FWF Q&A: Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning writer of Mununjali Yugambeh (South East Queensland) and Dutch heritage. They write fiction, poetry, plays and non-fiction. Ellen’s first book, Heat and Light, was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. Ellen’s second book, a collection of poetry, Comfort Food, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize and highly commended for the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. Throat is Ellen’s highly anticipated second poetry collection.

What does feminism mean to you?

Well, firstly, I’ve been thinking about how this pandemic crisis is a gendered crisis. Most of our frontline (nurses, cleaners, childcare workers etc) are womxn. Womxn are working, cleaning, cooking, taking care of the household, looking after children and older relatives, and helicopter teaching. Indigenous womxn over 50 are told they can’t go outside. All womxn over 70 are told to stay inside. As we know, during a crisis, womxn and children are at a higher risk of experiencing domestic violence. This not only is affecting our economic status, freedoms and physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, it is also affecting our ways of maintaining our health and personal safety.

Feminism to me as a person born to a Mununjali Yugambeh mother is honouring womxn past, present and future. My feminism is intersectional and acknowledges First Nations womxn as the traditional owners of this land. We come from matriarchal cultures so womxn are the centre of our society. We must take care of Country which includes sky, land, earth, under the earth, animals, plants and water, both saltwater and freshwater. Water is the first mother. My feminism is growing and becoming more informed and more powerful.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

Between the pages of a book. At school you’re given a lot of reading material that’s mostly from a white male perspective. You’re told to think that’s normal. History is written by white men. Philosophy is written by white men. Literature is written by white men. Poetry is written by white men.

It is harder to track down books written by womxn, let alone First Nations womxn. Don’t accept what you’re given. I sought out Oodgeroo Noonucaal and Lisa Bellear’s poetry at the university library when I was nineteen and that changed me completely. I think the ancestors must have led me to that section in the library. I have been lucky to be mentored by many FN womxn. I can’t list them all but I will mention: Aunty L, Aunty K, Aunty Sandra, Aunty Mel, Jeanine, Aunty Patsy, Aunty Lenore, Yvette, Anita, Nat and like I said, many others, too many to mention.

Why poetry? What is it about the form that allows a thorough exploration of complex themes such as colonisation, gender or sexuality?

Poetry is the form of 2020. It’s fluid like water and encompasses orality, musicality and art. Through poetry, we can make meaning out of chaos.

My book, Throat, was inspired by African American poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Nunga poet Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics. Both poets created new forms and new aesthetics that matched the content of their work.

Throat is a poetry project that takes its title from a Patience Agbabi line (a black British poet and performer first introduced to me by my sista Paula Abood). In Throat I challenged myself to write about what had been at the back of my throat. What was achieved was my most honest and boldest work to date.

I’m writing about things that I don’t want to write about like lateral violence in our communities, gendered violence and intergenerational trauma but I feel like it’s necessary to speak truth as it opens up opportunities for healing. There’s also two parallel sections of my book where I reflect on colonisation from two different angles. I was researching colonisation while in Europe and visited forests where they made the masts for the ships that came to Australia. I also spent time recording the damage continuing colonisation has on my Country since the ships.  Poetry flows out of my body and finds its way into other bodies as a way of continuing and moving: we have always been here, we will always be here.

What is the role of humour in poetry?

I love humour in poetry. It’s my favourite. I think it offers the element of surprise and most often comes from delicious wordplay and use of space and line breaks from the poet. It’s actually really easy for me to joke about colonisation because it is absurd. Racism is absurd. Sexism, homophobia and transphobia is absurd. We live in an absurd world and I’m trying to call it out and remind us of what’s real. 

You wrote a piece for Overland recently on ‘Restorying Care’, about the significance of Aboriginal storytelling in the ‘Australian’ health system. Can you reflect on how important it is to centre First Nations voices in the current global health crisis?

We are seeing First Nations people experiencing racism during this crisis. In a statement, the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association said it received reports that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had experienced racism around testing and treatment of COVID-19.

It is so important now more than ever that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have control of our lives. I want us to have the ability to decide who comes in and out of our communities and how individual communities shift to respond to COVID19. I want us to have the ability to reallocate funds set aside for cancelled events to support our communities. I want us to have the Cook 250th anniversary reenactment money!  I want us to control the messaging to our communities instead of the demeaning and paternalistic messaging that is going on now. We have the ability more than most to adapt to new ways of conducting ceremony, art and healing. We have been adapting for a long time. We will continue to take care of country and teach and share culture. Ultimately, I hope we come out of this crisis in a better place than we were at the start because we’ve been able to use this as an opportunity to get stronger. 

Which queer or non-binary First Nations writers should everyone be reading right now?

Shout out to the work of Yvette Holt , Maddee Clark, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Qwo-Li Driskill.

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