At home with Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning poet and writer of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage. They write fiction, poetry, plays and non-fiction.

Ellen’s first book, Heat and Light, was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. Ellen’s second book, a collection of poetry, Comfort Food, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize and highly commended for the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. Throat is Ellen’s third word and her second poetry collection.

Ellen mentions working on Alyi Cobby Eckermann's Ruby Moonlight, and you can listen to Ali discuss Ruby Moonlight here. And apologies for the sound quality, we recorded this interview remotely on 25 May 2020.

Ellen van Neerven_The Garret Podcast


ASTRID: Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning writer, educator and editor. They write fiction, poetry and non-fiction, and in 2020 are the inaugural recipient of the UQP Quentin Bryce Award. Their first work, Heat and Light, was shortlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize and received the David Unaipon Award, the Dobby Literary Award and the NSW Premier's Literary Indigenous Writers Prize. Their second work, the poetry collection Comfort Food, was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, and their third work, Throat, explores language, land and gender. Released in 2020, I have no doubt it will draw attention and praise.

Ellen, welcome to The Garret.

ELLEN: Thank you.

ASTRID: Now, we are talking via Zoom today, although I do hope to one day meet you in person. I have had quite the experience over the last couple of days. Sometimes when I interview a writer that I have never met before, I sit down and read all of your works in chronological order, and that's what I have just done with Heat and Light, Comfort Food and of course your most recent, Throat. Thank you for the experience, and I have to say before we get in further, you have given me such strange dreams. I don't know what your combined works have done to my subconscious, but they've been really vivid dreams with all little threads coming from your work. So, thank you, but also, I need you to explain a few things to me.

ELLEN: I didn't realise this was dream interpretation. I'm happy, and let's go for it. I mean, you probably know more about the kind of subconscious stuff in my writing than I do, having had that experience of reading them all in one continuation. How interesting. I'd love to hear more about that experience.

ASTRID: It is really one of my favourite things to do. I mean, I'm a reader, but I feel like the experience of reading someone's work can often be more intense and heightened when, you know, you go deep and go through everything at once – including in the order that the artist, the writer created, because things evolve.

Today Ellen, I'd like to talk to you about Throat, your newest work. But before we get there I'd like to go back to your original work published with UQP, Heat and Light. In the six years since it has been published, how has it been received and what has it meant for your career?

ELLEN: Thanks. As a debut it was very, very successful work. And so, I had so many experiences after the work was released. I started Heat and Light when I was maybe 19, 18 or 19, and it was published before my 24th birthday. That was at 2014. And I know I've met so many readers that the book really means a lot to them, which is really amazing, because it's a kind of hybrid fiction work, there is often… people are in kind of different schools of life which part they like the most. And for example, there's a whole school of people who love the novella in the middle of it, ‘Water’, which is a speculative fiction piece, futuristic piece, set in the near future which are fast approaching the moment. It has really strong environmental themes, really strong kind of anti-government themes but kind of in a really satirical way. And I think, yeah, that has really spoken to people who are into that. And then there's a quite a gritty realism as well that a lot of people respond to in these stories. And then, you know, the queer stories, there is lots of people that really respond to that. So, it's been like that's really kind of amazing that it's meant so many different things to so many different people. And the book is six years old, and people are still discovering as well.

ASTRID: As I was reading Heat and Light – and I am a person who thinks about the environment and what we have done and continue to do to the planet – and I kind of thought it would be ‘Water’, the middle section, and the plant people who are in it that would keep coming back to. And you know, in the dreams that I mentioned and in my thoughts on Heat and Light I actually keep coming back to the first section, which is the interwoven stories of the family and the character of Pearl. Pearl I can't quite shake at this point.

ELLEN: That's amazing. Yeah, a couple of people also talk about the character of Pearl. And of course, the first piece in the book is called ‘Pearl’, and I really wanted to write about a family. But I feel like there's always… even though I took on many different perspectives in the family, Pearl is the centre that the stories pivot off. And I really wanted to attach a sense of mystery to her, because I felt like that was the kind of key to write a story about a family that has a secret.

ASTRID: So, Ellen after Heat and Light you then publish your first poetry collection, Comfort Food. Obviously poetry is a medium that speaks to you and calls to you and that attracts you. Can you talk to me about the move from fiction to poetry, and what you can do in poetry that maybe fiction doesn't do?

ELLEN: So, fiction was my first medium. My first craft was in fiction, and I studied fiction writing at uni, and when I was a kid I read a lot of fiction. So, poetry was sort of a second practice, and actually I felt in terms of starting to publish my first poems and putting together a collection of poems, I actually felt quite nervous and not sure of my ability.

I actually see myself as someone who's still early in being a poet. I wrote bits of poetry ever since I was a teenager, I guess, but I didn't think that I really had much talent for it. And then I was a little bit older and Heat and Light had come out, and I was hanging around poets. I worked on Ali Cobby Eckermann's verse novel, Ruby Moonlight. It was a pleasure to be an editor on that book because it's amazing, and Ali is amazing as well. And I met other First Nations poets, and it really spoke to me about how powerful poetry can be as a medium, how powerful spoken word can be, how powerful poetry about Country, written on Country, written to Country can be.

It does do something different than fiction does. It's more immediate and more visceral, I feel. You know how I said poetry is closer to song, closer to music, and fiction kind of… the building blocks are bigger than they are with fiction than they are with poetry. Poetry has these small… it's very intricate and like miniature in a way that it's stitched together, and fiction is like this architecture, like building a house. And so, I wanted to make small things for a while, I wanted to really honour that kind of voice in my head.

How I get poems is that I hear things in my head, and I get really fixated on bits of lyric that go together or a first line. And so, I just started taking writing poetry a bit more seriously. But yeah, it was now that I think about it – you know, it was five years ago – it was this kind of nervous feeling of is my poetry any good?

Then I started writing more poems and they felt like they kind of fit under this umbrella, there was something similar about them. So, I started this body of work and I emailed my publisher and said, ‘Hey, you know me as a fiction writer, but how would you feel about reading some poems?’ It went on from there, it was quite a quick turnaround. And now yeah, I've got two books of poems.

ASTRID: Two of the poems in Comfort Food that stood out for me and that I found Ellen, I kept reading because every time I read them something else occurred to me or I learned something else or I made a connection that I hadn't made before. I'd read and reread your poems, and the two I guess that had that most that most of the impact on me were ‘Please Pause Today’, which is about Anzac Day and who is an Anzac and what we celebrate and what we don't celebrate, and should we even celebrate it? And also ‘Invisible spears’, which is dedicated to Adam Goodes.

ELLEN: They sort of had the same energy. They are both angry… I say angry because angry is often misinterpreted, and we're often called angry people, just like Adam was called an angry man. That is a simplification of the emotion and the response, but I think those two poems do have this kind of very direct power to them, when I think about it makes sense that you've chosen them both together.

ASTRID: Would you mind reading one for me?

ELLEN: I'll read ‘Please Pause Today’. I haven't read it for a while and I'm interested to revisit.

‘Please pause today’

I remember my grandfather today.

The cultivation of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation.

I remember he fought for this country, for our freedom.

Poorly-read, largely white, nationalistic drinkers pause, please pause today.

Without citizenship, equal rights, equal pay.

Summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by the brave.

Denied entry into RSLs, restaurants, taxis, another entry to the cinema.

The largest single-day terrorist attacks committed by this nation.

He died without medals.

Innocent children killed.

So, there is two voices in that poem, that kind of juxtapose. If you read it on the page the second voice is in italics. So, the first voice is me, and the second is the journalist Scott McIntyre. His tweets, his Anzac Day tweets in 2015. And interestingly after Scott really had his career damaged by these tweets, a couple of years later Yassmin Abdel-Magied also made tweets relating to Anzac Day. It is one of White Australia’s sacred cows, you know, you can't say anything about it. Of course, she got a lot of abuse for it as well and is now living in the United Kingdom.

So, you know, I sighed a big sigh of relief this year when COVID meant that those celebrations were slightly different, well largely different this year. It's so layered, you know, this White Australia thing of this being such a myth of Australian spirit and yet at the same time refusing to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers. I just… there's a strong memory of when I was younger about my Nanna wanting to make sure that my grandfather was buried with that acknowledgement that he was a World War II veteran and the sort of processes that she had to go through. You know, it's not fair that he was treated differently than all white soldiers when he came back. And for a long time him and my Nanna weren't allowed in the RSL. There was segregation here, Aboriginal people were treated like second class citizens. And there's a lot of stories about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women were the ones putting their hands up going, ‘Yeah, We'll fight for our country because we are a proud people’. So, I guess very willing to help. And I think… you know yeah. So, there's so much I can say about that.

ASTRID: There is so much to say about Anzac Day, and it almost never gets said on Anzac Day or any other day. You managed to say so much in poetry and in poems and the poem that you just read. It's what, 15 lines long? These are short pieces but have historical weight and are political commentary and social commentary. How did people respond to poetry that packs that punch?

ELLEN: I think people are often quite silent after my piece, because you're right, they're very condensed, particularly my early work in Comfort Food is quite condensed. And people are used to poems that are perhaps a little bit longer, and maybe more narrative poems take you on the journey. But the work in Comfort Food was largely these really short condensed works, and I think people largely responded to some of that directness and also with the kind of… there's a few longer poems. So, whenever I had a longer poem, particularly the first poem ‘Whole Lot’, it created more of a meditative experience. I definitely see parallels between those poems and my fiction writing in Heat and Light, because in some ways I was always choosing the last possible moment to enter the reader into the story. It was like I only had a certain amount of words and I really wanted to make the best use of them.

ASTRID: Let's turn to Throat, which has just been published in 2020. A really obvious question but one that I feel bears asking – this is your third book, but the first one released in a pandemic. How has that changed the business side of things and the way that you connect with your readers?

ELLEN: So, my book was due to be a May release. The publishers brought it earlier to an April release. I was meant to go overseas four times this year to do press, and I was to go to about six different places in Australia to do various events. Travel was cancelled and some of those events were cancelled, but some of those events went online instead, which had a positive effect because more people could access those online events and they also become, some of them become, archived. So, some of them stay on YouTube or whatever the platform might be, so people can access them down the track. You know, fans of my work or students can go watch them. And so maybe I had to be a bit more cautious. You know, not to say the same thing. So, you know, if someone access or my YouTube it is not me just saying the same answers, I had some variety in my outfits and everything.

ASTRID: It depends on the questions that you're asking.

ELLEN: Yeah. I made sure I had a Melbourne event and a Brisbane event. I made sure there was a Welcome to Country or an Elder's Address before each event, because it's important that we continue to acknowledge country even though our world is very digital at the moment, and that we think about whose land we are on. And also just selfishly I wanted it to be a culturally safe space for myself to enter. I think that those online events were actually really great. It's really good to be able to… I think of some of the other things that I'm going to do in the future will just be online things. It made me really think about my footprint, my ecological footprint. Thinking about all the travel that I've been doing in the last six years, plane travel and how I justified it because I'm vegan and I tried not to buy a lot of stuff, but I couldn't really justify travelling so much, especially when you asked to travel for just one event or one day.

And people might think writers’ lives are luxurious, but that's just one tiny aspect, about one percent of a writer's life, a lot of it is being in your bedroom by yourself banging your head on the keyboard, or not even that. You know, it's looking after your family, finding ways to pay the bills, it’s all of those sort of things that you have to negotiate when are trying to get by in a Capitalist patriarchal world, and a lot of racial micro aggressions as well.

You know, sometimes when I encounter racism in the industry, that is something that – people don’t see this – but just one comment can kind of knock you out for a month. A lot of the spaces that we operate are not safe spaces, unfortunately. And so a lot of my energy goes around keeping myself safe and keeping other young Indigenous or young women of colour or young queers of colour, keeping them safe and making sure that industry is somewhere where they can not only survive but thrive.

ASTRID: I feel like Throat explicitly talks to part of this. Throat is… it's written in five sections and the beginning of each section has a very short reflection or introduction in what I think is your voice, and then a collection of poems around that theme. The second section is called ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. Ellen, I am a white person, and I spent a lot of time in this section, and I think I was supposed to spend a lot of time in this section. I should say for everybody listening, the section comes with a reading list, and I am taking that reading list. Ellen you've given me homework.

ELLEN: Thank you. Thanks. That's great.

ASTRID: But you actually talk about the publishing industry. You specifically reference UQP, your publisher. And there's… ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’. It is intense, Ellen. It's beautiful, but it's intense. You actually have – I recommend everybody you know go get a copy of Throat and look at these few pages – you actually propose a treaty of shared power between you as the author of Throat, you know, the creative work that the reader is reading and the reader. And as you kind of interrogate what a treaty is, you actually ask, ‘What of UQP’s claim? Does the fact that I have entered into an agreement with a non-Indigenous owned press complicate this treaty?’ I don't even pretend that I know enough to start understanding all of the different layers in here. So, can you speak about it for me?

ELLEN: Yeah. First up, for those of you who don't know, Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a treaty. Countries like Aotearoa New Zealand, that treaty is several hundreds of years old now. There was an established contract if you like, not perfect, but there were people there and when the colonisers and invaders came there were people on the land with a connection to the land and a society on the land. But instead in our country there was Terra Nullius, Aqua Nullius, empty land, empty water, that explicitly denied the presence of the 500 nations, the First Nations People in Australia. So, I think when you hear people talk about treaty, when you hear Aboriginal people talk about treaty, there's such a long history of that.

And I think about Aunty Kerry Gilbert. She's a big inspiration to me, sort of a grandmother of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature. She said that I believe we need to have a treaty, and we need to have that more than anything. We need some recognition in this country that there were Aboriginal people prior to Cook. We need to make a legal binding document with the Australian Government and the Australian people that gives us some rights, some power, some equality in this land. My father wrote the first draft treaty. It's called Aboriginal Land Rights and Freedom Draft Treaty. We haven't got sovereign rights as a people, and that treaty gives us recognition and power to negotiate as First Nations of this country.

And you would you probably know, Astrid, and many people would know that there's been some processes to perhaps get a treaty. States are taking it on board. South Australia was actually the first state that tried such an initiative, buts currently that's going cold. There is some treaty planning that's currently active in Victoria and in Queensland, kind of at the early stages. And you know, there's so much process involved. And when it comes down to it, Aboriginal people want recognition of the continuance as peoples. And I think it's… I'm just speaking for myself, but we want it to not just be a piece of paper, not just something that's symbolic, but more something that will give us some light and allow us to have more autonomy and more authority if you like, which will be a way to safeguard our futures. Because if you think about it, it's all in the historical record, how we were peoples that were claimed to be going extinct, that weren't going to survive as a race. And that's why we weren’t recognised, because they tried to erase us from history. And those powers to be are still there. You know, we have a very young population, we have the youngest population of any demographic in Australia. So, we need those we need to give those young people more reason to live or something to live for, and that is to be in a better position than their grandparents were, to have some legal footing I guess. And so, I toss and turn, but I do remain quite cynical around these treaty processes, that it'll be more symbolic than something with standing, so that's why I did want to write about it in my book. And I wanted to use the book in a way, you know, what can I actually do here? I don't have control, I don't have land rights, I don't own my countries. I don't have a piece of land on my country. I can't stop the mining, I can't stop the extraction of water – I think Coca-Cola is one of the companies that own the springs, the natural springs – and I can't fight those really big powers, but what I can do is I have some ownership of the page in my book. So, I created this poem called ‘Four Truths’, and it was originally titled ‘Four Truths in Absence of a Treaty’, but then I thought why not write a treaty? I'm not going to be able to write a treaty in the way that we've been talking about a treaty, but I'm going to write a treaty as an agreement between me as the author and the reader.

And so that's the poem you mention, which is the poem after ‘Four Truths’. On there is a box that you can sign as a reader to say that you accept the conditions of this contract between reader and author, which is a shared agreement which has a shared responsibility. But it's also a series of questions. For example, who is a custodian of this book? How do we coexist on this page? Are you willing to enter an agreement that is incomplete and subject to change? And I mention as you said, I mention UQP, because I wanted to be very… Part of this book is not just calling things out, I was calling myself out. You know, I’m this author, I have relative privilege compared to previous generations. I have this privilege of having written a book, but I have chosen to enter an agreement with a non-Indigenous publishing house that profits from my work, I worked with a non-Indigenous editor on this book, I worked with a non-Indigenous publisher, and so I wanted to just completely unpack all of those things and just let the reader think about all of that, you know. I didn’t want to hide, I didn't want to hide, so I was just exposing myself just as much as I was exposing other things.

ASTRID: As a reader I found that your entire work, but also this section that we've been talking about, really exposes the reader and forces the reader, any half-thinking reader to really interrogate themselves…

ELLEN: That’s good.

ASTRID: One of the pieces that… You mentioned Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert before, and in one of the pieces that struck me you actually refer to Aunty Kerry in there. It’s called ‘White Excellence’. I don't even know if I can say I love this piece, but this piece is something that I feel drawn to and horrified by and sad about, and I think you are a beautiful worker of words. Ellen, would you read ‘White Excellence’? I feel like you're talking to the entire publishing industry and most of Australia. But you say it so beautifully on the page.

ELLEN: Thank you. And I actually wrote that poem, I think around the same time as the treaty poem. So, this is a good segue.

So, it's called ‘White Excellence’ as sort of a play on the phrase ‘Black Excellence’. And there's a sort of I guess an epigraph to the poem when you read it in the book, and that says ‘After Thelma Plum’s ‘Woke Blokes’’ – a great track by Thelma Plum on her new album Better in Black – ‘and after Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert ‘Visitors’’ – an amazing poem.

And so, l’lI start reading the poem.

When it comes to having white people in my life, I choose the cream of the crop. Not your average ‘woke bloke’. I'm talking about White Excellence. White people at the top of their game. You know, the ones you meet and you’re like, who’s trained you? If you're a whitefella in my life, you have gone through a very rigorous selection process. Congrats! And tbh babe, I'm still testing you.

White Excellence comes in many forms but my favourites are the ones who cook for me. Listen, make space. Buy black books, buy black music. Never assume to know what we think or what we want. Have the difficult conversations. Pick up the slack. Share the physical and emotional labour. White Excellence acknowledges other ways of being. White Excellence should be a filter on Tinder. White Excellence makes good guests because they know they are permanent Visitors.

ASTRID: Thank you for reading that, Ellen.

ELLEN: That's all right. I love this poem. I loved writing it… sort of a list, an incomplete list. I could keep building to it, but I guess thinking about the phrase ‘a good white person’. And yeah, I was really conscious when I was reading it to annunciate my words, because my Mum always says that I mumble when I'm reading. So, I was kind of trying to make sure it was very clear.

ASTRID: Have you had feedback or people letting you know what they think of this section? Like, there are five sections in the work and this is not the only section or the most important section, but I guess as a reader it's the one where you pulled me up and I'm kind of stuck there thinking about stuff.

ELLEN: Cool. I’m really glad that you've been reflecting on this section, because you know, you don't want to come out saying and that you wanted to educate people about what people think, but I think I did want people to kind of engage with this part in that way. I love, I hope – you know, the book's not that old yet – but I'd love people to come up to me just like they did with Heat and Light and say, ‘This is my favourite section’ or ‘This is my favourite section’, and for it to be a different answer to no matter who I speak to.

But as you said there are five sections. One is a kind of about memory and then the second section is about whiteness. And I have that reading list at the back because I didn't, by any means, I didn't want to have this definitive thing like I'm an expert on whiteness. I wanted it just to be a part of a conversation that a lot of other works are having and a lot of other scholars are heaving. I'm particularly influenced by Claudia Rankin, she is one of my favourite writers. The third section is ‘I can't wait to meet my future genders’, and that's talking about gender, a celebration of gender beyond the male female binary. The fourth section ‘Speaking outside’ includes poems in my grandmother's language, and it's sort of takes it cues from Audre Lorde, our sister outsider, speaking about intersectionality. And then the fifth section, ‘Take me to the back of my throat’, is that kind of really vulnerable...

I don't know, I don't know if other writers are the same, but usually the last part of my book is often the most vulnerable and perhaps kind of dark, intimate, feeling like the reader has somehow earned that space. I think that throats are a really kind of sexy body part, and I feel they are also a source of power and obviously voice. So, they were the sort of themes and language that I was playing with this work. And it felt like a really natural and a really evocative title.

ASTRID: The cover is gorgeous too, I have to say.

ELLEN: Oh yeah, that the cover is like… yeah, it’s like there is space where the throat is, and that is where the title is and that's... Yeah, it's very vibrant pink, you know, lots of different colours and I love that. For me it represents diversity, not only diversity of First Nations peoples, you know, that we come in various skin colours and various kind of roles and places, but also diversity of the LGBTIQ community as well.

ASTRID: When you consider your three books – and I know you've published elsewhere and edited other works Ellen, but I guess I'm asking of you know the body of work that sits in a bookstore – when you look at those three works, what do you feel about the evolution of your own work and your confidence and your mastery of words and your continuing to learn more about your own craft?

ELLEN: It was kind of funny, because I think the reader… I mean the author feels differently about their work than the reader might. I'm proud of all three of my books, but I'm most proud of Throat because I feel like it is a more mature work, and I feel like I've worked on my craft and I sort of become quite a perfectionist and does a lot that I was trying to do in my other works. And so sometimes when I look at my old work, it's just natural I think to see your own kind of imperfections. You know, that is 19-year-old me. But then at the same time, it's that youthfulness that people really respond to and really love. And here was me as someone who was not as aware of the reader and just writing, you know, just writing really furiously – not as in an angry, but really there was a lot of power behind me staying up every night and working on that book as a young person who had that kind of energy. That was a different kind of energy than as someone who's approaching 30 and is now very much about consolidation in a way.

And so, yeah, I think each of the works are different, but also some authors see all their body of work as something that should be kind of seen as something that's together rather than separate, and that's how I feel about my work. You know, as you know from reading it all, you know the themes are very similar across works, and the voice is very similar. And yeah, I guess I'm proud of that voice and I'm proud of the writing about those themes and creating carving a space for my voice.

ASTRID: I'm well aware that Throat has only just come out, but do you know where you will go next? What your next major work will be?

ELLEN: Yeah, I think I'm writing fiction again, but I'm also writing non-fiction, also writing theatre. You know, I often work on various projects at once. And so, I'm not sure which one is going to be immediately after Throat. I know I will also return to poetry, because it's something I can’t stop myself returning to. I think it will work itself out and we’ll see which project emerges.

ASTRID: I can't wait, Ellen. I'll sit down and read them all in chronological order again.

ELLEN: Oh awesome. Thank you.

ASTRID: Thank you so much for your time today.

ELLEN: That's all right. Thank you.