Anita Heiss on ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’

Anita Heiss is a proud member of the Wiradyuri nation of central New South Wales, and she writes across genres including non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial fiction and children’s fiction.

Her memoir Am I Black Enough for You? was a finalist in the 2012 Human Rights Awards, and was updated and republished in 2022.

Anita’s other non-fiction works include Dhuuluu-Yala (To Talk Straight): Publishing Aboriginal Literature, and, as editor, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia and The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, which she co-edited with Peter Minter.

Her adult fiction includes Not Meeting Mr Right, Avoiding Mr Right, Manhattan Dreaming, Paris Dreaming and Tiddas. Her novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Prize, and was the University of Canberra 2020 Book of the Year. Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was shortlisted for the 2021 HNSA ARA Historical Novel.

Anita has appeared on The Garret before, and you can listen to her 2021 interview discussing Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray here.

Anita Heiss on 'Am I Black Enough For You?'


ASTRID: Anita, welcome back to The Garret.

ANITA: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

ASTRID: Now, we last spoke in 2021, a year ago, about your novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray. It has now been long listed for The Stella Prize. Congratulations.

ANITA: Thank you very much.

ASTRID: Now, this is a milestone year for The Stella Prize. It's now been around for a decade, and this is the first year that poetry has been included. What does the long listing, but also what does The Stella Prize, mean to you? And after a decade, what role does it play in contemporary literature?

ANITA: First of all, I need to say it was an absolute surprise for me and a thrill to be long listed, because I write commercial fiction. On the night, when I went down to Melbourne for the long listing announcement, which is very exciting, because I heard it was going to be a good party, and you could actually see, even by the covers, that my book stood out because it's not literary fiction. It's interesting, because I don't expect to be ever long listed or shortlisted or to win awards, because of the way in which awards work in this country, or internationally, I should say. But also, because I don't write for awards. I was super excited, and because I've always believed, no lie, that I would win Lotto one day, but I never thought I would be long listed something like The Stella and it really is ...

It's a prestigious award and I learned at the time – I think it was by my publisher – that The Stella and the Miles Franklin are the two lists that international publishers actually look at, and book sellers and so forth. I thought, ‘Well, this is fantastic to be on that list’. And you get a sticker as well, which is exciting.

I think for me, the list of The Stella Prize really puts Australian women's writing front and centre, even if it's for that period of time before the announcements and so forth. I'm grateful to the prize for that and to the women who established that. We know the history around why that happened because our works weren't being reviewed. We would have years where there were no females at all in the short list for the Miles Franklin and so forth, even though there were women judges. And that would say to us, ‘How is it possible that there's not one female author in this country who has written a piece of excellent literature?’ So I'm really pleased and grateful to the women who actually propped up this award and to those who continue to sponsor it.

I think if we look at this year's award, there are a lot of people surprised by the long list and then, of course the short list, because in that long list of 12, there were, as you mentioned... were there four poetry books in there? There's a graphic novel, one I think was a mixed genre essays, fiction so forth, and I think five women of colour, which is just extraordinary. For me, that says we are producing work at the same level of excellence as every other writer in the.... well, more than excellent if we've made this list.

I do think, Astrid, that in years to come, possibly next year even would be my suggestion, that they move to categories because there's nothing to say that a children's picture book isn't going to be on next year's list if it tells a fantastic story. I've just done the children's version of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray and I can tell you that it was less work than a 110,000 word historical novel.

As Melissa Lucashenko said on the night of the long list announcement, it was like measuring apples and spaceships. I think the role of judging and the job of the judges has become increasingly more difficult, to measure poetry against historical fiction or memoir or essays or whatever. I think the fact that there was so much poetry and graphic novel and such a range of genres in this year's long list, and now the short list has poetry, which is fantastic from a prize, it was originally fiction, then non-fiction. I think that the upside of that is, I hope, mainstream publishers will take a look at the need for them to do works of poetry because at the moment, obviously UQP is the main publisher of poetry in Australia and Magabala does some poetry, but I think the upside of that list this year is that maybe mainstream publishers will go, ‘Maybe we should do a list of poetry’. That's fantastic for the genre and for Australian poets. I just think for me, it was just really, really exciting. So, I'm still excited I get the sticker.

ASTRID: Anita, there is so much in there. You have just given The Stella Prize, the organisation itself, a whole lot of work to do over the next year. I agree with what you have said, and I just want to add that The Stella Prize is a beautiful part of what recognition and what honour we can give to the writers, female and non-binary writers who are writing today.

You mentioned in there that you don't write for prizes. What did you mean? Because that's fascinating.

ANITA: I mean, I have friends that get really, really upset when they're not shortlisted or long listed because they feel like they're being overlooked all the time and many of them are, and I'm always a bridesmaid and I'm never the bride. Sometimes I'm not even at the wedding in terms of awards. I don't write for awards. I write because I have something I want to say and I write because I have stories that I think Australians should be reading, particularly, as you would understand, around First Nations, history, culture, purpose, our roles in society. Every single one of my books has a First Nations, mainly Wiradyuri approach to the story and I write because I want our people, particularly our young people, to see themselves on the page and I want the Australian literary landscape to have us as part of the narrative of this country in terms of literature. Everything else is a bonus.

I am not lying when I say I get really, really excited when I get a long list or a short list, because I get a sticker and so forth because that's not my goal, but there are other people who measure their worth as a writer through those sort of things. But I can tell you, I got a royalty check just before I went on leave, and I had to ring my agent to double check that the numbers were correct because I'd never seen anything that big in my life in terms of my writing! I tell you that because I write because I want people to read and that means I want to sell books. So, I've got a friend who win awards, but may have a print run of 3,000 where I'm selling 20,000. I want people to read them. It doesn't necessarily mean that there's three judges in a room or four or five judges in a room like my work or like the story, doesn't mean that 20,000 other people are going to like it because judging is also completely subjective. You and I maybe if Fiona from Avid Reader could sit on a panel and we could read exactly the same 200 works and choose a different list altogether. That's okay, because it's all subjective. I think people get really caught up with what success looks like and what success means when in fact it is subjective.

Having said that, I'm still really excited and I have four stickers now. So, I'm very excited about that. It's all about the stickers. It's like when I run, it's all about getting the medal and what I can eat at the end.

ASTRID: I am glad that you have the stickers, but I am also extremely thrilled that you got a big royalty check. I think that creatives of all descriptions in Australia don't get paid or remunerated particularly well, especially writers. I would like everybody to value, monetarily value, great writing.

It's an odd distinction that we have kind of developed in Australia between literary and commercial. Commercial sells, right? It means that the books are read by many people, but literary is often where the kudos kind of sits. I don't understand the heart of that, but now, Anita, the reason why I wanted to talk to you again on The Garret is because you have just re-released an updated version of your memoir Am I Black Enough For You?, which was originally published a decade ago in 2012. Again, congratulations. Not everyone has their book even say in print, let alone get rereleased with an updated version. What is it like to reread your own words and perspective a decade on, and then add to that?

ANITA: That's a really good question because if you go back, all of us as writers, if you went back to your first piece of writing, I don't know about you, but sometimes I get really embarrassed by my first book, which was like 1996. I mean, it was a long time ago and I guess we hope that with every new piece of writing, we're a little bit better at the craft, right?

So going back to Am I Black Enough For You?, it was interesting to read, particularly the emotional journey. I wrote a lot about my father, he had passed away and so forth, but reading that to see how much I've grown or how much wiser I've become, or not, but also to see how my journey has changed over time in relation to the bigger picture of living in Australia and living in a global village and so forth.

I really enjoyed updating the original chapters and then the original material, but I did find it go quite hard writing about the more recent events, particularly in world history in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, of course which we saw during the pandemic but we'd had in Australia for 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And also writing about Adam Goodes and how he was treated on the field, being a friend of his and an ambassador for his organisation, but also just as a First Nations person or an Australian watching that behaviour unfold over the period of time when he was Australian of the Year and an elite athlete and so forth, and a role model for so many Australians.

So for me, it was... Originally, I thought I would just write it. I've got some ideas, I'd written a few pieces for the guardian. I wanted to flesh those out. But then when I started, it was meant to be, I don't know, maybe 12,000 or 15,000 words, and then it became 25,000 words, and then some point you just have to stop. Well, you know that as well. I need a deadline and I need a word count, but it was interesting. Obviously, even the rewriting of the first chapter or the intro about myself in that time – and I know you wanted to talk about this – I have started learning my language, my Wiradyuri language, so I could go in and actually introduce myself in that way. For me, writing about that journey was really empowering because I felt like I could explain that ... I don't know if I wrote this in the memoir now and I'm ... Gosh, I don't think I did! But what I realised was, if we go back to awards and so forth, I always told myself that I will never win and I've told people. The night after the long list, I was sitting at a dinner party in Melbourne, I'm like, ‘Yeah, I'm not going to get shortlisted. I don't have the vocab. I don't have the language that is needed for literary novel’, right? But what I realised is the vocab I didn't have was Wiradyuri vocab. I think that's what made writing Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray and also rewriting Am I Black Enough For You?, that's what was missing in my writing all that time. But I didn't know that until I started trying to do that.

To the listeners, I am far from fluent. I know probably 0.002 per cent of what I need to know, but I know enough to know that it makes the storytelling more authentic and it makes me feel more empowered as an author, and it gives me a sense of sovereignty every time I can weave some language into a story, whether it's fiction or non-fiction.

I do not know if I answered your question, Astrid.

ASTRID: You did indeed, and I do have further questions about learning Wiradyuri, but before we go there, I'd like to kind of stick with this idea of updating your own memoir. That does not happen very much. I interviewed Jackie Huggins earlier this year, and she released Sister Girls after two decades. I know Jackie's a friend of yours and when I asked her what was the difference between the initial publication and re-release, Jackie told me little has changed, but a lot has changed. I know there was a really shocking time for you that was undeserved, because on parts of the media are abysmal, but a decade along, what is the difference between rereleasing your memoir? How has it been received?

ANITA: I think that's another good question. It's interesting because when I think about it now, I think social media has changed also. So back 10 years ago, it was largely on Twitter. I remember having to close my account down for a few days because of the harassment that I got through some channels of media and their followers. I had many – not so much podcasts – with lots of media I did. Those platforms were then bombed by the same ... it's called bombing when they go on comment sections and so forth. The same people that bombed the ABC bombed the Random House website, and then also bombed my Amazon page and so forth, of which there was nothing I could do about that because it was in the U.S. and so forth. So it was quite ... back then it was really ugly and awful, and I would wake up to emails after the court case and then when this book came out two years later, or a year later, the same sort of race hate happened again. When I had an event in Melbourne at the Wheeler Centre, I had to have a bodyguard. So, it was quite distressing at the time. It was scary. It was not something that you and I would be used to at all. But interestingly, this time I seem to get... there was also lots of support as well, but quite often the keyboard warriors are far more aggressive and far louder than the normal people like you and I. It's funny, I remember those who stood up publicly for me at the time, and I'll never forget that because they didn't have to do that. But also interestingly, we have this conversation today and I realised this morning that I haven't seen one review of this book, which is interesting.

But the difference is social media, as I mentioned, has changed. I'm using Instagram and LinkedIn and there's podcasts and that wasn't so big 10 years ago. So more and more, you'll see there's readers who I write for and that's who matters, right? They are the ones who will do a little thing on Instagram and tag you in and so forth, which is what I do with the books that I read as well. I think there's been a shift in the way that books are promoted and shared and I think people who don't understand or use social media don't understand. I love for the most part in terms of books and reading and writing in our community Twitter and hashtags because it means you can attend events, follow a hashtag from anywhere in the world and feel like you are part of something, which you couldn't do really back in the day. We've got Facebook Live now and we've got Insta Live and so the upside of COVID also, we had ... I had loads of events on the ground back then, and now of course we're doing online events, but that also means that now people are participating and engaging. I mean, part of something that they couldn't be part of prior to COVID when everything was done in person. So, the upside of the downside of COVID and 10 years later and being in this space is that there's capacity to reach so many more people who want to be part of the story and hear and engage and learn and ask questions genuinely through social media.

I also said to my publicist I didn't want to do a lot of interviews because I was frightened of what might happen this time around. But interestingly, it's all been very quiet. I do hope that The Garret isn't bombarded with any hate or ignorance after this goes live, but we don't know what will happen, but fingers crossed.

ASTRID: Fingers crossed, but also we shouldn't have to do that. As I read Am I Black Enough For You? over the weekend, Anita, you've done so much and have experienced so much in your professional life. You have a wonderful career. I just want to say that.

ANITA: Thank you. I feel blessed every day, Astrid, and I think there's things that we might say off air about complaining about something in the industry or about a publisher or whatever, or about an event or a book shop, and then sort of like an upper cut to yourself and say like, ‘I have the writing life that I know many people would die for’. But I've also spent three decades building my career. I've sat on boards. I joined industry organisations. I work on weekends. I'm in libraries. So many want to be writers don't understand that it just comes easy and that you just go write a book and someone's going to publish it. Well, that's not how it worked for me.

ASTRID: Look, I think there's about... we can count on one hand the number of people who have had that experience in the Australian literary scene. That is not what happens. There is so much work that goes into it.

As I was reading, Am I Black Enough For You? I learned, you told me, that in 2021, Fiannuala Morgan wrote Aboriginal Writers and Popular Fiction: The literature of Anita Heiss. Now that was published by Cambridge University Press, and I confess I read that paragraph a few times and I have now ordered that book.

ANITA: Oh. You probably didn't need to, but ... Oh, I shouldn't say that. Yes, everybody go order that book.

ASTRID: No, but I love reading contemporary Australian fiction. I love reading what is being written and published in Australia right now. But I also want there to be a canon of contemporary literature published in this country that is studied and that stays in print for decades. How does it feel to have someone write their PhD and publish it on you and your works?

ANITA: It's really weird. It's weird because, again, nobody's sitting down writing, ‘I'm going to write this novel and I hope someone studies it one day’. It's really interesting to see how others, particularly academics, read and analyse your work because in the academic space chiclit doesn't rate anything. So, I'm so grateful to this piece of work by Fiannuala Morgan and interestingly, I think she mentioned me somewhere as a public intellectual, which I hadn't even heard that term. Back in the day when we did the interview, I was like, ‘Wait, what is the public ... I don't know if I feel comfortable being called that’. She goes, ‘Well, this is what is’. So that was quite weird. But for me, what it does is it made ... I'm grateful because it showed me that there are academics that understand the role of popular and commercial fiction in Australia.

There was a review in a Melbourne paper when Avoiding Mr. Right came out. A good spread it, except that there was a quote in there I think that said something like, ‘Fans of Anita Heiss's non-fiction may not appreciate this.’ Because it spoke about ... not that that quote did, but part of the article spoke about the potential dumbing down of my material. But what people didn't understand was it was an absolute strategy around the Not meeting Mr. Right, Avoiding Mr. Right, the Dreaming books, because I wanted to reach women who don't read non-fiction, who don't read literary fiction, but are in book clubs and they go to the beach and they want a pretty, bright pastel colour to cover, I wanted to reach them with stories about what we share in common as women, but to talk about social justice and blackness in custody and the relationship with the police and Indigenous intellectual property. I found a way that I could weave all those issues that I think Australians should be talking about into popular fiction and so forth, and Avoiding Mr. Right came out in 2008 and it is one of my most popular books. I mean, so when PLR comes in, that is the most popular book in public libraries in Australia. So, awards say nothing. It's really about what readers are reading. I was really grateful for that because it gives the work, not just my work, but hopefully it'll make other academics think about the way that they view, through their lens, the purpose and role and cultural value of commercial women's fiction in this country.

ASTRID: Anita, I am so impressed by your career. I know that you also have served and continue to serve on quite a few boards. For you, what roles do boards play in your career?

ANITA: In my history of wanting to learn about the industry, I sat on the board briefly of the management committee of the New South Wales Writer Centre back in the 1990s. I was voted onto the board of the Australian Society of Authors in 1997, I believe, and I was on the board for eight years. I'm currently on the board of the University of Queensland Press. I will say for your listeners, I'm not published by UQP. I doubt that I would be on the board if I was published because you would see that as a conflict of interest, but I am employed by UQ who obviously fund UQP and I'm there because obviously there's the David Unaipon Award, and 45 per cent of what was published by UQP last year was First Nations authors. Eight of the top 10 selling books in last year were by First Nations authors, so there is a lot of interest and support and infrastructure around First Nations authors across genres.

For me, I guess I'm in that space because I have a wealth of experience working with a whole lot of publishers that are much bigger than UQP – Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Allen and Unwin and so forth. I bring to the table my experience as an author and what I know about the industry itself, and I'm a UQ rep really, but I know that I'm an author rep as well. I think for me, it's interesting to see from that perspective, how the industry works as well, and UQP is a fantastic independent publisher.

ASTRID: Of all the works that you have published over the last few decades, Anita, what is the work that had the most impact on you personally?

ANITA: I would have to say it would have to be Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray because it was born out of ... there was a conversation, there was a concept for a story, but it got its soul when I started to learn my language. I always say that if was the last book I wrote, then that would be fine because I know it's got support and endorsement by all my elders on the ground at Gundagai and Wagga Wagga and elsewhere, and I feel like that ... I mean, it took a lot out of me because I was so desperate and anxious to get it right. I was in COVID and you would know this and everyone's saying to writers, ‘Oh, you must be getting so much writing done because you're at home’, and it was the least productive I'd ever been because I would explain we've got the white noise of fear of what's going on around the world as well.

But I remember being so sick with anxiety and the anxiety was about getting it right. Not even for the reader, it was for the descendants of those who had lost lives in the flood, it was for the people who still live in Gundagai. I had anxiety about the language, had anxiety about how mob were going to react and so forth, and with no concerns about anything else, with no thoughts about awards, I just wanted it out, then waiting for the fallout where I'd got it wrong, if I'd got it wrong. So that's when I say that everything else is a bonus because I was really worried about the people whose story it reflected in real life, and also being able to bring language ...

I know Tara, Tat June Winch, had done that previously, but we work in a different space and the different voices and different stories, but being able to bring to the commercial space language and, of course, as you'd know, the cover was the first cover in Australian publishing commercial history to have only language on the front cover. Of course, there's English on the back. So, all of that for me culminates in that work being the most significant, I think, to me personally.

ASTRID: I'm interested in how learning language will continue to influence you as a writer and your future works. I know this is a hypothetical, Anita, but learning any language is opening a door to a different universe. Learning your language, your ancestral language, had so many, many different layers of meaning and nuance to the experience. As you mentioned earlier, you wrote a new introduction to yourself using language in your memoir. As you think about commercial fiction and what you will write next, how much language will be in there as your mastery of the language continues over time?

ANITA: It's interesting, Astrid, because I feel like I learned a lot when I was writing Bila because I had to. I was sitting here and without pressure of feeling stupid in a classroom where everybody knew more than me, but I still know so little. But what my goal is…

So, we've just done the children's picture book version, which we will launch on the anniversary of the great flood next year in 2023. There are smatterings of language throughout Am I Black Enough For You? 10 Years On where it was appropriate to use it. My next epic historical novel, which is due in the middle of next year, and it's set on Wiradyuri Country, I hope to write in a very similar voice to Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, so with different language words, I hope. That's my goal. The children's picture book will have language throughout that as well with the glossary and so forth and I've got to play showing up here as part of the Brisbane Festival in September.

ASTRID: Is that with Jane Harrison?

ANITA: Yes. Jane Harrison helped mentor me in the last stages of that work, and that is the stage adaptation of the novel Tiddas. So even in the stage adaptation, I was able to weave in some language. That book came out in 2014, from memory. So that's really good that I can bring that to life on the stage as well. I'm very excited about that. Maybe even a song when we start working on the music.

I hope to learn more. Like I say, I graduated with a Grad Cert, so I did pass all my assessments, but I'm no great speaker. I just want to be able to introduce myself, acknowledge Country and weave in where I can, because I want people, which is what I wanted ... didn't think about it when I was writing the novel, but once the novel was out and people start asking you questions, ‘What do you hope readers take away?’, what I realised at that point when it was all over was I hope readers take away the understanding that everywhere they walk in Australia, there's a first language and it's not English. English may be the fourth language of that land. For anyone listening today who wants to write the great Australian novel, it must include First Nations Australians because wherever your novel is set will be set on the land that is Traditionally Owned by a clan or a group or a tribe or a nation that has a language as well. If you are writing a novel set in Australia and you're not referencing that, then you are choosing to omit and choosing to ignore the real history of that place.

I saw a title of a book last week and there was an event I think in Melbourne and I messaged the interview and I said, ‘I really hope that that novel actually speaks to the First Nations peoples of wherever it's set. If not, I'm hoping you're asking the questions why’. Because Australian novels should not be published now that aren't referencing the local people.

ASTRID: So well said, Anita. I admire your career so greatly, Anita, your fiction, your non-fiction, soon to be play as well, but also the work that you do within the industry. I think that for those who listen to The Garret who are emerging writers and want to spend their life and their career in the literary world in this country, you are an excellent, excellent role model to follow. Thank you so much.

ANITA: You're beautiful. Thank you.