Australia’s First Nations poets map possible path of atonement

‘The mainstream stories of who an Australian is can be quite damaging if you’re not part of that privilege’

Melissa Lucashenko

By the time Ellen van Neerven turns 30 next year, they will have published three books – the award-winning fictive triptych Heat and Light and two collections of poetry, Comfort Food and Throat, forthcoming. This already spectacular body of work reinvents form and extends into nonfiction and plays.

The momentum and power of van Neerven’s work exemplifies the burgeoning of First Nations Australian writing. Almost 12 years ago then prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote and delivered an Apology to Indigenous Australians, acknowledging the “blemished” and “profoundly disturbing” history of invasion and settlement. However inadequate such an apology must be, Rudd argued, it might be part of a bridge. He stressed the importance of government action lest the speech be “no more than a clanging gong”.

No such action has followed and Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a treaty between its government and Indigenous people. Yet, in the resulting vacuum, long after the gong’s last clang, the work of First Nations artists maps some directions reconciliation, treaty and atonement might take.

Ellen van Neerven

In one of his few English lyrics, virtuoso Yolngu musician Dr G Yunupingu described reading “the world of destruction” and aiming, through music, to “bridge and to build Yolngu culture”. Bearing witness and replying to destruction through art contests the silence that colludes with continuing histories of violence and injustice.


For van Neerven, a writer of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage, creativity is entwined with editing younger Indigenous writers’ work. Van Neerven has described being among the only Indigenous students at school, reading constantly, but rarely being represented in books: “The mainstream stories of who an Australian is can be quite damaging if you’re not part of that privilege.”

The experience of young, queer Indigenous identities is central to van Neerven’s work, the forms of which shift to contest categories and occupy liminal spaces. Lean, elliptical poetry opens into narrative, short stories push towards the novella, activism and lyricism meld. Time bends, too. Heat and Light weaves the tender and satirical to evoke a future Australian republic led by president Tania Sparkle, with Jessica Mauboy’s Gotcha as its national anthem. The past inflects the present and steers the future.

Van Neerven’s poems are taut and energetic. Their meticulous machinery balances wildness and control, their potent images resonate sonically and visually. Revolving around a motif of shared meals, symbolic of hospitality and nurture, Comfort Food is steeped in corporeal and sensual detail. The body with its “biscuit acne/coffee stains”, lovers’ “counted kisses” and “the twist of hips” stays in focus.

Comfort Food’s palate takes in the “smashed av” prevalent in urban cafes and lampooned by older commentators, luscious mangos that squish to carpet Queensland summer gardens, McDonalds, and finger limes, the fruit of a rainforest tree, its tart pearly pulp eaten by Indigenous people for thousands of years.

Amidst this are poems witnessing violence. Invisible Spears foregrounds the racial vilification that destroyed the career of legendary Indigenous Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes. The star veteran of 372 matches left football after enduring incessant booing that built to a crescendo alongside his success.

Throat extends the poetic signatures of Comfort Food, exploring the ways language shapes and is shaped by culture, trauma and resilience. The inventiveness and energy of this zesty, potent work invites comparison with US writers Claudia Rankine and Tracy K Smith.

Erased documents

Smith, who has painstakingly threaded erased documents and testimony through her work, especially her 2018 collection Wade in the Water, advocates for attentiveness – both within and to writers’ work. A question that guides her writing about trauma is: “Is there anything that we haven’t yet heard that could be helpful now in unraveling this knot?”

The career of Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch began, like van Neerven’s, when she won the David Unaipon Award. Named in honour of the first published Indigenous author, whose image adorns the $50 note, the prize for an unpublished Indigenous writer entails publication with University of Queensland Press. It has launched careers including those of 2018 Patrick White Award winner Samuel Wagan Watson and Doris Pilkington Garimara, who subsequently wrote Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, which was made into a film by Phillip Noyce.

After publishing her poetic novel Swallow the Air, Winch won a Rolex fellowship and mentorship with Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Yet her success was counterpointed by racism. Shock jock Andrew Bolt queried her heritage, pointing to her “auburn hair and charmingly freckled face”. This triggered a group action against Bolt which resulted in his being found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. Writer and academic Prof Anita Heiss analysed questions raised by the case in her book, Am I Black Enough For You?

Winch’s moving new novel The Yield splices intergenerational narratives. Albert Gondiwindi embarks on creating a Wiradjuri dictionary, which becomes the novel’s narrative skeleton. Part of the Stolen Generations, Gondiwindi grows up in a boys’ home under a sign exhorting the children to: “Think White. Act White. Be White.” Yet his visiting ancestors teach him Wiradjuri words, starting with “wanga-dyung: lost but not lost always”. He initially understands a word or two of “the music of the sentences”, “spotting the meat in a soup of words”, but as he grasps them, language unfolds for him.

Tara June Winch

His granddaughter August returns home after his death, caught in the tug and shove of remembering and forgetting. Bereavement collects other losses: of culture, and of her sister Jedda, who disappeared when they were children. Winch’s interleaving of fractured narratives enacts the fissures and silences August confronts and its structural weave evokes a motif of repair.

Charmaine Papertalk Green’s similarly multilingual Nganajungu Yagu works at the seams of torn, frayed and elided histories. Papertalk Green, a writer of the Wajarri, Badimaya and Southern Yamaji peoples of Western Australia, builds the collection around the “sustaining emotional mass” of letters her mother wrote before her day’s work as a cleaner when the poet was a teenager attending school 600km away and living in an Aboriginal girls’ hostel. The letters – symbolic of “culture love . . . the anchor for everything done” – were stored in a red suitcase.

“Papertalk” refers to the poet’s forebears delivering messages for the same colonisers who “tried so hard to empty this land”. Now, “We are our Ancestors/ Descendants/ Messengers” and paper restores shredded histories: “Paper talks everywhere now.”

Papertalk Green’s poems pivot between preservation and contestation. Written in English, Wajarri and Badimaya, they ripple between languages. Their music counterpoints languages of repression and encouragement and enacts salvage and translation. The precious letters provide the collection’s energy, their red suitcase battery and ballast.

Among these poetic acts of restoration are lists – a catalogue of family food includes witchetty grubs, warlgu (quandongs), “sheep’s head, baked” and tinned Irish stew – and documentation of racist policy. Rolled and folded among tender greetings are brutal documents from the Aborigines and Fisheries Department and the Western Australian (Citizenship Rights) Regulations. The latter barks out questions. “Has the Applicant adopted the manner and habits of CIVILIZED LIFE?” Does the Applicant “live according to WHITE standards?” Papertalk Green writes back to these questions, text boxes carefully packed with responses that, like the letters, reverberate, energy “bursting off its pages”: furious balm.

Energy storms through Melissa Lucashenko’s sixth novel Too Much Lip. Early on, skinny, jaded Kerry Salter sweeps into her fictional hometown Durrungo, riding “twenty thousand bucks of American heritage engineering” and resisting the impulse to “elevate both middle fingers” in the direction of the blue eyes that pop as they watch. Intending to spend just a day farewelling her dying grandfather, the clutch of history and culture disrupts her plan. The novel’s momentum feels a bit like riding on a possibly-stolen Harley.

The swagger and strut of this image of the stranger riding into town is a comedic repurposing of hackneyed macho myths Australian storytelling has borrowed from American westerns. For all the novel’s verve and wit, Lucashenko, a Goorie writer of Bundjalung and European heritage, has her focus on something altogether less playful.


The novel’s epigraph is from a court report detailing a criminal defendant’s 1908 testimony: “she was only a gin, and he could do anything he liked with her”. Lucashenko’s afterword notes that although the work is fictional, “virtually every incident of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once”.

Kerry’s homecoming accelerates into a novel of families fractured by inherited trauma, alcohol and incarceration, communities riven by government avarice and intolerance and a landscape struggling to repair itself. Yet hope and connection are inextinguishable. Kerry’s younger brother Black Superman and his partner Josh foster kids, while Kerry’s teenage crush resurfaces.

Lucashenko’s prose combines a distinctive mix of registers and languages. She wrangles this multifarious and grainy language into portraits that limn the complex dynamics of violence and resistance. Unpunished crimes, miscarriages of justice, grudges, loss and trauma circulate as the novel navigates feisty and triumphant possibilities.

Lucashenko, also a Walkley-Award-winning writer of non-fiction, has won a slew of awards for Too Much Lip, including Australia’s most prestigious, the Miles Franklin Award, for a novel evoking “Australian life in any of its phases”.

In Gondiwindi’s “yuyung” (backward) dictionary, “baayanha” means “yield”. Not in the English sense of reaping, he reflects, but “the things you give to, the movement, the space between”. These writers’ work – along with work by Alexis Wright, Tony Birch, Kim Scott, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alison Whittaker and others – witnesses times when any lip was too much, and papertalk was a silent messenger, then shifts gear towards that space between. As Papertalk Green writes: “We don’t give up and it is because they didn’t.”

Felicity Plunkett is a poet and critic. Her first collection, Vanishing Point (UQP, 2009), won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize and was shortlisted for several other awards. Her chapbook Seastrands (2011) was published in Vagabond Press’ Rare Objects series. She has a new collection, A Kinder Sea, forthcoming. She edits poetry for University of Queensland Press and is the editor of Thirty Australian Poets (UQP, 2011). She has a PhD from the University of Sydney and her reviews and essays appear in the Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Book Review and Sydney Review of Books, among others