Last year, LitSoc’s July booklist featured Dr Anita Heiss’ Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray. Still in the throes of Zoom university, LitSoc ran the book club as an online event, but even the occasional audio lag or pixelated face couldn’t dim our appreciation for this story of hardship and hope.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray dives into a significant event in our history, the 1852 Great Flood of Gundagai, and resurfaces with both an interrogation of settler narratives and a celebration of Wiradyuri strength. Published in the May before the book club, it broke new ground as the first commercial work of fiction with a cover that boasts its title in Wiradyuri language and only Wiradyuri language (while we applaud this milestone, do not forget to question why it came so late). As we moved into 2022, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray made the shortlist for the ABIA General Fiction Book of the Year, was longlisted for the Stella Prize and won the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers’ Prize. The novel is also currently a finalist in The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Award, and yes, this is us telling you to vote for it now.
Our interest in Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray only solidified by the book club, we began a campaign of, to paraphrase Anita, polite pestering, trying to score a conversation with the author herself. She’s an award-winning Wiradyuri writer and academic, and she can compose a romance novel with as much finesse as she would a memoir. From advocating for First Nations literacy to sitting on the Board of University of Queensland Press, Anita wears hats upon hats. With all this in mind, Erin, Serena and I were a little nervous to finally sit down with her. Then she strolled in with an aura of confidence and we found that, in addition to being a talented all-rounder, she’s down to earth and witty enough to light up a room instantly. But this is a fact you’ll quickly learn for yourself in the interview below.
Talia: Before we begin our questions, I'll start with an acknowledgement of country. We're here in this room that's been really kindly provided to us by folks at Jumbunna, UTS. We're on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, who are the traditional custodians of country, storytelling and knowledge for this place, and that's the tradition that we're surrounded by as we start our discussion. I'd also like to pay my respects to all Aboriginal people and elders past and to Dr Anita Heiss, who has joined us today.
Anita: Very present.
Talia: If you’d like to give your own acknowledgement, we’d love to hear from you.
Anita: Marang ngarin. Bala-dhu Wiradyuri-giyalang Erambi-dyi-bu, Brungl-i-bu. Miyagan-dhi bala Williams. Yindyamali-dyu Wiradyuri balgarbalgar-galang-bu balugirbang-bu balumbambal-bu ngurambang-bu. Wirimbili-dyu Wiradyuri mayiny-bu, ngurambang-gu-bu ngiyang-galang-bu. Yindyamarra-dhu Gadigal-bu, Eora-bu, City of Sydney, UTS mayiny.
So I said, probably in a very bad Australian accent, ‘Good morning. I have Wiradyuri belonging from Erambie and Brungle missions, and I'm a Williams. I honour my elders, those who have passed over, my ancestors and Wiradyuri country. But today, I pay my respects to the Gadigal clan of the Eora Nation, traditional owners of the City of Sydney and UTS.’
Talia: For any readers that might not be familiar with your work, could you give us a self-introduction and tell us who you are, what you do and a bit about your books.
Anita: Yeah, absolutely. I’m Anita, obviously. I'm on the verge of turning 54. I was born in Gadigal country, grew up on Dharawal land out near La Perouse and now live in Meanjin, which is the traditional name for Brisbane. My backyard is Maiwar, which is the beautiful Brisbane River, on the land of the Jagera peoples. I'm currently Professor of Communications (part-time) at the University of Queensland. I do guest lectures, community outreach and master classes and so forth. I published my first book in 1996, and now I think I've done 19 books. It’s quite extraordinary talking to you girls because when I went to school, and even in my undergrad at university, I wasn't an avid reader. I didn't read at school. It was a different time. We didn't have social media and we didn't have TV games, and young kids played out on the street after school. No one was reading books, and we didn't have a local library when I was very young. So to be here today as an author is quite extraordinary because books weren't part of my life growing up. I never imagined I'd be an author.
When I was doing my undergrad at UNSW, every single thing I had to read that had anything to do with Aboriginal people . . . I found very quickly that nearly everything was written by non-Indigenous authors, anthropologists, historians, academics. Many books that I had to read and speak to in my history honours year were written by people who'd never been to Australia. They were based on letters and journal entries by the colonisers. So I had my epiphany in my colonising experience at university that the recording of history is very subjective. If we came back here tomorrow, we would all record this differently, even though there are facts we can't change about where we are, who's in the room, the date, that I'm fabulous – facts you can't change – and funny, and modest. But what I realised was the way in which coloniser peoples remember and record history is very different to the one in which colonised peoples remember and record history. So I felt like I had this responsibility to write something, and I wrote my first book, Sacred Cows. No great piece of literature. It was meant to make a point. I had no idea then I would go on. Since then I've published, I think, six kids novels, seven adult novels, the memoir, Am I Black Enough For You?, some words that don't go to the end of the line – we call that poetry.
I could exist full time as a writer, but I love having peers and having conversation at lunch and so forth. I do a lot of public speaking and I love to travel. I'm a runner. I'm a method writer. There are two types of writers in the world, plotters and pantsers. I'm a plotter. So for your readers who want to write, I recommend plotting. When you're doing your essays for university, you map out the essay, and that's what I do for a whole novel. Most of my friends are pantsers, which means they fly by the seat of their pants. They sit down and they have the big picture in mind, whereas a plotter will have the minutia, the detail.
I will say, for those of your readers who want to be writers, I can have a book come out every year because I spend more time researching than writing. When I sit down, I’ve done all my research. I've mapped it all out and then I can knock over. So like with my earlier novels, Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming, 80,000 words in eight weeks is quite possible if you have done your big essay plan.
Is that enough of an intro?
Talia: That was perfect.
Anita: I also like– [leans into the mic] I also like chocolate.
Talia: And because we are a bunch of readers, tell us what you're currently reading and what your favourite book or story of all time is? I know you said that you didn't read a lot when you were a kid, but did you have any stories you liked?
Anita: I'm going to start backwards. The book that I would grab if my place was on fire, and the book that I talk about probably the most, is the first book of poetry by Oodgeroo Noonuccal. She was born and raised Kath Walker from Stradbroke Island, and she wrote the first collection of poetry by an Aboriginal person, We Are Going, in 1964. It sold, like, 10,000 copies back then, which is an extraordinary number of copies for a book today. There are very few books, except for maybe Evelyn Araluen’s book, Dropbear, which just won the Stella, that would sell that many books of poetry. It was so powerful and so significant. There were reviewers who didn't believe that it was written by a woman. ‘Couldn't be written by a woman and it couldn’t possibly be written by an Aboriginal person.’ Within We Are Going is a charter for Aboriginal rights that I think is probably just as valid today as it was back then, except that we have a new sense of hope now with the change of government. That would be my all time favourite work, and you can read most of that online now.
There’s a book I haven't started reading, but it arrived this week. It's the first of its kind. It is called This All Come Back Now, and it's an anthology of First Nations speculative fiction.
Talia: I just got that!
Anita: That’s by UQP, so I’m really excited. It's not a genre that I would go and buy normally, and that's okay. I think it's important for readers to know you don't have to like everything. There are enough books out there in the world to keep everybody busy and entertained forever. But I'm really looking forward to seeing what's in that, so I'll start that next week.
Talia: Since we are here to talk about Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray and Am I Black Enough For You? 10 Years On, I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of an elevator pitch for each of those.
Anita: So Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, which translates to ‘River of Dreams’, is a story of heroism and homecomings, beginning with the Great Flood of Gundagai in 1852 and travelling across Wiradyuri country, sharing resilience and love of mob on Wiradyuri land while living under oppressive laws.
Am I Black Enough For You? 10 Years On is a memoir of one woman living life from a position of excellence to break down stereotypes of who we are in the 21st century.
Talia: Now I'm going to pass over to Erin and Serena, and their first lot of questions is about Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray.
Anita: It's a really good question because there are a couple of things there. When you were saying that many people would relate to Louisa – there was a book group in my hometown in Brisbane, and the entire meeting, all they did was talk about Louisa. I wasn't there, but someone told me about it. And I thought, ‘Isn't that interesting?’ That was a book group that would have been full of left-wing, believed-to-be-allies, full of goodwill. Which Louisa is, right? Louisa comes from a position of goodwill, wants equity, wants equality, wants to do the right thing, wants to help. But there's a power imbalance, obviously, which I see today. Beautiful people who want to do good things but are like, ‘I'm going to tell you how we're gonna fix it.’
I didn't set out to do it like that. The original idea was to have a story that showed a friendship that's possible between cultures and between women in particular. And of course, it is. You’re [referring to Erin, Serena and Talia] all friends from different backgrounds and so forth, but there are complexities around that as well. I didn't want to demonise Louisa in a way. I mean she, spoiler, fails to reach the goals that she sets for herself, and at one point she recognises that. But in that friendship, she had the power. It was within her power to give Wagadhaany the freedom that she deserved and should have had. But she chose not to do that because at the end of the day, she was still thinking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Even though she wasn't conscious of what she was doing because she believed that, though she was doing it for herself, it was still a better outcome for Wagadhaany.
We see quite a powerful scene on the veranda with the broom, where I think Louisa finally comes to maybe recognise that her vision for Wagadhaany’s happiness was not Wagadhaany’s vision for her happiness. I think it works, but I did not set out to do that. I wanted to also show that life was not easy either – different types of difficulty – for settler women. They were still treated as second class citizens, essentially. But of course, they had far more rights than Aboriginal women. So I wanted to show that yes, you can have friendship, but there was always this imbalance of power.
Erin: And it's really powerful that we see Wagadhaany go through that conflict. Initially, it seems like she thinks, ‘Oh, I have found this nice person in Louisa.’ But then, as Louisa makes Wagadhaany move to Wagga Wagga away from her family, you can definitely see just how wrong it is and how much Wagadhaany’s freedom has been taken away.
Anita: Yeah. Wagadhaany doesn't think like Louisa either, so she can't understand why Louisa does the things she does. Why she’s with James, why she can't give her freedom, why she can't understand. The entire ride in the carriage where Wagadhaany is sick from crying, Louisa still doesn't seem to grapple with why that is because concepts of family and place are very different. At the crux of it, that’s it: Wagadhaany is homesick for her country in Gundagai and for her family. Even though Louisa has lost her family, she doesn't talk about her family, and they chose to move from Britain to the middle of nowhere in Australia. And then they're choosing to move again, which is a different way of life, particularly back then for Wiradyuri people – to just uproot your family and your life by choice to relocate yourself when Blackfellas were fighting, having to be pushed off land and so forth.
Serena: When connection to land plays such a big role in who you are and your ancestry.
Anita: I wanted that to come out in the story when she got to Wagga and she was grounded and there were the cockatoos and she knew that somewhere upstream the women were dancing and so forth. I wanted people to understand that that's what connection to country means. It's not a tangible thing. Everybody can have connection to place. I can't give it to you, but we can all have that. In Australia today, people call themselves Queenslanders or Victorians, and then they cross states and they change identity and so forth. It's not the same.
Anita: Do you know what? Like, I'm not that smart so– [interrupted by laughter from the execs] No, honestly.
Serena: Maybe that was a bit too wordy.
Anita: I love these questions because I'm like, ‘Oh my god, they think I sat down and made an effort, like, really consciously thought about doing this.’ I didn't. I know that people do. The proper writers, they do that.
I wanted Wagadhaany – as I did with Yindyamarra – I wanted both their characters to be portrayed the way I see Wiradyuri people. I see Aboriginal men, Indigenous men, demonised constantly in the media. But the men in my world are loving and caring and hardworking and respectful. They’re thinkers and they’re intelligent. So I wanted the world to see how I see the men in my world, whether it’s Uncle Stan Grant or my brothers. With Wagadhaany, I know that she encompasses all the values and all the ethics and dignity that the women in my life have and that she embraces all the values of winhangagigilanha, which is caring for each other. Well, they both do. And ngumbadal and unity and so forth. So for me, it was quite easy to write those characters because they're not really fictional, except that they're set in 1852. Obviously, with historical fiction there is this element of having to imagine what it was like because we weren't there, but I just tried to transport what I know of women today and put that into Wagadhaany’s character.
Funny thing is, someone who reviewed the book on Goodreads or maybe Audible said, ‘I don't think it was really authentic that the characters were speaking in English because they wouldn't have spoken in English.’ Well, if you had a whole book in Wiradyuri then no one could read it either. You can't win. You can't please every reader. I just think I wanted Wagadhaany to be a holistic character. What's also different about this novel is that there are many points of view. We see Wagadhaany’s point of view, and at some point we see Yindyamarra, Yarri and Louisa’s points of view. You wouldn't normally have that many points of view, but – going back to your question, Erin – you want your reader to relate to at least one of the characters for good or bad, you know? So I think those women in Brisbane were like, ‘Oh dear, that's us.’ Not in a bad way because when we read a book, we want to reflect on how that story relates to our own lives.
Anita: Another great question. When I had the idea for the novel, I hadn't started learning my language. I had no idea there was going to be language in it. So I go, ‘I'm just going to write this novel about the great flood in Gundagai.’ Then six months later, I started learning my language, and in that language course, we’d go out on country, we learned to cut coolamons, we’d stand in the flood plains in Wagga, we’d stand in the Marrambidya Bila and so forth. I'd be in class, and I'd hear a story about ancestors on the land or a dreaming story or whatever and something would trigger. I’d text my publisher and go, ‘Oh my god, I just heard this. Can I use this?’ And they're like, ‘Do whatever you want to do, but with the language side of things, write it so that the reader doesn't need to go to the glossary. Of course there's a glossary, but write it so that in the sentence they understand the meaning of the words.’ For instance, there's a scene where the little boy taps Wagadhaany on the head with the clapsticks, and she says, ‘Don't hurt people.’ And he leans in and kisses her on the cheek and says, ‘Ngurrbul ngindhu.’ And she says, ‘I love you too,’ so that the reader can understand.
I'm just learning, but my idea with the language was to try two things. One was I go, ‘Well, here's one very small way that I can contribute to the reclamation and maintenance of Wiradyuri language, thanks to Uncle Stan Grant.’ But the other side of it was– I didn't even realise this until I was finished. Lots of things you realise when it's over because you're just busy writing to a deadline, following your plot, right? Anyway, (the other side of it) was that what I hope now with the language that comes out of that is that people read it and understand that everywhere they walk in Australia there's a first language, and it's not English. English is a second language, but we don't talk about it like that because nobody celebrates coming second. They celebrate coming first, which is why the use of ‘First Nations’, which had been used in Canada and the US for decades, was so slow to be picked up here. Michael McDaniel used to head Jumbunna – we used to teach together and he would say, ‘Nobody celebrates coming second.’ You only remember who comes first. Australia Day is meant to be celebrating the first day, but actually it's not the first day. But no one wants to celebrate the second arrivals because that's not a party.
We were in COVID then, so I was trying to teach myself as I went along and incorporate as much language as I could for the reader. I have people message me and email me now, and they'll say ‘yindyamarra’ or ‘mandaang guwu’ or something. It's good. Language is meant to be spoken. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Do I need to get permission to use this word?’ I go, ‘Language is meant to be spoken.’ You know, go for it.
Anita: That's such a good question because for me today – and all of us take something of ourselves to the page regardless of the genre – I mean, I wouldn't get out of bed if I didn't believe that we could make a difference and the world could be a better place. So for me, it was important. And also we've survived, so there's got to be hope. There has to be hope in the story because the fact of the matter is that Wiradyuri people in Brungle and Gundagai and Tumut and Wagga have survived, and we are thriving. I wanted her to, with all the hardship, demonstrate – as people have since the beginning of invasion – resilience and strength and the capacity to get on with it.
There's a terrible scene right at the end of the novel, and I think her getting up and continuing to make the journey home with Yindyamarra was because there was still some hope for something and hope in her children. In this country, First Nations people are pretty much always spoken about in terms of a deficit position rather than from a position of excellence. I'm surrounded by excellence every single day. We’re sitting in an institution that is churning out graduates in every faculty, demonstrating excellence every day, but we don't see that in Australian literature. We don't see it in our media. So for me, it was important to say this was 1852 to 1868, and that hope that Wagadhaany had is alive now.
Anita: No, it wasn't. I just poured into Wagadhaany the values, the thoughts, the emotions– If we’re talking about emotions, we're also not seen to be characters or humans that have all the same emotions that other humans have. So with Wagadhaany, we see the pain, we see the fear, we see her falling in love for the first time. Because the thing is, we were making love and falling in love and having families long before whitefellas got here. You know, having caring and joyful moments with family. We don't see that. We don't see that joy and so forth. I wanted her to be able to demonstrate that, and I didn't find it a challenge because I've lived that way, so I didn't have to create that.
Anita: I enrolled and I did two years worth of Wiradyuri language, nation building, and culture and heritage. That involved me going to Wagga about eight or nine times, standing on land, going out with local knowledge keepers and learning language. That whole course gave me so much for the novel. Obviously, I learned things not for the public domain. And also just generally speaking, we don't have to share everything we learn.
I also, because I'm a method writer, got in a canoe. About 20 of us got in canoes and we rode our canoes down the Murrumbidgee from Gundagai towards Wagga. I wanted to imagine what it was like on the river during the Great Flood. The Great Flood went on for three days. Torrential rain, raging flood waters, dark the entire time. I go out on a beautiful November day, life jacket on, no one's going to drown. I fell in. I wasn't happy about that because it was a bit competitive. The upside of that – there's always an upside – was I actually got, for that moment, frightened. The water's freezing and the canoes race up, so I got a little bit of an element of fear, and that's just a tiny element of fear. But what I learned from being on the river that day was how incredibly knowledgeable those men must have been to be able to work that river during the flood when they were in their own single canoes, one at a time over three days, saving 69 lives. I thought that would've been extraordinary. I didn't understand that until I was there going, ‘How did they do this? They must have really known how to manage that.’
I spent time in Gundagai, obviously. The Gundagai local library – their family history or local history section there. I found letters that family members had written for different things. There's a Yarri and Jacky Jacky sculpture committee. They had put together a whole lot of news articles for the sculpture and for the posthumous heroism awards, which the gentleman got in 2019. There was a local person, Miriam Crane in Gundagai, and she is this fount of all knowledge. She read a complete draft and gave me so much information when I was down in Wagga. She introduced me to Ian Horsley, who is a descendant of someone who was saved by Yarri. I talked to him on the phone and sent him some pages. He came to the launch. He stood up at the launch and said, ‘I just want to say thank you because I wouldn't be here (without Yarri).’ One of my fears about writing the book was that there are people alive who had lost family, and so I wanted to make sure it was right for them. So that's research. The Wagga library was extraordinary. I just rang up and said, ‘I'm coming down,’ and they pulled together a whole lot of material and gave me access to that.
With the language stuff, I sent drafts to Uncle Stan Grant, Aunty Elaine Lomas – Uncle Stan’s sister, also a teacher of mine – and some friends to check the language. I had so much anxiety. We were in COVID, and I was sick for six weeks before I submitted. I didn't know why I was sick, but it was anxiety. My stomach was swollen the whole time. I had no idea what was going on. I press send, and I kid you not, half an hour later it all just went.
So there was a lot of research in that. Methodology and getting feedback, even with that book [gesturing to Am I Black Enough For You? 10 Years On], I sent out permission slips the first time around to 70 different people. Most people know they're in there because I've sent them an email going, ‘This is what I've said.’ I make sure they're okay because not everybody wants to be in your book. You can't assume that. So it's research, writing, feedback, rewriting.
Anita: Well, actually, a few weeks ago I had to do a thing: ‘20 years from now’. That’s interesting. So first of all, everybody did cartwheels. But in hindsight, it was 2021. Why did it take so long? I'm really fortunate. Simon & Schuster said to me, ‘We want to do something to push the boundaries on the cover.’ Had they not said that to me, we would've just called it ‘River of Dreams’. And then I said, ‘Well, let's just not have English on the cover at all.’ Then we have the goanna and the cockatoo and so forth.
Serena: A small piece of family.
Anita: Yeah, that’s the totem. My cousin, Luke Penrith, did that.
I think the issue for me is that we have 7,000 published Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and storytellers indexed into BlackWords, which is part of AustLit. So many of your readers, if they're at university, will have access to AustLit. So we've got thousands of individuals and organisations who are writing, which equals about 23,000 pieces of writing. I pride myself in saying that I could find you something by a First Nations author on almost any topic. Mathematics, science, astronomy – you name it and I could find you something. A play, a poem, a song. Last year, 45% of what UQP published was by First Nations authors. Eight of the ten bestselling books were by First Nations authors. Evelyn Araluen just won the Stella Prize. Larissa Behrendt has just been listed for the Miles Franklin. Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott. Kicking goals everywhere. Anita Heiss, just shortlisted for two ABIAs.
But the industry itself has not changed. There's a handful of editors. Most of them are consultants. And I think for me, representation in the industry is just as important as representation in literature because we're actually publishing quite a lot now, which is fantastic. I think Evelyn winning the Stella Prize may push mainstream publishers to now do poetry lists because hardly anybody publishes poetry. So I'm hoping another outcome will be that. We've got our speculative fiction coming out. I know that mainstream publishers, the multinationals, are looking for stories all the time, and stories are there to be found and written and published. But I want to see editors, publishers, graphic designers – all those positions filled by First Nations peoples because that's how you grow an industry. I just don't think it's enough to say, ‘Well, we published X amount of books.’ Well, great, use some of the revenue that the authors are creating for you. And you don't have to write a grant or an application to employ a person of colour. That's my one big issue with the industry.
Read the second part of this interview here.