Writing From The Heart
When I told my journalist friends in Brisbane that I was moving out to Tennant Creek to live and write, they gave me six months. A year, tops. ‘Are you crazy?’ ‘It’s a dump.’ ‘Go to Melbourne if you want inspiration.’ And my personal favourite: ‘There will be nothing to do but listen to country music and drown your sorrows with beer.’
True, Tennant Creek, a 507-kilometre trek from Alice Springs, doesn’t come immediately to mind when thinking of poetry, prose or performance. I discovered there’s a well-established visual arts scene, with Aboriginal women painting bush tucker and bush medicine. Research revealed there was an annual Desert Harmony Festival showcasing local bands and musicians from the Barkly region of the Northern Territory, where the town is situated. But … a thriving, writing scene that’s really cooking? The boarded-up main street looks more like a set from a B-grade western than a place where poets can thrive. There are no cinemas, no bookshops, no theatres and when I landed in July 2009, only one greasy-spoon café open. But if you stay here long enough (I’m well into my second year) and scratch beneath the dusty red and brown surface, another Tennant emerges.
Young people compose lyrics about living in two worlds; Aboriginal men and women write lovingly of the land; high school kids incorporate modern technology into a performance project, reciting the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as if it were a text message; folk from the hospital discuss the merits of Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow at the First Tennant Creek Book Club; poets reveal their innermost thoughts at readings; storytellers have day jobs as janitors and a new cohort of writers, called Barkly Writers’ Ink, is gradually taking centre stage as the Territory’s most talented literary crowd.
This is hardly surprising. The Barkly, a huge expanse of nearly 300,000 square kilometres with a strong Aboriginal culture, a cattle industry and gold mining history, is awash with stories and storytellers. Locals throughout the region have a distinctive desert creativity and humour, too. You need one when it’s a 234-kilometre round trip over rough, unsealed roads just to attend a poetry master-class in Tennant. As for newcomers, you can’t help but be inspired by this eclectic cultural mix bubbling underground.
In homes dotted around this remote outback town of 3000 people, and surrounding communities, individuals have for years been committing their thoughts to paper—irrespective of whether English is their second language or not. Some knew of each other but mostly they worked on their own, gaining little feedback or knowledge of outside opportunities. What they were hungry for was guidance. What they wanted was to find a way to come together. What they needed was someone local, or possibly an outsider, with a fresh perspective, perhaps. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I came across my first group of writers in October 2009 while organising a writers retreat for Barkly Regional Arts, a not-for-profit arts resource and networking organisation tucked away in a classroom-sized office in a low-set complex of buildings a few streets back from the Stuart Highway. This is the pulse, the heartbeat, of the local arts scene where out-of-towners descend when they want to hold a workshop.
The writers I met were a diverse bunch—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, some published, others who were somewhat fresh to the world of writing, storytellers and poets as well. For a week we took part in workshops, facilitated by visiting Brisbane poet Yvette Holt, who won the David Unaipon Award in 2005 for an unpublished indigenous Australian author. It was a rare opportunity to listen to the language of two different cultures. The Aboriginal writers mainly wrote about the land, their country, as so evocatively expressed by Maureen O’Keefe and Valerie Nelson, two writers from Ali Curung, a community about 170 kilometres south of Tennant. Unconstrained by the straitjacket of ‘correct English’, there’s a natural rhythm in the way Aboriginal writers express themselves. Sure, it’s raw technically, but the power and beauty of their words is undeniable. Like the surrounding countryside, harsh and uncompromising during drought, green now due to rain, their voice seeps into your skin and ignites an ancient, almost forgotten part of you.
The non-Aboriginal writers of the group showed more structural complexity in their work, focusing more on feelings and how they see themselves in relation to the world. It’s an avenue not commonly explored by Aboriginal writers out here, but excavating memories and personal experience for their rich emotional content is starting to fuel the work of established writers such as Rosemary Plummer and David C. Curtis, both of whom are NT Literary Award winners. Holt said at the time of the retreat she loved the fact that ‘there were whitefellas as well as blackfellas’ in the group. It made for the most enriching experience of literary cultures; using language as a means to move forwards together. She believed the idea of having a well-planned and inclusive writing retreat in an area often overlooked by funding bodies would create a kernel of hope for the literary minds of this region. And she was right. Less than a year later, in July 2010, Barkly Writers’ Ink was born. With the aid of an Arts NT Community grant of $5000 came the opportunity for a core group of writers from the Barkly to meet on a regular basis to write, provide support and professional development, network, mentor each other, and learn about the craft of writing and the publishing industry.
One strong message from the writers here, young or old, Aboriginal or not, local or newcomer, established or emerging, is they are eager to express themselves and tell their stories, their way. Valda Napurrula Shannon Warndaparri, a proud Warumungu woman, is new to writing. She believes the written word is powerful. ‘I have repeated my stories so many times and I know spoken words can be blown away by the wind and forgotten. Being part of a writers group helps me to write my stories and share my journey, experiences and knowledge of Aboriginal history, land and language.’
This expression of Barkly writers’ unique identity in the Territory was evident during the September 2010 launch of This Country Anytime Anywhere (published by IAD Press), an anthology of indigenous NT writers, many of whom came from this region. As one member of the 80-plus audience (a huge turnout for Tennant) recalled: ‘The festival readings were powerful, comic and intense, providing an opportunity for local wordsmiths to celebrate and share their work.’
The literary journal Overland published ‘On the Road’, a poem by Hans Katakarinja, in its summer 2010 issue; a love story by Plummer about a desert girl was selected for a new anthology of short stories by NT writers; and another member of the group, Irena Kobald, an Austrian woman who has swapped snow-capped mountains for a desert of red, gold and green, was negotiating a publishing contract for a children’s story. For 2011, the group has been awarded $10,000 by Arts NT to help the writers continue with skills development and get their stories out to a wider Australian audience, especially with the development of a blog to highlight work.
Admittedly, it’s difficult at times to gauge the exact temperature of the writing scene here, especially now I’m becoming part of the area’s fabric. Some days I think we’re going to cook up a literary storm, like the week I took four writers, all women, to Word Storm, an Australasian literary event in Darwin in May 2010. Industry professionals were so impressed by the Barkly writers that Magabala Books, an indigenous publisher in Broome, is now liaising with O’Keefe about an illustrated children’s story.
There are days, however, when I wonder where the writing scene is headed, like when only a handful turned up to the first few meetings of this year and just one member of the public turned up to a well-advertised reading. It’s prudent to be grounded in a town like Tennant, allowing each writer to work out where they are on the literary journey and how fast and far they want to travel.
I’ll always remember the encouraging words of Lindy Morrison, former drummer of the eighties cult band The Go-Betweens. She was in town in October 2009, teaching copyright law to local musicians, and she came along to a reading event at Nyinkka Nyunyu Art & Culture Centre on the main drag. ‘Each writer presented a totally authentic, original view of the world in beautiful prose,’ she wrote in an email afterwards. ‘Some stories were so harsh it was excruciating for the listener to hear and we squirmed in discomfort and pain. Other stories were so delicate and sensitive, their thoughts so direct, we held back our tears.’
There is potential here, of that I have no doubt. How the writing scene will progress and unfold remains, a bit like the town really, a mystery. One thing is for certain, though: the writers here have a strong collective voice. They write the way some people cook—without recipes, producing literary dishes that are hard to repeat because the ingredients are ever changing and, like the weather and endless sky, so are their moods. Although Brisbane has a larger, more cohesive writing scene, here the wellspring of creativity is as deep and limitless as the red sandy landscape that stretches into infinity, and I plan on staying to see what’s served up.
Copyright Ktima Heathcote 2011
This article first appeared in Meanjin Quarterley. To see the article, click on the following