‘Collective generosities’: Sara M Saleh in Conversation with Jazz Money

By and | 15 May 2023

SMS: I note that you ground a lot of the poems in this collection, of course, in place, in community and Country, and I wanted to know why and sort of what expectation, if any, there is on you as a First Nations artist. How does that responsibility, that grounding in community, come into your work?

JM: I don’t know if I could write any other way. The things that I’m occupied by are place and Country and community. I think when I’m writing about the things that I care about, it has to be situated in that place, and I’m so lucky to be a First Nations person, to be a Wiradjuri person, and to be able to be held in that beautiful Country. But also, what it is to live off-Country and to be a diaspora from my river and know that responsibility for homelands carries where I go, but also, I have responsibility to the places where I am so lucky to be a guest. So, situating my work is just a natural extension of the way I’m situating my life.

SMS: And do you think that that’s a necessity? Is it something that artists generally have a responsibility to consider, and I would also say especially ‘diverse artists’?

JM: I think people have a responsibility to themselves, to their communities, to Country. I don’t know if artists have an obligation to talk about their responsibilities, but I think some of the best artists do. The artists that I’m interested in are aware of what responsibility is and have ways of making that relevant for other people and to form connections in that way.

SMS: I think that it’s interesting that you say that around the ethics or the responsibility, and the fact that it’s very difficult to be able to – as James Baldwin would say – be in a burning house – a burning building and then not write about the fires, and what that means for the development of thought and language, and then being able to move people into places. My poems don’t exactly bring down apartheid walls or shut down detention centres, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing about them just because my power stops there at that last line or that last word.

Because you are so centred in your communities, I wonder how do you balance your writing in a way that is loyal to their vocabularies, to their dialects, loyal to Wiradjuri community, loyal to queer community, and the other multiplicity of communities that you’re from – so how do you balance writing in that way; loyal to them but also accessible to a wider audience to – and also is that loyalty even necessary?

JM: Part of the reason I write is to create connections. And that comes from speaking in all the various ways that we connect with one another. The great joy is when that happens to spill out into other people’s ears and connections are formed, that’s the huge joy and honour of being able to work in this way. I also write to challenge mainstream narratives and to be understood by the people that I love, so if that works, that’s the success. I would be doing a disservice to not write in the way that my communities are going to feel seen and heard. And you would know this, sometimes people say a line back to you or say that something has connected with them, and it’s earth-shattering, to be able to create places of connection with people that you have never even met.

SMS: Speak a language that – I think that transcends language per se, yes? And this is especially true when we are writing for our communities. And I also think understanding that it is, at the end of the day, our perspective – that it is a world, not the world – and that’s OK; and I think that’s the beauty of it. I’m curious to hear more about how memory and access thereof play into your writing, narratives both of and outside the self, because that’s a very big theme throughout the collection.

JM: I think I realised that backwards. I’d been writing for a long time, and I wanted to figure out what I was writing about. I come from a long line of storytellers – I’m Wiradjuri on my dad’s side, I’m Irish on my mum’s side; it’s a lot of story! And I started realising some of my memories aren’t mine; they’re within me but I didn’t witness them. And then place holds so much memory. If you’re someone who is curious about memory, there is an infinite amount of things to respond to in the places where we live. Memories held here that come from long, long before any invasion of these lands. There are the stories that the built environment tell, which are so often colonial stories, and stories of occupation. You just need to scratch the surface to realise there’s an infinite amount of voices and memories that are held on any footstep on this continent.

It’s an incredible honour to be able to be in dialogue with place and with people in that way, and to think about the stories that haven’t been told or haven’t been told enough, and how we can challenge the narratives that have been pushed on us by this colony and this mad scenario that we find ourselves in. What underpins a lot of my work is just thinking about those stories that need more air.

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