Norman Spotlights: Anita Heiss Pt. 2

Erin Mason & Talia Moodley
August 5, 2022

After taking the time to answer all our questions about Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, Dr Anita Heiss graciously stuck around to discuss the new edition of her memoir, Am I Black Enough For You? 10 Years On. The original edition, published back in 2012 to critical acclaim, was a finalist in the Human Rights Awards and won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing in the same year. Since then, as you’d expect, much has happened and much has changed. In this anniversary release, Anita continues to speak on her experiences as a Wiradyuri woman with an Austrian father while introducing timely ruminations on topics like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement as well as retrospective insights.  

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Erin: This new edition comes ten years on from the first. What motivated you to revisit your writing? Did you find that going back and adding new material gave you a new perspective and allowed you to learn new things?

Anita: I was motivated by the release of one book in particular: Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin' Up to the White Woman, published by UQP. The 20th anniversary edition came out last year. And I thought, ‘I’ve been writing some pieces for The Guardian and so forth during COVID around Black Lives Matter and so forth.’ I’ve done a piece on Cathy Freeman and Adam Goodes. Adam is a friend of mine and I'm an ambassador of the foundation, and I was quite horrified to see what he went through. And a lot had happened in 10 years. We had COVID, I had some menopause, I ran my first marathon. So then I just emailed the publisher at Penguin Random, and they said, ‘Oh my god, we should have thought about that.’ So I sat down, and I think I was meant to write about 15,000 words. We ended up with about 25,000 words. But then, just going back and reading everything again – it's really interesting how later in life you look back and go, ‘Oh, I can't believe I said that or wrote that or did that.’ That's also part of the journey, I guess.

With this, I wanted people to think about – and I didn't have the answers for everything – why it is that the nation, particularly in the sporting code of AFL, behaved so blatantly racist and appallingly to an elite athlete and Australian of the Year to the point that he left his code with no fanfare in a really terrible way. And yet Cathy Freeman is, and rightly so, everyone's darling. Why was the behaviour so different between the two? She was Young Australian of the Year and Australian of the Year. Again, an elite athlete. So I wanted to pose some questions. Why is it that it took Australians – we'd had a Black Lives Matter movement here for three decades since we were all commissioning Aboriginal deaths in custody – but why did Australians take to the streets only after they saw this very public, disgraceful, awful killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis? I just wanted people to think, ‘Why is that?’ And where is all that anger now? When George Floyd died, I think it was 470 deaths in custody, and now there are over 500. So where is that daily anger about this thing happening?

I was also excited about the renaissance in Aboriginal literature. In the last ten years we’ve had Miles Franklin winners, we have Melissa (Lucashenko) and Tara (June Winch). We make up around 3% of the population, but I think in the last ten years we’ve had three Miles Franklin winners. It’s extraordinary. So we're well and truly punching above our weight from that position of excellence, and I just want people to start thinking about that.

Erin: And your own writing is really a testament to the power of storytelling and the role it has in connecting with others. As you’ve said, you’re posing all these questions that invite change. They make us, especially non-First Nations people, really reflect on our place and ask, ‘How are we contributing to the power imbalance, and how can we start dismantling those power structures to ensure that we are actively preventing things like deaths in custody?’ So what inspired you to use storytelling as that medium to try and inspire change?

Anita: I can’t sing. I would sing. If I could sing, I would just write songs and travel around the RSL circuit. I used to work in an RSL, so that was my big dream.

If I really think about it, now that you've asked the question, my first book that actually meant anything was Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence. It was about a young girl removed under the Act of Protection. Now, I was asked to write that novel. It was my first real attempt at writing a novel, and it came out in 2001, 21 years ago. And it’s still in print, still selling, because people are still learning about stolen generations.

So I got asked to write a story about someone who was removed under the Act of Protection, and I thought, ‘Oh, I really wanted to do something on the 1967 Referendum.’ But I rang up half a dozen school teachers that I knew and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we have nothing for the classroom.’ So I wrote that novel. Then I saw the impact that had in classrooms because I work with kids in primary schools, everywhere from public school kids to really privileged kids, you know, white kids in wealthy, wealthy schools. I can see how they start to click over and see their own sense of privilege when they understand that young children, the same age as them, had a very, very different life. I think then I saw the power of using stories to teach and make people feel.

Erin: Especially since younger kids don't have that same prejudice and bias that comes with growing up. So I think that’s a testament to storytelling because then kids can say, ‘Oh, well, I read this book. I didn’t think that way before.’ And then that can take them through their whole life.

Anita: But I’ve also had– I remember being at a festival in Byron and this 72-year-old man came up, and he'd read it.

Erin: Oh, wow.

Anita: And I read picture books and I read YA. Most people aren’t going to read the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, you know? But they will read a poem or they'll see a play or, obviously, listen to Archie Roach’s song. There are so many ways to teach. I think in an institution like this [referring to UTS], it's better than it was when I was your age, but you could only learn history through an academic text. The reality is – and I hate to tell you this because you're in academia – that the average essay is read by six people. So when I started writing commercial women's fiction, I got criticised for dumbing down my work. But Avoiding Mr Right, which is about astral travelling and shopping, has Black deaths in custody, it has The Intervention, it has Indigenous intellectual property. You can weave in a whole lot of things that matter into a story that will reach a bigger audience.

Erin: Definitely. I think another thing that’s very profound is that your memoir is really raw in that you trace both the highs and lows of your life, and you also cover the deaths of family members and friends. Why was it important to you to talk so openly about death?

Anita: There's two things there. I think, firstly, most Aboriginal people I know deal with sorry business at a very young age, and so it's completely normal for us to be going to funerals when we’re kids. One of my best friends – a non-Indigenous friend – the first funeral she went to was my father's when she was 30. I was like, ‘Oh my, how did you escape that for so long?’ I went to my first one, I think it was my grandmother's, when I was seven or something. So there's that reality; it's completely normal for us to have that experience.

Secondly, it's about honouring those people who have been in my life. So particularly talking about my cousin, Naomi Williams, and my dear friend, Rosie Scott, and Rosie's role in me even being a writer. I met her on the board of the Australian Society of Authors and then we just became good friends, and we worked on an anthology together on The Intervention. And then, of course, it was important to talk about my cousin Naomi because her death was the result of systemic racism in the health system. All we can hope for out of her death and the inquest is that it never ever happens again. So if writing about her makes someone – a medical student – think to be more conscious about the lens that we all see through every day and what they bring to the role, then I mean that can save a life, potentially.

Erin: Throughout your book you talk about your identity, and it’s clear that you don't subscribe to the stereotypes that society tries to push. As you’ve said, you demonstrate how you can be an academic, you can write romance novels, you can advocate, you're a marathon runner, you like chocolate–

Anita: I'm a marathon chocolate-er.

Erin: Yeah! You have all of these things happening at once. What do you want readers to take away from your versatility and your commitment to being your authentic self rather than conforming to societal views about who First Nations people should be?

Anita: I think, for readers and for writers, people can see when you're not being authentic. People know when you're not being authentic, and I just can't imagine trying to keep up a front or a face that's not my own. I think with the best writing, whatever you're writing, the passion and the depth comes from your own experience, and your own experience is what gives it soul and meaning. For me, I would say most of what I write is faction. In terms of the novels and everything, it's fiction but there's a lot of fact in there. And for Am I Black Enough For You?, there's zero point in me writing anything that's not authentic because, you know . . . my mob will just let you know straight away, and I don't want to be pulled down on Twitter. Like, I've seen it. I've had it from other people, you know? So I just think there's nothing to be gained.

When I teach writing, my view, particularly with methodology and process, is that the reader deserves to have the best book possible on the shelf. That means, firstly, not disempowering anybody in the process of writing and researching to get to that end point. So I remember when I was doing Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, my editor rang up and I'm crying and he's crying. He said, ‘We've got to get this ready.’ He had to go to the printer in two weeks, which was this ridiculous turnaround time. And I hadn't got the feedback from Link-Up NSW, which is an organisation that helps reunite children who have been removed. And I said to him, ‘It doesn't matter if we sell 50,000 copies if I've got it wrong.’ I said, ‘This story is going to give a voice to all those people who are removed, who don't have a platform, so we have to get it right. I can't do what you want me to do until this is done.’ And so for me, that's it. I mean, I don't profess to write on behalf of anybody or for anybody else, but inevitably everybody thinks you're representing somebody, right? And so I just want it to be as honest and truthful as possible, warts and all.

Erin: Building on that, your memoir is really honest, and you do trace many racist encounters that you've had throughout your life from a young age. I think for most readers, a big one that stood out was Andrew Bolt’s racist article. When you recount your experiences with racism like this, as much as it's creating awareness for readers or other writers, does it also provide an opportunity for you to reflect on that experience.

Anita: It's funny because you get older– How old are you?

Erin: I’m 21.

Anita: Oh my god. I'm 53. Anyway, when you get older, you apparently get a little bit wiser. I think because I've had that much more distance now from the case, I can look back and I can see the trauma back then. I always said that if I knew it was going to be that emotionally traumatic, I don't know whether I would've done the case. But it turns out it's the best thing I ever did because the landscape in journalism did change. It's still not perfect, he's still got a job, but it did change.

It does make you see how your own world views shift or how your priorities shift, I guess. Now, I can see a priority for me is maintaining health and mental health, and not being burnt out, and living my best life, and feeling comfortable saying ‘no’ quite easily. Back then, I would try and negotiate with trolls. Now, I'm just like, ‘Oh, get fucked and blocked.’ Honestly, I should have just done that then, but there was always the feeling of wanting to give the answer and teach. There are people who are on the border and may just need a line or a sentence to trigger logic, and there are people who are really not interested in learning at all but are interested in getting a rise. So I think what I've seen over time – and it reminded me when I was doing the rewrite – is how I don't feel I have to respond to everybody all the time now. Previously, I would. I had lots of racist emails. Those I would just delete. But other people would email and ask really ignorant questions or something they could Google. We’re not, like, Black-ipedia or anything. And you know what? If you can find me on the internet, you can find the answer to your question, because I'm just going to Google it myself.

That leads into the heavy lifting that Australians are supposed to do in reconciliation. You’re supposed to do the work, not us. And I talk about that on Reconciliation Australia because I even had a shift over time from being anti to being an advocate, really. Sometimes we need to go back and remind ourselves of our backstory, or not.

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About the Author

Photo of Anita Heiss.

Dr Anita Heiss is an award-winning author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, children’s novels and blogs. She is a proud member of the Wiradyuri Nation of central New South Wales, an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the GO Foundation and Worawa Aboriginal College. Anita is a board member of University of Queensland Press and Circa Contemporary Circus, and is a Professor of Communications at the University of Queensland. As an artist in residence at La Boite Theatre in 2020, Anita began adapting her novel, Tiddas, for the stage. Her novel, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, set in Cowra during World War II, was the 2020 University of Canberra Book of the Year. Anita enjoys eating chocolate, running and being a 'creative disruptor'.

Find Anita on her: Website | Instagram | Twitter

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About the Book

The story of an urban-based high achieving Wiradyuri woman working to break down stereotypes and build bridges between black and white Australia.
I'm Aboriginal. I'm just not the Aboriginal person a lot of people want or expect me to be.
What does it mean to be Aboriginal? Why is Australia so obsessed with notions of identity? Anita Heiss, successful author and passionate advocate for Aboriginal literacy, rights and representation, was born a member of the Wiradyuri nation of central New South Wales but was raised in the suburbs of Sydney and educated at the local Catholic school.
In this heartfelt and revealing memoir, told in her distinctive, wry style, with large doses of humour, Anita Heiss gives a firsthand account of her experiences as a woman with a Wiradyuri mother and Austrian father. Anita explains the development of her activist consciousness, how she strives to be happy and healthy, and the work she undertakes every day to ensure the world she leaves behind will be more equitable and understanding than it is today.

Find it on: Goodreads | Amplify | Booktopia | Readings