In this episode, Naomi re-shares a segment of a podcast interview she previously had with Australian of the Year finalist and award winning author Dr Anita Heiss where they speak about consciousness raising through writing and Indigenous literature.
In this episode, Naomi also announces an event that Busi Women Inc will be running in Yeppoon, QLD with Dr Anita Heiss.
Listen to this episode
What you will learn:
- From Australian of the Year finalist and award winning author Dr Anita Heiss where she speaks about consciousness raising through writing and Indigenous literature.
- Naomi also announces an event that she and Busi Women Inc will be running in Yeppoon, QLD with Dr Anita Heiss.
Featured / Referenced:
- Busi Women Inc event with Dr Anita Heiss
- Busi Women Inc Facebook page
- Naomi Arnold Facebook page
- Anita’s books
- Oodgeroo Noonuccal
- Ruby Langford Ginibi
- Anita’s Ted Talk
- Anita’s website
Prefer to read? Download the full episode transcript:
Read the full episode transcript:
You are listening to the Dream For Others® podcast with Naomi Arnold, Episode 13.
Dream For Me, Dream For You, Dream For Others®. And now your host, award-winning life and business coach, Naomi Arnold…
Hi there! Thank you for joining me on the podcast today.
Those of you who have been listening since the first season, before I moved to solo episodes, would know that I used to do long-form interviews on the show.
I got to speak to some of the most amazing people and I wanted to reshare some of those interviews with you, in case you’ve joined us in more recent times or want to listen to components in more digestible blocks.
So today, I’m going to re-share part of my interview with one of my favourite authors Dr Anita Heiss. Before doing that though, I wanted to let you know that if you are located in Central Queensland, Dr Heiss will be visiting Yeppoon in May.
I am on the executive committee for a local women’s networking group called Busi Women Inc and we’re bringing Dr Heiss to town for some community events in the area – one of which you’re invited to. You can find the details under the event tab on the Busi Women Inc Facebook page and on my Facebook page too.
Okay let’s jump in and listen to Anita…
For those who aren’t as familiar with you and your work as me, would you mind introducing us to what you do and how you came to be doing it?
So, I actually started writing back in 1992. I was writing comic scripts for Streetwize Comics and I wasn’t very good at that. I tried very hard and I did it for two years. But while I was doing that, I started writing and doing some journalism in columns and so forth where I could use a bit more flair and use a larger word count.
So in 1994, I quit that job at Streetwize to write a book. I didn’t know that I would write more than one book, I didn’t know that I’d be talking to you today having published almost 20 books now, but I wrote a book called ‘Sacred Cows’ and really it was a reaction to my time at university where all the books on the shelf there were written by non-Aboriginal people and some of those people had not even been to Australia.
All the books I got off the shelf that had about anything to do with Aboriginal people and Aboriginal Australian history or that involved Aboriginal society, failed to use Aboriginal voices so I thought I would write a book about Australian society looking at a sacred cows – Skippy and Vegemite and the backyard barbecue – in a satirical way, just to make the point that we are bicultural people. But even me writing that kind of book had me engage with Australians to make that an authentic piece and that was a springboard for my writing.
I didn’t know I’d write another book, but I was then invited by Scholastic Australia to write a historical novel called ‘Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence’ about the stolen generations. I wrote that around the same time that I was doing my PHD on Aboriginal Literature Publishing and then the rest, as they say, is history.
Even though you write in a number of different contexts, there seems to be an underlying theme through a lot of it where you are trying to raise consciousness on something, or play some part in creating change or awareness.
That’s absolutely right. I want to do a few things and I started writing because I wanted to write Aboriginal stories, with Aboriginal voices, and Aboriginal women in particular into the Australian literary landscape in a way that we had not been written before.
So for instance, I wrote the first commercial women’s novels with Aboriginal characters and that was writing us into a space where we were women with careers and women who were educated and women who had families and women who wanted relationships and had friendships, just like other Australian women. So, yes, breaking down those stereotypes for a start is what I wanted to do.
But also within those stories, which might be set in Sydney or Melbourne or Canberra and Brisbane, weaving through the stories of relationships and friendships themes of black deaths in custody, themes of human rights like the NT Intervention, looking at indigenous intellectual property in the arts and so forth and using my characters to have dialogue and have storylines that are real for myself and the women in my world.
I was the first person in my family to go to university and graduate from university and also the first Aboriginal person to graduate with a Phd. from the University of Western Sydney so I feel a huge sense of responsibility to use the platform that I now have through education, and the privilege that comes with having a platform, to try and make changes in a way in some way through the arts.
My mother was born on an Aboriginal mission in Cowra. My grandmother was one of the Stolen Generations and was in service, and so I feel that we still have a long way to go in terms of change in this country and that writing, whether it’s commercial fiction or children’s books, is one way of making this nation think and making them think about what their role is in terms of making social change as well.
I love that. When I was reading ‘Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms’, I just loved seeing how even though something is fiction and a novel that you were raising my consciousness there of what it was like to be an Aboriginal person living in Cowra on a mission with less rights than those who were in the prisoners of war camp nearby for example.
Well, thank you. The Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was obviously a story that’s very close to me because that’s my family history and it’s interesting because I had the idea for that novel when I was in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. It made me think about the way in which history had been documented in our country and obviously history is often documented by the coloniser as opposed to the colonised. And I was thinking about Cowra and what I knew about the breakout and none of it had actually been written or documented.
World War 2 talked about aborigine involvement (there were Wiradjuri names from Cowra, from the Talca who we remember), but also only 4.5 or 4.6 miles in a direct line from that POW camp was another camp of Aboriginal people where my mother was living at the time of the breakout who had lived under the active protection.
There was an assimilation policy at the time and Aboriginal people lived with fewer rights, less access to nutritional food, less access to medical supplies and so forth than Japanese POW’s. Don’t get me wrong we provided the care that we should have provided to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention and that’s a good thing, but whilst most people know that story, they don’t know the other story. And for me it was important that Australian readers understand the complete story around that town at that time – a town that quite proudly recognises its relationship and the ongoing reconciliation it has with Japan, but that it doesn’t necessarily have with its local Indigenous people.
So that novel uses a build up to a love story to drive it, because I wanted people like yourself and women in book clubs and women who lie on the beach and women who catch trains to work who want to read about relationships and strong female stories, but may not pick up a book or might not have thought to read a book by an aboriginal author, will buy and read and talk about a book that actually talks about the human condition and the frailties of relationships in families and also male and female relationships.
Obviously in that novel we’re looking at a young Wiradjuri girl Mary and a Japanese POW Hiroshi thrown into a situation and, as war does, makes people behave in quite extraordinary ways. We’re looking to make Australian readers understand the humanity behind caring for each other, particularly in a time of war, and that in the instance of love in particular, love knows no boundaries – least of all race.
You can feel yourself really connecting with those characters and what they’re going through and then it often triggers you to go research further about the realities.
I really hope so. It’s interesting because you write a book and the authors focus on the characters and the dialogue and wanting to have a rich story and a plot that will make readers want to take reading but you can’t control the way a reader reads your work because we write through a lens and everybody reads through with their own particular lens.
When I wrote ‘Tiddas’ which was set in Brisbane, I had people read it as a love letter to Brisbane, I had people read it in different ways and engage with the five main characters in different ways.
When I wrote ‘Manhattan Dreaming’ which was much more fun a novel to write, I had journalists say to me that they then went and started researching all the artists that I mentioned in that novel, which was not my intention at the time of writing. My intention was to say ‘oh I want to showcase some artists and I want to use real living breathing successful Indigenous artists across art forms’. I had no idea then that they might become the subject of greater stories, which was a bonus.
That’s great isn’t it. I think I heard or read somewhere as well that you do that deliberately now and you also I like feature real places and things like that to help local communities or businesses.
That is true, I’m a method writer so I get into character and I source and research where my character would eat, say in Wagga, where is the best steak and where is the best coffee in town and quite frankly it’s easier than making up plays.
And also in ‘Paris Dreaming’, one of the main characters is from Deniliquin. I went to Deniliquin and fell in love with the town and I found out it’s the home of the the world ute muster – I mean who would have known? But there’s a very strong Reconciliation Group and a great community radio and I just thought there’s lots of people who will never go to Deniliquin, never know that this is a great town in country New South Wales.
One of the other main characters was from Moree and it was sort of like how do I put Moree on the map, how do I put Gamilaroi on the map, how do I put Deniliquin on the map, how do I place Aboriginal people in an international context where we currently exist and I try to weave it all together because most Aboriginal people will not get to Paris but I want them to know that our art sits in an international context and framework and we are recognised and appreciated and valued at that level as well, even though we may not be able to get there. So geography I think is very important.
The two key elements for all my novels are setting and characters, and they drive the story. I would never write about a place that I haven’t been to. When I run writers workshops I say I don’t write about a place you haven’t been to. If you can’t describe the smells and the sound and the people. People will know if you’re not being authentic in the story.
As somebody who is really passionate about using your platform and your talents to be of use to others, I find it incredibly inspiring to see how you’re doing that through your writing, but also through your speaking as well. I think it helps open up our minds to the different ways that we can take some personal leadership or do something outside of what we’ve been taught which is sometimes giving money and protests and things that are important, but there are other ways too and you’re showing that.
Thank you and you’re right, there are lots of ways. We all in our own way have a capacity to make change, as you say whether it’s the power of protest and there is power in being in a unified space and a unified voice taking to the streets. I think that does a lot for us to feel as individuals that we are not alone in a particular cause, whatever that cause is. If we have the capacity to give the cost of a cup of coffee, or more, to a particular cause then we can do that.
If it’s using your platform as a writer or so forth, it’s that as well. Most recently I was fortunate to speak at the Business Chicks International Women’s Day event in Melbourne alongside the amazing Gillian Triggs and Jules Allen. So I used that platform to talk about the women in history who have been role models for me and who I am trying to model myself on, in terms of pressing the progress which was the theme for National Women’s Day this year.
I chose to talk about women in history who have passed – women like Oodgeroo Noonuccal who wrote the Charter for Aboriginal Rights back in 1972. I talked about her and her role as an activist and author and illustrator who, over the course of her life, penned 400 pieces of writing as a role model to me – as a writer, but also an activist – and that charter is as relevant today as it was back then
I also talked about Barangaroo. Interestingly I asked the woman to do a show of hands on who had heard of Barangaroo and maybe 50 hands went up. I asked the same women how many of them knew that Barangaroo was actually a woman. They all know about the funky new precinct with eateries and bars and nice place to live down on the Harbour in Sydney called Barangaroo, but very few people understand that precinct is named after a matriarch who demonstrated a sense of humanity at a time when Aboriginal people were treated with anything but humanity and actually women were treated in very barbaric ways. So I used that platform to raise awareness about this woman who that precinct is named to after.
I also talked about Ruby Langford Ginibi who is back in the day taught me about being your authentic self. Now you exist in a space, as I do, where women in recent years have talked about being their authentic self and so forth; these aren’t new concepts. These women like Oodgeroo, Barangaroo and Ruby Langford Ginibi they were pressing for progress, they were making change, that were being to their authentic selves before they were hashtags and campaigns and so forth. So I hope just for my 25 minutes on that platform that some women walked out of that room thinking I need to learn more about these women, or they saw ways in which they could model themselves or some elements of their lives on pressing for progress as well.
Absolutely. You’ve already inspired me to go and learn more about them.
My work here is done.
I’m sure you had power on the masses too and I noticed in your TED talk as well you did an amazing job sharing some of these stories in terms of relating back to your books and you used a lot of humour as well, which it seemed the audience were loving.
The TED talk was possibly the most difficult public performance I’ve had to do because I had to do it all without notes. It was one way for me to say we are the same as human beings and the more that we focus on what connects us as human beings, what makes us the same, particularly as women and our desire to have companionship and friendship groups – the relationships we have with women. That’s what makes us the same as women. We all have periods, we have everyday experiences that does not alter regardless of geography or socioeconomics and so forth, but remains the same because we share a gender. The more that we focus on what connects us and makes us the same, then it becomes easier to talk about the things that are different and it becomes easier to celebrate difference and that was what that Ted talk was really about – sameness. For me, I think that when we have a personal sense of peace in that space then it leads to a greater sense of communal peace.
I personally think as well that you really showed that in just the way that you showed up and presented that Ted talk and what you shared, but also the little bits that you were adding with humour and there appeared to be a real connection with the audience. And then you’re also writing memoirs as well, just about every genre you can think of you. You’ve been involved in some kids books as well. I just finished reading Am I Black Enough For You, in which you break down some of the stereotypes and what is associated with what it means to be Aboriginal so anyone listening please read that.
The stereotypes I wanted to tackle in Am I Black Enough, were that there’s no such thing as Pan Aboriginality. We are diverse peoples and we identify as such. I want people to understand that and that the bulk of the indigenous population live in urban areas. Greater Western Sydney has the largest concentration of Aboriginal people in Australia and I think what we need to start to reconsider what we see in the media because it is often images of disadvantage, which are real, but we also need to be looking at the way in which we are kicking goals in our community, and I don’t just mean on the football field!
So, Am I Black Enough for You was really saying let’s challenge some of those stereotypes that you see of us every day. We are not one voice, we are not one pan Aboriginal Australia. We are a diverse peoples, we live in urban centres, we are highly educated in some areas, we are running our own businesses and we are international in our works and our travel, so I was just trying to challenge the way people we see us every day. I was trying to say, if you see this person who is educated and articulate and lives in the city and doesn’t fit into that box, are they black enough for you? Am I black enough for you because you I have been created in a frame of someone else’s lens.
Non-indigenous people aren’t asked about blood quantum. So in the Ted talk, I asked for people to put their hand up if they don’t identify as Australian and 90% of people put their hand up. And then I asked them to leave their hands up if they had some other heritage – English, Irish, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, American, whatever, and a large percentage of people put their hands up because over 50% of Australians have parents or grandparents born overseas.
What’s interesting is you never hear a white Australian say ‘oh yes I’m half caste Australian’ or ‘I’m a quarter caste Australian because my parents were born in Greece.’ You do not hear that. You do not hear the language that Westerners use for indigenous peoples worldwide. They have a completely different language and terminology that they use for indigenous people that they don’t use for themselves.
You also talk about in Am I Black Enough, that you are often people assume that you’re walking, talking encyclopedia on everything Aboriginal and they are often invited to speak on things that you’re maybe not necessarily an expert on.
All the time, and from the 90’s when I was a uni I’d be asked to come and speak at this lecture on Aboriginal feminism. Well, my area is actually literature, but the panel just needed a woman. There are experts in the field and not to go into this on your podcast, but we saw a classic example last week on Sunrise (TV News program in Australia) where we had people with no experience in the field of community organisations, community health, working with Aboriginal young people whether it’s sexual assault or child welfare, having a conversation, a very serious conversation, a very damaging conversation that would impact on Aboriginal people immediately.
It still happens today. I’ve being invited to speak on housing panels and so forth and I’ve said that’s not my area of expertise. They’d say, ‘but yes you live in a house’. I mean that’s as basic as it gets because political correctness is just going ‘Oh we just need a black fella, or a woman, or a lesbian or whatever.
So people are still in that in the case of ticking boxes and I’ve just become very good at saying that’s not my area of expertise and let me recommend somebody for you. And I think it is a huge pressure. I get it every day, every single day, particularly when you have an opinion, but it doesn’t mean my opinion is always correct and I much prefer to defer to somebody who has knowledge in that space.
They assume ‘you’re Aboriginal so you’ll know this’. Well, no I don’t. I’ll ask (white) people to tell me about the gold rushes and they can’t because they don’t know everything about the last 200 years of history, and why would I, as an Aboriginal, know 40,000 years of Aboriginal history.
We have different expectations on others than what we have on ourselves.
Absolutely. If you place the same expectations on yourselves, most white people would keep their mouths shut. Because it’s a lot to expect.
I think Aboriginal people are incredibly generous and giving because we want to live in peace, we want to live in a respectful unified community. And I say this as a generalisation obviously, but speaking for the people within my circle, we want good things to happen in our communities, we want to work together and we are often the ones that make the trade off and bite our tongues because we know we’re looking at the end result, we’re looking at the gain at the end – whether it’s funding or whether it’s getting people on board when it comes to reconciliation in this country. The heavy lifting is meant to be done by non-indigenous people, but I can tell you it’s largely done by us.
I hope you enjoyed listening to this segment of my chat with Dr Anita Heiss. If you would like to connect with Anita further, you can find her at www.anitaheiss.com.
As I mentioned, if you live in Central Queensland, head on over to the Busi Women Inc Facebook page or to my Facebook page and click on Events to get all the details on how you can meet Anita on 17 May in Yeppoon.
Bye for now.
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