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
The writing bug has even spread to the youngsters in town with local children writing poems for the monthly school newsletter and requesting a poetry workshop. In November Year 10 pupils from the Tennant Creek High School pushed out the creative envelope with several poems as part of workshops on non-violence. We hope to do more with the school kids in 2012.
Australian children’s author Katrina Germein writes picture books that delight primary school children, preschoolers and adults alike.
Best known for her book Big Rain Coming, Katrina came to town in early September 2011 to hold a workshop on writing children’s books.
It was an exciting opportunity for five writers in the Barkly, who like Katrina have a story in their head that just won’t go away.
Set in a remote community in northern Australia, Big Rain Coming, which was published in 2000, paints a picture of daily life. Everyone is waiting for the rain. Even the dusty dogs and green frogs are hot. When will the rain come?
Katrina wrote the story down to set it free, and it went on to become her first picture book, winning awards and critical acclaim.
As one reviewer wrote: “It is the sort of story that will be requested night after night at bedtime.”
Since then Katrina has completed several picture books, including Baby Gets Dressed, Little Dog and the hilarious My Dad Thinks He’s Funny.
Katrina, who was in Tennant Creek for only one morning, had plenty of tips for locals to write picture books.
“Often people say they have a fabulous idea for a picture book, but an idea is just an idea. Without a creator it has no potential or purpose. So start. Sit down and write. See what happens,” she advised.
Adelaide-based Katrina told the five participants to have a trusted person who knows about the picture book genre in its contemporary form to read their manuscript before sending it off to prospective publishers.
Desert Harmony festivalgoers were treated to the inaugural Culture Carnival, held at Nyinkka Nyunyu Art & Culture Centre. It was an amazing day with an audience of 50 (great turnout for Tennant Creek) coming to Jajjikari Cafe to sit and listen to selected readings from local scribes. Poets, storytellers and fiction writers from Barkly Writers Ink all gathered together to celebrate the launch of the Barkly Writers’ Ink Blog. Rosemary Plummer, Adrian McNamara, Milly James, David Curtis, Tim Metcalf and Ktima Heathcote entertained the crowd with pieces workshopped throughout the year. Even Barkly Regional Arts EO Alan Murn was inspired by all the literary activity to read out his hilarious poem, called Notes. Afterwards, there was an open mic session featuring local writers, musicians and songwriters followed by a damper-making session and the opening of the Barkly Captured community photographic exhibition in the gallery.
Leni Shilton, Creative Writing Tutor, Batchelor Institute
Over the past eighteen months, I have had the pleasure of being a guest of the Barkly Writers’ Ink, running workshops and, more recently, editing some of the writing that will over the coming months appear in this blog. For two weeks, Barkly Writers’ Ink Coordinator Ktima Heathcote steadily fed my inbox with poems, fiction, journal pieces and non-fiction. The content in the writing was as varied as the genres. As I worked through each piece, reading and making suggestions, I was left with a strong impression of the flavour of writing in Tennant Creek and the Barkly region. It has the taste of loved country and speaks of the strength of resilient characters.
The work dovetails, one piece into the next, so as I read in one story, of a backpacker arriving in Tennant on the 2am Greyhound bus, the next story revealed a character who worked the graveyard shift and preyed on backpackers who arrive into a dark and unsettled town in the early hours of the morning. Another piece tells of journeying to live in Tennant Creek after living in many places around the world, and of how that really feels and the joy of it.
A poem following the narrative of a young girl, who walks through the country picking purple flowers, is woven with the traumas of alcohol-fired violence and stands beside a short non-fiction piece that explores the joys of families sharing stories around a camp fire, whilst trying to live in a post-Interventionist world.
There is the contrasting work in two very different genres: pulp fiction and science fiction. The first has the protagonist telling of childhood trauma with a wry humour and a learnt disregard for those in authority because no one can be trusted. The science fiction epic intrigues the reader with complex characters and a rich story line. You may see just see an extract of these longer pieces here. They are rich and engaging and show that the writers know how to work their chosen genre with a deft hand.
There are poems that let us into the love and wonder the writer has for the natural world. There are the poems where the writer shows us how it is to live with an intimate knowledge of country, language and culture, and of the passion that wells up, riding on the knowledge of owning and being owned by the country. These poems are a type of dreaming that rise from the subconscious and leave the reader humbled.
Barkly Writers’ Ink is a unique mix of writers in a vibrant community and whilst some writers are new to the blogging world and others have numerous writing credits to their name, they all bring a richness and diversity to this process. Enjoy the writing in this blog, it is a taste of the delights that simmer in the desert.
Creative writing tutor extraordinaire Leni Shilton came up from Alice Springs twice in 2011. She not only mentored writers in furthering their skills but was instrumental in helping everyone polish up their work before the official launch of the Barkly Writers Ink Blog on Sunday, 28 August. Leni, who inspired many Indigenous students at the Batchelor Institute (Alice Springs Campus) before moving on to do a PhD, has been working closely with local writers since the inception of Barkly Writers Ink in July 210. For her birdseye view on the local writing scene, check out her post, the Flavour of Writing in Tennant Creek.
Throughout 2011, poet, playwright and former EO of the Northern Territory Writers’ Centre (NTWC) Sandra Thibodeaux traipsed 1000s of km from Darwin to come and inspire local writers in the Barkly. She held well attended workshops offering encouragement, support and her considerable warmth and expertise to further our skills and confidence in writing, editing our work and public performance. Barkly writers and Sandra got down to the write stuff in March with some brave souls reading out work the following day at a cultural afternoon starring singer/songwriter Shellie Morris at Nyinkka Nyunyu Art & Culture Centre on the main drag of Tennant Creek. Sandra inspired the Barkly mob, including a few new faces, again in June to write a poem or short story based on found objects outside. With dogs lazing in the red dirt and white clouds hanging in the wintry blue afternoon sky, no-one was short of inspiration.