Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. She is the first person to have won both the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize.
Alexis’ fiction includes:
- Tracker (2017), awarded the Stella Prize
- The Swan Book (2013)
- Carpentaria (2006), awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award
- Plains of Promise (1997).
Wright is a Distinguished Research Fellow at Western Sydney University. She has published the non-fiction works Take Power, an oral history of the Central Land Council, and Grog War, a study of alcohol abuse in the Northern Territory. She is a member of the Australian Research Council research project ‘Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature’, where she is focusing on forms of Aboriginal oral storytelling.
Nic Brasch: Alexis Wright is the only person to have won both prizes named in honour of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. She won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007 for her magnificent novel Carpentaria, and the Stella Prize in 2018 for her extraordinary biography of Bruce ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, Tracker.
Alexis, welcome to The Garret.
Alexis: Thank you very much, Nic, and thanks for having me here.
Nic: My pleasure. Why do you write? Why the need to write?
Alexis: Years ago, when I was a young woman, I did a lot of writing for our own people, particularly when I was living at home in northwest Queensland. I was involved in a lot of our organisations up there, and communities, and the older people expected the younger people to work, and to help in our struggle. One of the jobs that I had was to write down what they said, and in all the meetings that we had, I would take the minutes. They wanted this young woman, I was quite fiery in those days, and I think they were training me a little bit to be useful. They wanted me to learn to hear, and to listen, I think. When I look back at it now, this is what they were teaching me.
Nic: They were.
Alexis: A good skill in listening. I wrote down every word that they said in the meetings. That's what they wanted. They wanted every word recorded, and I'm quite fast, as in writing down what people say. Enough, because in Queensland, we talk slower. [Laughter]
Nic: It's almost as if they were preparing you for Tracker. It's almost as if that was where it all started.
Alexis: Well, they were preparing me for… to be useful. So it went on from there, recording every word that people would say in meetings, because they wanted that record, because some of those meetings were quite volatile. For the next meeting, they wanted to be able to bring out those records. ‘Well, this is exactly what you said’. And not the sort of way we take minutes today, where we just write a little summary. That wouldn't have done. They needed to have the complete record. It's a pity we didn't keep all those things.
Nic: It's a great pity, isn't it? I'm just wondering, at that point, did you think of that skill that you were cultivating, the hearing and the writing, did you think at that stage even that I could become a writer, or did it occur to you that that was a possibility?
Alexis: I think at that stage, I was trying to learn from them. And I wanted to be like they were, people of great wisdom and knowledge and patience, just very skilful storytellers. So I was very… even though I was quite a volatile young woman, I was also very insecure, and shy, as well.
Nic: Sure, yeah.
Alexis: So I was learning from them, and they were preparing the young people to be useful, and because they knew that we were to inherit this big struggle that they had been working on all their lives. So, at that stage I didn't think I would become a writer. I don't think, I didn't even think that I could possibly even be a writer.
Nic: Right, right.
Alexis: As a young woman had no idea, really, what I could be. But it did lead to becoming more educated, so that we were, people would listen to us more of what we had to say. It led to years of education, and also research. I became quite useful I think, perhaps, in the research that I did, in terms of land rights. A lot of the things, issues, that we were concentrating on – the rights of our people, land rights and property rights, and constitutional issues – there were huge issues that were involved. There wasn't anything small about what we were doing.
Nic: No, and that struggle, and all the land rights and all the other rights, is something that's obviously been the central part of all of your work, from that moment on, and all of your writing.
Alexis: That's right. Not only myself, but many other people of my generation.
Nic: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Alexis: We had to become quite educated and quite savvy, and do enormous research, so that we knew a little bit of what we were talking about. In Queensland, in those days, they didn't want other people doing the work that our older people, they didn't trust a lot of white professional people. They wanted their own kids to do the work, so there we were, trying to take on the world, with these monumental issues.
So it was years of research that I've been involved with. I worked in the National Aboriginal Conference. Well, I was involved in organisations in Queensland, the legal service, being up on Mornington Island during the time that Joh Bjelke-Petersen was taking over Mornington Island and Aurukun, a big struggle that we had there, people are on Mornington and Aurukun. Big demonstrations that we're having in Queensland for Aboriginal rights in Queensland. And then I went to work for National Aboriginal Conference in Canberra, I was the head of research in our office there, particularly on land rights. And then I went to Alice Springs, and I stayed there for many years.
Nic: Oh, okay.
Alexis: I went there, initially, to work with Vincent Forrester, who was the Chairman, the State Chairman, of the NAC in the Northern Territory, and I was his Executive Officer there. So we were involved in many, many things, including the Royal Commission into nuclear testing in Maralinga.
Nic: Yeah. I'm wondering which storytellers and writers and books made their mark on you early on?
Alexis: The thing is, with what we were doing and the research we had to undertake, is we had to look further afield than Australia, because we couldn't get the answers here. Most of the time we were always told, ‘Oh no, you couldn't do this, and you couldn't do that’. You couldn't talk about sovereignty, you couldn't talk about land rights. And these were the kind of professional people. We had a lot of good people helping us, but we really had to get our own story straight. And that meant we had to research further afield what was happening in other parts of the world, in terms of land rights, and Aboriginal self-government, constitutional issues… And so I became quite, well, familiar with doing that type of research, looking outside, not expecting you’re going to find the answers here. We had the answers in amongst our own people, but for the struggle, we had to take up the argument with governments, or whoever we had an issue with, and we had to look further afield.
Nic: All of your reading was to do with your participation in this struggle? That was a total free occupation?
Alexis: That's right, and the work that we were doing, that's right. I probably knew, at that stage, that one day, I would try to write. As I became closer to thinking I could do that, I looked at writers from across the world, the Irish writers, the South American writers.
Nic: South America, yeah.
Alexis: Yeah, yeah. Then the African writers, and writers in the Pacific, Asia, or whatever I could get, whatever I could find out about writers from… People like Patrick Chamoiseau from Martinique in the Caribbean. What I was looking for was writers who had a long unbroken tradition within their own country.
Nic: Right, okay.
Alexis: How do you that? Because I wanted to find out how I could write here. I didn't feel I had the answers here.
Nic: So were there any Australian, Indigenous writers who you felt were doing it, back then? There's many, many now. But back then?
Alexis: Yeah, there's many now. Look, we had really good, fantastic writers in Kath Walker.
Nic: Yes, of course.
Alexis: There's Lionel Fogerty, Kevin Gilbert, and there was some really exceptional writers. But there was something else that I wanted, and I didn't really know what it was, or how to do it. I looked around the world as much as I could.
Nic: Okay. Okay.
Alexis: And I still do that. I still read writers from everywhere. We get more books available now.
Nic: We do indeed.
Alexis: With translation from writers around the world, good writers and thinkers.
Nic: What prompted you to write your first novel, Plains of Promise?
Alexis: I wanted to write something that had to do with the Gulf of Carpentaria, because that's where our family unit traditionally came from. I knew quite a lot of what the history of what happened there, and the missionaries, and I wanted to write something about those times. It's a book that I think from memory, it tells a story of thereabout three or four generations of women.
Nic: So by that stage, were you thinking that the best way that you could serve the struggle was as a novelist? As a writer?
Alexis: Well, I do all sorts of things. [Laughter]
Nic: I understand that, but to choose to write a novel, I mean, it's not an easy thing to do. And there would be many, many people contributing to the struggle in many, many ways. What made you go, ‘Oh, I'm going to write a novel?’
Alexis: I thought writing fiction was a good way of telling the truth, because it's very hard in this country to write non-fiction. I didn't feel, at the time, I had those kind of skills, as an investigative journalist. I felt, from all my reading from writers, like I said, from across the world, I thought fiction was a really good way of telling the truth. And sometimes, the pen is mightier than the sword. I wanted to… because it confuses me, and I have troubles with what I see, and the way the world is, and the way it is for our people, and our struggle that we have here. It seems to go more backward than forward, with trying to make any progress, because we are always fighting, and trying to deal with huge issues.
Nic: Of course.
Alexis: And so I wanted to try to do fiction. I thought it was, yeah, that's right, a good way to tell a story.
Nic: Was it, was it…
Alexis: An important story in a more powerful way than perhaps non-fiction.
Nic: Okay. Was it easier or harder than you expected? Did it take longer than you expected? Did you think you could just sort of whip it out?
Alexis: Well, I thought I could whip it out, at that stage. I don't whip it out anymore. [Laughter]
But I had trouble with Plains of Promise. The books is still sold, and it still does its job, but I thought there was a more broader way to write, that there was a more authentic way for me to write as an Aboriginal writer than to follow a Western style.
Nic: Right, okay.
Alexis: And this is something that I still travel along that line in my thinking. I try to develop books that are more closer to who we are, as people.
Nic: Had you learned, by the time you wrote Carpentaria then, you'd made that realisation, and then you had worked along those lines? How different was the process and the way you worked?
Alexis: Oh, much different.
Nic: In what way?
Alexis: Yeah, much different. In Plains of Promise, I followed a plot line that was more in line with a traditional type novel, a Western style novel. I put all that aside for Carpentaria. Carpentaria was more organic. It was… and I had firm ideas about what I wanted to do with that book. I wanted it to be as authentic in every way as I possibly could make it for my traditional country.
In terms of what the country is like, our stories about country, our own people, the strength of our own people, I wanted to really look at that. And I wanted the book to have the tone of who we are, and the narration. So I wanted to be really, sometimes, I thought it was a book trying to tell a story to the ancestors. How do you speak to the ancestors? And tell this story about who we are today and how we're travelling? What we're doing and how we're feeling?
Nic: Yeah, yeah, yes. That was sort of your audience, in your mind, as you were reading this, as if you were writing for the ancestors? Wow.
Alexis: That was virtually my audience, in my mind.
Alexis: I guess the other person I had to please was myself, and I'm a hard person to please in the best of times. And that’s… you don't sort of think about – because people do ask you – ‘Who is your audience?’
Nic: Of course.
Alexis: Of course, your audience is, you hope, in some way, your audience is going to be your own mob. Australians, and people all around the world. But when you're writing, it's really the audience is you and the page, and the way I could think about it, in the best possible way, was it was writing this story to the ancestors.
Nic: Right, fantastic. When you first got published, did you get an agent or a publisher? How did it come about that you actually became published?
Alexis: I look, I guess, there's big stories about every book that you write. I said that the other day, in my speech at the Stella, that the private story behind a book is probably the most sacred. [Laughter]
Carpentaria was a huge manuscript. It was, as I said, I wanted it to be authentic to who we are. So there you were, it was a manuscript written by an Aboriginal person, totally about Aboriginal people, Aboriginal situation. There it was in the middle of the Howards years, when there was the dumbing down of just about practically everything, including publishing.
Nic: That's right, yes.
Alexis: It got rejected by all the publishers at the time. Not that we have a lot of publishers anyway.
Nic: No, but at least one of them should have known better.
Alexis: Yeah, well one did. One publisher wanted to accept the manuscript, but on terms of the editing, which I wasn't happy with the editing, because it felt like the book was becoming more mainstream.
Nic: Right. How did you deal with that? With an editor who wants to make big changes?
Alexis: Well, they dealt with it. They dealt with it.
Nic: They dealt with you.
Alexis: They dealt with me by saying they would not publish the manuscript.
Nic: Right, okay.
Alexis: That took time, from when the book, the manuscript, was actually finished to the time it did get published, two or three years later. Maybe two, I'm not too sure, I can't remember. But it got to the stage where I thought I would either press the delete button on my computer and delete the manuscript.
Nic: Goodness, goodness.
Alexis: Or archive it with our Land Council in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Carpentaria Land Council, for another day, just so it could be there. But I wanted to move on. I didn't want to, I don't like lingering on something when you finally finish it.
Nic: Was it, when it was accepted, did you then have to compromise? Those issues about structure, did you find you had to compromise, or was it just accepted the way you wanted it?
Alexis: Ivor Indyk is a really good publisher. He's an independent publisher at Giramondo Publishing.
Nic: Absolutely, yeah.
Alexis: He wanted to have a look at the manuscript, and he sent me an email with, I don't know, about probably a dozen questions on it. I'm not too sure if there was that many, but yeah, virtually, the questions were about, ‘Why did you write this book the way that you wrote it?’ [Laughter] And so I answered his email, as best I could, his questions.
I went, ‘Well, oh, golly. He's asking some pretty hard questions here’.
But also, I was pretty pragmatic about it. I just thought, ‘Well, I know he was very careful about how he chose his authors’. And I know a lot of people who wanted to be published by Ivor. He was just running it by himself, at that stage. I just thought, ‘Well, he's got to make money, too, just like any other publisher, and that's what it's all about, I suppose’. He'd probably just say no, he didn't want to publish it, and that's fair enough. But he turned around and said, ‘I'll publish it’, which was really fantastic.
Ivor's a really great publisher to work with, and a great editor. He didn't want to change the style, or the shape, or the tone of the manuscript. He had a very light approach. But I must say, he does look under every stone.
Nic: Is that a definition of a good editor for you? One that won't change much of your work?
Alexis: No, no. I'm happy to… I'm happy for anyone to throw anything at me.
Nic: Right, yeah.
Alexis: If it makes sense to me, I can see common sense sometimes, although sometimes, I can see a lot of other people can't see.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Alexis: Like I can see Aboriginal self-government in the Northern Territory very easily. It could be very easily done. But it doesn't seem to be something that people think is easy to do. I don't know why. But…
Nic: You mentioned before that you felt you were that close to just deleting it, or just sort of parking it, archiving it. I'm wondering, have you got unfinished or unpublished works in your drawers? And why are they unpublished and not on book shelves, whereas your other works are out there? Where did they go wrong? What mistakes may you have made, in other works?
Alexis: Normally, I work on one manuscript at a time, and I really do concentrate on what I'm trying to do, and I think very deeply about it. I'm always taking notes about what I think about the novel. I'm always thinking about the work that I'm working on. It was just like Carpentaria. Carpentaria was a world of its own. I thought I was living in that world, as far as the real world, and it was very sad for me the day that I finally said that manuscript is finished, and I'm sending it away.
Nic: How long were you in that world for?
Alexis: Six years.
Nic: Six years? Yeah.
Alexis: Yeah. I like the characters in Carpentaria. They're really strong people. It was good to know them. Although I had to come to know them, because I didn't know how to do a lot of things that they could do. They could navigate in the sea, and they could do taxidermy of fish, they were really strong, and in lots of ways that I had to find out a lot of things about these characters to write them.
Nic: A lot of writers are happy when they get to the end. You are sad, because you are leaving that world behind you?
Alexis: I was very sad to leave the world of Carpentaria behind. In fact, I cried. I think I cried most of the day that the manuscript, when I originally sent the manuscript off. This one book is a different book. Again, I like the characters, they're a different sort of characterisation, in The Swan Book. But each book is different.
Nic: Have you started any books that you haven't finished? That you've given up?
Alexis: No, I don’t give up.
Nic: No, you don't give up?
Alexis: I never give up.
Nic: They've all been published?
Alexis: Well, so far.
Nic: So far? That's remarkable. That's fantastic.
Alexis: Yeah. I'm working on a… I've got a manuscript for a new novel that's called Praiseworthy. I'm just trying to find the time now, the settled time, to go through that manuscript, and really, well, put it more in shape, before I can let it go.
Nic: At what point do you ever show your work to people? To anybody? Who do you show it to? Who are the first people you show it to? And at what time? Is it after a first draft, a second, or third?
Alexis: Usually, after the second or third. When it's finished.
Nic: Oh, really? No one else looks at it.
Alexis: I don't really talk to anyone about it. I think I talk less about what I'm doing now than I ever did.
Nic: You don't.
Alexis: No, I don't show anyone my work until it's finished. That's a hard thing to do. That's probably a bit silly, on my part, because sometimes, people can give you really good feedback.
Nic: Well, what's the best bit of feedback you've ever got?
Alexis: When Carpentaria was published, finally, and Ivor worked on the book, but also, Bruce Sims, who's a really great editor, a really great editor and he did a structural edit on Carpentaria. He worked with me. He came up to Alice Springs and worked with me for a week, or maybe it was more, initially, when Ivor had taken the manuscript, and he's a good friend, Bruce.
And when the book came out, I was a bit nervous about it. Was it going to be all right? Because I knew the book was so different. And I was a bit worried about it. And I talked to Bruce about it, and he said, ‘Alexis, stop worrying’. He just said, ‘It is what it is’. I thought that was really good advice, and I stopped worrying. I said, ‘Yes, that's right. It is what it is, and it can be whatever it wants to be, and now, it has its own life’.
Nic: Your style captures the rich history of Indigenous oral storytelling more than just about any other writer I've ever read, and none more than in Tracker. Do you see yourself as a custodian of that tradition?
Alexis: I'm interested in storytelling, and in the way we make stories, and we way keep stories, and the storytelling practice. I've become more interested in those things, and I'm still trying to learn more, and trying to bring that into my practice as a writer. I think it's really important. I think the oral tradition is really important, and it's really important to our people. We say we're an oral storytelling culture, and but what does that mean? How do we keep our story strong? And how do we attend to that practice? How do we understand that practice? Because we're going to be more and more dependent on that in the future, as well as a Western style education. And that's been a slow process for our people, and we're more concerned with that oral tradition, and that's not been looked at, what it really means in educating our young people in schools. It's really important how we develop those skills, because we're going to have to be really good orators, in the future, whether we're doing it orally or on the page.
Nic: Yeah, yeah. What made Tracker such a fantastic character to write about? What attracted you to him? And my question is really also related to what makes a great character in fiction as well? Because obviously, you're telling a story, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, so what makes a great character? How do people craft great characters in fiction, or choose the right ones in fiction? Perhaps using Tracker as an example.
Alexis: Yeah, well, Tracker was a great character. Tracker was a really important person, in the Aboriginal world. He was a thinker. A visionary. He was an ideas man. He had just ideas just flowing from him night and day. He never stopped thinking.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Alexis: He was funny. He was just funny, and he knew how to get in any door in this country, from Prime Minister down, to articulate an Aboriginal position. And he could see the writing on the wall for any situation. When the Mabo judgement was a really fantastic judgement, but how that was treated as Native Title, Tracker, he just told a room full of Aboriginal leaders from all around the country that ‘It's not going to be the big black stallion that you think it's going to be, it's just a donkey’.
Nic: Right, right.
Alexis: He said, and I think it's in the book, ‘Someone had to tell 'em it's a donkey’.
Nic: That's right, exactly. Yes. So in terms of a character, you want someone who's going to go forward through whatever is thrown at them. Persevere. And I guess you want a character – again in fiction or non-fiction – who is going to make people react to them in some way, whether it's some people will react in a harsh way, some people in a loving way. But hat makes a good character?
Alexis: Yes. Well, it is. Tracker was just one of the most interesting people that you could meet. If he walked in a room anywhere, if he walked in one of these cafes down the street, by the time he left, everybody in the café, whether they're just customers in there or the staff, they all would have known Tracker, and they all would have remembered him, because he was just that sort of person. He just made himself known. If he was flying from Alice Springs or Darwin on Qantas, he wouldn't just sit still. He'd walk up and down the aisle-way, looking for people to talk to, to see if he could recognise somebody he knew. Also, anyone that noticed him, he would start talking to them. And so he found out who a whole lot of people were in this country just by travelling on an aeroplane. He knew all the business people, and all the movers and shakers around the place, so he could knock on their door. Because he had jobs for all of us.
One of my favourite parts of Tracker was that great scene where he's talking all the Indigenous leaders over to Geneva, I think it was, in the plane. And he actually didn't… they had no idea where they were going, or how far, because it didn't mean anything to them, he didn't actually really tell them.
Nic: It's just extraordinary to be able to get people just to follow him, and get on the plane.
Alexis: Yeah, ‘I chose not to tell them’.
Nic: Exactly. ‘I chose not to tell them where we're going’.
I'm wondering, when you are writing a novel in maybe five, six years, do you basically, are you basically locking yourself up and working all day, every day? What sort of routine do you have? Writing routine do you have?
Alexis: I'd prefer to be locked up and writing every day, all day, and when I do have that time, that's how I work. I work from my office at home, or I work in the garden. I work anywhere, really, because I'm always working, in my mind. I'm always writing in my mind. I worked down in the lovely Dome Reading Room here.
Nic: The reading room in the library, yeah.
Alexis: I work in my office now at Melbourne Uni when I'm there, but really, I like to have big stretches of time where I'm not doing other things, and then I can just really concentrate on what I'm doing, because I do need to concentrate, and it does take time to write the way that I'm trying to write.
Nic: Do you enjoy the publicity part of the publishing industry, or is it sort of just a necessary evil?
Alexis: It's… look, I try to enjoy it as much as I can. It seems like a necessary thing to do. Some writers don't do any of the publicity, or they do very little or nothing. And some do far more than I do. But it just seems like something that you need to do, and sometimes, it's not a bad thing. The more you talk about the work, afterwards, the more you even understand it yourself, and it helps you to really articulate, on what you did.
Nic: Okay. How important are prizes like The Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award for a writer's career?
Alexis: Prizes are really important. Nobody writes for a prize, and you shouldn't, but you’ve got to admit that it does help a writer, it really helps the work to get recognised and read more widely, and thought about more widely. And some books can do it without prizes, and a lot of books do do it without prizes anyway, but it certainly helps a writer. Writing is not a rich craft in this country.
Nic: Yeah, not in financial terms, no.
Alexis: No, no. So, it does help a writer to buy writing time, buy a bit of a future, so that's a good thing. And so we need to be thinking about that, about prizes, and also about other ways to support writers. You know what I mean. We've all been saying this forever in a day.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Alexis: We write for the love of it, because we think something is important to concentrate on and to think about, so we do it, but…
Nic: You would have met some fascinating writers throughout your career and in your travels. I'm wondering who is the one author you most admire but you've never had the opportunity to meet?
Alexis: There's probably plenty. I really like Seamus Heaney's work. I think when I was writing in Alice Springs, and trying to write, and trying to think about writing, and what I was trying to do, Seamus Heaney’s poetry was like a mentor to me.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Alexis: I would have liked to have met him. I went to Ireland. I wasn’t there long in Dublin, but I was told by the taxi driver where I could see Seamus Heaney, because he walks along a certain beach every day and you could easily see him, but I didn't think I could really go along the beach and say hi. Leave this man to his own privacy, because I'm sure many, many people wanted to meet Seamus Heaney.
Nic: That's probably in the days before selfies. Nowadays, they'd all be running up and taking selfies of themselves with him. Which… who is an up coming Australian author that you believe has a great future? We have many of them, but who are you most excited about?
Alexis: There's many, at the moment. There's really so many young writers coming up. It's really hard to sort of name someone and not name others, so I'm not going to do that. But they know who they are. They don't need me to say who they are.
Nic: Sure. No, I'm sure.
Alexis: They need to have the confidence in themselves to know that they're doing good work. And know that they, some of them, are already there. They are fantastic. I really admire a lot of the young writers that we've got around the country at the moment, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal writers, and I think some of them will know who I'm talking about.
Nic: I'm sure they will. I'm sure they will.
Alexis: Because I'm talking about them.
Nic: Exactly, well, maybe, we'll end on asking them what advice would you give to them and to all the other great emerging writers we've got about the craft of writing? What advice can you give them?
Alexis: Just to believe in themselves. Believe in themselves, and have confidence in themselves. Take the journey and take advice, and accept advice that they want to, that they think is right, but don't accept advice that they don't think is right of their work. And believe in what they're doing.
Nic: Thank you so much for all the magnificent words you give us, and thank you for spending time with us today on The Garret.
Alexis: Thank you very much, yeah, for having me.
Nic: Thank you, Alexis.