‘Share what you’ve learned’: Amelia Walker in Conversation with Samantha Faulkner

By and | 3 February 2024

Samantha Faulkner is a writer and poet from Badu and Moa Islands in the Torres Strait and the Yadhaigana and Wuthuthi/Wuthati peoples of Cape York Peninsula. She is the author of Life B’Long Ali Drummond: A Life in the Torres Strait (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007) and editor of Pamle: Torres Strait Islanders in Canberra (Kuracca, 2018) as well as the forthcoming nonfiction anthology Growing Up Torres Strait Islander in Australia (Black Inc, 2024). Faulkner has represented women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests on local, state, and national boards and is a Director of the ACT Torres Strait Islanders Corporation. She is a current board member of both the First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN) and Us Mob Writing Group, a Canberra-based First Nations writing collective.

I connected with Faulkner through Invisible Walls, a project I co-facilitate with Seoul-based Australian poet Dan Disney. Invisible Walls pairs Australian and Korean poets to enter intercultural dialogue and produce new poetry based on their learning. Faulkner was one of twelve Australian poets chosen for the project via a competitive selection process from a large applicant pool. Faulkner’s poetry gripped me with the vibrancy of her imagery and emotion. Through our project-related correspondences, I came to recognise a similar vibrancy in her warm personality, generous spirit, and care for those around her. When I travelled to Ngunnawal Country (Canberra) in late 2023, I invited Faulkner to sit down for a chat about her writing practice, her insights into community work, and the importance of nurturing new and emerging writers. I was thrilled and grateful when Faulkner agreed. Below is an edited transcript of our exchange.

Amelia Walker: We acknowledge that we are meeting on Ngunnawal Country. We pay our respects to the Ngunnawal people and their Elders past and present, as well as other First Nations people and families who have connections to these lands. Sovereignty was never ceded. This always was, always will be Aboriginal land. Samantha, thank you for sharing your time. I’m grateful for the chance to learn more about you and your writing. We’ve met a few times now and worked together on Invisible Walls. But I don’t think I’ve ever told you that I use your poem ‘Home’ with my university students. Its depiction of a man from the Stolen Generation coming home to search for his mother always has a profound impact on my students, especially the final stanza. Although I’ve read it countless times, it never loses its power for me, either. I always get a shiver in my bones. I’m wondering if you could tell us more about the poem, its background, and your process of writing it.

Samantha Faulkner: Thanks, Amelia. I would also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the Traditional Custodians of the Country we are meeting on today. I’ve had to go back and think about that poem. It was published in Cordite in February 2019, and for me, it is a special poem. It tells the story of a young man reconnecting with his mum and, just that final stanza, where the mother says:

“I know who you are”

I touched his hand

Tears welled in my eyes

“You’ve come home”

It has that real immediacy of connection as it’s told in the first person and speaks of belonging, coming home and finding family. For me, that’s what this poem is about. The poem came to me, if I can recall, in a writing exercise – and it was an image when the man touches the screen door and opens that door. It was like a comic strip. There were a couple of images where the man is standing there, maybe an Aaron Pedersen-type character, set in the outback or country Australia. He’s obviously from the city, wearing jeans and a shirt, and is a little bit out of place – but he’s searching. He finds some information and wants to reconnect and find his family – so he pushes open that door.

The next image is where he’s in a shop and his mum is behind the counter or at the counter. When you enter a shop, the first person you talk to is the person behind the counter – that’s where you ask for information. I think the poem emphasises this connection. What if this man, just by accident, enters the shop and it’s actually his mum who’s working there? She recognises him first and it’s a bit about him, but also about her, like: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s my son who’s come back, I know you’. But the poem creates a sense that there’s more to come. It’s about connection – because even in the 1970s kids were still being taken away – and no matter if you were taken away, your family still knows who you are. The Elders still know who you are and where you belong – where you fit in the community. It’s touching, it’s emotional and it’s poignant because it closes an open circle. I think for a lot of the Stolen Generation, they don’t have the opportunity to close this circle. For me, in a way, it was showing that there are stories of meeting family again – not just of displacement.

AW: As a Torres Strait Islander poet, your culture is distinctly different from those of other First Nations Australian peoples, which are also, of course, all unique and distinct from each other in their own right. Within what protocol permits, I’m wondering if you could share a little about what makes your Torres Strait Islander culture unique, particularly in terms of your traditions of poetry, storytelling, and related art forms.

SF: Torres Strait Islander culture is close to the Melanesian Pacific culture and the Torres Strait is found between Queensland and Papua New Guinea. It is a part of Australia as sometimes a lot of people think: ‘Oh, okay, you’re a part of Australia…I don’t need a passport to go there’. I think the population is maybe about 70,000, but a lot of this population, about 60,000 or so, live on mainland Australia. I guess what makes the culture unique is the closeness to the ocean. We are seafaring people and navigate by the stars. The ocean is our supermarket, it’s our livelihood, it’s our recreation. For the inner islands, the Kaurareg People are the Traditional Custodians of Aboriginal land which is Waiben/Thursday Island and some of the islands close to mainland Australia. So, the Torres Strait also has that connection to Aboriginal Country as well.

We have a lot of different history when it comes to the explorers who have visited. We’ve had a lot of explorers – Spanish, Dutch and even Indonesian people have come over and traded for decades and hundreds of years before 1770. We’ve always had that exchange and I think even across the Top End of Western Australia and Northern Territory as well. So, we are not strangers to other people coming in to visit, trade and go back home again.

I think for a lot of the Torres Strait, the ‘Coming of the Light’ or the coming of Christianity to the Torres Strait is a different experience of Christianity than what Aboriginal people have encountered. Torres Strait Islanders embraced and welcomed Christianity and made it a part of life in a way that it didn’t overtake but balanced with Torres Strait culture and concepts such as different languages, singing, dance and the visual arts. Our culture is all about colour and vibrancy and the food we eat is from the ocean – dugongs, turtles, crabs, fish, and so on. It’s this way of life that I think perhaps is distinct from the Aboriginal way of life and that comes out in my poetry and stories.

I was born on Waiben/Thursday Island, in the seventies and spent the first ten years of my life in the Torres Strait. Then my family moved down to mainland Australia for schooling and better education opportunities for me and my two sisters. I cherish those moments and those childhood experiences. I think for me, it’s just tapping back into those memories, those images and sights and smells that I write about today.

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