Want to write the great Australian novel? You need to engage with Indigenous Australia first | Anita Heiss

First Nations people are in every part of this country – physically, spiritually, socially and politically. A novel set in Australia must acknowledge that

I am a firm believer that you cannot write the “Great Australian Novel” without including First Nations peoples. We are in every part of this country’s landscape – physically, spiritually, socially and politically. Everywhere you walk, you are walking on Aboriginal land. Everywhere. A novel set in Australia must therefore reference that land, and its people.

I know a lot of non-Indigenous authors get nervous writing about Indigenous Australians. That is largely because they do not engage with us in a meaningful way. In order to write us into their work authentically, with passion and purpose, they must take those vital steps. Many find it difficult, a challenge that they’d rather not attempt.

To those who want to write appropriately, I urge them to do what I do when conceptualising stories. From plotting, researching and writing, all the way through to the final product, I have a methodology that ensures the best book I can write is one that empowers those I write for – my mob in particular.

I have long adhered to the Protocols for Producing Indigenous Australian Writing compiled by Dr Terri Janke for the Australia Council for the Arts in 2002, and recently reproduced as Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts. These guides should be considered basic methodology for any author who values writing ethically as much as they value writing to entertain, educate and engage their readers. Bearing in mind the history of appropriation and misrepresentation that First Nations peoples have had to – and continue to – endure, we should all be concerned about respect, consultation and consent, authenticity, secrecy and confidentiality, attribution and copyright, and recognition and protection, particularly when writing about First Nations peoples, places, stories and cultures.

The principles and protocols outlined by Janke can be summed up by one Wiradyuri word: yindyamarra. It means to respect, honour, be polite. Yindyamarra is the key to my work when researching and writing about stories related to my family and community – not only because I am a Wiradyuri woman with responsibility and accountability, but also because I want to write authentic stories that reflect who we are as a proud, strong, dynamic people.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss is out May 2021 through Simon & Schuster.

It was learning my language back in Wagga Wagga where I had the idea for my novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray. I can’t imagine how I could’ve written it – at least not with any sense of truth – without physically being there with my language teachers. I was honoured to be led by Dr (Uncle) Stan Grant and supported by my Elders, Uncle Pat Connolly and Bidyadya Elaine Lomas (Aunty Swannie); it is because of their words and wisdom – shared both in the university setting, and along the Murrumbidgee River – that I was able to write authentically and with confidence.

I am proud to be using Wiradyuri language, not only throughout the prose but also on the cover. It makes a strong statement – from me as an author and from my publisher – regarding the reclamation and maintenance of the traditional language of my family. It is also imperative that all Aboriginal artwork is created by an Aboriginal artist, not generated by computers “inspired” by Aboriginal art. To that end, I say mandaang guwu to my cousin Luke Penrith, for allowing me to use his beautiful artwork of the gugaa on the cover.

While I stood on the flood plains in Wagga Wagga one Sunday, I tried to imagine what life would have been like for my ancestors. I realised very quickly that I had to honour those who, for millennia, had lived, loved and nurtured the land and each other. I wanted to pay tribute to those who still carry on culture, knowledge and language today. I felt I had a responsibility to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative, where they had been ignored or forgotten for too long.

When hearing the story of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, and their heroism in the great flood of 1852 in Gundagai, it became clear that their story was a fitting place to start. The great flood was one of Australia’s most tragic natural disasters – and while the flood waters raged, Yarri, Jacky Jacky and many other Wiradyuri men braved the storm and risked their lives to help ferry the townsfolk to higher, safer ground. My Yarri is a symbol of the extraordinary and largely unacknowledged heroism at the time.

I did not just write a story; I wrote something that is part of the history of the First Peoples of central New South Wales. I may be the author of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, but it is filled with the love, knowledge, wisdom, support and knowledge of so many others. It is important to me that I get it right.


Anita Heiss

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Timmah Ball

23, Jun, 2018 @12:07 AM

Article image
Melissa Lucashenko wins top prize at Queensland Premier's Literary Awards with 'risky' novel
The $25,000 award for Too Much Lip follows her Miles Franklin win earlier this year

Stephanie Convery

12, Nov, 2019 @8:30 AM

Article image
Taboo by Kim Scott review – a masterful novel on the frontier of truth-telling
The two-time Miles Franklin award-winner deftly navigates the strange, tricky terrain of decolonisation in an optimistic and exceptionally generous book

Melissa Lucashenko

24, Jul, 2017 @6:00 PM

Article image
Tara June Winch wins 2020 Miles Franklin award for her book The Yield: ‘It broke my heart to write it’
Wiradjuri author accepts Australia’s top literary prize from her home in France, describing the novel as ‘a handbook for truth’

Stephanie Convery

16, Jul, 2020 @6:25 AM

Article image
The surge in sales of Indigenous books is heartening but education takes many forms
Aboriginal people have been inundated with questions about how to be a better ally. It gives us hope but it’s absolutely exhausting

Anita Heiss

24, Jun, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Australian book you should read next: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko | Alice Pung
A rare and powerful voice of a woman who has been poor and rich, with a lived understanding of the fickleness of each

Alice Pung

16, Jul, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
‘I had to be manic’: Tara June Winch on her unmissable new novel – and surviving Andrew Bolt
The fourth title in Guardian Australia’s Unmissables series is The Yield, the Wiradjuri author’s long-awaited second novel – the writing of which almost destroyed her

Sian Cain

11, Jul, 2019 @2:48 AM

Article image
Kate Grenville, Sofie Laguna, Julia Baird and others: the 20 best Australian books of 2020
Diligent journalism, urgent fiction, wondrous imagination: Guardian Australia critics and staff bring you their top reads of the year – in no particular order

Brigid Delaney, Beejay Silcox, Paul Daley, Steph Harmon, Stephanie Convery, Thuy On, Bec Kavanagh, Michael Williams, Paul Daley, Fiona Wright and Lucy Clark

16, Dec, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
‘I had not one friend in the job to debrief with’: life as an Indigenous police officer
Veronica Gorrie joined the force to ‘break the cycle of fear’ she grew up with. By the time she left, she was carrying additional burdens

Jenny Valentish

11, Apr, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Australian book you should read next: The Secret River by Kate Grenville
We hold our breath as we read Grenville’s account of her convict ancestor, hoping for the harmonious ending we know cannot come

Stephanie Wood

19, Jul, 2020 @5:30 PM