‘A means of resistance’: Susie Anderson Interviews Alison Whittaker

By and | 16 August 2019

SA: Do you find that you would come with an idea or a shape of something that you want to say through a poem, or is through your play with words? Or is it a combination?

AW: I wrote BlakWork from this set of three poems I wrote for The Suburban Review. I wasn’t expecting them to feel the way that they did, but they felt significant. I starting building the collection from there, but I wanted to be more cohesive about how I approached the collection. I wanted to take how these poems make me feel, take how they situated politics at the moment and then branch out as much as I could. And then I started to think about order and Indigenous labour, which is the theme of the collection and what this looks like as a concept to the people I’m writing poetry for. From there I generated the nine sections that I wanted to write about. Then I decided to give each of these sections five or six poems. And in the end, this ended up being a method that constrained me in way that I wasn’t familiar with, but enabled me to write what I did and in the volume of poetry that I wrote in such a short amount of time.

SA: The last time I saw you was at the 2018 Feminist Writers Festival and you were on a panel called ‘Writing and Speaking Indigenous Lives’ with Nardi Simpson, Laura Murphy-Oates and Brooke Boney talking about writing for white audiences, or not writing for them. The conversation about how we stake out space when we publish really stayed with me. What you express politically throughout BlakWork – are you ever influenced during writing by the knowledge that the people who have the money to go out and buy a poetry book that it’s not primarily blackfellas?

AW: Totally and profoundly. There are a lot of blackfellas who read poetry who love it and engage with it and I don’t want to imply that the proportion of blackfellas who enjoy poetry is small. It’s just that that because of commercial or the publishing industry it’s mostly whitefellas who are either buying the books or are attending the events that cost a million dollars to go to. It’s hard for me to be working within a form that people unfairly say is too cerebral to mean anything, and I think the audience that comes out to poetry events contributes to that illusion that this is all play or theoretical. One, blackfellas are intellectual. Two, poetry is not really that abstract or divorced from its context. Poetry is really concise, precise and driven in a way that lots of prose isn’t. To that extent I think it’s a really great tool for organising and for mobilising people if you make it.

I know I need to hone it more if I want to break out of that mould – currently my work is being read by a majority of people of who have popularly become known as ‘The Sydney Writers Festival Crowd’, the kind with resin jewellery and linen shirts who swoop up to you after an event to tell you how important your work is. It’s weird to engage in that way.

But when you’re engaged by an Indigenous audience or a non-Indigenous black audience or an audience who are from culturally diverse perspectives, there’s deeper level of engagement. They take your lowly poetry and they make it intellectual and meaningful, whether they like it or not, they take your work seriously.

SA: Agreed, there’s something different, the feeling that it kind of means more. The experience is different, you’re not just the token person interviewed in that space. Even if you’re in one of those events in that situation with other writers of colour, having others onstage with you or close by in the audience can make you feel less like a spectacle.

AW: Yes, you feel less like a spectacle and it’s those readers that I really value and I think it’s the reason why I keep on writing. It’s not just that they ‘get it’ it’s because they do the honour of not reading you as a moral act. It’s awful to have an audience that mostly reads you to clear their conscience. I guess this brings into light that strange moral authority when white people come to you as a young Indigenous person and counter that with the weird inflatable authority of being ‘published’.

SA: Yes, that implication of, oh ‘now you’re valid’ and I will therefore ask you about these certain things that you’ve written about. It’s funny because in my day job, people know who I am and my identity and then other times they conveniently forget – which is something that I write and think about as a white-passing Aboriginal person. How did you find you were ‘read’ in America, during your Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard?

AW: Most Americans didn’t think there were Indigenous people in this continent. Full stop. They didn’t know anything about it. They thought we’d died out. And I had to explain A LOT of stuff and most of it was fine, their ignorance wasn’t coming out of malice or negligence – but it was hard to slot myself into their race politic in a way that made sense, it felt like I didn’t fit at all. It’s really changed the way that I think about Indigeneity. It was a completely different approach to race that I had to adopt for a year – to operate from.

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