DM: Why do you think you were neglected in a university setting?
LF: The formal teaching, because there were a lot of Aboriginal students and peoples going to a formal education at that time, and they had to stay formal. With me, I didn’t want to be like that, which is why activist people gravitate to my writing. He’s not just a walkabout, he’s a writeaback person, but he’s on his own journey where he knows how to chuck the boomerang, he knows how to carve a boomerang, paint a boomerang, and chuck the English back into their goddamn face, and turn it around and change it for the benefit of language. That’s my whole idea when I first started, I thought to myself, I can write in Yoogum language, in Bundjalung language, and I thought to myself, I’ll stick to the English and I’ll cover it up double standard English. I’m trying to create a language, but the language is there, a real authentic Aboriginal language is there. It’s going to be re-introduced there in the brainwaves of the Aboriginal children growing up, so it will be compulsory to read and write. There is no reading or writing in proper Aboriginal language in my areas of where I come from, it is showcased in NAIDOC, when it comes up, but I’m not into that, I’m into the compulsory reading and writing. If you have a 50 dollar note look at David Unaipon, that shows the importance of reading and writing in our language. They’ve they found in language speaking areas of Australia that reading and writing in our language makes a boost towards our English, making it much more powerful. Writing all those books helped me to give them that professional understanding that they should translate the written language of Aboriginal writers in English, who were telling all those stories in the present day. Where there is a speaking language, Yolngu language, they already speak it, they already had the written, on the east coast, people like me should have the opportunity to have translation. That’s what I believe in, and it’s been happening in bits and pieces. I have incorporated traditional language in the book, but the big thing for me is to have a book in my language, one day. It’s getting there slowly, but we can’t do it unless the schools make it compulsory for them to read and write. They learn bits of their history in English, in Whiteman’s English. I ask my grandchildren to bring home some language like ‘hello’, ‘goodnight’, and that’s not happening. I find that bizarre as a poet.
DM: You’re right, to learn a language, you need to be immersed in it. What do you think of the translation of Indigenous languages overseas? There’s a video of you online performing your poem, ‘Assume Unbelievers’ in Latin America at a poetry festival. As you delivered the poem someone translated your poem onstage into Spanish in front of you. How was that experience? I mean, thinking about the translation of your unique style of poetry, it’s an amazing linguistic process.
LF: Well, I did this poem called, ‘Su’, and when it’s translated into someone else’s language, it comes across really powerful spiritually and politically, equivalent, especially when these tribes are still singing and dancing on the land, it’s giving pride and dignity to those people. When you do that to your own tribe when you’re translated abroad, it’s also giving them pride to their own people, to their mob. When I did that in Latin America, I find that thing there is a generalised understanding amongst everyone that this was happening, it’s going to make them understand that I’m not Americanised, Britishised, and that’s the feeling they get; that Indigenous peoples are not going to be wiped away. We can advance our own English as a tool. It’s a machine as far as I’m concerned, there’re no feelings in it. They don’t know how to bring it together. We can use it as a tool to reintroduce feeling of what language is.
DM: Do you think of language differently from being translated and having performed in different places?
LF: With the comments of the young people coming up, they’re so advanced, onto a creativity of their own, with a thought-ideas of their own. If I put out their own poem like ‘Son of a Cunt’, it shows them you can use swear words to advantage yourself, but not to rely on for communication. Obscenity doesn’t bring beauty to our culture, it’s a bastardised, between English, French, it gives headaches. Although if you write mosaically all your life, you get in trouble and you become a criminal. It’s not a great source of communication, but that’s where poetry comes in.
DM: Thinking about the present day, what’s needed for the contemporary writers coming up? What are you telling the Indigenous writers you’re most in touch with?
LF: They’re very successful in their communities, a lot of them always portrayed that you always have a to have a value to get out of society. I don’t think that our values are really important, I think the contents and message, the issue, that comes from that, you can’t have a book and leave it on the shelf, and most of the time books are just left on the shelf, I’ve always said, if you get out a book, you have to use it for the protest. If it’s happening on the west coast of Australia, it’s happening on the east coast. You unite, you bring it altogether as one. I always say there’s four thousand Aboriginal authors that’s been published. I was in the national library not long ago listening to Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko and Alexis Wright, and my question was to them, can we unite our writing powers of the authors, go on strike on this country, and get the other authors backing us up.
DM: To form a collective?
LF: Like over in America, writers brought Hollywood to its knees. I reckon that in the future that can happen, and people say you’re just dreaming Lionel. I mean the Corrobboree people have been doing this for years, they are the true authors, they bring together the illustration that’s on their bodies, and their songs, and the way they sing it and dance it. Society sees it as culture, as trivial culture, as something that will benefit them in the spirit of the now and then, but with authors, if we unite together, issues and resolutions can be solved.
DM: Which is the role of the writer right?
LF: Right, to advance things like, no one should have to pay for the education, medical attention, and these were all parts of the Land Rights movement back then, the sovereignty of it represented a collective freedom to be what you wanted to be. The other point I wanted to make is Marcia Langton, Gary Foley, Philip Morrissey, all these philosophers, I’ve been saying this for years, I was up at a conference recently, and I saw Langton up onstage with mining companies, and I told them why don’t we have our own centralised Aboriginal university?
DM: What did Marcia say?
LF: She said, what traditional person wants their own university? Well, we’re trying to scheme to get a university up in Yolngu, but they didn’t’ want it, they want Garma. That’s our problem, we have a program everywhere, but we don’t have a centralised place. RMIT, Brisbane Tafe, we got a program there, here and there, all these will go belly up when the funding stops. This is when the authors need to push forward in our own intelligence so we don’t get sucked away in another political party.
DM: In your poetry you make many connections with other Indigenous peoples. For example, in the poem, ‘The Slaves Are Her People’, you make an explicit connection to the South Sea Islanders and the connection your mother had with them. Can you talk a little more about the genesis for the poem?
LF: I was trying to articulate that connection to exterminate the experimental Aboriginality of the Murri, the Gurri, like when they rounded up people into a reserve and tried to bring in people to breed out Aboriginal people in the reserve. They thought they could eliminate all people, Pacificans, Kanakees, Asians, and the Kanakees were always coming over used as slaves as workers in Brisbane area, and a lot of them married into Aboriginal people for their spiritual survival, not their political survival, because they were cultural people too. The closest thing they had was with Aboriginal people, the political status quo knew that, and so they used it as an experiment to exterminate the real Aboriginal people, the full black, get rid of the full blood. While they couldn’t breed out the Murri or the Gurri, they tried to impose that racist disease. This caused a lot of stolen soul, lost identity. They’d say you can’t do corroboree, you can’t speak language, you can’t speak with an Aboriginal accent, basically a lot of people were downhearted and emotionally inclined to be hidden, to be less productive dancing, singing.
DM: I think I know what you mean. Did you want to reveal a kinship between the experiences of the Indigenous peoples and the South Sea Islanders that was previously denied?
LF: I have a throwback myself to different races, I have throwback to Asian, Indian, Indonesian, Pacific, Macassan. Society denied all of that stuff to move onto a new horizon to make Australians a new race, the White Policy, it’s as official as that. The underlying thing is that in all of the de-tribalised communities, you belong to white man, Indian man, Asian man.