Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker gives a voice to Australia’s talented First Nations’ writers in her powerful Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Address

Alison Whittaker. Photo by Jonno Revanche.

Alison Whittaker. Photo by Jonno Revanche.

Gomeroi poet, essayist and legal scholar, Alison Whittaker, takes us through the work of First Nations’ writers who would have joined us this week as she addresses the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival theme, Almost Midnight.

The brief for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) Opening Night Address asked you to reflect on the 2020 theme, Almost Midnight. How did the onset of Covid-19, and having to record it digitally from home, shape how you decided to reflect on the theme?

Apocalypse or other big disasters seem to have been on our minds lately. Even before COVID-19, we kind of knew that apocalyptic conditions now had a long precedent two hundred and fifty years ago. But everyone wants to call what’s happening now ‘unprecedented’. Baffling to me, especially since the sub-theme I was addressing over the festival was 12.01. We’re past midnight here, and not just recently.

Recording it from home was bizarre. In some ways, it was very lonely. I didn’t share the stage. There was no stage. No audience that I could see or be intimidated by. But also, everyone kind of got invited into my apartment in a really intimate way. The idea that this kind of global event brought Sydney Writers’ Festival attendees in to sit on my lino with me is weird. Get out of my home!

As one of this year’s SWF curators, you had programmed a number of Indigenous writers to appear at the Festival and quote their work throughout your Address. Can you tell us about who you planned to include and why?

They’re in the address — definitely listen to their words there and anywhere else you can find them! I included their words because they deserved to be in the festival. I’ll list them here —Callum Clayton-Dixon, Narmi Collins-Widders, Jacinta Koolmatrie, Tony Birch, Evelyn Araluen, Chelsea Bond, Lorna Munro, Heidi Norman, Lizzie Jarrett, Claire Coleman, Meleika Gesa Fatafehi, Miranda Tapsell, Leah Purcell, and Tara June Winch.

These are wordsmiths and thinkers working at the cusp of possibility when we’re told to expect doom, and on the cusp of doom when we’re told to expect impossibility.

Have you returned to any of these writers’ works during lockdown and what have you been reading over recent weeks?

Yes! And I’ve been reading Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, which just came out — along with Fire Front, a big anthology of First Nations poetry and essays (disclaimer: I edited it).

You’ve got your eye to the page and ear to the podcast – what trends are you seeing in First Nations’ writing – and what’s exciting you in Australia and around the world?

The trend is the same one that’s been going on for ages — it’s being made! And it’s being made because of this long lineage of First Nations people globally who went out there and fought to tell stories in formal publishing. They carved out space and resourced it, and now we are seeing the fruits of that with an exponential growth in writing getting published.

Something really special is that we’re all reading one another. I love both the burgeoning critical culture of First Nations writing, and that First Nations books are getting cross-continent readerships! Lots of our literature is going out, and Indigenous works from all over are coming here in return. That different Indigenous contexts and literary bodies are speaking to one another is so exhilarating, full of breath and possibility.

For any of our emerging Indigenous writers reading this interview, what advice do you have to them, in developing their voice, and building their career?

Great question! Here’s my advice — find other Indigenous writers. There are so many out there who are experiencing this stuff similarly to you, and we can’t keep going out on this alone. Join FNAWN. Enter things like black&write! (which started my literary practice) and approach people for advice who have been through the programs you want to apply for. Test out your work with other mob. I’m always happy to hear from you!

Listen to Alison Whittakers opening address.

Check out Alison’s latest work, Fire Front.

Image: Alison Whittaker. Photo by Jonno Revanche.
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