by Emma Froggatt
Writing Indigenous issues into the forefront of Australian and literary culture is what’s on the agenda for writer and social commentator Dr Anita Heiss, the guest speaker at the Women@UTS event marking NAIDOC Week 2014.
A prolific author of non-fiction, historical fiction, poetry, travel writing and women’s fiction, Dr Heiss combines her passion for indigenous literacy, rights and reconciliation with her work in the literary and academic field.
An adjunct professor at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, at the University of Technology, Sydney, she is an advocate for Indigenous literature.
She said NAIDOC Week is about celebrating and showcasing all that is wonderful, successful and joyful in the Indigenous community over a week.
“It’s a way of engaging non-Indigenous Australians in non-confrontational and non-challenging ways. And showing them how we contribute everyday to Australian society.”
Engaging the attention of non-Indigenous Australians is already something Dr Heiss does, having written 13 books on a range of topics from her home in “upper Matraville.”
Speaking about her latest book Tiddas, she said she was inspired to write about women “just like herself”.
“I was reading fantastic literature by the likes of Debra Adelaide, Kathryn Heyman, Rosie Scott…fantastic Australian authors with strong social justice platforms…but I never saw women like me on the page. I never saw women, the women I went to university with, the women who are now deputy commissioners of public service commissions, who are now running law firms, or governing indigenous bodies.”
Despite the large number of Indigenous people in living in urban centres, Anita Heiss said one would never know it from reading Australian literature or reading the newspaper.
“So I wanted to put us on the Australian literary landscape in a completely different way,” she said.
And she has done exactly that. She has done this through what has been sardonically dubbed by Koori Radio as a new genre of literature, “choc-lit”.
Anita Heiss writes “choc-lit” because she wants to connect with women with normal jobs, who catch buses and trains, who lie on the beach and read books. Women who “may never have read a book by an Aboriginal woman before”, who “may never have had a conversation or a cuppa with an Aboriginal women before”.
She wanted to reach these women. And she did that by looking at what women have in common.
“We fall in love, we fall out of love,” she said. “We fear rejection, we get a spring in our step when someone fancies us. We feel grief. We feel sympathy. We have joy, fear – all those things.”
Indeed, these things, as she said, have nothing to do with black and white, white and white, rich and poor.
Anita Heiss believed that if she could write a story about relationships, about falling in love, about the journey of relationships, then she could weave into those stories the issues she is passionate about, issues such as Aboriginal literacy, black deaths in custody, human rights, infringements, Indigenous artistic protocols,” subjects Australians should be concerned about.
So through four different novels, she has discussed the issues that are close to her heart.
Her book Tiddas evokes the 1990s three piece all-girl folk band of the same name (tiddas means ‘sister’) comprised of Gunditjmara woman Amy Saunders, Yorta Yorta woman Lou Bennett, and Sally Dastey.
“They wrote beautiful music that ranged from talking about positive affirmations for everyday to black deaths in custody and so forth,” Dr Heiss said.
Her book is about the journey of friendship between five women who were all born and raised in Mudgee and who all end up in Brisbane re-connected in a book club. The book club is named VIXEN, named after the five initial letters of each of the characters names: Veronica, Isabella, Xanthe, Ellen and Nadene.
They read such books as Legacy (Larissa Behrendt), Butterfly Song (Terri Janke), Auntie Rita (Jackie Huggins), My Hundred Lovers (Susan Johnson) and The Tall Man (Chloe Hooper).
Two of the five characters are non-Indigenous, reminiscent of the author’s own friendship circles that are, she said, diverse and “embedded with people from all over the world”. Each woman faces her own challenges – job loss, identity discovery, unplanned pregnancy, a desperate quest for IVF, marital breakdown, career development, and substance. They each also celebrate personal success.
Dr Heiss said she is thrilled to see her books at airports, and have 20-year-old girls emailing her saying that they loved reading her book Finding Mr Right, having never read a book before.
Referring to her young adults’ fiction, she said, “I write because I want to put those kids on the map.” She explains they need to see themselves on the page. She needs to showcase and celebrate them.
In the spirit of NAIDOC week and commemorating the contribution of Indigenous communities, Professor Michael McDaniel, the Director of Jumbunna, ended the Women@UTS event with a call to action.
He said the first thing non-Indigenous people can do in the spirit of NAIDOC Week, is “inform themselves and gain knowledge of Indigenous communities”.
“The reality and sadness is that many Australians haven’t grown up with an Aboriginal person [in their close community], which means that the engagement needs to be proactive.”