First Nations writers are hot

Rhonda Dredge

Competition was stiff when Kimmy Lovegrove took to the stage at the Comedy Republic on Bourke St on one Saturday night in March.

The city was buzzing with buskers and diners as it finally burst out of its hibernation.

“I didn’t know I was a black fella,” were Kimmy’s opening words.

Everyone laughed. They knew they were in for some “Gammon”, an Aboriginal slang word for joking.

“I thought I was Sri Lankan. When Mum told me the truth, I spat a samosa into Nana’s face.”

Kimmy was one of a mob of performers and writers who converged on the CBD for the literary festival Blak and Bright.

Some were mucking around with their identity like Kimmy, others digging beneath the surface of being a First Nations person in a colonial city.

There were salons, talks, performances, meets with publishers, and readings as the festival built on a great surge of wins by First Nations writers in literary prizes this year.

Veronica Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai woman who lives and writes in Victoria, won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature in January for her memoir Black and Blue.

Two out of the five books shortlisted for fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were by First Nations writers.

And in March the long list for the Stella Prize for women’s literature was announced, with five out of the 12 selected books by First Nations writers, one a trans writer by the name of S J Norman.

They were at the festival to talk about their debut book Permafrost. “It’s nice to have a book shortlisted. It’s kind of empowering,” S J said.

Not all First Nations works are big stories set in outback or remote locations. “Permafrost is a genre study,” S J told CBD News. “It reflects on an ongoing interest in colonial Gothic.”

Some voices are driven underground in the colonial city and the book has a strong narrator who never really reveals themselves to the reader.

“It hits a very particular stylistic note,” S J said. “I’m interested in ideas of the uncanny.”

The publisher of Permafrost was also in Melbourne for the festival. University of Queensland Press established a First Nations list 40 years ago and this year it made up 25 per cent of total production.

“In 1980 we started,” publisher Aviva Tuffield said. “Staff members were committed. In 1997 Melissa Lucashenko first published with us. Twenty years later she won the Miles Franklin.”

The long road to success can be off-putting for newcomers. They had a chance to discuss their ideas with publishers who pitched their companies in a reversal of the usual practice of making writers perform.

Melissa Kayser of Hardie Grant, who recently commissioned a book by Marcia Langton, admitted that First Nations storytelling was challenging.

“I like things that break the rules a bit,” she said. “Part of First Nations storytelling is that it’s challenging the establishment.”

The truth is that First Nations writers are hot and not all publishers have caught up with the news. Some still shame writers by talking about piles of unsolicited manuscripts.

“We read them all,” said Jane Pearson of CBD-based publisher Text.

The First Nations list has become an important marketing tool for publishers and prizes help but you can’t rely on them.

“Prizes are a lottery,” Aviva said. “Something wins one and doesn’t get a mention on another. It depends on judges’ tastes. Sometimes they align.”

Permafrost excelled in getting on two lists, including the Stella long list. The chair of the Stella judges was Miles Franklin winner Melissa Lucashenko, who said there had been a distinct outward-looking flavour to the pool of more than 220 entries for the Stella prize.

“Many authors focussed on global affairs rather than on the Antipodean alone; much of the short fiction and poetry we read was set offshore, and at least two of the longlisted authors are Australian expatriates. So much for Fortress Australia.” •

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