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

By and | 16 August 2019

SA: Global conversations with other Indigenous mobs, or people of colour can be simultaneously challenging, nourishing, tiring, fortifying and fascinating.

AW: There were lots of First Nations mob in the place I was studying. There were lots of opportunities to go and be with community and engage and it was important to me. But it felt fundamentally weird to be an Indigenous person, a visitor and a settler all at once.

During my year there, I liked to listen about the North American First Nations journeys to treaty and the journey from treaty and figure out what we can do with it. The more I was there the more I saw relationships that slotted together. Similar to the way colonisation unfolded here. But at the same time I could see how technologies of colonisation were developed differently in ‘America’ and ‘Australia’. I think one of the reasons we don’t have treaty here is because the English saw how relations between First Nations and settlers played out the US. How, if treaty was not an option and sovereignty was not recognised in any form, they could cut off one of the few springs of Indigenous resistance that their colonial legal system could comprehend. So I think that became a strong political force when the English were looking to colonise Australia, the deliberate attempts to demolish nations and other politically and socially organised structures.

Of course there were a lot of other historical things at play but I learned the lesson all the same. What I thought was a going to be ‘we’re all really similar and that very similar things happen to us’, was instead ‘we’ve had a lot of different things happen to us’ and if we don’t figure out how to systematically articulate that difference to one another we are constantly going to be experimented on. We need to adapt as much as possible, as we also figure out how those techniques of colonisation changed over time.

SA: It reminds me of how a very convenient comparison in our context is ‘Why can’t the Aboriginals learn from the Maori’. People love to ask ‘why is it so different in New Zealand?’, ‘they teach language in schools’ and ‘they do this’ and ‘they do that’ and it’s like … well actually, it’s extremely different! I think that this outside gaze on us as First Nations Australian people helps to homogenise the sense of power in play for the oppressor.

AW: Absolutely, I wrote about this in BlakWork in a poem called ‘Comparative’. You know how certain forms of bacteria develop resistance … I imagined it like an infection that would mutate and grow to a context and move onto other contexts:

Comparative their fervours. dreams. giving you fevers. their fevers giving you fewer. their fervours, learning. moving. their dreams giving us fevers. their fevers giving us fewer. their fervours, learning. they dream. they learn. their—

SA: It’s a conundrum.

AW: I think we only get that through cooperation that acknowledges that the only thing we have in common is this thing that happened to us, and it happened to us in lots of different ways even within this continent. In order to relate to one another we have to choose solidarity every day when we wake up. We need to be really precise and understand that our relationship isn’t an inevitable alignment, there’s no such thing as pan-Indigeneity, we make this alignments ourselves because colonisation tried to make a different kind of alignment and fate for us by racialising and colonising us. Those chosen relationships, it’s all contingent on our mutual survival and vice versa.

SA: While I was in Canada, I went to a performance in Vancouver where a First Nations artist recreated the traditional practice of wrapping a baby into a cradleboard – she had her family members wrap her up into an adult sized one. It was really profound, and felt similar to what I feel is kind of my charge as a writer: contemporary reworkings of traditional practice. Does this resonate for you? Is your writing a link back to traditional ways of storytelling?

AW: I don’t think I have enough cultural authority to say if I’m doing this. I think there’s a long story practice that we have to uphold. I don’t think someone of my young age and living off country has the authority to say that my writing is continuing within this tradition. I can say that maybe it’s continuing the spirit of that tradition, or it’s continuing those traditions set up by necessity as a means of resistance through poetry. This is more of what I see myself doing. How we work to weaponise white ways against themselves and adapt Indigenous strength to the circumstances that we’re embedded in, all without succumbing.

As I get older, the responsibility to my community will change. It may become something more closely linked to proper way of doing things – but that’s not for me to say. As young blak writers, we’re often pressured to be authoritative on matters that we really just can’t be. We’ve got to resist that, I think.

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