Just off the plane from Italy, Ali Cobby Eckermann talks candidly about life and love, as she transitions from Kaurna land to begin a tenure as Adjunct Professor with RMIT on the lands of the Kulin Nation.
Her first collections of poetry little bit long time and Kami (2010) both quickly sold out their first print runs. Her first verse novel His Father’s Eyes was published in 2011 and her second, Ruby Moonlight, was awarded the inaugural kuril dhagun National Manuscript Editing Award and the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry and Book of the Year Award. In 2017, Ali received the prestigious and international Windham-Campbell prize.
To listen to an in-depth discussion of Ruby Moonlight, listen to Ali's interview on The Garret (recorded in 2020).
ASTRID: Ali Cobby Eckermanm, an Indigenous and highly lauded poet, published her first poetry collection Little Bit Long Time ten years ago in 2009. In 2013 she won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and Book of the Year in the New South Wales Premier's Awards for Ruby Moonlight, a massacre verse novel. In 2015 her next collection, Inside My Mother, was shortlisted for both the New South Wales and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. Ali's list of awards is long but two further stand out. In 2017 she received a Wyndham Campbell Award for Poetry from Yale University, and in 2018 a prestigious Australia Council Fellowship.
Ali, welcome to The Garret.
ALI: Thank you. I must say, it always makes me... It always brings tears to my eyes to listen to that bio, because it always makes me think of the old people that were at the start of my poetry career out in the desert, when... we were reconnecting or when I was reconnecting with my traditional family and meeting the Ngangkaris, the healers. And a handful of very special old people spent a lot of time with me over quite a few years, because they recognised that I needed a lot of healing. And the poetry has grown out of that. And every time I hear that biography I always think of them because they're so integral in my poetry journey. And the tears come because they're no longer in this present world. So, yeah, I just get the same reaction every time I hear it.
ASTRID: I've heard you describe poetry as both a liberation and medicine. And we've just met, Ali, but looking at you now and hearing your words, what is it about poetry that has that healing?
ALI: It has been a medicine. There's always a cathartic element of writing I believe, especially in those early years. And there's definitely a freedom to finally find the confidence to articulate a lifetime of feeling and a lifetime that was often felt with rejection. And in that freedom comes a righting of the wrongs. It's a little bit like a seesaw, I think you find... you know, you're not so tipped over with one heaviness. But then it does tend to tilt the other way I think with the responsibility. So, when the old people - the ones I mentioned, those old Ngangkaris and law people - when they passed away I really felt a responsibility to... honour them... and those years filled with love.
I've never met anyone that could love quite like they could in such a healing and positive and fun and safe way. So, sometimes I find that responsibility just a little difficult. I spend a lot of time travelling the world by myself, and sometimes I miss not having a buddy. Yeah, we did spend a lot of time together, and I miss not having them in the car or at the other end of the phone. And of course, that void is filled by a wonderful, ever growing network of amazing artists and writers, musicians, administrators, directors, people on the street, people who open their houses with the kindness of food. And yes, that's how you fill the void. And then I guess the responsibility to keep busy.
ASTRID: Tell me about... you mentioned the word responsibility several times. I know that you founded one of the first Aboriginal writers centres in Australia. Is that.. am I reading into it, or am I am I misunderstanding? Is that part of the responsibility that you feel from being held safe and learning to tell your story more than a decade ago?
ALI: Yeah. When I set up the Aboriginal Writers Retreat it was aimed at grassroots writers, because that was the world that I had come from living in the desert. And you know, I was first published while I was living in the desert. I did my creative writing course at Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs. The world was pretty small, and yet it was bigger than I'd ever known because I'd met my family. And I wanted to replicate that for other people like myself, because there's so many thousands of people that share the same story - Stolen Generation adults who have connected or not connected, have connected and still feel disconnected, have connected and still struggle for those missing years.
And I wanted to create a safe place as I was leaving the desert. I left the desert nine months into the intervention. I couldn't stay and watch the people that had saved my life and given such quality to it being treated so dismally by the Australian governments, and both Labor and Liberal, dually responsible in the twelve years of the intervention. A very racist policy. Shame on Australia, I believe.
So a safety net was really important to me, because I saw people in their home communities starting to feel unsafe with the army coming in, and this tsunami of public servants who had... for what I saw, probably never spoken to an Aboriginal person before. So I knew the policy was being delivered without consideration, and to me that was one of the biggest insults.
And we had wonderful times there in Koolunga, at that Aboriginal Writers Retreat. We could have the fire out the backyard, everyone that came had to take a turn at doing the dishes and helping the kitchen. And I remember some young lads going, 'we don't do dishes'. And I said, 'well, yes you do. And has anyone taught you that dishes can be fun? And what's your favourite music? And put it on number 10 and let's just rock this kitchen and we'll do the dishes'. And it would be... you know, that task would be over in such a short time. And in that I was teaching myself, going back into the mid-north of South Australia where I'd grown up, everything that I needed to do to honour what I'd learned in the desert. I need to put a fun element to it, I needed to lighten up a little bit. I was stepping back into my adopted years knowing who I was with a fledgling career. I'd had one poetry book published. And yeah, I'm laughing at your shit now. And also in that, I'm forgiving both yourself and myself for our behaviour in those years, because I was a very unhappy teenager.
And we achieved outcomes there that I think were unquantifiable. I know Ellen van Neerven did her first workshop there. Lionel Forgarty came and stayed for a long time, he loved being the gardener, he grew beautiful vegetables. I'd like to think Lionel had a bit of a rest there. He also won one of his first literary awards while living there. We had some wonderful backpackers come that that helped us advance our computer skills. You know, they were having a year break from working for Google and were coming and hanging out with us mob there and this simple lifestyle and we just... you know, our worlds was so different but we created such respectful friendships. And it was the world that I believed in that you don't need to be everything but you need to know what your skills are, and then you can share that. And so it was like friendship bartering. So they would come and stay for a month and get everything up to date and all our portfolios done, beautiful work, scan stuff. And we would, you know, cook really good food and kangaroo tails and take them up to Melrose to watch the sun rise, and here we just traded off like that.
I loved those years at the Aboriginal Writers Retreat. Also some of the best poems that I've ever heard were shared around that campfire and then chucked in, because people said they didn't want them published - other Stolen Generations people that were sharing their pain on the page and then burning it. And that was it... And honouring that process too, you know. But as much as a writer and publisher it was like, 'Oh my God, I so wanted to publish that poem that should be shared with the world it was so beautiful'. The best reward was in the morning, just seeing something shift in their eyes or, you know, there was something. Yeah.
ASTRID: That is the power of words.
ALI: Yeah, yeah. And also learning to let things go. Yeah. That was a really brilliant poem, and no it's not going to be published and that's okay.
ASTRID: Ali, we find ourselves very far from the desert right now. We are sitting at RMIT University and in the Urban Writers House, which is now your space for a little while. Welcome to RMIT. You're now an Adjunct Professor here.
ALI: Yeah. Who would have guessed?
ASRRID: And a visiting poet.
ASTRID: And I believe you came to RMIT for the first time last year as part of the WrICE Program. This is a world away from the north part of South Australia. What's it like. What does it mean for your writing, if anything, to be in urban Melbourne?
ALI: I'm actually really feeling good about the move to Melbourne, and I'm still a little bit surprised at that. I think out in the desert another skill that the old people taught me was to try to see the journey. And so the signs have led me to Melbourne, and it's going to be an interesting couple of years. I'm looking forward to learning much, sharing less, sitting down at the butterfly house and having some dedicated writing time.
So that's a real gift... any time and space for dedicated writing is the biggest gift for any writer. I've just had the absolute privilege to spend six weeks in Civitella Ranieri in Umbria in Italy. S ix weeks dedicated writing time shared with composers, visual artists and other writers in a 15th century medieval castle. Life changing, life learning.
I've definitely come back a better version of myself, I believe. It was a very very wonderful, magical time, and I sometimes still get overwhelmed and then I remember about the old people talking about journey and just have to trust that was part of my journey, and there's a lot that I hope to share from the wisdoms that I learnt in the time in Italy.
And I guess it's the same... I have a bit of melancholy every now and again for those years in the desert. That's necessary some days, but not necessary for too long. Lifespans getting shorter, we don't know what the future holds. And I think there's a little bit more that those old people want me to say, or I've learned to articulate it in a more precise way, and so I've got to honour that and get busy writing and then get this published, because sadly, you know, 12 years of the intervention, 100 years, 150 years, 200 years of the Stolen Generations. Children are still being removed, the deaths in custody continues. None of the issues that have been written about and are the constant concern to Aboriginal people and families has shifted.
So, I think there's an element of my writing now that's writing to the future. Young people are going to find this in the archives, along with the other Aboriginal brothers and sisters that are writing and winning awards. And you know, we're quite a force I believe in Australia. We're writing the truth in our books as almost cement, that even if we never see the changes in our lifetime, it's there for another generation in the future.
ASTRID: There is a record, there is a witness.
ALI: And coming back from Italy and Rome and Pompeii and whatever, I mean it's all there, and so that sort of influence is I think a little bit mentally, but writing for the future.
ASTRID: You just said a few moments ago 'get this published'. Is that the new work that you've been writing, including in Italy?
ALI: Yes. I hope it will be published.
ASTRID: I think it will. Is there a poem that you would like to share?
ALI: Yes there is. P art of the reason I say writing for the future also is because a lot of archives that have been hidden from Aboriginal eyes are floating up towards the surface. So, I'm thinking that our novels and poetry and essays and... that will happen in the future too, they will bubble up when required.
So this is a story that I came across. Ben Quilty brought it to my attention that after the Maralinga bombs, the British Government was given permission to take the bodies of stillborn children, remove the bodies of babies, teenagers and young people up to the age of 24, ship them to Britain, remove the bones, crush the bones and test for strontium. And quite a lot of... the numbers are staggering. I can't even believe the number, so I won't mention it, but it really affected me, my family, Maralinga family, as I've written about in the past. But my concern is that if any families... so this went from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane. So the families who lost children in those times may not be guaranteed that the bodies of those children are still in those graves. And so the Australian Government's been doing really shitty things for a long time, and I had to write this poem, Bones.
ASTRID: Thank you Ali. Thank you very much for reading that. Australia has a particularly dark history.
ALI: Yea, and really... it's a terrible feeling to think... It's a terrible feeling to know that you have to embrace the past and both parties need to have an act of forgiveness to move forward, and it's a terrible feeling to know that that's not going to happen in Australia soon. And it's a very sad feeling to start looking at the reality that you're not going to see it in your lifetime.
ASTRID: So, as a poet, as someone gifted with words, putting this into poetry and capturing the feeling of pieces of history like this, how do you actually do that? I mean, you said Ben Quilty brought this fact, this historical fact to your attention, how do you sit down and find the poetry in there?
ALI: Well, I think you have to be curious and so it was just curiosity that led me to the story that Ben was painting about. And I actually must say I've never met him...
ASTRID: But that's what it is, you can be, you know...
ALI: Yeah. I'm just really grateful that he was the impetus for me learning about that story. I think more importantly with the mob it is to, you know, honour this terrible past, but also write about our fantastic resilience. There is still... the hope comes from the Aboriginal community. The funny things, the funny moments, the things that define us, the resilience... the cleverness. We're always bloody diminished for our cleverness. We're seen as people that need help or are second class citizens or less intelligent. I really have a responsibility to write about that.
So, in my writing process at the moment I'm writing different genres. I'm halfway through my first novel.
ASTRID: Prose novel?
ALI: Prose. And next year I'm hoping to be writing scripts for theatre, just to capture some of that. And to, you know, maybe they will be like the plays that I imagined would happen at the Aboriginal Writer's Retreat in the backyard, that old way of showcasing... that the audience is not ticketed, the audience is actually who is present at the time, and it's like campfire pantomimes that you just bring the joy of that mirror of how we keep persevering through quite extreme racism and insult to find that place where we share happiness. And for me. it's about recreating those beautiful years that I remember with those old people, because they had a way, everything theyt did had an element of love attached.
And I think being outside the country in Italy and with this.... they were an amazing core group of artists that I was privileged to spend the time with. They helped me to remember that maybe I'd lost that focus on love in everything that I do. I've become pretty tired, I think, and I haven't laughed quite so much as I did in that castle. It was like, I don't know, it was like a pocket in time, because it was a castle with walls and the gate shut, and no one could get in and we chose not to go out because we were having such a good time, but in that there was so much healing for me. And the laughter... every night we sat at the table together and I've always said about the sharing of food. I relearned some things there.
ASTRID: So, in your recent experience in Italy in this castle, you're obviously around storytellers or artists or creatives who are working on their own ideas and creating new works. Is that your ideal environment to be a creator?
eALI: Yeah. And everyone came from such a diverse background. I think that lets you learn a little bit broadly or gives you another little view at your own practice. Many people were experimenting, because, you know, six weeks is a significant chunk of time for any artist in whatever genre. I also liked that it wasn't just all writers, that it was composers and visual artists. So, we all had to do a presentation, a half hour presentation, so often after listening to the presentation of a composer... it would make me reflect on my poetry. I don't know, there were so many parallels and differences. It's a little bit hard to explain. And also it is that concise time, that you know... so
ASTRID: So, whether you are alone or in a group, for the writers listening or the poets listening, what is your ideal process of creation?
ALI: I used to think it was the alone time, sitting on my milk crate looking at the sky pretending the old people were there. I'm not so sure now. The time in Italy was so valuable. Again, I just trust that that was the perfect time on my journey that I needed to learn this. I cried a lot when I was there and no one judged me for it. To me that was the difference to being in Australia, and that these strangers actually understood that. Here I'm told to 'get over it, you're just being selfish, you're just stupid or overemotional'. It was a real blessing to be in a crowd of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that just accepted... 'Gee Ali, you got a really hard story and it's okay if you cry every now and again'. I was crying with happiness too sometimes, but not to be judged for it was so important. And that's going to be the impetus of my writing in the next short future, because that's what's bloody missing here. And then if you can't express yourself and you can't honour your story, if no one is honouring your story, then it's the mental health, it's the anger, it's those other behaviours that we see and are judged by, because again, people don't take the time to understand the origin.
ASTRID: Thank you for sharing this, Ali.
I'd like to know when you think about what you're writing next in this next short little period of time, will it be.,, Are you still drawn to the poetry? You just read us a new poem. Or are you drawn to your novel? Does it matter for you at this moment in time which medium you choose to express yourself in?
ALI: I think I've invented doors, and so when I'm.. I will plan on the calendar, 'Okay, I'm going to work on that project for that many weeks, and you know, ideally on paper you're going to do that many words'. Now this is a little snicker at the government, because they do everything on paper and that's not how reality works. It looks so good on paper, but there will always be a little glitch. So that's just a rough guideline, Mr Prime Minister. And you just have to accept that the reality is the result, and it's okay if it doesn't end up looking like it did on paper because you've done your best in that time. And then I'll shut that door. Hopefully it'll be completed or a draft will be completed, and then we'll shut that door. And then I'll have a break and then I will get on to another project, and again, this is the ideal and this is the reality, and the door will close and that's that's how I'm coping.
I'm working on four projects at the moment in three different genres, and it's working okay. And I actually thought I would struggle in the other writing genres, but I'm not because what the other genres are giving me as an individual writer is a new challenge and it's put the exciting back. It's lessened the responsibility I think, because it's just about the the writing and the learning - the learning is back. I think that's another really valuable thing in the every day is if you can still find a way to learn.
ASTRID: As I said when we began talking, Ali, it's been ten years since your first collection was published. We're now in 2019, and I am thrilled to have in front of us a new anthology published in Australia in August called Solid Air: Australia and New Zealand Spoken Word. And in this new anthology there's one of your poems, Circles and Squares, from your first collection.
ASTRID: What's it like to look back a decade on, find your poem in print again, people still reading. Have you changed?
ALI: Oh, I'm sure I have. It seems impossible that all that happened in ten years. I think that's why I feel a bit giddy sometimes, and I just think about the old people and it's part of the journey. That's the safest, that's the most sensible way that I can make sense of it, because it's crazy.
And Circles and Squares was a very important and very painful poem for me to write. I wrote it during the creative writing course at Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs under the tutelage of Terry Whitebeach, who I love dearly. She has just been such a fantastic mentor, sister to me. She probably was one of the first people that gave me that safe platform to be able to articulate, start articulating what I'd been carrying inside for for a long time.
I'll read it now. Circles and Squares.
I was born Yankunytjatjara
My Mother is Yankunytjatjara
Her Mother was Yankunytjatjara
My family is Yankunytjatjara
I have learnt many things from my Family Elders
I have grown to realize that my Life travels in Circles
My Aboriginal Culture has taught me that
Universal Life is Circular
When I was born I was not allowed to live with my Family
I grew up in the white man's world
We lived in a Square house
We picked fruit and vegetables from a neatly fenced Square plot
We kept animals in Square paddocks
We ate at a Square table
We sat on Square chairs
I slept in a Square bed
I looked at myself in a Square mirror and did not know who I was
One day I met my Mother
I just knew that this meeting was part of our Healing Circle
Then I began to travel
I visited places that I had been before
But this time I sat down with Family
We gathered closely together by big Round campfires
We ate bush tucker feasting on Round ants and berries
We eat meat from animals that live in Round burrows
We slept in Circles on our beaches around our fires
We set in the dirt, on Our Land, that belongs to a big Round planet
We watched the Moon grow to a magnificent yellow Circle
That was Our Time
I have learned two different ways now
I am thankful for this
That is part of my Life Circle
My heart is Round like a drum, ready to echo the music of my Family
But the Square within me remains
The square stops me in my entirety
ASTRID: Thank you, Ali.
When you met your mother for the first time and in the years after you started learning language, as a poet and as a writer, what has that language brought you in terms of the ability to express feelings and ideas?
ALI: I was learning language a little bit and then I made a mistake. I thought when I got back to community that I should get a job and work to help my families, because that's what I'd known from the adopted family. One of my regrets is that I didn't take the time to sit under the tree or on the verandas or closer with a whole variety of old people to learn language more. And so in the short time that I've been out of the desert my language skills have diminished.
I might suggest to everyone where possible learn your language. That is one of the things that has become really important to me, and I've found a language coach now and I'm trying to pick it up. It is more difficult now. So there you go, listeners, there's one of my biggest regrets.
When I was first writing out there, and being surrounded by language and laughing at the learning of it - because everyone laughs with mispronunciation and also the enjoyment that an adult is learning the language for the first time. So, that's a little hysterical I think for traditional people. Funny memories.
But I realized that there was an element of... even though my language skills were poor, I was like thinking desert as I was writing, I wasn't thinking the adoption thoughts. I was thinking from that desert perspective, from close contact with the older people. And you know, I think people will see a change in my writing because that's diminished a little bit. I'm hoping to get back to Alice Springs next month.
ASTRID: That will be beautiful. Ali, some of your poems have appeared on the curriculum. What is that like? I mean for any writer to suddenly realise that students are exposed to your thoughts and words.
ALI: You know, I don't think about it as an individual thing, it's just that it should be. Aboriginal writing should be there. If it's not mine it should be, you know, Aunty Kerrie's, or Melissa's, or you know, there's so many of us now. And there's so many new writers coming up it's a really interesting exciting time in Aboriginal literature. So yes, that's just how I think about it. It is very much a privilege that Year 12 English is teaching some of my poetry. And so it damn well should. The curriculum needs to be one of the first places that we can change this attitude of second class citizen and less intelligent, and we have a responsibility to the young people in Australia that they should be reading literature. It should be essential, mandatory for every award winning Aboriginal piece of literature that it automatically goes on to curriculum.
This week we'd like to congratulate Melissa Lucashenko on winning the Miles Franklin. She's the third Aboriginal writer to win the Miles Franklin alongside Alexis Wright and Kim Scott. Essential reading! It's the top of its field. Why isn't it there?
ASTRID: I could not agree more.
ALI: I think more about the shame of the omission of my Aboriginal brothers and sister writers, so I think more about the omission of so many Aboriginal writers previous to me who have won awards, who have set up this industry, who've done the hard works. If their work is not on the curriculum that's a reflection on mainstream Australia, and their work should be there too.
ASTRID: I speak to a lot of writers and I teach writing, and one of the things that comes up most often, Ali, is this fear of students and sometimes writers who've already been published about exposing too much of themselves or sharing too much of their private thoughts, their private feelings.
You have done that. And you've made Australian literature all the better for it. But how do you personally look after yourself having done that?
ALI: So... interesting. And there is an event tomorrow night at The Moat, part of the Melbourne Visiting Poets Program, where I'm talking exactly about that, and about shifting the onus.
Sadly I think that a lot of people that come to listen only listen and don't act. And we need to shift the actions because we are breaking our backs and giving everything of ourselves in the hope for change, and it's not coming. So. Beep beep. I can't say what I want to really say, I'm beeping myself, I'm censoring myself.
Yes, you've got to start working, because as a grandmother I'm getting tired. And I think that's been the reason of swapping genres, and especially the novel, to start hiding stuff behind fiction. Like I'll still say what I want to say, but it doesn't have to be so personal.
I actually don't trust Australia with my personal anymore.
ASTRID: I am so deeply ashamed of Australia that you feel that. Yeah. Perfectly said, Ali. Thank you.