Ella Simon’s memoir Through my Eyes, Kevin Gilbert’s interviews and plays, all of which date from about the 1960s through to the late 1970s.

I used Ruby Langford Ginibi’s great statement about her desire to write memoir rather than fiction:

‘I’m not interested in fiction. Don’t need to be, because I’m too busy writing the truth about my people. . . . This is from our side of the fence. . . . Although the history of the whole of white Australia is one of the biggest fictions, aye?’ (Ginibi, 1994)

to highlight how a creative choice can be (and to my mind, always is) political.

Kim Scott, who published his first novel in 1993 just a few years after Ginibi’s first memoir, argued this in ‘Covered up with Sand’:

‘I’d like to think that writing fiction is sometimes a way to explore, to rethink and possibly to retrieve or create something from between and behind the lines on the page. As such it can help the revitalisation and regeneration of an Indigenous heritage, in so far as it involves ‘shaking up’ and making space within the most readily available language—that of the coloniser—for other ways of thinking.’ (Scott 2007, p123)

I suggested to students that what Scott offers to me, a white person, here is the opportunity to think about the stories I make space for on the page. It makes me realise the power I have to subvert, pay attention to, ignore subjects, characters, modes, all the while using English to the best of my ability. I also think it opens up my thinking to Scott’s ‘ambivalences’, to write with uncertainty and experimentation and to understand that there is no singular answer, just our attempts to tell more interesting, relevant, stories of our times.

When we open That Deadman Dance, we find the prologue. We meet Wabalanginy for the first time. ‘Kaya’ (hello, yes) he writes on slate. We see Wabalanginy delighted with his new skill of written communication with the Europeans who are now staying in his country and we begin to sense what an exceptional cross-cultural communicator he is going to be:

‘Moving between languages, Bobby wrote on stone.’ (Scott, 2010 p. 1)

Wabalanginy is a sophisticated, curious young man at this point of the story. He is adept at operating in both languages and cultures and is keen to share the one with the other and back again: Wabalanginy wants to communicate across cultures.

As I was (re)reading the book in preparation for this class, I got to wondering how I might write like this.

In the first lecture I brought up the idea of ‘whiteness’, basically, the study of white privilege. But the big challenge with the study of whiteness is that we can very easily turn it into the centre of our focus. As a result, we fixate on what whiteness is and how it affects whiteys like me rather than what whiteness does, how it operates in the world outside our privilege; ie. how we create the world because of our privilege. In doing this, we run the very real risk of re-centering our study on ourselves and making us ‘the most important’ – cultural navel gazing.

Academic Alison Ravenscroft, in writing about a number of non-Inidgenous writers writing colonial histories, both fiction and nonfiction, states that:

‘… despite non-Indigenous writers’ best efforts to revise the colonial story, they nevertheless risk revitalizing it instead …’ (Ravenscroft, 2013)

In our attempts to rewrite, reimagine the early days of colonisation, we often in fact, claim significance for ourselves, and privilege our versions of the stories. In this article, ‘The Strangeness of the Dance’, Ravenscroft is also investigating why Scott’s writing is different and why it is able to do ‘different work’. She states that her endeavour is to:

‘… insist on the importance of aesthetic form: on the way a story is pushed into shape, on the form of its telling rather than only its narrative content… [and] that relying on our capacity to uncover new historical facts, new archival records or even new memories will not be enough to tell a different story. It is to argue that an emphasis on facts … but equally an emphasis on white imaginative powers risks repeating the same old story, with all the reiterations of colonial impulses that this implies.’ (Ravenscroft, 2013)

What Ravenscroft demands of us when she challenges us in this way is to confront and interrogate our own biases and look at the characters we create, the decisions we make around plot, genre, who gets to speak, and what they get to say. This interrogation is imperative whenever we are writing any character or world that is ‘other’ to us, woman or man, age, sexuality, class, place or culture. When it comes to asking ‘Who can speak?’ we need to first ask the question who is asking and why.

Now, I want to draw your attention to Scott’s writing, his syntax and his thematic interests, and how he has combined these on the page in That Deadman Dance. The first section: 1833-1835 is a flash forward of sorts – not that we realise this when we read it initially because it isn’t until we get to the second part that we go back in time. This allows Scott to foreshadow some of the drama and outcomes of the novel – we can reflect from one part to the next on what has occurred and what might still occur. This overarching structural device makes the novel as a whole dynamic, each part dependent on the other.

‘Menak’s campfire would have been invisible from the ship, yet his view took in the inner harbor, the great bay, the islands and the ship coming around the headland…. But of course a ship’s canvas wings hold the wind, and keep that wave tumbling and frothing at its sharp breast as it slices and pushes the sea aside. Such power and grace, and there is that milky scar as the sea closes again, healing.’ (Scott 2010, p12)

This opening paragraph is about Menak, the Noongar elder. We see him by himself in the landscape, a specific place, and we hear him wondering about the white people (the ‘horizon people’) who come and go, and their effect on the Noongar and the environment. Just from this one paragraph we know that Menak sees everything, that he can remain invisible in the landscape, that he imagines the ‘after’ of when the white people will have gone away, the ‘healing’, and that bodies or body parts are ever-present – ‘sharp breast as it slices’, ‘scar’, ‘healing’ – in his thinking. We know he is connected to the land and sea in different ways to the Europeans.

This section is also when we hear at length from non-Noongar people – Chaine, Skelly, Killam and Cross, in particular.

‘Geordie Chaine gripped a timber rail caked with salt, his nerves as tight as any rigging, and speared his attention to the immense grey-green land beyond the shore. Empty, he thought. Trackless. Waiting for him.’ (Scott 2010, p15)

I think it is useful for me as a writer to look at what Scott has done here. This is Chaine’s introduction but in fact, we have already met Chaine in the prologue and know that he develops a relationship with Wabalanginy. Here Scott is setting up the tension between the Noongar and the Europeans: we know the land is not empty but, because he appears in the prologue, Chaine has already been established as a significant player in the story and so his attitude carries weight. The idea of terra nullius is made personal from the very start of the novel. Place, a locale, is also made crucial to this particular story.

‘Chaine held the kangaroo skin Wooral had offered him awkwardly, fingering the small piece of bone used as a clasp when it was worn across the shoulders. Well-worn, oiled, softened, the animal skin seemed too intimate an item of apparel.’ (Scott, p45)

Both Chaine and Killam reject this ‘intimate’ gift, a piece of clothing or possibly protection. It’s a telling moment for the reader: What do we feel about the failure of this exchange? How has Scott positioned the Noongar-European relationship?

The tension of misunderstandings and differing priorities continues through the book. I could keep pulling out paragraphs, and it occurs in almost all of them, where Scott has set up a relationship and then challenged or undercut it. There is an offering or an exchange from one character to another and it never quite works. Scott does this through controlled focus on his themes – of dislocation and cross-cultural exchange – but also through the choice of words the character uses. Whether it is Chaine claiming territory even before he has set foot on land or Menak seeing the sea as a potential place of healing, we understand the complexity of the lack of cultural recognition that is occurring in the narrative. It isn’t that Scott is writing a straightforward oppositional story either – ‘you did this’, ‘you did that’ – he is creating slights and judgments and miscommunications and desire and disregard in almost every scene. Scott’s attention to place, nuance and to detail is exceptional.

It is moments like this one that we all need to be trying to get into our writing. Scott has created a text where we, the reader, are always hoping for better outcomes from the relationships in the book and those situations resonate with our contemporary Australian society.

Scott finishes his essay ‘Covered up with Sand’ with this:

‘It seems to me that any ‘global discourse’ has strong homogenising tendencies, and therefore we need to strengthen regional voices so they remain true to their own imperatives at the same time as being empowered to enter into exchange and dialogue. That means being willing to change, but also to cause change, and that seems our best hope for a transformation that increases, rather than reduces, the possibilities available to us—particularly for expressing who we are and what we might be.’ (Scott, 2007 p124)

In these times when life moves so fast and we might be more interested in the American election than in anything remotely connected to Wollongong or to our streets, or the people we see on the bus, I think it is a reassuring thing to remember, that our place has power and that the stories we tell from place have power.

References:

Ginibi Ruby L., 1994 (http://www.emsah.uq.edu.au/practiceofautobiography )

Ravenscroft, Alison 2013, “The Strangeness of the Dance: Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson, Inga Clendinnen and Kim Scott’, Meanjin, Vol. 72, No. 4

Scott, Kim 2007, ‘Covered up with Sand’, Meanjin Vol. 6, No. 2 p.120-124

Scott, Kim 2010, That Deadman Dance, Picador Sydney

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Beginnings

It is a curious exercise preparing material that will make creative writing students question their own biases and knowledges without paralysing them in terms of their own writing at the same time. A subject like ‘Writing across Borders’ could still any imaginative leaps inexperienced (or experienced, now I think about it) writers may make about writing characters who are ‘other’, whether that be race, gender, age, disability and so on.

I have four students out of 36 who identify as having mixed heritage – all the others are Anglo white. It is to be expected in a creative writing university course in this country, and in the Illawarra, where a large segment of the university population studying arts come from white or Anglo-European heritage. I am fourth generation English and Scottish, just for the record.

The students appear interested in the subject and they have found Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance, an engrossing read but when it comes to their own writing, some students have resisted the idea that they need to (or even could) consider stories through a postcolonial lens, one suggested that she didn’t need to think about Aboriginal issues because Aboriginal people have made it quite clear they don’t want non-Aboriginal people to appropriate or tell stories for them.

In the first tutorial I asked them to read a poem from Natalie Harkin’s collection Dirty Words. Harkin’s work is angry and visceral as well as historical and intimate and the collection is a significant publication within Australian literature. The students could appreciate what Harkin was attempting and were quietened by her ability to confound their expectations of poetry.

We then discussed the idea of ‘reply’ (drawing literally on Anne Brewster) and I asked them to write a reply to Harkin, to respond in writing. They did with some fascinating results. As an extension of this, I asked them to then write as though they couldn’t respond, as though they were devoid of an ‘answer’ of any sort. They found this much more difficult and we discussed Ahmed’s argument that sometimes paying attention, listening, might be enough – or at least a start.

And so, the course began.

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Week 1: What is the border?

In week 1 of the class we began discussing what borders are, but specifically what borders we might cross in our writing: race, gender, class, age, disability, sexuality, ethnicity – ‘all the things’, as one of my students put it.

The border is a liminal space, oppositional but also dependent, inclusive as much as it is exclusive. By using Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance as the spine of this course, we can assess how one writer has approached the task of writing into history, writing cross-culturally, and writing with a particular aim as we experiment with various modes of address, of place, time, and writing difference.

Scott’s writing is ‘writing that is doing something rather than simply saying something’ (to paraphrase something I heard the Waanyi author Alexis Wright say at a conference), but as Scott says, fiction isn’t polemic and in his nuanced detailing of the relationships between Noongar and Noongar, Noongar and European and Noongar and story, time and language we find what he refers to as the ‘ambivalences’ of his story, the uncertainties.

This first week was an introduction to the novel, to my, a white Australian, approach to reading Indigenous writing (and why we should) and to a number of texts that discuss Scott’s work and that we will be reading later in the course. I also introduced the idea of ‘whiteness’ and the rigour we need when attempting to decentre white culture and privilege so as not to refocus our writing onto ‘what whiteness is, rather than what whiteness does’. [This is a line of Sara Ahmed’s but I’m not – this minute – sure where it is from.]

Anne Brewster, a writer and academic at UNSW who has done a lot of work around Scott’s writing, has argued that:

‘The personal address of whiteness writing seems to me in part predicated rhetorically upon the ethical imperative to reply’. (Brewster, 2005)

And I began the discussion of how our writing might fit into a dialogue across borders, a call and response of sorts.

I also asked my students, there are 36 of them but only a few are of mixed heritage and none are Aboriginal, these questions:

Who feels overwhelmed or uninterested or indifferent when a story about Aboriginal people comes on the television? Who thinks it doesn’t affect them or have any bearing on their lives? And if you think that, can you understand that that position is a position of privilege?

I told the students that a friend of mine refers to this feeling as ‘Aboriginal Fatigue’, but I continued, by saying ‘I decide if I care or not’, we are making a statement of choice, of privilege. Brewster would say that we, non-Aboriginal Australians, have an ‘ethical imperative to reply’ to these stories – and a reply might not mean we say anything, it might just constitute attention. It might just mean we listen. Sara Ahmed argues that:

‘You can attend to what you don’t know, you can offer an ethics of attention’ (Ahmed 2013 p.121)

Scott talks about the ‘means of production’ in his interview with Anne Brewster (2012), when he is talking about finding the right form for resistance, collaboration and ethical relationship between Noongar and wadjila:

He [Bobby] takes on the military dance that becomes the Dead Man Dance. He’s an expert at that and he fancies that his whole dancing quality is all about rhythm, for example, the dancing on the ship. I think it’s really important, that idea of rhythm. However in some of that he may have erred. He’s not quite the dancer he thought he was; or perhaps the dance as a form is not necessarily the form that’s going to powerfully speak to this mob—the ones that get up at the end of the novel, dismissively; he hasn’t got them. But, just possibly, writing is [the form]… (Scott, 2012 p.233)

Scott believes there is true value in writing – for the writer, for the reader, for the story, for our culture.

And bell hooks, African-American academic and writer would agree. She argues, in her book Feminism is for Everybody, that,

“To critique sexist images without offering alternatives is an incomplete intervention. Critique in and of itself does not lead to change.”

And so, the world needs writers – even if we don’t think we can change the world with our writing, even if what we think we are writing is foolish. If we are trying to offer alternatives, or insights, or opportunities, then even at our most flawed and foolish we have succeeded.

I concluded the lecture by saying that in this course, we are going to waver between knowing, and not knowing, replying and sitting with the inability to reply. It is quite fine to not know, to not understand but, I would argue, it is unethical for us not to be conscious of our privilege, to dismiss the border we are crossing in our writing, and to be open to the complexities of writing across that border.

I will blog about the tutorials separately very soon – and there are more weeks of discussion to post too. Stay tuned.

References:
Ahmed S, 2013. [Have to dig this full reference up to!]
Brewster A., 2005. ‘Writing whiteness: The personal turn’, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 35
Brewster A., & Scott K., 2012. ‘Can You Anchor a Shimmering Nation State via Regional Indigenous Roots? Kim Scott talks to Anne Brewster about That Deadman Dance’. Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 1
Scott K., 2010. That Deadman Dance. Sydney: PanMacmillan
Watkins G/hooks b., 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge MA: South End Press
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And now teaching

This semester I am teaching a creative writing course at the University of Wollongong (UOW) that I am really excited about. I’ve taught a number of other courses at UOW over the last few years and many that I have been genuinely enthusiastic to teach – I like teaching and I particularly enjoy teaching writing. There is something about engaging students in new ways of reading and thinking about writing and then writing that I find really rewarding.

This course, called ‘Writing Across Borders’, though, is an adaptation of a course that sits within the core subjects of the Creative Writing degree. It has been taught for a number of years by the award winning writer and academic Merlinda Bobis who has now retired from academia (but not writing – who retires from writing?). I was asked to re-vision the subject for my interests in postcolonial writing, whiteness and writing as a form of reply or dialogue. How cool is that? (Yes, I am a casual academic and we could have a discussion about the potential professional issues of this ask but you know what? Let’s not. Other people do that better than me, like here.)

My version of ‘Writing Across Borders’ focuses on Noongar writer Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance that was published in 2010. It is a wonderfully told re-imagining of the colonisation of the Noongar people around Albany on the south west coast of Western Australia in the 1800s. The novel is inspired by true events of this frontier and is a sophisticated, engaging and moving evocation of the Noongar and European experience of colonisation.

Language, in all its connotations, is one of the primary themes of the novel. What is a language? How to communicate without language? What is lost when language is lost? Place and time is also primary to the novel – the specificity of experience, response, relationship – which is often overlooked in the broader discussions about the past and ongoing colonisation of Australia by non-Aboriginal people.

But significantly, the novel is about writing, it’s about how we tell our stories, what stories we tell and how we might be able to tell them differently. Investigating Scott’s writing with my writing students over 13 weeks is an extraordinary privilege, I reckon.

Because I am, in my writing and my life, overtly and continually interested in relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this country, I am keen to keep track of the course as it progresses and so I have decided to blog our progress. I won’t be naming names or detailing responses from students in any way but I will be meditating on the material, posting links and asking questions – questions I have, questions my students have, questions that That Deadman Dance asks. I have also set weekly reading of other texts in a compare and contrast exercise and I will post those titles here as well. I hope you come along with me for the ride. To get started, here’s a link to a short taster of Kim Scott talking about That Deadman Dance.

 

 

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Lately

It’s been many months since I posted a blog. I could say ‘I’ve been so busy’ but I really hate it when people say ‘I’ve been so busy’ because ultimately, we are all busy all the time. The competition over who has been busiest is never ending and hmmm…pathetic? Often being busy is an excuse for not contacting people, not wanting to divert time away from what we consider important to those more difficult, emotional or perhaps demanding relationships that we don’t feel certain of, or can’t control or may lead to even more commitments or demands. It’s the same when I hear ‘I’m knackered’ or ‘I’m tired’. We all are. Some of us just don’t think it is a worthwhile topic of conversation.

I only have one friend who can get away with saying ‘I’m too busy’ and ‘I’m tired’ – yes, both – because she is working umpteen jobs all the time to keep the mortgage paid on her house. It’s just her. She has no one else to rely on or lean on or be supported by. She is hoping to be able to lie down and not to get up for awhile in the last two weeks of January. She doesn’t complain though, so she very rarely says ‘I’m so busy’ or ‘I’m tired’.

But, back to me! I have been busy but I can only recognise this in hindsight. I have been juggling writing with teaching and research and traveling for work and research. This week is the first week in a very long time that I don’t have to go anywhere at all and I think the travel is the element that tips me over from ‘busy’ to ‘too busy’. It is draining to be constantly working out leaving and arrival times, to be considering what I need and what I don’t need to take some place. To really think about how many books I will read in the few days I am away. The continual negotiation in my head makes me wonder how others travel as part of their job. I don’t think I could manage it. Today feels as though I have exhaled a long held breathe.

This is also the week where I have realised (again) how lucky I am. I am lucky to be able to write my doctorate full time – time being the luxury. I’m lucky to be able to plan ahead for the next project due to a grant from the Australia Council which means for the first time in a very long time, I am not anxious about where the next pay check is coming from. University teaching has finished for the year and the down hill run to Christmas has begun. The jacarandas are in full, dazzling, purple bloom.

All this makes me feel extremely lucky to be living in this time and space.

Lately, I’ve been lucky.

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