Debra Dank for The Stella Shortlist
Debra Dank is a Gudanji/Wakaja woman. Her memoir We Come With This Place is shortlisted for the Stella Prize.
An educator, she has worked in teaching and learning for many years – a gift given through the hard work of her parents. She continues to experience the privilege of living with country and with family. Debra completed her PhD in Narrative Theory and Semiotics at Deakin University in 2021.
ASTRID: It is a pleasure and an honour to be speaking with you today, Debra. Congratulations on your Stella Shortlisting for We Come with This Place.
DEBRA: Thank you, Astrid. I'm so excited about the journey that this book is taking me on, there's lots of learning happening every single day at the moment.
ASTRID: What is it like to have your memoir out there and then be recognised for a national prize, with people like me asking you about it?
DEBRA: It's almost surreal and I am suffering extreme imposter syndrome because I've grown up with books and I have always been a reader. I've just lived with and through books. As a child, I spent a lot of time in stock camps with my parents. My Dad was a ringer out bush on the Queensland Northern Territory border, but my Mum always snuck in books into the swag. So this really bizarre situation, this young Aboriginal kid sitting out quite dusty, lots of cattle and horses, with her head in and book.
And now with the advent of We Come with This Place, my identity is changing and evolving and moving from being someone who consumes books to someone who has now produced a book. So authors have always been these people who are almost God-like in their stature for me, and now that I'm an author, it's like, this isn't quite what it should be. It's a phenomenal experience.
ASTRID: That is the most beautiful description of someone reflecting on being a lifelong reader and then kind of becoming a writer and a public storyteller in that medium. When you look back on reading as a kid, what did you have in your swag with you? What are some of your favourite memories of the books themselves?
DEBRA: All of the English children's literature, particularly the horse themed books. Christine Pullein-Thompson and Anna Sewell and all of those pieces of literature. And then the boys' - with the boys' in inverted commas - all of that adventure, storying, Adventure Island and Robinson Crusoe, because that was kind of reflective of my experience because I didn't live in those places that I read about when I read all of those horse stories, but I knew about adventure because my life seemed to be quite adventurous and kind of evolved then into a whole range of other pieces of literature. I've studied classics and those sorts of things, and I've read, I've just read. I've read and read. Emily Dickinson poetry is just amazing. Ali Cobby Eckermann, Australian author, amazing poetry.
ASTRID: One day someone might list your memoir in a list like that. For the listeners who may not yet have read We Come with This Place, can you introduce us to your memoir?
DEBRA: Thank you, Astrid. So my book, and you may hear that I struggle to call it a memoir because I think that that's what those other people do, but my book is a recount of some really important stories that have impacted the lives of my family and my community and have resulted in us being where we are today.
I have three children and two of the most gorgeous granddaughters, and this completely audacious husband, and my book We Come with This Place is just a book written for people to remind us all about the importance, and that's such a little word for what I'm trying to convey, but the importance, the significance, the relevance of family and of home. That's We Come with This Place is. And the impossibility, I think, of separation for Aboriginal people and home country. That's what my book's about.
ASTRID: You described in the work where you wrote and how you wrote, and very often it was on country, it was not at your desk at the university. Would you describe where you wrote?
DEBRA: I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship from Deakin University, I did my PhD through Deakin, and they gave me a scholarship and I was able to go home. So Rick and I packed up our troopy, put the camping gear in the back, we splurged and we purchased a small generator, because my home there's extremely limited access to technology, we didn't have access to electricity, so the generator was necessary for the camera and the laptop. I could make a phone call, Astrid, if we drove to the top of a hill and if I then got Rick to stand on the roof of the troopy holding a little aerial that I had connected to my phone. And if I stood in exactly the right spot that was marked by a stone that my younger brothers and nephews had identified, and if there wasn't too much wind blowing, I could make a phone call.
So we didn't do that a lot, but got up in the morning and we went down to the creek and checked if we'd caught the crayfish we could eat for breakfast. I did some diarizing in the morning and then we walked. And I just, the privilege of being home with country and just walking with all of those memories that are situated within place, I think that was... Because it wasn't a difficult book to write, and I think it's wholly and solely because of the extra time that I had to be with country and all of those non-human kin. And yeah, it was just an absolute privilege.
ASTRID: I think you are the first person I have ever spoken to who has written a book and a work that can be described as memoir, although I remember that you said you don't like that, and has said that it wasn't difficult to write. That is awe-inspiring for a start, but can you talk to us about the impetus behind, bring your story on the page?
DEBRA: I think, and I think to sort of respond to all of that, and again going back to my imposter syndrome, I didn't set out to write a book. My PhD was exploring polyphony within narrative styles, just looking at all of the voices that contribute to put Gudanji storytelling, hence my, this isn't a memoir, there are so many other voices in there who are in many ways much more significant than my voice. I'm just the one who recorded, put them down.
So it wasn't ever planned to be a book as such. I had imagined that I would have three, possibly four readers of my PhD. I have three children and one hubby, so three, possibly four. And I just wanted my children and then my grandchildren to have some of our stories in a book form. Astrid, I was saving up my money to print, to pay to have three extra additions of my PhD printed. And then I hope that one day my children, who aren't big readers... The three of them have read varying parts and I suppose that's one of the things around not having planned to write a book. I wrote down these stories and then I thought, gosh, I can't just submit this great big bunch of words and stories, it has to be broken into chunks.
One of the things I knew absolutely was that chapters was not going to work, so I've got the episodes in there. And I've done the episodes particularly because my background as a teacher, I know that a lot of people don't like sitting and reading significantly long tomes, so the episodes, some episodes are just a few pages, and then other episodes of course are longer. And I think you can flip back and forth between episodes.
So it wasn't planned to be, hence the, I didn't feel that I had to write according to any kind of convention around producing a book per se. I could have written some more, but of course a PhD confines you to 90 or 80,000 words.
ASTRID: A PhD is normally described as extremely constraining and very specific. And everything that you just said, Debra, feels freeing and liberating. At what point did you realise you'd have more than four readers?
DEBRA: I went into the PhD being really happy and quite excited to, because a lot of those books that I've read in my past as a consumer of literature have been theoretical texts, and I was quite excited to have the opportunity to have spent 80 to 90,000 words talking about language theory from an Aboriginal perspective. And my amazingly wise supervisor, Associate Professor Antonia Pont at Deakin University said, well Deb, maybe you should include some narrative as examples of what you might potentially uncover in this study. So there was that sort of thing happening.
And then just before I was ready to submit, a good number of years ago I set up the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and amazingly I have these amazing women colleagues who are just so inspiring, a colleague through their Karen Wilsons, I said to her, could you just read this narrative because I'm not quite sure. And again, my identity has always been about reading, not writing. And I said, could you read this please to see if it's readable? Because Antonia had assured me that it was great. And Karen came back and said, we need to speak with publishers, and I thought, oh, she's so lovely. So I said, yeah, sure, thinking the publishers are going to say, oh, that's lovely, thank you, enjoy your day, goodbye. And that wasn't the case. I had interest from three publishers, which was phenomenal.
ASTRID: Now that you have so many readers, what are the responses that you are getting?
DEBRA: It was strange. About three weeks ago, I was walking along and went into one of the local coffee shops here, and one of the young women in the coffee shop said, you're the author, you've written that book. Honestly, Astrid, I kind of looked around looking for the author and then I thought, oh, that's me, wow. So that's happened a couple of times. Feedback from people who I don't know, just little messages, have been amazing. They've been really appreciative, they've talked about how much they've learnt, how engaging. People have talked about it being a gracious book.
And all of those responses, they kind of help a lot because those responses have been so positive and I think the political context, if you like, of Aboriginal Australians has always been highly complex. So it's always reassuring and sometimes surprising when the response is so positive. Yeah, I just keep on thinking about, wow, this is... And that's it, I'm almost wordless.
ASTRID: I'm going to say again, Debra, it is a beautiful work. Now, you mentioned the Indigenous Literary Foundation earlier, and I know that you have been a teacher for all of your life. I am also a teacher, and I wanted to ask you to put your educator hat on and consider how much you being an educator influenced the way you structured the work, the way you told the work, but also who you might want to read it in the future.
DEBRA: Yes. I had been blessed and I have been, I refuse to speak of my parents in the past tense, but absolutely blessed with my parents. And my Dad never learnt to read or write English, but he was fluent in our languages, and my Mum could read and write English brilliantly and often withdrew me from school because she was worried about standards. I had this amazing, seemingly extreme in my upbringing, but my Dad read, he just didn't read books, but my Dad read as brilliantly as my Mum read.
And when I finished year 12, they said, well, you've got to go to university now. And I said, far out, what am I going to do at university? And they said, well, you're going to be a teacher. All right, okay, I'll do that. Because I'd always thought that these milestones, end of year 10, end of year 12, that would be when we'd move out of Mount Isa, back out bush again, because I desperately missed being out bush.
So my life changed and I became a teacher and I have been fortunate enough to have taught it across most of Australia, except Tassie and Western Australia and South Australia, and then in primary, secondary, and tertiary spaces.
So I've always been cognisant of the importance of being able to read and just what access you have through being able to read a language. And I think just the formatting of the text for the PhD, it was absolutely motivated by thinking about my children. My children grew up out bush. My children don't always think in Standard Australian English, some of their earliest experience of language was with their family who don't speak extensive Standard Australian English.
But I also thought about the non-Aboriginal community and what had happened in that intersect and what had happened in colonial times, if you like, and how those actions had impacted our family. So I purposefully included some quite traumatic stories because I think that if we're careful about acknowledging the trauma, then oh my goodness, you just clasp onto and celebrate the joys so much easier.
But I thought it was important for my children not to shy away from the horror that had been experienced by our family. So it was wholly motivated by ensuring that it was accessible to kids from the bush primarily. But I'm finding that people from mainstream communities also find it really accessible and I suppose that kind of speaks to the importance in how we structure narrative, and then if I'm reflecting again on what I have read and what I had read as a child, the influence and the impact of all of those English children's literature authors, I think they've probably stood me in good stead in facilitating a really effective language or vocabulary use background with then my father's influence around living well with country and living effectively with country.
And again, setting up the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, one of the important things was around ensuring that families and communities from remote places had access to the sorts of services that they identified for themselves were necessary. In the early days of the foundation someone said to me, but how do we get children, Aboriginal children from the bush to read literature? Because it seems to be the million-dollar question. And for me, I think the answer is really, really simple, you give them something that they want to read. I could talk about this forever, Astrid.
ASTRID: Would you ever write for primary school children or secondary school children?
DEBRA: I have a manuscript that I actually adore, but I think that it's a really interesting situation because I have spoken to a publisher about it, and the publisher said it was a little bit complex for young children. And I just found that to be really insulting because I find young children to be crazily intelligent, and I believe that children always reflect back what we expect of them. And I don't doubt for a moment that my manuscript is accessible and readable by primary school children. So I might have to wait for a while because I'm a little bit stubborn, with my grey hair has come stubbornness, and almost proud stubbornness, Astrid. Yeah, we'll see.
ASTRID: I was that kid who read above their age level at school, reading adult books in primary school, and obviously not understanding all of it. When I see children's literature today, the stuff we market to eight year olds, nine year olds, 10 year olds, it's marketing, sometimes it's not literature. And I am delighted that you have a manuscript and I would buy and read and give to the young people in my life, Debra.
DEBRA: When my kids hear this podcast, they're going to be ringing me and teasing me something crazy because I have this conversation with them constantly about capital L literature. Yes, I am a literary snob, but, you know, you have to do what you have to do to feed your soul. And yeah, I think there is nothing, or there is very little as joyful as sitting with a good book, a good book that challenges you, that invites you in and shares with you, and has enough in there that you can reflect and see yourself in there, but then launches you off into other places of good learning.
ASTRID: You have given the best description of what a book can do for a person, Debra.
DEBRA: Thank you. They've been my best friend for such a long time. It was a very, very lonely childhood. We were often isolated. I had two younger sisters, one was very young and the other one was just crazy, she was more interested in being in that moment in wherever we were, whereas I was always a little bit more of an introvert, quite comfortable in my own skin being alone. And I think one of the really big growing experiences for me through this process is, I have been a teacher for a very long time and I'm quite comfortable speaking with people, it's just been this kind of change to a whole host of things that I hadn't ever considered were possible. I'm getting there, Astrid. I'm getting there.
ASTRID: Thank you for sharing We Come with This Place with the world, and thank you for chatting with me today.
DEBRA: Thank you, Astrid.