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Thursday, March 31, 2016

LGBTQIA+ LoveOzYA Posters

Hello Darling Readers,

First came ‘Readalikes’, then the Genre Posters and now I’m thrilled to give you two LGBTQIA+ posters – celebrating Aussie Queer YA.

Talking and writing about Diversity in YA is something I’ve been invested in for a while now, and for me it always comes back to this one line that the character of C.S. Lewis says in William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands;

We read to know we are not alone.

That’s it.
That’s the whole reason storytelling is storytelling and storytellers keep talking, writing, and performing.
Pretty simple, huh?
… Except when it’s not.
When you don’t find yourself in the pages of books; because every love story is boy-meets-girl and people want to put you into black-and-white, male-or-female boxes, or don’t understand why you’re happier being alone.

I didn't meet another openly gay person until I was in grade 12. That's a long time to rely on fictional characters for reflections of myself. And at that time, I didn't find any in books. That's why I started the #AusQueerYA tumblr. I wanted to coincide with the #LoveOzYA movement to help make Australian LGBTQIA YA stories more visible for those who need them, and make the people these characters represent more visible to everyone else. I'm so thrilled these posters have been made. I wish they'd been on the wall in my school library.
      Michael Earp

That's why I wanted to put these posters out there; and I hope they make a difference, even just a dent. I hope they bring a little positivity after so much hate and bigotry swirling around in Australia recently. Especially because I can see there’s going to be a hard slog ahead in our politics for marriage equality. Safe Schools was gutted after a hate-filled campaign of ignorance and propaganda – and I fear it’s just the first of many strategies that won’t care what messages they’re sending to our young people, and the damage they're inflicting.

I told a friend I was doing this. They asked me why I was doing it. I told them I’m doing it for 10 year old me; not all of us are lucky enough to see 20 years. 
— Jessica Harvie

As the debate rages I hope books will be a place of solace and understanding, for kids especially. I hope they find themselves in the pages of books – the books on these posters and so, so many moreAnd I hope they don't feel so alone, because they're not. 

… and now, I have a few people to thank;
Jessica Harvie put her hand up to design these posters, and I’m so grateful to her – not only for her keen design-eye, but also her invaluable input into the books list too. Jessica is currently writing her honours thesis on queer YA. She is trying to start a blog over at and tweets under @jlharvie.
And a couple of other people kindly helped me with compiling and weighing in on the list. I’d like to thank them profusely;  
·      Amelia Lush, bookseller at Better Read Than Dead.
·      Michael Earp, who is also responsible for the wonderful #AusQueerYA tumblr.

'Lemons in the Chicken Wire' by Alison Whittaker

From the BLURB:

WINNER – 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship

From a remarkable new voice in Indigenous writing comes this highly original collection of poems bristling with stunning imagery and gritty textures. At times sensual, always potent, Lemons in the Chicken Wire delivers a collage of work that reflects rural identity through a rich medley of techniques and forms. It is an audacious, lyrical and linguistically lemon flavoured poetry debut that possesses a rare edginess and seeks to challenge our imagination beyond the ordinary. Alison Whittaker demonstrates that borders, whether physical or imagined, are no match for our capacity for love.

‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ is Alison Whittaker’s debut poetry collection, available from Magabala Books. Alison is a Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist from Gunnedah and Tamorth, north-western New South Wales.

I’m going to be upfront and say I don’t read a lot of poetry. But there are certain publishers and voices keep me coming back for more – and Magabala is one of them. They published one of my favourite verse novels in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s 'Ruby Moonlight', which I just love intensely. When I heard that the 2015 black&write! winner was again a poetry book, I was really excited and knew I’d seek it out. And I’ve got to say … Alison Whittaker surpasses expectation, and in one book has become another favourite poet of mine, a new voice I’m eager to read more of.

Whittaker isn’t just a poet; she’s also a law student who actually won the 2015 Indigenous law student of the year annual award. But in her debut poetry collection ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ she’s mostly taking readers away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, to explore and remember her life growing up on country in rural New South Wales.

This collection of Whittaker’s feels very grounded in some ways – as she observes life growing up on country, with this real sense of place and connectedness to her culture. But in another sense she’s examining big constructs that lift the reader even out of their own pre-conceived ideas and, yes, prejudices … as ‘Lemons’ is largely exploring aboriginality, and dislocation alongside gender, sexuality, and queer aboriginal identity.

And now let me take a moment to recommend that you listen to Whittaker speaking on Radio National about her collection – especially for her honing in on the ideas around queer aboriginal identity. Because she says there is this assumption that the city is the only place to go where you will be accepted as a queer aboriginal person, and ‘Lemons’ for one thing is completely counteracting that idea.   

The entire collection is deliciously audacious – and you really do get this sense that Whittaker revels in the subversiveness of her themes and explorations, countering what many people will imagine aboriginality to be, and where it exists in modern Australia. She is exploring rather weighty themes, but there’s a sultriness to her woks, a cheeky lightness – ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ – and a beautifully languid touch that can turn to biting sting in a few keystrokes;

-ing; -ly 
I sucked her fingers one by one 
where I lingered, rings of lipstick stayed 
on one knuckle, then another 
hot and red and suddenly 
like a surprise cut 
red marks like keen slices 
as if she moved them, presently 
they would split at the joint 
like a doll whose ball sockets rotted 
dislodge into my throat 
and choke me 

As I said, I don’t read much poetry. I know what I like, and I like what I like and I really like – even love – Alison Whittaker’s ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’. Sometimes it’s her absorbing, precise language that paints such an image;  

The Sticking Place 
Last nights make a gluey bubble 
in thin crepe expansive time 
tonight I watch that lingering bubble 
cloud the moon, and mine the light.  

Here time is halted, as if the earth 
stopped turning to gaze at a lover 
you turn your gaze to country 
mournfully, feet curled into the earth 
aware that dawn waits to prise you. 

But time, it stands back-to-back with you 
and it leans, and sometimes you 
gain momentum with its weight, other times 
it’s a limp carcass whose shoulders dislocate. 

This night, time is still 
a warm, soundless bubble 
shrouds dreads of the morning. 

The last night on country  
you bury yourself in the earth under time’s weight 
to hold this touch 
you gasp it, gasp it, eat it.

… sometimes I just liked that Whittaker was taking me outside of myself, and poking at my own assumptions – cracking them open or squeezing till they pulped. ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ just introduced me to a favourite new voice in indigenous and poetry writing, and acts as a reminder of why I seek out these works from the indelible Magabala Books.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

'The Midnight Watch' by David Dyer

From the BLURB:

David Dyer's astonishing novel The Midnight Watch is based on the true story of the SS Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic's distress rockets and yet, unfathomably, did nothing. A psychological thriller.

Sometimes the smallest of human failings can lead to the greatest of disasters.

As the Titanic was sinking slowly in the wretchedly cold North Atlantic, she could see the lights of another ship on the horizon. She called for help by Morse lamp and the new Marconi telegraph machine, but there was no response. Just after midnight the Titanic began firing distress rockets.

The other ship, the Californian, saw these rockets but didn't come. Why not?

When the story of the disaster begins to emerge, it's a question that Boston American reporter John Steadman cannot let go. As soon as he lays eyes on the Californian's captain and second officer, he knows a story lurks behind their version of events. So begins his strange journey towards the truth. Haunted by the fifteen hundred who went to their deaths in those icy waters, and by the loss of his own baby son years earlier, Steadman must either find redemption in the Titanic's tragedy or lose himself.

Based on true events, The Midnight Watch is at once a heart-stopping mystery and a deeply knowing novel – about the frailty of men, the strength of women, the capriciousness of fate and the price of loyalty.

‘The Midnight Watch’ is Australian author David Dyer’s debut novel; a fictionalised account of the true story of the Titanic and the Californian.

I’m going to hazard a guess that not many people know that the sinking of the Titanic – which claimed some 1500 lives – could have been prevented in more ways than one. But at the rescue-level, there was the fact that Titanic was carrying only 20 lifeboats when the ship could have taken 60 or so, or that some of those lifeboats carried a measly twelve passengers when they were tested to take 70 men. But the greatest injustice atop so many has to be that a ship called the SS Californian was closest in location to the RMS Titanic, and even saw distress rockets – and yet did nothing for six hours as she sunk and lives were lost. David Dyer’s ‘The Midnight Watch’ is a fictionalised account of what happened aboard the Californian that she became a ‘ship of shame,’ alternately following the story of Californian’s Second Officer Herbert Stone who informed his captain of the rockets being shot by an unknown ship, and more closely by fictional Boston journalist John Steadman, whose job is to bring up the bodies in stories.

Make no mistake; everything about this story – the truth, and what Dyer has fictionalised – is fascinating. Equally fascinating is how Australian author David Dyer presumably got so interested in the legend of the Titanic and lesser-known story of the Californian in the first place – according to his biography, Dyer ‘spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College.’ So it should come as no surprise that ‘The Midnight Watch’ feels meticulously researched – and there is evidence aplenty of Dyer’s legal and naval mind working to flesh out what has sunk into somewhat hollow legend with the passing of time.

Perhaps Dyer’s best plot-device was to tell the bulk of this tale through the eyes of reporter John Steadman – a grizzled, alcoholic anti-hero estranged from his wife years after the death of their baby son for which she still blames him. Steadman is a fictional construct, though the Boston American he writes for really was the first to break the story of the Californian, which saw Titanic’s distress signals, but did not assist. Steadman is this haunted man and throwback to another age of journalism in which reporters wore disguises to get the story, pounding the pavement to get words to the editor in time. The story of the Titanic holds so much fascination even after all these years (and that James Cameron film) – so imagine what a cracker of a story it was at the time; the unsinkable ship sunk on its maiden voyage, and some of America’s richest drowned with it;

Only a few hours earlier, the Carpathia had berthed in New York, watched by forty thousand onlookers. The survivors came ashore in driving rain, and their individual stories – like the tiny flames of candles being lit in a dark cathedral – had begun to illuminate a very great tragedy. Visions flashed upon the consciousness of a nation: first-class men standing on sloping decks in dinner jackets, steerage passengers rushing wildly for the boats, Italians being shot dead by the Titanic’s officers, the mighty Captain Smith, his great white beard spreading around him in the black waters, swimming to a lifeboat with a baby in his arms. There were visions of shame, too: when a passenger was asked how Mr Ismay, chairman of the line, had escaped the doomed ship, the passenger simply shrugged and said, ‘Well, he got into a lifeboat.’
It strikes me that The Midnight Watch does read like a mystery – one in which the readers know who the villain is, and are eagerly waiting for the detective (or, in this case, journalist) to put all the clues together and hit on the right piece of evidence and witness that sets him off on a path to find the guilty party. It means that there’s this constant, pervasive, sense of foreshadowing and inevitable gloom that hangs like a thick fog. Readers know what shame some aboard the Californian are grappling with (Herbert Stone in particular) and we’re just waiting for the moment when Steadman’s nose for a good story leads him to the right cracks in conscience.

I think what also elevates this story is that Dyer has managed to hone in on a theme of hubris (of man and machine), chivalry and what it actually means to be a man … These all run undercurrent throughout the book, and indeed the Titanic legend itself. ‘Women and children first,’ is this profound mandate that put women in the lifeboats by virtue of their sex alone, and speaks to this maritime law of men that seems tied to a knight-ish code of chivalry. Indeed, some of the Titanic legends – like the band played on, shipbuilder Thomas Andrews spent his final moments encouraging and herding people onto lifeboats, and that Captain Edward Smith went down with his ship – upholds this story of men doing the right and honourable thing – so much so, that the very idea of ‘honour’ becomes closely linked to manhood.

Dyer takes this examination one step further, when reporter John Steadman settles into investigating the story … his estranged wife, who is a stalwart Suffragette, bemoans the Titanic ‘legend’ that’s already surfacing and suggests all this talk of heroic men is blowback on the women campaigning for the vote. She notes that Suffragettes are being physically attacked in the street since the sinking, have had parades cancelled and the slogan ‘Boats or Votes?’ is being lobbed at them, alluding again to that act of chivalry – women and children first – to which she replies that she would have refused to get into a boat. John Steadman’s Suffragette daughter echoes her mother’s sentiment, claiming she would prefer to make her own way by finding a plank of wood to float on (which I hoped was a beautiful and subtle head-nod to the infamous ‘could Jack have fit on the door?’ Titanic mythbuster conundrum).

I also really appreciated that Dyer orientates the Titanic story in a wider political, international and social context. The aforementioned suffragette movement and its repercussions there, but also how the sinking of the Titanic became a bit of a British/American rivalry … a ship built in Britain, captained by British officers that killed so many American lives – and adding salt to the wound is the fact that the captain of the ‘ship of shame’ Californian was an Englishman too – the very model of a gentleman – a Liverpool man nonetheless. At one point, Steadman muses that the Titanic represented, ‘the great Edwardian hubris of her makers,’ and that line just so beautifully distils the sentiment.

Was my story, then, not one of hubris after all, but dramatic cowardice? I’d been told that Liverpool men were tough, that they had a special sort of courage. Liverpool was, after all, the city from which England sent the ships to build her empire. So was what I had here a very remarkable and unique creature: the Liverpool craven? Had this man left fifteen hundred people to die because he was scared of the dark and cold? If so, how did he go on living? We all commit shameful acts at some time – my life as a drunken journalist had been one long sequence of moral lapses – but this was of a different magnitude altogether. This was worse than Mr Ismay getting into a lifeboat. This would disgrace a nation.
There are also allusions to anti-immigration views of the time, when so many newspapers gleefully repeat the story of Italian ‘cravens’ being shot by crewmen, because they were rushing the lifeboats. Or the way Washington felt the ramifications, because American president of the time, William Howard Taft, had his dear friend and aid Archibald Butt perish on the Titanic – it is reported that he was walking round the Whitehouse in tears, asking to be left alone.

While reading the first-half of this book, I struggled with the idea that much as I was enjoying the story its greatest strength could also in many ways be its greatest weakness – and that was a serious lack of female characters. Those who are included did feel quite wooden – the tragic Shirtwaist girls Steadman once reported on, the Titanic women who gained seats on lifeboats, the nameless prostitutes Steadman beds, his dutiful daughter and scornful suffragette wife – none of them held real weight. It was looking as though ‘The Midnight Watch’ wouldn’t pass the literary-equivalent of a Bechdel test … and then a surprising twist at the end puts one particular woman front-and-centre of the Titanic story, and I found myself both heartbroken and buoyed to read her portrayal. That this book examining all the old ideas of what it means to be a strong, honourable man should leave off with a woman commanding the page spoke volumes. And something Steadman ponders early on echoed for me; that maybe this century really would belong to the women.

I loved ‘The Midnight Watch’ and it’s definitely a favourite book of 2016 for me. A story we all seem to know so well is alive in our imaginations once again, but David Dyer’s true strength as a storyteller lies in what he pushes us to examine in the lives of mere men.


Friday, March 18, 2016

CBCA Clayton's Night - Older Reader titles

Hello Darling Readers, 

Last night I had the great honour of being a guest speaker at the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Clayton's Night - from their website; 

Clayton’s Night is held annually in the month before the official CBCA shortlist is announced.  
Guest judges are asked to look at the entries from each year and pick a personal ‘best of’. They don’t have any correspondence with the official judges, and their selections are their own. In addition, each of the guest judges only presents books in one of the five national categories: the three age-based categories – Older Readers, Younger Readers and Early Childhood – and the two general categories – Picture Book and Eve Pownall.

So I went along with my six-book selection (plus two 'notable' titles I also wanted to sneak in there) and thought I'd share with everyone what I picked and why. So here you go, in no particular order - my Clayton's 2016 Older Readers 'Best Of' Selection (which was super hard to do, btw!): 

1. A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell

This is a novel that deals with themes of teen sex, pregnancy, teen-parent relationships, isolation, friendship and mental illness. A novel about characters who do something monstrous – but beg our forgiveness.  

Rose and Michael started dating, “almost by accident,” but when we first meet them they’re having sex for the first time because they’re in love and ready. Afterwards Rose can’t believe that nobody can tell how changed she is, now suddenly a woman. Michael wants to know when they can do it again.

And then Rose starts watching the calendar; “she was watching the calendar the way you watch a spider in the corner of a room you can’t leave. Each day that passed was a spider leg twitching …”

When I received this book from the publisher, the press release included a few paragraphs from Dianne Touchell on her inspiration for ‘A Small Madness’. She said that while living in the United States a few years ago she was “moved and disturbed” by news coverage of a particularly awful discovery, and it had stayed with her ever since. “Society gathered their metaphoric torches and pitchforks,” for a couple who had done a very bad thing, and her heart just broke for them. It was that news story that led to Touchell exploring similar themes in ‘A Small Madness’, particularly this idea that; “being damaged is very, very different to being evil.”
2. The Hush by Skye Melki-Wegner

Sometimes the best books are those that you never knew you always needed in your life. This book came recommended to me from the author Amie Kaufman – who you can assume, knows a thing or two about good sci-fi and fantasy.

In this stand-alone novel, music is Magic – literally – and to connect to song without a licence is a crime punishable by death … as we see in the opening chapter, with an axe falling on a fiddler.

Melki-Wegner says that The Hush was also inspired by folklore, mythology and philosophy – and she’s peppered the book with references that astute readers can go forth and learn more about.

There are allusions to; Mozart’s The Magic Flute, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Greek mythology music-makers, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave speaks to the idea of false realities and layers of deception (including self-deception).

This book is so good, it will stay with you long after the last page – like a song you can’t stop humming.

3. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (The Tribe, #3) by Ambelin Kwaymullina

‘The Foretelling Of Georgie Spider’ is the third and final instalment in Ambelin Kwaymullina epic YA Aussie speculative fiction series, ‘The Tribe’.

Y’know, there aren’t many Australian YA books in which our heroine’s warrior cry is: “Let’s go free a detention centre!” And that one line should tell you something about how clever and important an author Kwaymullina is, and what a statement this whole series has been. This series is a layered science fiction, eco-dystopic saga that also draws on Stolen Generation history and Indigenous mythology, that is all tied to the Australian natural landscape.

It’s amazing that in one series readers can be confronted with ideas and themes around Australia’s dark history – particularly the oppression of our First Peoples – and then also be able to connect the sci-fi aspects to global warming and current asylum seeker debates. And that it’s all tied up beautifully in this intense story, about a Tribe of kids who reject the way their world currently is, and truly believe they can change it for the better.

NOTABLE: We Are The RebelsThe Women and Men Who Made Eureka by Clare Wright's  

I’ve read some fantastic Australian young adult non-fiction recently. A particular breed of book I’m told some booksellers and librarians don’t quite know what to do with … insofar as, which shelf do they stock it on? The first was Clare Wright’s We Are the Rebels: The Women and Men Who Made Eureka – an abridged teen edition of Wright’s 2014 Stella Prize-winning The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

The second was David Burton’s How To Be Happy.

Both are fantastic, feminist and non-fiction. And I can only say that regardless of shelf-placement; I hope they get into the hands of teen readers (and in the case of We Are the Rebels, maybe school history teachers too!)

One of the big themes of David Burton’s memoir is on smashing gender stereotypes – as he recounts his youth as a socially awkward teen who didn’t fit into Australian society’s “machismo” stereotype of a sport-loving, rough-tumbling manly man, David discovered his voice through the self-expression of drama class … and then struggled with what it meant that he was drawn to inherently “feminine” pursuits and activities.

The other big focus of David’s book is topics of mental health – his brothers’ unique Asperger view of the world, his and his family’s history of depression and a close friend struggling too.

This book is gold, and if I could I’d make it mandatory reading in schools … or, maybe, not in schools but mandatory under-the-covers with a torchlight, late into the night reading for all those teenagers wondering why they feel this way, when will it get better and does anybody understand me? For those teenagers I’d like to gift them ‘How to be Happy’ – because David won’t claim to have all the answers, but he’s been through the trenches and written about it in all his embarrassing teenage glory.

5. Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy

The stories within this book are wonderful – not least for their variety. It’s a collection of sci-fi and fantasy writing, including six graphic stories showcasing some of the most exciting writers and artists from Australia and India.

Female experience is central to the anthology but there are stories that investigate the effects of sex bias in the lives of boys and men.

It’s a book full of funny, thoughtful and subversive stories – the kind of book I’d happily get up on a soapbox for.

But the reason I wanted to talk about it with you all tonight; is for the story behind the anthology.  

As the introduction explains; the concept for this book was borne in late 2012 – at that time in Delhi, thousands protested against rape, while in Melbourne thousands stood vigil in memory of a young woman raped and murdered while walking home one night. ‘The fate of all young women, what they should fear and what they can hope for, were hot topics in the media around the world. Out of that storm rose the idea for this anthology.’

I think this book is a wonderful example to young people, of how art can grow from tragedy – the light of imagination illuminating a world that sometimes seems so dark.
6. Clancy of the Undertow by Christopher Currie 
NOTABLE: The Flywheel by Erin Gough 

A book with a lesbian protagonist, growing up in a rural small town whose already dysfunctional life is thrown into chaos when her father is involved in an accident that kills two local teens and the family suddenly finds themselves local enemies No.1

 ‘Clancy of the Undertow’ feels like it could be a Paul Kelly song – all hard knocks Australian setting and moral questions, being told by a young woman stuck in the middle of her life.

Currie has written about his transition from an Adult author to a Young Adult one – saying he stumbled across his 15-year-old protagonist, and then didn’t stop writing once he found her …

By contrast, Erin Gough found the teen character in her debut book The Flywheel rather deliberately.

I’d like to paraphrase form an article Gough wrote for Kill YourDarlings last year; ‘I wanted to have a lesbian main character. Not only did I want her to be a lesbian; I wanted that to be no big deal for her – or maybe a bit of a deal, but manageably so … The problem was I didn’t know how to write the story of a character who was at ease with and open about her sexuality, because I didn’t have that for myself … I’d certainly never come across any as a young adult, not even in a Judy Blume book. And then finally, around 2011, with a lot more writing and living under my belt, I was ready for the task: to write that story for my young adult self – the book I’d wanted to read when I was younger, but which hadn’t existed.’

Whether the characters were written by accident or design, I loved these two books, I loved Clancy and Delilah – and I especially loved the thought that some teen readers out there would find them, and maybe not feel so lonely.


I also did a wee spruik of the just-launched official LoveOzYA website - I encouraged everyone to go visit, submit content, find out about news & events, or just tell us what's missing or what's great about the site - we want feedback! That goes for everyone reading this too :) 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Indigenous stories and non-Indigenous writers: some reflections on respect and process - guest post by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Indigenous stories and non-Indigenous writers: some reflections on respect and process

I sat down to write this post a while ago; during the course of writing it, author JK Rowling released a story that inappropriately incorporates aspects of the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of North America. I have spent much of the last couple of days listening to Indigenous peoples from across the sea give voice to their distress. So before I begin speaking of process and respect in an Australian context, it seemed only right that I acknowledge those voices, and encourage everyone to read their words.

This is the second of two posts; the first examined myths caused by misdiagnosing a lack of diversity in literature as a diversity problem rather than as a privilege problem. The purpose of this second post is to reflect on a few of the issues surrounding non-Indigenous writers and Indigenous stories in Australia. In the 1980s, Indigenous publisher Magabala Books was established in part because of the retelling of Indigenous narratives by non-Indigenous writers in circumstances where there was no free, prior and informed consent from – or any sharing of copyright or benefits with – the Indigenous knowledge-holders. While it has become less ‘business as usual’ in Australia to see books published in this way, it still happens. I’m sometimes asked what I think about it. My view is that non-Indigenous writers should not be telling cultural narratives unless it is done in equitable partnership with the relevant Indigenous knowledge-holders. And for a partnership to be equitable, I think it requires that royalties and copyright be shared. An example of such a collaboration is the one between non-Indigenous historian Howard Pederson and Bunuba man Banjo Woorunmurra for the book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (copyright and royalties are shared between Howard Pederson and the Bunuba people). Further, there are some stories where copyright should remain entirely with the Indigenous person or people. Whether this is the case is something for the relevant Indigenous person or community to determine – but that decision has to be made free from pressure; prior to a project commencing: and on an informed basis. For example, the copyright in Woman from No Where – the biography of the late Hazel McKeller – is held by Hazel (and now her heir). Non-Indigenous academic Kerry McCallum, who worked with Hazel on the book, has her contribution credited on the cover. The process for writing this book is discussed in More than Words – Writing, Indigenous culture and copyright in Australia (a paper written by Murri lawyer Terri Janke).

Another topic I’ve been asked about is the use of Indigenous advisors or beta readers. To begin with, I think the Indigenous person should be paid at a rate that acknowledges the value of their time and expertise. The expectations (on both sides) and boundaries of the relationship also need to be clearly established from the beginning of the process. In the United States, there have been instances where the advice of expert readers was ignored or used selectively. And there is a larger consideration here, which is this: when does an Indigenous advisor or beta reader become a co-author? When do they become such an influence on the story that their contribution should be acknowledged through a share in the copyright and royalties? This is especially the case where the Indigenous input relates to culture, because the incorporation of Indigenous culture into books by non-Indigenous writers is fraught with cultural appropriation issues. The massive imbalance of power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples precludes any notion of cultural exchange (which requires equality), and the vulnerable position of Indigenous peoples is exacerbated by the lack of protection for Indigenous knowledge and cultural expressions under Western intellectual property laws.

I’ve sometimes been told by writers that their inappropriate use of Indigenous material is justified on the basis that it is part of the Western literary tradition to ‘borrow’ stories or cultural elements from elsewhere, to which I reply: But you’re not writing about your culture or traditions. You’re writing about mine – and my culture has rules about when and how stories can be told, and who can tell them. And if non-Indigenous authors are writing about us because they care about Indigenous culture (as many tell me they do), then I think they should respect it enough to know when it is not their place to speak, and what it is not their place to speak about. This is especially so given that Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalised peoples on earth; that our cultures have been subject to sustained efforts to destroy them; that we continue to experience discrimination; and that our living traditions are our lifeblood. Appropriation of Indigenous cultures and stories causes real harm to real people – and we have already been harmed enough.  

We live in the age of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to our cultures, heritage and languages (Articles 11, 12 and 13). Extensive past problems with the misuse of (and lack of protection for) Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property has resulted in the production of numerous protocols and guidelines, including the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ethical research guidelines and ethical publishing guidelines, and the Australia Council for the Arts Protocols for producing Indigenous writing.

And yet.

And yet I have talked to non-Indigenous authors who have read all those guidelines and still believe that their use of Indigenous material is acceptable provided they acknowledge the relevant people, with issues of benefits-sharing and ownership being ignored. 

And yet I have talked to publishers who believe that consent to the use of cultural material is purely the responsibility of the non-Indigenous writer, and that the publisher has no obligation to ensure that consent was given on a free, prior and (especially) informed basis.

And yet I am often asked by writers why they can’t do something when they’ve seen another non-Indigenous author do it – and the book they are referring me to is ten, twenty, thirty or forty years old. The world has changed, and what was done in an era where understandings were more limited is not a guide to what should be done now.

We still seem to have a long way to go.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.  

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