At home with Evelyn Araluen

Evelyn Araluen is Co-Editor of Overland, as well as a poet, educator and researcher working with Indigenous literatures at the University of Sydney.

Her work has won the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship. Her debut poetry collection Dropbear will be published in 2021.

Born, raised, and writing in Dharug country, she is a Bundjalung descendant.

At home with Evelyn Araluen


ASTRID: Evelyn Araluen is the co-editor of Overland literary journal. She is also a poet, an educator, and a researcher working with Indigenous literatures. In this interview, Evelyn reflects on the importance of literary journals, the literary landscape in Australia, and her forthcoming debut poetry collection, Dropbear.

Welcome to The Garret at Home, Evelyn.

EVELYN: Hello. Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: Oh, this is such a pleasure. Now, Evelyn, you are a writer, and a poet, and an educator, and a researcher yourself but today I'd like to start talking to you about literary journals and the place that they have in our literary and art landscape. So, you are the editor of Overland literary journal and-


ASTRID: The co-editor, I should say.

EVELYN: Yeah, we should remember that Jonathan Dunk also exists and he's a great editor as well. Props to Jonathan.

ASTRID: Most of the listeners of The Garret will know Overland, but for those of you who don't, can you introduce us to Overland literary journal?

EVELYN: So, Overland literary journal has been a cultural institution predominantly based in Melbourne since 1954, journal of progressive politics, literature, fiction, poetry. It was started by, actually by, I believe, defecting members from the Australian Communist Party. So, Stephen Murray-Smith was the first editor of the journal and it is sort of really beautiful, continuous history of publishing dissent, publishing critique, and commentary alongside literary creative writing. So, we're currently just preparing the final details of our 240th edition since 1954, which is really exciting. And in the spirit of that long history of progressive, left-wing thought, as well as that really long and rich history of creative writing, such as poetry and fiction, we're currently in the process of digitising the archives so that everybody can sort of share in that history and just get a sense of how long there have been these strong voices in Australian literature and publishing of critique and commentary.

ASTRID: That is quite the history. Can you tell me, in your mind because this is obviously subjective, what is the role of the editor, and more specifically, what is the role of the editor at Overland, which does have such a long and esteemed history?

EVELYN: So, if you'd asked me that question before I became an actual, official paid editor in any regard, I would have sort of given more of a response around the selection, curation of pieces. We receive a lot of submissions at Overland and we, myself and the other co-editor, Jonathan, do try to make sure that we're not interfering too much with the work of our poetry editor, Toby Fitch, or our fiction editor, Claire. We really try to sort of stay in essay and commentary so that we're not stepping on people's toes. But I fantasised about, essentially, spending all my time reading and engaging in beautiful literary work and having the wonderful pleasure of being able to work with beautiful, brilliant writers to get their words on the page in the best version possible. I get to do, maybe out of my typical workday, about 10 per cent of that, I get to be working on pieces.

Today I think I spend a lot of my time coordinating funding, applying for grants, trying to work out new and imaginative ways of us basically stretching every dollar further. We're a not-for-profit. So, we're not here to make money out of literature, per se. We're just here to try to ensure that, as much as possible, we can pay people well for their work because writing is hideously undervalued in a commercial sense for the amount of time, and energy, and education, or experience that goes into it.

So, I just really spend a lot of time trying to remember basic maths so I can count how much we can afford to spend on encouraging new opportunities in Australian literature. But you know what? It's work that needs to be done. And I'm actually glad that a lot of that work, despite being really laborious and painful and taking away from the creative capacity of editing, I am glad that people who are writers and who have experience in this are the people naming amounts and asking for resources because, otherwise, it's really easy to see how if we gave up that administrative capacity, we would be just creating further disadvantage for the writing and literary community.

ASTRID: Evelyn, I am still trying to figure out how I can spend all of my days reading other people's great works of literary genius as well. So, if you crack that code, please do let me know.

EVELYN: I will inform you. I will leak that news immediately.

ASTRID: I happen to agree with you wholeheartedly. I think that all forms of writing are terribly undervalued, firstly, in terms of monetary value because very few people around the world and very few people in Australia can afford to write. It is a privilege to write, particularly how badly it's paid but also the cultural capital be the... Look, you and I are both in Melbourne and we have just experienced and continue to experience lockdown in Melbourne, and it is all of the creative arts that are keeping people in Melbourne. Five million people in Melbourne engaged with the world, whether that is TV, or movies, or books, or poetry, or music. It's the arts, right? It's always the arts.

EVELYN: It's always the arts. But it is always, I think, in an industry that's really, it's driven by passion, it's not driven by money, the reality is that you'll always find somebody who's willing to let themselves be exploited or doesn't even see the extraction of their work for such a broad public consumption with such little remuneration as exploitation because we, I think, are always driven by this desire to have our work seen and appreciated. And, sometimes, we accept that alone as remuneration, which I think is really sad and we should also be learning how to value ourselves better, particularly at a time like this.

ASTRID: I'd like to go back to what you just said a moment ago, how you're very pleased that you, and I assume Jonathan as well, your co-editor, are in charge of the boring bits, the admin, the grants, the finances. And you said something along the lines of, ‘I'm glad writers are in charge of this’. That implies that negative things or not great things would happen if creators, if writers weren't in charge. Can you just elaborate on that for our audience?

EVELYN: Yeah, I think that a lot of people who work in the arts are themselves practitioners. But there's so many aspects in which the actual structural institutions through which we gain funding, through which we gain insurance or union support, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, not every single inch of that is driven and directed by artists who are familiar with what an artist needs and how those needs can be met.

And so, for me, working in this role at Overland and trying to ensure that we're taking every opportunity that we can to sustain ourselves and to enrich the broader artistic community, that's been something that I understand is definitely more labour than it should be. Writing a grant should be something that we spend an appropriate amount of time on and not an insane amount of time on for normally very little compensation. The ins and outs of what a project could look like, what kind of budget and time scale of project needs, what kind of additional support, who should be involved, how are we able to best reach out to the relevant community and not to a community that the funding body has decided might be the most profitable but who we understand might be the most needy in a particular context, those are the sorts of decisions that I think need to become internal, and they need to be directed by artists, and artists need to have the best representation possible in order to ensure that our rights and our needs are protected.

I don't think it's indulgent to say that it's a very different industry than accounting or any of the other normal person jobs that I wish that I had the brain for but that I just simply do not. So, yeah, I feel like it is a bit of a burden on the industry, and I know that when I speak with other editors and I speak with other arts practitioners that we're all really exhausted by the extent to which our labour is being expended on essentially administrative overheads but that's work. It is work that's important to do. It's not undignified work. It's just work that if we don't do it well can lead to some painful consequences for the broader community, unfortunately.

ASTRID: Can you tell me about your working relationship with Jonathan? And is this the first time Overland has had co-editors?

EVELYN: It's not the first time Overland has had co-editors. I believe there's been only one other instance. We applied together for this position last year. It's the first time that Overland actually did have an open call out for editorial positions. We applied, didn't think we'd get it, didn't think we'd make it to interview. And Jonathan and I have worked creatively on a couple of projects. We're both studying PhDs together at the University of Sydney. His work is significantly more esoteric than mine. He's insanely good at critique, insanely good at theory, and philosophy, and a kind of current event political commentary, whereas my skills, I always felt were a little bit more... So, I work in more of a cultural space. I've been working with Aboriginal literatures. I work in a kind of more broadly cultural study kind of area.

We kind of see ourselves as being either a dream team or like a nightmare duo, depending on who has to work with us. We co-habit and we co-edit, and that has been a very intense process for the last however many months we have been in isolation. But, yeah, it's really interesting working with somebody who you obviously have to have... We can't start a fight over a piece and then sit politely in our five-kilometre radius and not look at each other out of pure anger. But we have constant blowouts over pieces.

We are constantly fighting over them. We're really trying to remain professional adults, but I think it's a good thing that we're both deeply passionate about the work that we publish. It's just a shame that we only have so much room. There's only so many days of the week that you can release a new piece. There's only so many opportunities that you can try to push out there before people will just stop reading because you have an overabundance of content. So, we found this year to be really challenging. This is our first year in the role, and it's a strange time to learn the ropes of a new position, unfortunately. But, yeah, we've had a lot of fun, I think, getting to know the ins and outs of the long history of a particular literary institution and, in a time of great instability, try to work out what that might look like in the future.

ASTRID: This is an extraordinary year to learn something new because it seems so often all the rules have been thrown out. So, goodness knows what your stats and readership and all of that kind of stuff is doing because it's different this year. It must be so hard to make a judgement call.

EVELYN: It really is. And I know that the experience that we're having is sort of relatively similar to what a lot of other journals are going through. So, we've actually had an increase in readership and there's been an increase in subscriptions, not just for us, but for a lot of other literary institutions, which I think is really fantastic. I mean, I'm really glad people are realising that it's nice to have something new to read in lockdown. And as much as we've all got stacks of books on our desks or our shelves that we really should have read by now, it's nice to have something come in the mail. It's nice something that you can hold and look at as readers will be having very soon with our upcoming editions. But, yeah, it's definitely, we've seen that people are engaging, spending some time to engage with content at the moment that, potentially, they wouldn't have had time to do in any other context. We're really glad that people are choosing to read literary journals in lockdown.

ASTRID: Now, this is a little bit of a leading question but forgive me as I grapple with kind of what I want to ask you, Evelyn. But in the long history of Overland, what do you think is some of the most outstanding, or meaningful, or impactful, even though that's a terrible word, contributions that Overland has made? So, that might be because a piece was read by a certain number of people or a piece changed something in our daily lives. Where has Overland made a difference?

EVELYN: I feel like I can answer that question in about three different directions. The first answer to that is the funny one. So, we have a really constant sort of eye on our most read and what's most engaged with on our website. And there's one piece, and for the life of me, I can't really remember the details of the piece. I believe it's about a Netflix show, a horror Netflix show. And I wasn't around when it was accepted and published but our editor Giovanni Tiso was, and he worked on this piece and I think he thought it was like, ‘This might be a little bit of a niche piece. I can't see this attracting every reader’. Commentary and reviews on specific works of art, we always know that they're going to have a limited audience but it's a part of the responsibility of a publication to ensure that we're keeping that cyclical dialogue going of what's out there and what people could be engaging with. At any one given time, there's about 20 people reading it, constantly.

It apparently it went somewhere in Reddit and somewhere in the dark web, and there's just people, every now and then we just get these comments sent in of people arguing so intensely over it. It's constant. So, we've got, at any one point in time, whatever we're doing in Overland, there is always just this tiny little back channel of a bunch of people reading and arguing about what is the scariest show on Netflix. So, I think actually in terms of our greatest cultural impact, it is probably that, that tiny niche little sort of corner of some strange place on the internet that just attracts thousands and thousands of readers. We've had a few pieces go viral in that kind of, that sort of almost unseen way for a broader community. Anything, if we ever have any mention of Jordan Peterson, oh my god, doesn't that just go insane? And you get some very strange comments sent in whenever we have anything like that on the website.

So, there's this idea of viral, and as you say, this idea of impact that we can measure numerically. But I find in terms of cultural impact, in terms of a broader social or political impact, just this year, we've published some pieces that I'm just so insanely proud of. Like, anything ever by Sam Wallman, who's an incredibly brilliant Melbourne artist, Workers Art Collective. He creates this most gorgeous obituaries and his work on Jack Mundey was just gorgeous and so, so powerful and goes so far around the world even, which is always really beautiful to see, particularly for visual art.

For me, I think some of the real legacy pieces come from writers who've been working with Overland for quite a long time. So, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane, and these are pieces that I remember reading, essays and commentary, which is hard to find. It is hard to find political, strong-willed, strong-minded Blackfellas who have the space to say exactly what they want to say, and the support from a publication to say it without just the necessity of posturing for whoever wants to use them the most. And some of those are still in our archive, which is, unglamorously right now, a box at National Storage in North Melbourne because we can't access anything physical at the moment, but you will be seeing it all online very soon. But, yeah, and when we packed all of that up, we found the coolest stuff there. We found all of these papers and proceedings from native title cases that editors and associated writers with Overland had been present at conferences and things.

So, there's a lot there that we can't measure just online. We can't measure in terms of hits, but we know that we still get people writing in saying, ‘Hi, I read this piece 40 years ago. Do you have a copy?’ So, we're really excited to be able to bring the archive out. We've got a new project that will allow people to not only engage with that archive but also a bunch of incredible, like a newer generation of Melbourne writers, commenting and responding on those pieces. So, even though I can't for the life of me say what would have been the most impactful piece that Overland has ever published but I think the exciting thing to think about is that whatever it is, it's going to get a second life very soon.

ASTRID: That is very exciting. I loved what you just said, the idea of a new generation of writers commenting on or responding to or engaging with previous stellar pieces from the archive. That makes me very excited because one of the best things about literature is that ongoing dialogue across time and place and a culture, like the idea that you can share a thought with someone who wrote 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or more is just a lovely, lovely thing. Evelyn, when you and Jonathan think about creating an issue, I know you said you wish you could spend most of your time in the artistic side of things and not the admin side of things, but there still is an artistic role and a creative direction that the editors bring to Overland. How do you theme it? How do you provide that cohesive structure?

EVELYN: Yeah. So, that's actually been something we've been having a really fun time working out this year. So, our first two editions of the year were really explicitly themed. We, very early on with both of these issues, we asked for our first edition as editors, we asked for tailored responses to the idea of radical. We really wanted to have a kind of a conversation across a multitude and a very diverse, not just like culturally or linguistically, but also in terms of practise and industry. We wanted a really diverse group of voices across essay, poetry, and fiction to kind of reframe what radical might mean today, in a society like today.

And the process of that was fantastic but, inevitably, always sort of really challenging and painful. One of the reasons that they encourage you not to 100 per cent commission an edition is because people have lives, and in a year like 2020, although we reached out late in 2019, and we reached out to so many people who we loved and admired, and we were like, ‘Hey, we would love to get something from you on what you think radical means today’, and then it was like, ‘Oh, hey, my house is on fire’. And then they were like, ‘Oh, hey, I'm in lockdown now. This is really weird’. It was really challenging to go through that experience. And I feel like on our first edition, we learnt everything that's amazing about trying to have that really hands-on approach to every single piece and to make sure that every single piece is something that you've spoken directly to the writer about, and you've been as encouraging and as supportive as you possibly can be in that process.

The second one we learned our lesson and we really tried to as much as possible work with both our submissions and with some of these incredible writers. So, the issue that people will be receiving in their mailboxes pretty much immediately if you're subscribed, we got to hear from Vanamali Hermans about hospital care and the deinstitutionalization of mental health care and really amazing provocative topics. We heard from a neurologist or neuroscientist and a psychiatrist, Sam Lieblich, about medicine, and psychiatry, and health, and in the year of 2020 we thought, ‘Okay, health. Health is what we want’.

Somewhere between this foggy place of health and care, we thought we'd ended up with a bunch of COVID pieces. I don't think a single one of them mentions COVID. We ended up with a bunch of pieces about ways in which we try to give dignity to the bodies that have had dignity denied from them, which I think we're so proud of to have. And our upcoming edition is really fantastic. We're running a bunch of submissions from the RMIT Activism at the Margins Conference. It was coordinated by Victoria Grieve-Williams and Olivia Guntarik. We've got an edition of First Nations essays on activism and what activism means today. So, we've had a lot of fun being able to kind of thematize and work across multiple perspectives on an issue. But we're also trying to remind ourselves that sometimes you just can't have that much control over it.

So, our last edition of the year is just going to be everything that we've just loved and work that we're like, ‘Okay, we really need to calm down a little bit. This has been a very rough year’. We couldn't even print or publish for most of the year because of the impact of COVID. So, we're now just, really, trying to create a balance between that direct curation and the kind of the stepping back and allowing the community that reads and writes for Overland regularly to sort of go, ‘Hey, this is what we have to say. You're here now as your role as service to us, as opposed to kind of directorial voice in that capacity’. So, we've had a bit of a taste of everything, I think, this year. And you know what? This was a year to learn it.

ASTRID: Indeed. Can we explore the difference between print and online? So, Overland does print. I mean, in a year that's not 2020, Overland is a print journal but also online. Is everything that is published online published in print or not?

EVELYN: We kind of have a split between the print and the online content. We have a daily online magazine, started out as a blog, actually, that's now become, I think, particularly what our international audience knows more of Overland. And I think there are quite a lot of people who know the Overland website but, actually, have never read the print journal in their life. So, there we have much shorter pieces. We have pieces which are ideally a better balance of immediate response to current events and current issues. Alongside, we have a three-week rotation between long-form essay, poetry, and fiction. Particularly, we try to publish poems that are too long to fit on the page in the print journal, and fiction that creatively, thematically didn't quite fit in the edition but that we love and we want to share with as many people as possible.

The print journal, so that's quarterly. And, by god, we are going to get four issues out this year. We'll get them out. You just might be getting a few at once. So, the quarterly print editions, that's where we get the opportunity to think a lot more visually. We get to run much longer essays and commentary that we can lay out beautifully on a page. We have a fantastic designer, Lynley Eavis, who works with us for illustrations, and, always, we have a guest artist to do the cover and some interior design for us as well. And that's a lot of fun, very different, very different space, very different medium. And we always do put that content online. I think it's really important to think as much as we can about the visible accessibility of our editions.

While we could just send out a PDF of the edition upon request for readers who might not be able to access the print edition, we love bringing that to life on our website. We've got a new website, actually, that we're launching at the end of the year, hopefully, that will show some of the visual aspects of the print that we sometimes miss in the online. Yeah. And I think it's really important, as much as possible, to maintain a physical thing, a physical object that you can hold in your hands, that you can show your parents.

I remember the first time I was ever published, it was actually... Well, no, I was published in some student publications but we don't count that. My first professional publication was in Overland and being able to show my family, that was really exciting. So, we're ensuring that, as much as possible, we can keep doing that and we can keep sharing that. People can keep having them look prettily on their shelves. But, at the end of the day, everything does end up in the website and you can read new content there every day, whether it's in the print or from our online submissions. And we love that and we hope we can continue doing that until the wheels fall off, basically.

ASTRID: There is a certain beauty about the physical and holding a journal or a book in one's hand. Now, Overland also oversees several prizes. There's the Fair Australia Prize, the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and a bunch of others. I'd like your opinion on prizes and fellowships, and that kind of support that new and emerging and established writers can sometimes access in Australia. And I guess I'm asking in your capacity as editor of Overland but I'm also asking in your personal capacity. I know that yourself were a recipient of the Wheeler Centre's Next Big Thing Fellowship. And how does it help? What's the point? And what does it mean to someone like you to get that kind of opportunity?

EVELYN: These sorts of fellowships and prizes are essentially what keep Australian literature moving. I can't speak for an international context. I don't have a lot of experience publishing or prize-winning internationally. I came into literature myself through the accessibility of prizes. So, I learnt about the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers when I was at uni. I actually believe it was Jonathan who informed me about it. I went to my TAFE class later that day where I was learning Bundjalung, my great-grandfather's language, and spoke a little bit about this prize, and, ‘Hey, there's a prize specifically for First Nations, for under-30 writers. Wouldn't this be cool if I entered and I wrote a poem in my TAFE class that was about the experience of learning language?’ It was incorporating this language that hasn't been spoken in my family for a few generations. And from the get-go of submitting that poem and hearing back from the judges, and from the editors, and actually from other recipients, other shortlisted writers, I was just so insanely supported and felt so insanely encouraged.

I honestly don't think I would be a writer in this capacity, I think I would have thrown the towel in a long time ago if it hadn't been that... There's these networks of publishing, and editors, and support that is, I think, made accessible by prizes, made accessible by people seeing something that sounds way too much of an impossibility to ever come true but that, with the right amount of encouragement, can really happen.

So, I will defend the necessity of prizes and the value of prizes till the day that I die because I think it's made me a writer and it was such a great pleasure being able to judge the Nakata Brophy this year and speak to the insanely talented shortlist of First Nations writers that we had submitting. And then to go through our inbox and see all of the hate comments that we've got from people who were upset that eight young Aboriginal women dared to put their faces out there and be celebrated in such a way. For every ounce of good we get, there is still so much hatred out there. But a prize, I think, helps defend against that, and I think it helps create a sense of value and a sense of pride that can help sustain a writer when they might not have the networks. They might not have the family networks, the social networks that quite understand that.

There's a lot of people who are writers because they grew up around writers, because they knew writers, because they had family members who cared about literature and pushed them in that direction. But we forget sometimes that there's a lot of people for whom writing is such a gamble and such an impossibility, and something like a prize reaching out as an opportunity to try something, and if you get it, you have something to show. And if you're shortlisted, you have something to show. And, even if you didn't hear anything back, you've forced yourself to write.

I think that's just so tremendously valuable and, particularly, fellowships and supporting structures like that where it's not simply about great job, have a handshake, have a giant check or something like that, and keep going, come back when you've got something else that's worthy of a prize, something where you can have support and assistance, have your hand held a little bit. That was so valuable for me with the Wheeler Centre, with the mentorship structure. My mentor was Tony Birch. Having people who knew and who had done this when you might not have other people in your life to explain the ins and outs of that kind of thing, I just think is so valuable.

So, we're going to be launching a new prize before the end of year, actually, a prize for Australian literature, which is going to be great. And we're just going to let people submit whatever the hell they want. Poetry, essay, fiction, little cut up paper dolls that you've arranged prettily, whatever you want. We're going to go for it. We're going to try to make us ready for what the community has in store, as opposed to try to assess into categories and sort of strict forms of what we want to see published.

ASTRID: Now, that is exciting, Evelyn, and I'm going to ask all of the students at RMIT Professional Writing and Editing to submit to that prize. So, get ready for them.

EVELYN: Excellent. I can't wait to read it.

ASTRID: Now, I know it is not published yet. I know I'm jumping the gun here a little bit, Evelyn, but can you tell us about your debut forthcoming poetry collection, Dropbear?

EVELYN: I can. It's great. Please purchase it. Yeah, I'm really excited about this. Dropbear is going to be, pending another global catastrophe, Dropbear shall hopefully be published in late February, early March next year with the University of Queensland Press. It's the book that I developed through the Wheeler Centre Fellowship. It's a book of poetry mostly but also some lyric essay. And it's pretty tightly themed around this broad idea of anti-Australiana and what the iconography of Australian national identity might mean for someone like myself who's grown up in a sort of an entanglement of Aboriginal identity, but also displacement, not growing up on what the sort of colonial version of my ancestral country is, but very much growing up in community, very much being raised by networks of people who are so incredibly supportive but also perceptive of the ways in which our identities have been appropriated by this history, this very dark history of Australian literature.

So, it's not a traditional deconstruction of kitsch or the sort of iconography of cute, charming Australia and Australiana per se. It's more of a kind of writing through of my feelings in relation to the Snugglepots and Cuddlepies and the Blinky Bills of this place that's my home, and it's my forever ancestral home and responsibility but one that is kind of made unrecognisable by this weight in Australian literature that's interfering with this place. So, hopefully, hopefully, it's not just conceptual, and people actually like the poems but we have no idea. No idea.

ASTRID: One never knows how a piece of art or writing will be received. It is a great title, Dropbear.

EVELYN: Yeah, I'm pretty happy with that one, actually. I had a poem, actually, that it was one that was runner up in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize a couple of years ago, which is my subtle way of reminding people to enter the Judith Wright Poetry Prize before it closes in mid-November. Please go publish in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. But, yeah, I had this poem, Dropbear Poetics, that I wrote just out of this explosive anger at reading a poem, a sort of bush opera about Australia and Australian literary history, and it was this such an unironic celebration of our strange entangled literary history. And there's a lot to have fun in. I wouldn't necessarily say there's a lot to celebrate but there's a lot to have fun in Australia and Australian literature. But, yeah, I got very angry and I wrote a poem about it. And several years later, now I'm following that project through. So, if anybody ever tells you that spite isn't enough to sustain a writing career, they are wrong.

ASTRID: What an excellent piece of advice, Evelyn. Thank you so much for coming to The Garret today.

EVELYN: Thank you so much for having me.