Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to poet Alison Whittaker, whose new collection, Blakwork, is out now.
What does feminism mean to you?
Matriarchy — a fundamental restructuring of how we relate to one another, how we make and break institutions, and how we respond to and take responsibility for Country, mob and nations. That’s the goal. To me, feminism is a commitment to working towards matriarchy for a lifetime. It’s not in my lifetime, but I often think about what’s possible for the generation that gets there. Matriarchy is exciting, but once it’s a given we can put the enormous energy of blak women’s survival to other work.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?
Not really! I’m still reasonably young and my foray into writing and feminism was more of a stumble than anything purposeful. I didn’t think about feminism much when I was young, even though, but probably because, I was surrounded by strong blak women who created the impression in my life that women ruled over all things. I went to a country girls’ high school and remember a teacher telling me offhandedly ‘Oh, don’t be a feminist’ when I thought describing women who ask their husbands to chip in with housework as nags was a bit unfair. It kind of became a big part of my identity then, in a formal way, where being a feminist didn’t occur to me before. For a while, I think I was so insufferable and problematic because I consumed feminist texts available in my library in such an unchecked, isolated way without anyone to guide me in them — I loved the SCUM Manifesto and The Female Eunuch. When I moved to a place where more people called themselves feminists, I walked that road with other women and that was important. So it was a massive source of shame for me, when I went home to where it all began and realise that my whole mob were feminists — I just thought feminism was found elsewhere and I was special for having found it and named it. Just youthful hubris, I guess. I’m grateful that they waited for me to see that. That’s when I really began to think about what feminism means for Indigenous women, and my place within it. I’ll be working that one out forever.
In Blakwork (and your wider body of work), how do you merge personal and political experiences, and why/how is poetry the best way for you to express these ideas?
I don’t see myself consciously merging them. To me, they’re the same — all about illustrating the same power dynamics in macro and micro. Poetry is great for this because it’s so compressed. Poetry is good when it stands alone, but a good poetry collection disciplines all these individual bits of song to harmonise and give something more fulsome. You can use books of poetry to show nuance or build a sense of political and personal urgency, but you can use the individual poems within them to give discrete glimpses or lessons.
I don’t know if poetry is necessarily the best way to express these ideas! I keep doing it because it keeps getting a response. It’s easy to feel attached to the supremacy of a chosen form, and I’m not into revering or deifying poetry like that. Your form does, more or less, whatever work you make it do. Because of its brevity and its recent resurgence, poetry has been put to some deeply concerning and definitely not feminist purposes — like fostering corporate productivity and teaching British soldiers combat decision-making. Poetry can be as much a tool of brutality as one of empathy.
What are the messages you hope to convey with this new collection?
Blakwork is a confrontational book, and it might be loaded, but I don’t think it has a coherent message inasmuch as it makes a place to tell some stories about Indigenous labour. My first book, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, was a call to the humanity of Indigenous queer and trans mob — one that I don’t regret, but it invited a response that I regret. Lemons was consumed by a white audience who were moved and excited principally by our exotic, niche difference, and it felt bizarre for me and my book to be consumed in that way. This one is pitched in a way that grips the hand of fellow mob in acknowledgement, but also confronts white readership in ways that I hope make them uncomfortable and show them the blak hands and lands that have been made to prop up their lives.
It’s hard to write a book with a message as a blak author. Like many things in Indigenous affairs, your readers bring a message they want to hear. Books are also so big and diffuse as to resist the singularity of a message if you had a willing audience for one anyway. I want to free Blakwork of the pressure of a purpose like that. I hope it can just be.
How can the Australian literary and feminist communities be more inclusive for Indigenous writers?
I used to say just make space and give us resources, but now so many blak women have made new space and built new resources for us to do our own thing and make the models that everyone else will go on to use! So, now I say — make the space if you want, but also we’ve built our own clubhouse, bye.
Oh, pay us. And if you’re going to use our presence to give your communities and events more diversity as a point of authority — whatever, let’s have the maturity to see shallow engagement for what it is — pay us more.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
Everybody blak, but here’s a sample:
Ellen van Neerven
Charmaine Papertalk Green
Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams
Aileen Moreton Robinson
Ali Cobby Ecerkmann
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
Never write as if to prove you’re smart.
Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and legal researcher. Between 2017-2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law School, where she was named the Dean’s Scholar in Race, Gender and Criminal Law. Her second book, Blakwork, was released with Magabala Books in September 2018.
Alison will appear at FWF Sydney 2018 on Writing and Speaking Indigenous Lives.