‘Like all change, it happens in the margins’: Joan Fleming in conversation with Jeanine Leane

By and | 15 May 2023

Jeanine Leane and I met in the Spring of 2022 to plot this interview over coffee. Jeanine has a quick, ferocious intelligence that moves associatively, while her fingers make languid circles in her hair. She is fine-boned and extremely upright. The day we met, she wore a fitted, double-breasted greatcoat with military detailing that flared at the waist. She told me she picked it up in Cambridge, England, on a day she was there as an invited speaker. After the talk, she said, while walking along the rigidly manicured paths of the Cambridge campus, she stopped to gesture at a flowering bush and was instantly policed by a porter, one of those grounds-guards in bowler hats who keep non-fellows from walking on the grass. ‘Do you know what day it is?’ Jeanine said to the porter. ‘It’s invasion day today, in so-called Australia. I’ll point at any flower I please.’

It took us the better part of a year to finally find time to sit down on Zoom to conduct this conversation. In the interview that follows, the Wiradjuri author, academic, and force of nature (whose last name, by the way, rhymes with ‘cane’) speaks about humour, rage, poetry and the market, lit crit double standards, lessons in unbelonging, the concealments and evasions of the archive, and the personal cost of waking the academy up to white privilege. I mostly listened. I learned a lot.

Jeanine Leane: I’m talking to you today from Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country in Canberra and I’d like to pay my respects to the elders who cared for this beautiful country. It’s a beautiful day here today.

Joan Fleming: And I’m chatting to you today from unceded Wurundjeri country, always grateful to be here as a guest.

Before we land on the now, I thought we could begin with your personal writing history. What was the path you walked in your writing life that led to the publication of your first two books, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: AD 1887–1961 and Purple Threads back in 2010 and 2011, and the attention and awards that followed?

JL: First books are always really interesting because they have a lot in them. They’re kind of like your life’s work to date. People say that about musical albums as well – the first ones, and then the subsequent ones, can be quite different and can present different challenges. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and was encouraged by aunties at home, and by some of my teachers. I wanted to write this story for a long time, and I think I struggled for a long time with how to write it. How to tell my grandmother’s story, which was completely oral. Later on, I found some written things, but at the time I never had anything. I wrote a piece called ‘Another Story’, and it talks about how I used to sit with my grandmother in the afternoons, to look after her. She was quite elderly, and it was kind of not safe for her to be wandering around anymore. She was still lucid, but physically frail, and I used to sit with my nana, and she would tell me stories about her childhood and youth. For example, I think the aunties and my mother sort of knew that the person who raised my grandmother, who she called her mother, was really her grandmother. Her mother went missing at 15, she left Lilian with her mother – my Great-Great-Grandmother. Lilian’s mother never returned – it was out on the Riverina, and a lot of the women were attached, in that very fraught sense, to shepherds or rural workers. Many women like her had no choice and were ‘taken as property’ by white men, sometimes never to return. She went off to do some work and she never came back.

JF: And those would usually be much older men, hey?

JL: My grandmother never really talked in official dates. May, her biological mother, was apparently only a young girl, so I take that to mean probably 14-, 15- or 16-year-old girls become someone probably quite a bit older. I heard quite a few stories – bits and pieces – about them and about the men that they had to attach themselves to. She lost her grandmother when she was about 16, and she was working herself. I heard quite a few things about her early life: that she didn’t get enough time or opportunity. In that way, I became a custodian.

JF: And your first books were broadly feminist, really, no?

JL: Well, I don’t really like that word. At the First Nations Writers Network in Tandanya/Adelaide last month I was on a panel with Jackie Huggins and we were talking about words we don’t like, as distinct from, it’s not the practice, it’s the word.

JF: And ‘feminism’ is one of these words …

JL: Jackie said, ‘I’m not a feminist at all, even though most of my work, my commitment, comes from and is to and about women. I don’t like the word, I don’t like the movement’ …

JF: Something like, ‘This isn’t a term that works in my context’ …

JL: I’ve got a poem called ‘They Said I Could Be a Feminist’ in my new manuscript. Anyway, yes, those early stories are quite feminist in a cultural context that doesn’t use that word. A lot of things that western women like, that are considered feminist, need to be re-evaluated from a different cultural standpoint. The whole idea of ‘birth control’ is like that. We all think, great, it’s really important now – which it is – but it has its origins in something more seedy. When you consider who it was carried out on, and why.

JF: That makes a lot of sense. Another term that you’ve used, but have framed as problematic in your writing about the women who grew you up and whose stories you are a custodian for, is ‘activist’. It’s not a term that they would use, and maybe it’s very limited – it sounds like, in their realm, in working in under-the-radar ways within family contexts and even within legal contexts – to do with property and inheritance and things like that – they were doing the work of female activism, though they wouldn’t frame it that way.

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