Indigenous voices have never been more important to Australian literature | Timmah Ball

Opportunities for Indigenous writers have grown but we must ensure they’re driven by Indigenous values

In 2011, I participated in the Emerging Writers’ Festival book fair. I was there to sell copies of the treaty-themed issue of literary journal Etchings Indigenous. The publication featured emerging and established black authors such as Safina Fergie, Tony Birch, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Bruce Pascoe, as well as Paola Balla’s first publication, If My Eyes Are Brown.

Editing the journal as a young mentee gave me a chance to connect with the rich storylines of our people, as well as develop an understanding of the publishing industry. The response from community and allies was enriching but there wasn’t the hype around black writing then that has been growing in recent years. I remember contacting the festival, keen to see what other opportunities there were to feature the publication within the program. I received an email that it sounded great, suggesting I attend the one event they were planning that featured an Indigenous author.

Even in those seven years since, I have seen changes in the Australian literary landscape. Significant programs have fostered a new generation of Aboriginal voices over the past few decades: the David Unaipon award, for instance, which has been running since 1989, is a vital pathway for unpublished Indigenous authors seeking a book contract and has boosted the literary careers of writers such as Larissa Behrendt, Tara June Winch and Ellen van Neerven. Magabala Books, too, has more than 30 years of history publishing Indigenous writing, particularly children’s literature and poetry, with authors like Sally Morgan and Pascoe on their list.

Fellowships like the State Library of Queensland’s Blak&Write! go further than most literary awards by pairing an emerging Indigenous author with an emerging black editor to develop a book for publication and grow the next generation of Indigenous editors. 2016 winner Claire Coleman’s outstanding novel Terra Nullius was an unflinching analysis of invasion receiving wide acclaim. It’s the type of book that Australia needs – a book that arguably may not have reached its full potential without the understanding and nurturing of a black editor. Other prize winners include Alison Whittaker, Jane Harrison and Cobby Eckermann – vital voices in our literary landscape.

A range of publishers, journals and literary organisations are recognising the value of creating opportunities for Aboriginal authors. In 2014, Overland partnered with Trinity College at the University of Melbourne to create the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. The $5,000 prize also provides a young writer with a residency at the college, which enables time to develop their work further in a city with important industry connections. Winners include Evelyn Araluen and van Neerven, who, in their time as residents, have enriched the Melbourne literary scene, delivering readings and talks as well as supporting other Aboriginal writers. Publishing company Text recently announced Boundless, an opportunity for emerging Aboriginal authors to work on a manuscript with the view to publish. The Monthly, in partnership with Indigenous X, is offering a new mentorship for black critics.

These opportunities are vital in enabling our writing to flourish, but it is imperative that these processes are framed around Aboriginal values, rather than expecting Aboriginal authors to mould their thinking to suite white western views. This premise underpins Yirramboi’s Blak Critics program. Led by Jacob Boehme, Yirramboi focuses on developing cultural criticism by Aboriginal writers, rather than white writers writing about our work. Participating in the program radically reshaped my thinking. It was a unique space where Aboriginal voices, values and cultures were centred.

This year’s Emerging Writers’ festival program is shaped around vibrant black writers alongside the voices of other people of colour and members of the queer community. Reading at the opening night alongside Birch and Neil Morris would have seemed unthinkable to me in 2011, and it was a platform that I felt honoured to step onto, conscious of my responsibility to share important stories. As the move towards treaty is building in Victoria, and while longstanding issues such as climate injustice, deaths in custody and racism remain unresolved, there has never been a more important moment to recentre Aboriginal storytelling within the mainstream.

While these shifts signal a vibrant future of Australian literature that refuses to be stifled by the canon, there isn’t room for complacency. We must continue to break industry boundaries, pushing for greater Indigenous representation in leadership roles, as well as fostering a culture of Indigenous-led and controlled initiatives throughout literary culture in Australia.

The Emerging Writers’ Festival is on in Melbourne until 29 June

Timmah Ball

The GuardianTramp

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