First Nations Writers and Editors Celebrate Ten Years of State Library of Queensland Black & Write! project

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Nardi Simpson has always been a storyteller, and over the past 20 years, the Yuwaalaraay woman has channeled this skill into her work as a founding member of the indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins.

But when she noticed her songs were starting to get long, she decided to try her hand at writing a novel instead.

“I took a course at Writing New South Wales called ‘Year of the Novel’ because I thought I had to learn how to do some of that,” she says.

At the end of the course, Simpson’s tutor encouraged her to include her Song of the Crocodile manuscript in the 2018 black & write! Native writing and publishing project to get feedback – which she did and won.

“Winning was really good feedback,” jokes Simpson.

Song of the Crocodile is a lament over choice and change, and over unyielding land. It tells the story of three generations of Billymil matriarchs living in the ‘gate city’ of Darnmoor where they are watched over (and sometimes visited) by ancestral spirits and the spirits of the recently deceased, seeking their descendants and trying to help them. on the right path.

Ballardong Noongar writer and critic Timmah Ball described it as “an antidote to Anglo-Australian literature.”

Since its publication (by Hachette Australia), Simpson’s novel has received critical acclaim and industry praise, being a finalist for the Miles Franklin and Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards , among others.

This is just the latest in a growing collection of literary works that have emerged from black & write! program over the past ten years.

Indigenous writing needs Indigenous publishers

black & write! is a national, Indigenous-led project with the dual purpose of training First Nations publishers to work in the Australian publishing industry and supporting First Nations authors in their career development.

Established in 2011 by the State Library of Queensland, the program counts among its former writers Ali Cobby Eckermann (Ruby Moonlight), Jane Harrison (Becoming Kirrali Lewis), Claire G. Coleman (Terra Nullius) and Alison Whittaker (Lemons in the Chicken Fil ).

Native woman in her 50s stands in front of swamp holding book
In 2017 Ali Cobby Eckermann won the world’s richest literary prize, the Windham Campbell, valued at $ 215,000. (Provided: Nharla Photography)

Bundjalung woman Grace Lucas-Pennington, who worked as an editor for black & write! for six years, says the number of opportunities for Indigenous writers and publishers has grown exponentially, even in such a short time.

More and more Indigenous books are written in a wide variety of genres, and their authors are featured at writing festivals and winning major awards.

In 2019, Melissa Lucashenko became the third Indigenous writer to win the Miles Franklin Prize since its inception in 1957. The following year, Tara June Winch became the fourth.

black & write! has undeniably played a role in this huge shift in representation and storytelling.

Each of the two writing fellows receives a prize of $ 10,000, manuscript development with black & write !, and a publication opportunity with Hachette Australia.

Lucas-Pennington says black & write! was founded on a simple principle: “Indigenous stories should be written by Indigenous writers and those writers should be edited by an Indigenous person.

Native woman in her 30s wearing a shirt and sitting in front of an orange background
The free exhibition Sovereign Stories: 10 Years of Black & Write !, curated by Grace Lucas-Pennington (photo) runs until May 2022 at the State Library of Queensland.(Provided: KiLN)

It also meant that writers were often forced to play the role of cultural educator on everything from content to the tone or mode of the story.

“I’ve heard of writers who have to explain fundamental things about Australian history, like the existence and impact of the Stolen Generations, or what it means to live ‘under the law’,” Lucas said. Pennington.

Another example would be the tendency to ‘correct’ Aboriginal Australian English – which is a separate dialect – into Standard Australian English, when the author tries to represent people in her community, who actually speak AAE. An Indigenous publisher brings an inherently more collaborative ethic and perspective, which upholds the writer’s sovereignty as the owner of the story. “

A united and secure space

Simpson says having the opportunity to work with two First Nations editors, including Lucas-Pennington, has been invaluable.

“[The program] was definitely a space of support and security to enter into an editorial relationship, as an inexperienced person. I guess any newbie writer [working] with an editor would have a hard time feeling so secure and confident in what they were doing. “

She says the main difference between working with black & write! editors-in-chief and editors-in-chief of Hachette was their goal.

“The editors [Hachette] were results driven, and that was good for me because the story was in good shape and could take a bit of bashing. And black & write! the editors were focused on people and storytelling. “

Simpson enjoys both styles, but working with her new publishers Hachette, she really began to understand that her book was something that would exist beyond herself.

Partly that was why she was so grateful that there was already a storytelling landscape created by black & write!

A stack of books on a table
Simpson is currently undertaking a doctorate in composition at the Australian National University School of Music, researching the song and story traditions of his native Yuwaalaraay lands.(Provided: Joe Ruckli)

In the absence of a strict deadline, black & write! writers and editors work on a manuscript until everyone is satisfied.

This slower pace allows editors to follow Indigenous intellectual and cultural protocols (for example, some writers may need time to verify information with elders in their family or community, or seek permission to share that information publicly. ) and understand stories in a holistic way. .

Simpson said that also meant she could focus only on her writing profession.

“The only worry I had was whether a word was doing the ‘right thing’ or not. [the black&write! editors] took care of me, the story and the process. “

The fact that Junior Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Murphy was going through a similar learning process was added comfort.

“It was like looking at the reflection of the river; as I was brand new to the process, she [Caitlin] was also honing his skills to do the exact same thing, but as an editor, ”Simpson said.

The next generation of publishers

Reflecting on her introduction to editing, Lucas-Pennington simply remembers being terrified.

As one of the Black & write 2015! An editing intern, she was assigned to Lemons in the Chicken Wire by poet Gomeroi Alison Whittaker, who won the writing scholarship that same year.

The collection of poems explores life in a rural town, aboriginality and sexuality.

“So, you know, there was this incredibly smart and talented writer and I had to help improve the work, and I didn’t know how to go about it because I was a little intern editor,” says Lucas-Pennington.

A group of five young Indigenous women all sitting outside a library
The current black & write! the team is (pictured left to right) Bianca Valentino, Jasmin McGaughey, Grace Lucas-Pennington, Nadia Johansen and Allanah Hunt. (Provided: Joe Ruckli)

With the support of his mentors, including one of the early editors of black & write !, Ellen van Neerven, Lucas-Pennington gained confidence in his editing skills.

Along with knowing how to provide constructive feedback and develop relationships with authors, the main lessons Lucas-Pennington learned from his writing fellowship was to trust his editorial instincts.

“Just have the confidence to look at a job and say, ‘No, this is how I feel and this is what I think could make it better.’

It is revealing that several black & write! alumni, including Simpson and Whittaker, continued to work with Lucas-Pennington beyond black & write! program.

“It’s interesting to me that Grace was nervous – because I was also terrified and trying to find my voice as a poet,” Whittaker says of those early days.

But she sees great value in working with someone who isn’t afraid to push back.

Native woman in her 30s wearing a red skirt and navy top sits on a bench in the sun
Whittaker published her second collection Blakwork in 2018. Last year she was the editor-in-chief of the anthology Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power.(Supplied: Whittaker)

“I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with black & write! Because I was able to assert a voice that would not have been possible anywhere else.”

Before the creation of black & write! you could count the number of First Nations editors on the one hand. This is one of the reasons why editing courses have been at the center of the program from the start.

“I don’t think anyone really dreams of being a publisher. It’s very behind the curtain of publishing,” says Lucas-Pennington.

In fact, she credits a lot for winning the black & write editing internship! 2015 to luck and timing. Before applying – at his mother’s suggestion – Lucas-Pennington had never even dreamed of working in publishing.

“But now there’s nothing else I’d rather do.”


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