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Literature (H)as Power: Interviews with Six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Authors

(Status : Public)
  • An Interview with Lisa Bellear

  • Estelle Castro: When did you start writing, and why did you start writing?

    Lisa Bellear: First I would like to say, Estelle, it’s lovely to meet you again. We met at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and it was a real pleasure to see someone else, a non-Indigenous person coming along to an Indigenous person’s book launch: Jared Thomas’s. I remember seeing you and you had this lovely red coat, and I will, I promise you, I’ll get the photo to you one day, or one year. And after that, once you mentioned that you are doing your PhD, I was more than happy to help, to be a part of your PhD thesis.

              I started writing in… I was born in 1961. I have been writing for more than 30 years. I remember… Probably the earliest I remember writing was probably when I was about eight. At that time in my life I used to write rhyming poetry. I guess that was because that’s the way that we were taught. Generally speaking, people at a very young age, when they learnt poetry or were taught poetry at school, that’s when they get turned off poetry. They find it boring. They cannot understand it. And I agree with all the above sentiments. But I just love being able to express myself. So while I don’t write in rhyme now, I don’t make judgements on people that do write in rhyme. I am well aware that there are some people that say that if you write in rhyme that’s very old-fashioned. Well so be it… Everyone to their own tastes. I still write poetry today. I love it as a means of expression.

              One of the things I must say: when I did my second Masters in creative writing at the University of Queensland… I’ve got a bit of dyslexia, and also with my spelling. Finally, my supervisor said to me: ‘Oh Lisa, that’s an interesting way to spell a particular word.’ I picked up and said: ‘what do you mean interesting?’ ‘You know with poetry you’re allowed to misspell, in modern poetry.’ And I said: ‘Look I don’t mean to misspell, that’s just what happened. Thank you for drawing to my attention.’ And I guess the other little mistake that I make sometimes is that I use an expression back to front or I use a word and then someone says: ‘What do you mean by that word?’ I go ‘I mean by that word… tadada.’ They say, ‘I think you mean this word, don’t you?’ and I go ‘oh! OK.’ I guess that touches on the importance of finding someone that you feel safe with – apart from your supervisor – that you can share your work with. I know some people refuse to, and that’s their prerogative, but I certainly don’t mind sharing some of my work when it’s in draft form. I am more than happy to look at other people’s work as well.

              And I also write art critiques. I love doing that, I love going to art galleries. Very often I’ve been inspired by poetry when I’ve gone to art galleries. One particular poem, ‘Artist Unknown’: that was inspired by going to the New South Wales Art Gallery, and there were all these rows and rows of Aboriginal art that was unnamed, undated; their clan and nation were not even identified. I just felt very sad so I thought… What can I do? What can I do to send the message out to everyone, I mean everyone, not only Indigenous Australians but the researchers, the anthropologists, archaeologists, etc., [about] the importance of acknowledging the source, acknowledging the people. I made inquiries and I got told that in the 1940s or thereabouts when people were collecting art, inverted commas, ‘white people’, or white men usually, it wasn’t fashionable to ask the name of the artist, or their clan… In 2005, hopefully things are different.

  • EC: Do you see poetry as a form of storytelling?

    LB: Well, let’s just say I am widely read, specifically for Indigenous Australian poetry and… I guess you might say that’s a truism for most poetry but then I would say that actually no, I wouldn’t agree with that statement because I think generally speaking Indigenous Australian poets, through their storytelling, are often addressing political issues. And you cannot necessarily say that for the general mainstream. I often joke with people and say: if you want to be a successful poet in this country, write about the sheep, on the mountainside, eating the grass, destroying the… Oop, don’t deal with politics like saying destroying the Murnong. It’s like the yam daisy – it was a traditional source of food. And when the hooves came along, they destroyed the roots, and so you don’t get the traditional food source, you just get the grass and the stumps. That’s something that I say.

              But at the same time, I want compromise, and yes, when I’m telling a story, I tell nice things, and I’ll even have some humour because I think humour is important. But sometimes when you’re telling your story, through a poem, it is, it can be quite traumatic and sad. And I find that if I am in a cold environment, that’s when I write the best, but that also usually means I write the saddest. And then I’ve got to pick myself up and say ‘okay’. It’s not just a balance for the reader out there. I mean, quite frankly, Estelle, I’ll be honest with you, if someone said to me they’ve read one of my poems and they didn’t like it, I’ll say… I don’t want to be rude to them, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me. But when I hear people say, ‘oh look they’ve been touched, or, ‘they’ve been moved’, to rethink about how they look at a situation, that’s when you get a little bit of feedback that’s good. But not all storytellers are political, and that can be a safety mechanism, but it can also be the way people have been brought up as well. So just because someone is an Indigenous poet does not mean that they are political. And that’s a true thing for I guess poets in general too.

  • EC: You were saying you were taking pictures as well, so you are doing visual art?

    LB: Yes, I’ve taken over, probably up to 40,000 photos now and I’ve given you the catalogue – one of 500 about Reconciliation. In that I’m honest, and I talk about growing up. I was adopted by white people and told I was Polynesian. I am not Polynesian but I’ve had to go through that journey and I touch on when I was 17 or something, my adoptive parents stole all my photos. That was just devastating for me, so I stopped taking photos for about 10 years and I mentioned this to an Arakwal woman – that’s Byron Bay area – Yvonne Kay, and she said: ‘Lisa, you’ve got to do what you love. And you love taking photos.’ So basically that was like, ‘snap out of it.’ So since then, I guess, I probably have, I know I have over compensated, taking pictures of people.

    I love taking portrait shots of people but at the same time I’ve been criticised by some non-Aboriginal people when they wanted me to submit photos: ‘but that’s just an individual portrait.’ I say, yes, but that’s an individual portrait of someone that’s special, that has got a name, that comes from somewhere. They say: ‘we just want a group shot of 200 people, and no name, etc.’ I’ve been quite hurt by that. Anyway, I continue to take my photos. I want to look at donating a collection to the Koorie Heritage Trust, 295 Kingstreet St in Melbourne. And they spell Koorie with an ‘e’ on the end, ok…. that’s their prerogative. And also look out at somewhere in Canberra, I might have to donate to – I haven’t decided whether it’s the National Library up in Canberra, or the National Gallery… and also make a donation to the Melbourne Museum.

    And I’ve also got a promise, which I tell everybody – it may not happen when I am alive – that every photo that I take has got to go back to either the community, or to a family member. I’ve been giving photos to non-Aboriginal people who have been friends with some Indigenous people, and they’ve got the photos back to Alice Spring, and it’s gone back to Cairns, and five years later they say ‘Lisa, we’ve got your photos, thank you, that was a bit of a surprise’, that’s good. But I want to name people. Because if you look at the early historical images of Aboriginal people, most of them weren’t named. And some of them were named, but they were named wrongly.

    I am also collecting traditional Aboriginal names in Victoria, and every time I come across them… I have got a list of a couple of hundred… And then I am realizing that sometimes, because the person writing the name down comes from another country, another culture – English may have been their first language but it might not have been the person’s that they were writing down the names – as a consequence, sometimes people when they have got their traditional Aboriginal names written that got written wrongly. And then people try to find their connections back to the nineteen hundreds, or earlier, and they can’t make the connection. And that can just come back to the fact that their names have been written wrongly.

    I want to encourage everybody… We’re here, in Melbourne, which is Wurundjeri country, part of the greater Kulin nation. The greater Kulin nation includes the Wathaurung on the way to Geelong, it includes the Boonerong, then you’ve got the Taungurong people which is on the way to Seamore, and the Djaja Wurrung people. But even with language, I’m saying the ‘djadjarun’ people and you might say, ‘Lisa, how do you spell that?’ And I could say it sounds like ‘jarjarrung’; but how they pronounce it, the ‘D’ is silent. So you’ve seen it written down. it’s ‘dja’, and you say ‘djadja?’. In some languages in Australia you do actually pronounce the ‘D’, but in this instance, they don’t. I love the language and I wish I could do more.

    But at the very least, through the photographs that I am doing – as I said, my lifelong goal – and after I die, there will be a big collection, which is distributed widely so that people can get access to those images, and they can embrace those images. And they can hopefully sit down and maybe write a little story about that image. Whether that’s about how they feel, or whether they can say, ‘that’s my great-great-great-grandmother’. Wow. It’s sort of reclaiming. And I also got told by the Melbourne Museum that in another 50 years’ time, unless people start donating images now – and here we are talking about Melbourne Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders community then there won’t be images. I’ve got something that has to be done. And you have got to live by example, Estelle.

    Example means no, I am not sitting around waiting for a bit fat government grant in order to get my photos together, it’s like, well, you just do it. And doing my PhD, even if I am having a break from it at the moment, it’s a way of helping me focus, to organise the images. As I said, I’ve got over 40,000 images. I cannot help, I cannot not take photos. I have gone a bit silly about it. I’ll keep doing that. I also do voluntary community radio as well. Not Another Koori Show on 3CR community radio here in Melbourne. That’s another way of giving voice. So the photographs is one thing, but – I don’t know if you run along like me, Estelle – I often have a tape-recorder, and I’ll be going around: ‘hello, hello, can you say a few words to the radio, please?’ That’s a way of balancing it as well, so they actually hear – like with your PhD at the end of your PhD, you’ll be able to hear people’s voices, and hear the passion.

  • EC: You said they said there won’t be any picture in 50 years’ time. Is it because they’re going back to the communities?

    LB: No, it’s because people aren’t donating them. Unless people give images, there won’t be images. They’ll just have the few images that they have now. We’re talking about the Melbourne Museum. And I would like to be like Jim Berg – a Gunditjmara man from the Western district. He’s donated 15,000 images to the Koori Heritage Trust. But at the same time, with that collection, I’ve got to go and have a look – all of that collection will have to be named as well. So I want to send him an email and say, ‘Jim, have you named the 15,000, from 1 to 15,000?’ And he’ll tell me, ‘Lisa’, and tell me to get out of here. But that’s one example of living by example. That’s not getting big grant, it’s just doing.

    If we don’t do it… No one else is running around taking pictures. And you see a lot of people, Estelle, and this is by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, taking our image, but you never see the image again. And you think, if those people out there are doing that, why can’t they make an extra copy. And if they think ‘I don’t know who they are’… the rules are – and I don’t follow this, for the record – you’re supposed to supply like a two-page permission slip before you take a photo. Then you can… after they’ve done that they can be spontaneous; well, I don’t have time for that. So I mean I’ll get you to sign afterwards, because I want you to be yourself now. Often I say, ‘hold the camera!’ I use my other hand like a little bird, to distract them. And I say, ‘be yourself’, and they relax. And then they go, ‘oh, too fast’.

    Again you often see people videotaping Aboriginal people, this could be at a public event, for example, National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee Week – NAIDOC week. Well… If we was in a lecture-type situation, you would have to ask permission, but here we are at a public event, and then you think, what do people do with all that information, and who are you. Sometimes I’ve had some non-Aboriginal people come up to me and ask me questions, like, ‘what are you doing?’ And I think, I don’t know you, and I just think you’re being very rude, so I just say, ‘I’m working for ASIO’ – that’s the intelligence [laugh] organisation. Because I think, come on, who are you to ask me, when people know in the community that I’ll give you your photos back? So if you ask me that, then there is something not quite right.

    At the same time, I don’t generally go up to non-Aboriginal people, although back in 19… I think it was 1997, I was a guest down at Port Phillip, at St Kilda, for the National Sorry Day. There was an Age photographer – and The Age is one of the Melbourne major daily newspaper – and he had the longest lens, probably a meter long. No, not a meter long but about that long [gestures with her hands], 30 centimetres. And I am looking at him, and he’s squatting down on his knee, and I am looking at his view, and his view was a couple of parkies – parkies is our term for homeless. They had the coolabah cask, they had splitted their legs, and they’re laughing away. I went around and I said, ‘Excuse-me, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m just taking photos.’ ‘Look at what you’re doing? Here we are, trying to breakdown stereotypes, and you, with your long lens, want to replicate without knowing these people’s history. Two Aborigines sitting on a log with their coolabah cask.’ ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was doing that’, [he said]. Come on, if I had a lens like that I would know what I was doing. And then I watched him, and it was hard because I had to go and read poetry there, but I watched him like a hawk. Then, the next day, the photos that were in The Age were the dancers dancing to the fire and everything. Okay… But that doesn’t happen often, thankfully. But here you think, in the modern age, in Melbourne, we had an Age photographer who just wanted to be nasty about things and that would just have… not ruined the day, but… it would have made it very sad. Because we are talking about child removal, they were trying to have this image. I don’t have much patience for that.

    Then I’ve had another couple of incidents, with photographers, on Mabo Day. I think it was 2002 – the ten year celebration. And Mrs Mabo, Aunty Mabo, was sitting on a bench, out in front of the Melbourne Town Hall – not far from where we are now – and was sitting with Uncle Jimmy Rice. And the photographer started yelling at her, and as I was walking from the crowd I was… ‘what’s going on here?’ And the photographer telling Auntie needed to take her glasses off because she had been crying. Because it was celebrating her husband, and it was an emotional time. I got there at the tail end and I just said something like ‘you shouldn’t really do that’, but he had already taken a photo, and so I’ll take a photo, too, so I can tell everyone, these situations happen. That was a horrible situation. And this is how you shouldn’t treat… I mean you shouldn’t treat people in general like that, Estelle, but especially when you’re dealing with Indigenous people and it’s being an emotional time. It shows you how polite we can be, but I wasn’t very happy because sometimes you just want to rush them, go fast and have an accident. It’s up and down, and it goes back to practising what you preach. What’s ethical behaviour.

    I’ve tried to find out: is there ethical photography? I’ve written 25 points on whether there is ethical photography regarding taking photographs of Aboriginal and Islander people. But before that, I’ve said, all this is up to the individual. There is no laws, no one is going to put you in handcuffs if you’re rude and you take your picture and all that sort of stuff, but you should know to behave better, and if you don’t know how to behave better, then I’ll say, read my 25 points. Because some people like to play ignorant, Estelle. And here you have Indigenous people, our poets, our storytellers, and if you think who is the audience out there – you know there is an audience out there but you’re looking at what motivates you to do what you do. And my motivation is I am fed up with people being ignorant, I’m fed up with people saying we don’t know any Aboriginal people. I get it in Brisbane! I mean everywhere you go there is a Murri! And I’ve been at pubs, performing. And someone would come to…: ‘where do you meet them, where do you meet the Aboriginal community in Brisbane?’ For God’s sake, I mean, we are everywhere! It sort of flabbergasts me sometimes. At least that person is reaching out. You kind of get quite… miffed, sometimes.

  • EC: Do you think that poetry is a way to reach out?

    LB: I’d like to think so. I know I asked you: do you write poetry. Sometimes people get quite nasty about it, and you think: I only just asked you. You’re talking to me about poetry and I’m just trying to be polite, saying ‘do you do poetry?’ Nothing more nothing less. So thank you for being polite when I asked you, Estelle. For me… I love poetry, I love expressing myself that way… and yes I do everything else. I take the photos, I do radio interviews, and I love talking to students because I think one day hopefully, touch wood, the students will be successful and then the students will go along and make a difference in their environment. And yes, you’ll learn about Indigenous Australians, but when you’ll get home you might think, is there another community I can reach out, or maybe in my own community? It can be the start of something. You can only hope that you can make a difference.

    But I also know there is resistance out there with the issues and I cover all the issues, I deal with black on black violence, I deal with racism, I deal with bureaucracy, I deal with government policies. Some of my things, everyone can relate to in some ways because you’re dealing about emotions, frustrations. You think, why doesn’t that person know? Haven’t they done a training course? [Laugh] Get it out of your system, get it out of your system. For me, it helps me to get it out of my system. At least, I feel that I’m looking after my spirit. And I know that I can speak, and I know that there is a lot of people that can’t speak. So it should not have to be a role, but if you’re out there, being political, have a door slammed against you, and get a bit frustrated about life, then you realise that there are people that are a hell of a lot worse off than I’ll ever be. And if I can articulate and get a message and speak their language – which is English, which we’ve had imposed upon us – then I know that if I am communicating very clearly, articulately, they can’t say that they don’t understand, because I am talking their language. So it’s fine. It’s up and down because I am an experienced poet, I am doing pubs, I do writers’ festivals. Actually Brisbane has always been the worst place that I have ever performed and now I always ask people: will I be treated with respect?

  • EC: By the audience?

    LB: No, by the organisers! I want to be treated with respect, I don’t want any nonsense. I don’t want anyone picking on me. ‘Yes, of course we’ll do that now.’ It’s taken five years. It’s been a while since I’ve been asked to do stuff in Brisbane, but I’ll get back into it. Sometimes it can be a bit rough. Sometimes, like in Brisbane for example, I’ve said, ‘I can’t be available but can you invite another Murri?’ And they go to me, ‘Oh sorry. We only want you reading your words.’ You’re not invited because you’re Indigenous. So they actually exclude Aboriginal people and local writers. It does not happen all the time but it’s happened enough. And when I hear that sort of things, you just feel like screaming down the phone ‘you ignorant pigs’. The first couple of times that it happened to me I was very upset by the attitude. Oh my god. So you’re treating us all the same so you don’t have to acknowledge different cultures. Now I say upfront: ‘Am I going to be treated nicely by the organisers?’

    The audience is another thing. I don’t have much trouble with audiences. I do a lot of MCing work, so if you want to be cheeky to me I can… give it back. I say to people… I’m paid to be polite here, I’m paid to do what I need to do. With Brisbane audiences, I’d have to try to relax them. And after three jokes, it’s like, come on, I was just trying to make you comfortable so I can deal with the issues that I have to deal with. And if you just want me to keep making you laugh, then we’re in the wrong venue, or festival! I can read people. I can go walking and actually feel the energy. Sometimes I just get there a bit early and walk through the crowd and say hello to people. Even if they haven’t met me before. ‘Okay, just chill out, chill out.’ So you have a bit of engagement with them. Then they think: ‘She’s smiled at me so maybe I shouldn’t be so scared.’ You wonder why people go to hear Indigenous writers sometimes. We’re not there to psychoanalyse you. Sometimes people have got issues. They want you to give them the answers, and it’s like, no. I might have an answer but I’m not going to help you. Sometimes I will. Like with you. There are exceptions. As I said I’m always happy to help students because we have to help each other. Be successful, Estelle, okay? [laugh]

  • EC: Who are the people you are writing for, when you write poetry? For the radio, are you targeting the Indigenous audience?

    LB: No, no, for the radio, that’s for everybody. We’ve got a policy, that you don’t talk about yourself, because it’s not… the proper way to… If you have access to a medium, then you promote other people, you don’t promote yourself. Some say: ‘we’ll invite you then you’ll advertise us.’ No, we’ll advertise what you’re doing. But you won’t be advertising because it’s me.

  • EC: For your poetry? Do you think you’re mainly writing for [Indigenous]—

    LB: Look, I’d say so. I’d say there is some good non-Indigenous people out there in the world that can tune on, that can empathise, so it’s for those people who want to listen. And yes, it’s for community. What do I say. What can they do? Sack me? I’ve only got a two days a week of work until January the 1st, 2006. Then I’ll go back to my studies. For me there’s no toning things down. I won’t write characters about nasty white men. But sometimes the character will be an insensitive bureaucrat. Well, an Indigenous audience can say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’. But then people from the wider community can think, ‘I’ve had this frustration of standing in a line, getting to the counter and having somebody being horrible, or rude to me’. There is general things. But I do primarily write for Indigenous people that feel that they don’t have a voice. Because, if I don’t do it, and other people don’t do it, then no one will. There is a few of us that aren’t scared. Can’t get sacked. [laugh] You can try but you need to have a proper job first [laugh].

  • EC: You’ve got two sections in the book. The first one is called, ‘Come dancin’, and the second one, ‘White Man Approval’. The first one has a more personal touch, and the second is more political?

    LB: I’d say so. You can read a bit of politics in the first thing. I guess it goes back to that point that is you have to have some fun. You’re also dealing with issues which can be hard-hitting. You can have some fun when you’re dealing with hard-hitting issues. Yeah that would be a fair comment.

  • EC: I really loved the first poem, the one called ‘Grief’. It’s really powerful, and it takes up philosophical ideas – you’re relating it to personal experience, saying that it’s actually the capacity to love that helps going through grief.

    LB: Yes, but also, sometimes, when the voice that comes across is personal, I would like to think that people can think it could be them and it could be someone else they know. It might be the little message. Somebody out there might care.

  • EC: Do you think Aboriginal Literature should be taught separately? Do you think it should be taught in Australian literature? Or do you think it should be taught as pan-Indigenous literature, in postcolonial studies?

    LB: My first comment – that’s a good question – is that it should be taught, period. I know that within the school system, particularly here in Victoria, they’ve got Aboriginal studies – this is in primary school and early high school – but it’s not compulsory. Then you get some teachers that argue that they can’t deal with it because they’re not Indigenous, and you think, okay, well, get over it. Why don’t you do something about it? Why don’t you contact the local Aboriginal education consultative group? Then you’ve got other non-Aboriginal teachers saying, ‘oh, Aboriginal studies, oh that’s political. So we won’t teach it.’ I wrote an article for an Australian education union a few years back, and argued: either get a grip on it, and ask yourself as a teacher who’s got an opportunity to engage with Aboriginal people, or at least engage with Aboriginal subject matter. Do it. And see how you can do it, rather than put up obstacles. Because I argue that if you keep putting up obstacles, then possibly you may be racist. Oh, Australians don’t like the racism word! We’re hard fact having troubles having people acknowledging country, Estelle! If you cannot even say the Kulin nation. Or you think: ‘Do I say Wathaurung or Wurundjeri? This sort of stuff?’

    But at the same time I would like to encourage schools. Because, I know that in South Australia, there was a book that a teachers’ group – South Australian education group – put out that included Aboriginal poetry, theatre, literature, and it gave examples of people’s works. I think it was South Australian Teachers Education something… I’ll get the thing for you at some point. They had interviews with local poets. I said to them are you sure you want me in this book? Because it’s a South Australian book, and you should be getting local writers. And they said, ‘yes, we’re getting local writers, but we like your work so we would like you included. So I said okay, I do not want to upset people, I would not mean to upset people. So I think it should be taught at all levels, and pan-… whatever that word was.

  • EC: Pan-Indigenous.

    LB: Yes. I also assert that places of higher education or learned institution should make it so that Indigenous people could come in and teach. I got work teaching in English at Queensland Uni. I only got to tutor one semester because I got racially attacked. So I was going around at the St Lucia campus… Yes, if you want to get work and you’re Indigenous, a student at Queensland Uni, then you have to be racially attacked. And after a little while I found it very hard to laugh. I think that’s a wrong thing. I said, ‘you shouldn’t say things like that.’ ‘But it’s true, you know.’

  • EC: Was that in the classroom?

    LB: That’s when I was doing my Masters’ dissertation. Because of all that, I had that person ring up at 8 o’clock the next morning because they’ve been told that they’d better apologise to me. They ring up and say to my housemate, ‘I have been told that I must apologise to Lisa.’ She was… she got real… told the way to go. So when I actually spoke to them, they said they only apologised because they got told to apologise. To me that’s not an apology. If you believe that, at least keep your mouth shut about it, please, just pretend! So, I’m not saying that non-Indigenous people shouldn’t be able to teach it, but I would suggest that non-Indigenous people in a position to make a difference, then at least… If you can’t get someone to come in and tutor over three weeks, or you can’t get a writer in residence, then at least invite a writer. But make sure that you take care of them, so you get them transport and pay them properly. So that you can hear from the voice of the people that you are writing about. And also for the people in whatever community you are, whether you’re in Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide or Darwin, or in the middle of Australia, make connection with the local community. Because there’s a wealth… Just because you haven’t heard of the person does not mean that they don’t exist, and does mean they don’t have a contribution to make to your area. They might not have published, they might not have a book out, but you can be a person that gives them confidence by asking them to come in and talk to the class, they might go… ‘I might get organised now.’

    There is a lot of people that put up barriers. But for people who want to break those barriers down... And yes, sometimes, you might get people from the community who can say, ‘who are you?’ And if that happens, you don’t run away, just say, ‘Hi, I’m such and such. I want to make a difference’, and, ‘how can I make a difference?’ Generally, there are people out there that will provide assistance. You get some people who say: ‘Look, we’ve done this before, but nothing happened.’ But who knows, in this instance, when the person says ‘we’ll do something’, they will. It should be exposed at all levels. There is ways of building up. You don’t wind up the politics. I mean, Indigenous Australia is political. But we move on from that. Maybe, later on, they might deal with more hard core issues.

    There is a play by Jane Harrison called Stolen. Now, that does the school program. Many a times, students have gone to watch the play and they had their iPods on, or they would be doing texting. One time, they had to stop the performance. It is a very emotional play about child removal. They had to say something. What’s the teacher doing while all this is going on, this texting? It’s also about respect as well. If you do make it to the next level, when you go to an Indigenous play, you have someone in the classroom… that there is a little bit of quiet. You might not think it, but when non-Aboriginal people behave rudely when they’ve got an Indigenous guest, it often makes… People then after say: why bother, why bother, because of the attitude. So you have people like myself saying we’ve got to keep trying. That’s where we’re at. A little bit of respect goes a long way, Estelle, so that if they do bring someone in, then they’re polite to the guest. They’re going to say, ‘we give you $25 an hour’, like Tafe rate. Well, we’ll pay you properly. We’ll get you a cup of tea or a glass of water. I mean these are basic, basic, basic things. So thank you for the coffee! So thank you for the coffee! And the lovely biscuit which I’m still trying to eat but is hard to get through [laugh]. So, all levels, but you come across people who want to make excuses. I say to them to tell people, ‘I’ve got issues, I’m not a racist, let someone else deal with it.’

  • EC: You did your Masters in English – so do you think Aboriginal literature should be taught separately, or would you like it to be recognised as part of Australian literature? You know, some writers say they are Aboriginal writers first, some writers say, I would actually like to be recognised as a writer…

    LB: I guess that’s a very charming attitude. Look, I’ve got a friend, Tracey Moffatt, she insists she’s Australian first. She felt the need to say that because she wanted to be recognised as an Australian artist, for whatever reason. She’s our mate, lives in New York, communicating to Brisbane, and looking after family, etc. Good on you. But then I’ve got friends that would never say that. And I share a house with Destiny Deacon, and she would never say that. She’ll always say, ‘I’m an Aboriginal artist first’. That does not mean to say you let them off the hook or that person says they want to be an Aborigine first. So we won’t then include them in the mainstream. That’s just looking, grasping at excuse to be dismissive and putting up barriers, that sort of excuse. I will say to you, Estelle, if someone was in your face, saying, ‘I want to be Australian first, not Aboriginal’, then I would really question whether they should be included in the mainstream, or not included at all. Because then what are you trying to say? Explain to me what you mean by dismissing this one side of your… because you want to be recognised by the people with all the money, etc… because you’re safe. It’s a lot safer to invest in someone that says ‘I’m Australian first’ than in someone saying, ‘I’m Aboriginal’ – that might be political if they say they’re Aboriginal first.

              Even with Deborah Mailman – a good friend I’d like to think, because I’ve photographed her. In her early documentation she said: ‘I want to be treated as an Australian artist’, ‘Australian first!’ But now if you get quotes from her, or read quotes about her, she says she’s Aboriginal first now. And it’s like: I love you, Deb. It’s good she’s gone on that journey. I don’t know who helped her along the way. She’s learnt. It’s not a bad thing being Aboriginal first. It’s probably hard for someone who says, ‘I want to be treated like everyone else. I want to be given a go. So see me as Australian.’ In a way it’s kind of… You are trying to be something that you’re not or something that you’ll never be. It’s not saying don’t ever look down that path. But try to be proud of who you are, and then take it to the next step – about I’d like to be treated like an Australian, whatever that means.

              It’s always nice when you see people go on that journey. We still love them. But it’s just nice when something clicks, and they think maybe there is another way of seeing things apart from wanting to be seen as an Australian. Because, why am I saying that I want to be seen as Australian first? Some people go on the journey, some people don’t. I suppose if you make lots and lots of money, then maybe you can afford to be blasé about how you see yourself, who you see yourself to be. You meet people, you like them, you love them. They have a particular attitude, but we still care for that person, we still love that person. I always defend her when people go on about Tracey Moffatt. I always defend her. Cause they don’t know her, they don’t know what she’s gone through. She’s got her own little world. She creates her art, good on her. She’s gorgeous, too [laugh].

  • EB: Some critics have said that Aboriginal poetry is more about content than about aesthetics? So do you think the content comes first?

    LB: I’ve heard that, because when I did my first Masters in English it took me three years to actually realise that how the mainstream or the intellectuals like to analyse poetry is that it’s – what is it? – how it’s written and it’s not the content. I realized, my god, if I had known that I would have relaxed a bit more. Because I find it easy to say ‘ignore the content’, we might not have to look at the content because it’s not aesthetically pleasing, then we don’t have to deal with the issues. Back in the 1800s, I have got a name, Elisabeth Dunlop, or Mary Elisabeth Dunlop, she wrote a poem about the Myall Creek Massacre back in 1838. The critics slammed it! Because she wrote about the Aboriginal woman and the child and imagined the mother being shot and the child... They got slammed. Because they didn’t like the content. So they didn’t like the style. Rather than address the issue. How very easy.

              Again, if you read widely − and I would say this is truism for mainstream writing, too − some you like, and some you dislike. And some would just drive you crazy! You think, ‘how could they write the way they did?’ And then you think, ‘hang, hang on, reality check; I just got annoyed with it because I did not like the way it is written on the page.’ What about what they’re actually trying to say? Take a chill pill. Maybe they’ve got something to say. It’s just the way that they said it that sort of, like, annoyed the hell out of me. And again, generally speaking, with Aboriginal literature, Torres Strait Islander literature, if you read widely, some would write with rhyming poems and you’ll think my god, this is driving me crazy. Because I don’t like rhyming poems! But then you think, I’m going to go for a stroll, and then I’ll come back, and then I’m going to put my prejudice on hold, and see what the content of the poem says, and then decide how I feel about it. There’s a lot of names that will write in a particular way which you may like, there’s names you like, and you like their style. But again, I just say to people that have got concerns, if you read widely you will find Indigenous literature in all forms, we’re talking about poetry – and is it non-fiction novels you’re doing?

  • EC: Fiction.

    LB: Yes, novels. If you read widely, you will come across with something that not only deals with the way it is written, you’ll also appreciate the content too. And again, Estelle, it’s like with people, if someone has written something out, and is new to the area, it could be another 20 years, 30 years before they actually come into writing, to their own writing style. And actually that is done in a way, which, incidentally, people can appreciate both for the style and content. As I say, ‘read widely’. I know you’re good, aren’t you, Estelle? [laugh]

    Interview with Lisa Bellear conducted on 30/11/2005

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    'These poems are anything but motionless. Their emotions cut, determined to map out another possibility, a place of personal and social reconciliation.' (Source: Back cover)

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