Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this essay contains the names of people who are deceased.
THIS PERIOD BEGAN with Waanyi author Alexis Wright winning the 2007 Miles Franklin Award for her mammoth novel Carpentaria (Giramondo, 2006) – she was the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded this honour. Wright and her book were profiled in The New York Times Book Review; her work was translated into multiple languages and she toured extensively around the world. In 2013, she published another critically acclaimed novel, The Swan Book (Giramondo). This decade would end with Wright being awarded the prestigious Stella Prize in 2018 for her most recent book, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017), the collective biography of Tracker Tilmouth.
The year 2008 saw the release of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (Allen & Unwin) by cultural champion and Wiradjuri writer Dr Anita Heiss and award-winning poet Peter Minter. The same year, former Yothu Yindi band member Dr G Yunupingu released his solo album Gurrumul. The lyrics were groundbreaking: he sang in Gumatj, Galpu and Djambarrpuynu, his mother languages from Elcho Island. This album and those that came afterwards took Yunupingu’s otherworldly voice around the globe. There was such significance in the international reach and acceptance of these powerful songs in these intact languages.
The year 2008 was also when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to the Stolen Generations. Both the Rudd Government and the Opposition supported the apology and said ‘sorry’ to Aboriginal people who were taken away from their families from 1900 to the 1970s.
I believe that these events stood out in the years that followed. In particular, there was a great recognition of female Aboriginal writing – we had this possibility of being able to imagine ourselves as Alexis Wright, for our work to be read widely and for our stories to have a global impact. A major anthology of our literature was available in bookshops and featured in curriculums throughout the country. As for the album Gurrumul – sung in language, a balm to our souls throughout Black and White Australia – I believe a cultural healing came from Yunupingu’s voice, reverberating around the nation.
And the apology meant something significant – it meant that those authors with those stories from broken branches of their family trees were recognised. It opened up a truth-telling in publishing, and a desire for readers to learn about their national shame.
That same year, Elizabeth Hodgson, a Wiradjuri woman and member of the Stolen Generations, published Skin Painting (UQP). This autobiography in verse is strikingly innovative and has resonant passages throughout, including:
They change my name, I am no longer Elizabeth
Because another girl here has the same name;
Now I must answer to Beth.
The following year, the Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, also a member of the Stolen Generations, burst onto the literary scene with her poetry collection Little Bit Long Time (Picaro Press, 2009), which was followed by Kami (Vagabond Press, 2010); the verse novels His Father’s Eyes (OUP, 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala, 2012); another poetry collection, Love Dreaming and Other Poems (Vagabond Press, 2012); the memoir Too Afraid to Cry (Ilura Press, 2013); and the astonishing poetry collection Inside My Mother (Giramondo, 2015). In 2017, Eckermann was awarded the prestigious international Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Poetry. She remains one of Australia’s greatest living poets, and will influence generations of poets and prose writers in the decades to come, much like Oodgeroo Noonuccal. ‘Poetry has been a liberation for me,’ Eckermann said during an interview with Red Room Poetry in 2017. ‘…it’s been a medicine. Poetry came out of my healing. It’s a powerful genre.’
2009 was also the year Anita Heiss published Avoiding Mr Right (Bantam), the second in her ‘choc-lit’ novel series about urban Aboriginal women. These were mould-breaking books, politically aware and accessible – Heiss had reached a female audience in a way that I think Aboriginal authors had previously thought impossible.
This was a prolific decade for critically and commercially acclaimed Koori writer Tony Birch, who published his short story collection Father’s Day in 2009 (Hunter Publishers); the novel Blood in 2011 (UQP); another short story collection, The Promise, in 2014 (UQP); the novel Ghost River in 2015 (UQP); and his most recent short story collection, Common People, in 2017 (UQP).
In 2011, Noongar writer Kim Scott had his second Miles Franklin Award win with That Deadman Dance (Picador, 2010), and published his fifth novel, Taboo, in 2017 (Pan Macmillan).
Sue McPherson’s young adult novel Grace Beside Me was published in 2012 (Magabala), and went on to become a successful series with the National Indigenous Television (NITV) network in 2018. The same year, Wiradjuri writer Kerry Reed-Gilbert, an inspiration to the literary sector, began her tireless work for the First Nations Australia Writers' Network (FNAWN), the peak body for Australia’s First Nations writers, poets and storytellers. As FNAWN’s inaugural chairperson from 2012 to 2016, Reed-Gilbert championed Indigenous Australian writers through her leadership and advocacy.
2012 was also the year young Palyku writer Ambelin Kwaymullina published The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Walker Books), the first book in her brilliant young adult dystopian series The Tribe. This was followed by The Disappearance of Ember Crowe (Walker Books, 2013) and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (Walker Books, 2015).
In 2013, two of our most powerful next-generation writers emerged. Nakkiah Lui’s first play, This Heaven, was performed at Sydney’s Belvoir in 2013, followed by Kill the Messenger in 2015 (Currency Press) and Black is the New White (Allen & Unwin, 2019), which was staged by Sydney Theatre Company in 2017 and received the 2018 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Yugambeh writer and editor Ellen van Neerven won the 2013 David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer for her contemporary and technically accomplished short story collection Heat and Light (UQP, 2014). She is also a skilled poet, and released the award-winning collection Comfort Food in 2016 (UQP). 2013 was also the year Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko published Mullumbimby (UQP),which was followed in 2018 by her most significant work, Too Much Lip (UQP).
In 2014, Magabala Books, the small Indigenous-owned and -run publisher in Broome, released Bruce Pascoe’s sixteenth book, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, which overturned the historical Australian narrative in a way no one could have imagined. This non-fiction book re-examines colonial accounts of Aboriginal Australia and chronicles a history of farming, engineering and building. Dark Emu remains on national bestseller lists to this day.
Published in 2015, The Intervention: An Anthology by Anita Heiss and Rosie Scott (NewSouth) was a powerful response to the 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response that stripped Aboriginal communities of their agency and dignity. The same year, Aboriginal Studies Press released Old Man’s Story: The Last Thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, a recording of the elder’s life as told to friend and photographer Mark Lang.
Wirlomin-Noongar writer Claire G Coleman’s speculative fiction novel Terra Nullius was published to critical acclaim in 2017 (Hachette) and was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize.
After the ABC’s Indigenous Department rebranding in 2010, quality Indigenous drama and documentaries began to be commissioned. The first, written by Wiradjuri and Bundjalung man Jon Bell, was the award-winning and critically acclaimed Redfern Now (2012), which signalled a new era of Indigenous content and production. The series was written, directed and produced by Indigenous creatives, and its success proved that audiences were ready for this new brand of Black Australian television writing. Since Redfern Now, Bell has gone on to produce outstanding comedy and drama, including the landmark series The Gods of Wheat Street (2014), Black Comedy (2014) and Cleverman (2016).
The last decade has particularly been one of storytelling – not only in books, but on stage and screen and in music. These expanding forms of storytelling are significantly entwined with the wider acceptance of our literature. Readers and consumers of our stories have seen us and heard us on multiple platforms. During this decade, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers truly found an audience that was finally listening.
This was also a period during which an incredibly powerful statement was released: the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document that weaves the ancient and modern identities of our First Nations people into a compelling mandate for reform.
By 2018, literary festivals around the country featured not just one or two First Nations writers in their programs, but several. Major publishers were seeking out our storytellers, and supportive mentorships and prizes were being created to find and foster our voices.
To end the decade, Anita Heiss edited the most recent of our anthologies, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc., 2018). It became a national bestseller.
Let no one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within. – Oodgeroo Noonuccal
This essay is one of an exclusive online summer series by Tara June Winch celebrating past and present Indigenous literature. Tara’s essays will be published on the Griffith Review website every Thursday between 24 October and 12 December.