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Q&A with Alexis Wright

Indigenous Australian writer Alexis Wright talks about the future of Australia, storytelling and cultural relations ahead of the WordStorm Top End Writer's Festival this month.

Q&A with Alexis Wright

Where did your passion for writing and storytelling first start? 

As a young woman while I listened to elders in my region, and while undertaking the tasks they had given me to record by hand, a full transcript of their meetings and stories.

I believe that these very knowledgeable and wise people were trying to train me to listen, to be patient, to open up my heart and mind, so that I might be able to think more deeply about the ancient culture and land of our heritage, and to work creatively in all spheres of our world, as they were doing themselves.

Were you always a creative person? Do you think you can be born creative or you become creative working with the talents that are given to you and the factors that effect you?

I think that I come from very creative people through my Waanyi, Chinese, and possibly, Irish ancestry.  My grandmother was a very creative gardener and bush lady in an extremely arid part of the country.  She paid close attention to detail over every aspect of her garden, to the country and environment, and she was always open to new ideas.  In a different time, and under different circumstances, I believe she could have achieved even more extraordinary things in the world than the wonderful huge family that I am very proud of.

My father died when I was about five, but he was a creative man of the bush, and worked hard to build his property and stock.

I was a creative – although a bit dreamy – and determined child, and I could draw well.  I have an uncle who was a great artist and poet in our family.  I have many cousins, and they have children winning major awards for their art, or who are accomplished musicians, or who are fine craftspeople.  My sister is also very creative, and makes beautiful art through her quilting.

What do you think it takes to be a creative writer or artist today? How does this differ from eras gone past?

We are living in a world that is becoming more complex every day, and one key example of the complexity, is what we are being told by top scientists – almost on a daily basis – of changes that are likely to occur across the planet from global warming.

Even though we have the capacity to bring all of humanity closer together, we also have the capacity to tear each other apart.  I believe we will need to acquire greater understanding of all people across the world, to achieve common goals of looking after the wellbeing and safety of all peoples.

We need literature that can describe and feel the big issues that will be global in reach and content, and that will speak to people anywhere.

Creative writers and artists will increasingly have the huge task of fronting up to these big issues, of thinking big, of taking risks, to develop new forms of art and writing required in the coming years of this new millennium.

Writers certainly have this important task by using their independence and freedom of thought, to reach into the soul of humanity – past governments and other constraints, to contribute to the urgent need for a global literature that will create greater understanding of each other, can visualise the concerns of millions of people, and of embracing new ideas and needs to help this Planet to survive.

What role do you think culture plays in storytelling?

In Aboriginal culture, we say that we come from a storytelling tradition.  Our law and culture is governed through ancient stories.  These stories are very powerful, and in the Aboriginal world, surpass and break other laws.  We have known from a very early age about the importance of stories, the stores we tell about ourselves, and about getting the story straight.  The importance we place on story, is the link for safeguarding cultural and property sovereign rights, and identity as Aboriginal people.

How does your cultural background and ethnicity influence your craft?

I have talked about these influences at length when discussing my writing in the past, but one key point of my work, particularly in writing Carpentaria, was the very long process of developing a novel that I hoped would be authentic to my traditional homeland and region in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  In this process, I tried to consider and develop an authentic response to the vast range of contemporary realities, concerns, beliefs, language, cultural concerns, cultural relationships with the land and environment, intercultural dynamics, as well as voice, style, and tone of storytelling.

I have described the storytelling form as a spinning multi-stranded helix of stories of all times, and which I believe, is the condition of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling.

My new novel, The Swan Book, is an extension of this form of storytelling by seeking to embrace knowledge of the world.

How do you think current cultural relations in Australia will affect contemporary writers?

Who knows?  How have cultural relations in Australia affected writers in the past?

In the Aboriginal world, seeing governments take backward steps is not new.  It’s backward steps all the way.  I have lost count of the backward steps I have seen, and also the consequences of never negotiating properly with Aboriginal peoples.  Yet still, miraculously, we manage to survive, maintain, and even develop our knowledge of ourselves, our traditional lands, and ways of survival.

We have plenty of stories to tell, and as far as Aboriginal writing goes, tell these stories we will.

Why did you decide to get involved with the WordStorm Top End Writer’s Festival and what do you hope to achieve?

I have been involved with the WordStorm Festival on at least two or three other occasions. I will be speaking about my new novel, The Swan Book, which is a novel set in a future Australia – about one hundred years from now, and the reasons why I wrote the novel including concerns about global warming and the impact on people and the environment, and of course, the novel’s world of swans.

I have always loved this festival and being in the Top End of Australia where I can feel the atmosphere, enjoy the company of local writers and learn about their work and worldview, see the beautiful art, and catch up with friends.

You are featuring in the festival’s deadly theme ‘It’s not black and white’, how will you explore this theme in regards to culture relations in Australia today?

I will be talking about the reasons why the vision for the future that Aboriginal people have explored over many years, and require for our survival, has never been properly explored in this country, or the Northern Territory – still to this day.  The consequences of this inability to negotiate fairly, or adequately, means that we cannot fully contemplate a shared vision with anyone, neither an Aboriginal people’s vision (as opposed to a single Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal person’s vision), and most likely, that we will never achieve a greater vision of the future.  If the status quo remains, all that we – all of us – can really do, is stew in this dysfunctional and devastating mess, and watch it spread and get worse.  But we should never lose sight of how our inability to truly acknowledge others was created in the first place and maintained.  If cultural relations in Australia are bad, think about how much worse it is for the first peoples of this country who fully understand that their rights as Aboriginal peoples continue to be denied.  I believe this is the starting point for the future.

  • Do you feel Australia is unique in terms of cultural relations or, in your opinion, are these themes universal?

I think Australia is unique, considering the colonial history and lack of real settlement with Aboriginal people in this country.  We are yet to resolve to question of property rights, and treaty agreements with Aboriginal nations.

It’s a particularly fraught time in Australian cultural relations since we now have an Attorney-General, Australia’s top law person saying very recently in Parliament on behalf of all Australians – men, women and children – that it is alright to be a bigot.

If we cannot think of ways of resolving our differences any better than this, what hope do we have of understanding how we might prepare ourselves, by having greater understanding of the role of compassion and friendship in a new world?  This may well be a world that is suffering severe impacts from global warming, and if the predictions are correct, the eventual displacement of millions of people and their economies.

You released your novel The Swan Book in 2013, what are you working on at the moment or hoping to work on next?

I am working on an Indigenous Storytelling research project, and a new novel.  I hope to have these two new writing projects completed by the end of 2015.  After that, I think I would like to write a comedy series for television, and something about my great grandfather who came from China.  I would also like to continue the work I did for the Black Arm Band’s dirtsong production, and perhaps, write something new for an Aboriginal musical and dance production – our own hybrid opera perhaps.

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