Anita Heiss

I'm not racist but ...

Interview with Anita Heiss
- Angela Gardner February 2008

 

Your list of achievements is incredibly impressive and as a writer covers a surprising number of genres from fiction to non-fiction, poetry to children's literature. Your new book of poetry I'm not racist, but... recently won for you the Scanlon Prize. I imagine you must be constantly writing! I notice that this book is subtitled A collection of social observations does this mean that you have difficulty with an identity as a poet? Maybe you could tell us about yourself and the experiences that shaped you. What really matters to you?

Thanks for your kind words Angela, as a fellow writer you'll know that as individuals we rarely stop to think of our achievements because we are busy working on the next book, or collection or contribution to an anthology and so on. I am constantly writing now, but it has taken me many years to be able to afford the time and financial logistics to do it full-time.

In terms of I'm not racist, but and the genre it sits within, it's not that I find it difficult to identify as a poet, I just think for me to do so might do an injustice to those who are true to the genre. I don't like to refer to the work as poetry because, for me, my words are simply the social observations I make of my surrounds and people in my world. Such commentary seems to fit better into what I see at times as the unstructured world of poetry than the fixed and sometimes sterile boundaries of prose. Does that make sense?

Essentially what matters to me in terms of my writing is making change through words that force readers to think - about the subject I'm writing on, about how they see themselves in the universe and how their actions impact on other people every day (for good and bad). Most importantly, I want my writing to help readers understand how Indigenous people the world over are perceived, treated and often ignored. I want my words to count; I don't want to waste paper (which I am trying to make a reality in this answer also!).

 

This is an incredibly cohesive and focussed collection. Were you deliberately working towards a collection when you started writing? How do you choose what genre to write in? What space does poetry occupy in your literary life?

As you'll see the collection is based on a number of 'social observations' made over about a decade - from airport terminals, to remembering my experiences growing up as a child to working in the academic world. I wasn't thinking of a collection when I began writing these pieces, but some of them eventually went into my first collection Token Koori [Curringa Communications, 1996].

I am still trying to find the genre I am strongest in, i.e. most skilled in. I really enjoy writing fiction for young people and adults, but poetry is a fantastic medium for presenting short yet powerful words to student audiences in particular. I use poetry, others and mine, in all my lectures on Indigenous studies, whether it's about history, politics, the land, identity and so on. Poetry is a great way to engage new learners in sometimes very complex aspects of Indigenous life, like who are in the 21 st century.

At this stage though, I am focussed on my adult and children's novels but when the moment takes me I might write something that's not prose and the words may end up in another collection in a decade's time. Who knows?

 

I am always interested in finding out which poets people read and admire. So who do you read, and what is it about their writing that captures your interest?

As a priority I read Indigenous authored texts to stay on top of my personal and professional interests (I am the National Coordinator of the Black Words: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers subset of AustLit), and I review books regularly. Indigenous poets, and pioneers like Oodgeroo and Kevin Gilbert remain favourites of mine, and their politics do influence my writing. In terms of my peers today, I'd say I am most impressed by Romaine Moreton for the rhythm and power of her poetry and the sheer wooing of writing by Samuel Wagan Watson.

 

I notice you recently won a Deadly for Literary Achievement, for your book Not Meeting Mr Right, in a glamorous televised awards night held at the Sydney Opera House. Indigenous literary achievements such as Tara June Winch's Swallow the Air, Sam Wagan Watson's multiple volumes of poetry and Alexis Wright's wins for Carpentaria show that Indigenous writers are now becoming more celebrated. I know there is no such thing as an overnight success so this is all happening after a huge amount of unseen hard work but where do you think it will lead? Do you think there will be or is there already an Indigenous literary economy where writers build international reputations in the same way that Aboriginal Visual Art has taken off over the last 40 years?

Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if Aboriginal writers, or writers generally could have the same attention and respect as the visual arts world. It really comes down to economics and Indigenous visual artists bring in massive revenue to Australia each year because when the international market thinks of Australian art, they think of Aboriginal art, and that dictates where funding goes and the funding is directly related to the ability to nurture artists and their related industries. Funny thing is, that libraries are the most utilised cultural venues in the country, even more than galleries, which means books have a more significant role in the life of the average Australian but literature isn't as glamorous.

But I think that if you consider how far Aboriginal literature has come in the past 30 years as the new artform for the traditionally oral storytellers, compared to visual and performing arts which have been part of Aboriginal society since the beginning of time, then we have leaped galaxies in our achievements. We have a number of publishing houses, award-winning authors and authors being toured internationally. Compared to our other arty mob the poor cousin that is Aboriginal literature is really punching above its weight, I'd say.

 

So where to from here? What are your current projects?

There are three main projects on the boil for 2008. Firstly, the release of the ground-breaking work The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, which I co-edited with award-winning poet Peter Minter. Published by Allen and Unwin and marketed to the education sector, this anthology includes material from Bennelong's letters to Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, so essentially has been over 200 years in the making. We have been working on it for only three years though, and it will be released in May 2008 at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Right now I am working on the final draft of the follow up novel to Not Meeting Mr Right, which is titled Avoiding Mr Right. Set in Melbourne it was fun to write and I look forward to the editing process. It's due for release in September this year through Random House Australia.

Finally, I have done some basic research with the students from La Perouse Public School who co-authored Yirra and her deadly dog, Demon with me. The sequel is Yirra goes on a surfing safari and I need to get stuck into writing a draft of the story for pitching to a publishing house early in the year. My aim for this year is to get this short novel (about 8,000 words) completed for release in 2009.

To remain in the marketplace and get invitations to festivals I really need to be releasing a book every year. If I keep writing, I should be able to do that.

 

Lovely to talk to you Anita, that was a great interview and good luck with all your future projects.

 

Interviewer's note:
Dr Anita Heiss has published non-fiction, historical fiction, chicklit, poetry, and social commentary. She is a regular guest at writers' festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on Indigenous Studies. Anita is a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales and lives in Sydney. http://www.anitaheiss.com/index.html