Ellen van Neerven on racism and misogyny in sport
Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning 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. They have written two poetry collections: Comfort Food, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize, and Throat, which was shortlisted in 2021 for the Queensland Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, and won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, the Multicultural NSW Award and Book of the Year in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards.
ASTRID: Welcome. It is such a thrill to have you back on The Garret, Ellen. Congratulations on Personal Score. This is your first work of long form nonfiction. Given that it comes out in May, 2023, most people won't have read Personal Score when they listen to this interview. Can you introduce us to this new work?
ELLEN: I feel unnervingly calm about it, which is quite interesting, I think. I haven't always felt calm about this book coming out, because I was very, very anxious in completing this book. And then in maybe the last two years I've been very anxious about this book, and I started to think about why that might be the case. Why more than other books, basically. And I thought, well, this book has had the longest journey. It's probably been about eight years on this journey, of first trying to write it and first doing a little bit of writing around it, and then actually having made the book and it coming out. And that's probably double the length of the period it took the others... I've written three other books... For them to have been made. It's understandable that you're feeling double the emotions for everything. Double the anxiety, double the relief when you finally get it across the desk to the editor, and just the weight of it kind of made sense because of the time that it had taken to work on it compared to the other books.
ASTRID: In Personal Score, you are talking about sport in Australia and you are asking the question, what does it mean to play sport on First Nations land? You look at the racism and the misogyny that is inherent in Australian sport, but also international sport. And you are talking about yourself. This is not a pure work of external nonfiction. There are very clear and beautiful threads of memoir in here as well. With that very long journey to publication, eight years as you just said, why did it take so long?
ELLEN: I think I had to work out what it was and how I was going to write about it, and a lot of things as they do happen in that time. And I think initially perhaps I saw it maybe being fiction, and then I realised that creative non-fiction was going to be the best container for the work. As you mentioned, it gives me the possibility to have different textures. There's that personal memoir that you spoke of, there's journalism, there's history, and then there's also poetic passages as well. Yeah, I think I found a sense of, this is going to be the right form. And there was writing from eight years ago and then there was newer writing that was being woven together, as well as research and interviews. And I guess there was a lot of questions that I had, that I wanted to explore in this work.
And a lot of them are meant to be quite open-ended questions. As you said, it speaks to really, really big things about misogyny and racism, and queer phobia and transphobia, particularly in Australian sport. And I wanted to do that at every level. Looking at professional level sport, and examples of having very mainstream events, as well as more community and grassroots level as well. I wanted to disrupt the idea of binaries of all kinds, and I wanted to write all the sports stories that I wanted to read, basically. I remember there was one point in the journey of writing this where I was like... Well also, it's a big book. A few people have said that to me, like Michaela McGuire from Melbourne Writers' Festival said when it came across her desk, she was shocked by the size of it. It's a bigger book than my previous books, and huge when you compare it to Throat, which was my more recent poetry book.
You can get lost in that process of writing, and I'm sure other writers would speak to that experience as well. You can get lost when you are writing such a lengthy book that has more than 40 chapters, and each of the pieces, some of them are quite different to each other, and you're sort of creating this architecture for the work. And I was just thinking, ‘Oh, there's so much that I want to write about’. I was doing this thing when I was a little bit blocked where I was like, ‘Well, what are all the things that you want to have in this book?’ I just wrote a list. I guess one of them would be writing about pregnant athletes, for example.
Like, ‘I have to include this in this book because this is a book about women's sport’. So that's just an example. And then I got to over a hundred and I thought, ‘My gosh, this is big. This is going to be a really... I'm maybe not going to include all of these’. It was a process of gathering, and I really relied on my experience working in poetry and putting poems together. Putting poetry collections together was helpful, but also fiction as well was a huge help in terms of writing this, because I really wanted to write an emotional landscape. That was a really big thing that I wanted to include. And for the reader to go on this journey that a few people have told me that is compelling, which is kind of an interesting thing to say about a work of creative nonfiction that covers so much ground.
But yeah, I was like, ‘Well, that's good’. I guess that's what I was thinking when I was writing it, wanting to create this sense of all these places that are such a central... Or of this book, country is such a central core of this book, thinking right back to these strong memories of me being 12, 13, 14 and travelling for sport, and those drives, and my experiences of those places, and the things that happened in those times that of course are really heightened when you are that age as well. I wanted to feed that in, knowing that me writing about those experiences and those places would also unlock emotions in other people, and so then that would be a shared experience. So that was some of my intentions for the work.
ASTRID: Ellen, anybody who knows me knows that I am not a sporty person, and you made me feel many things as I read Personal Score, and your recollections of being your young teenage self, running out onto the field, you even made me remember myself running out onto the netball court not knowing what I was doing there, but still having fun with my friends. You evoke things in your reader, and it is a beautifully written work, but I also think it is a significant work in terms of how readers and everybody in Australia considers sport, and how we approach it and what it means. I'm going to admit one of my biases here. I don't know very much about sport, Ellen, but I live with an American who works for the AFL. I exist in a bubble that includes a lot of sport. Personal Score is now on his bedside table for him to read with a matter of urgency, I should say. I wanted to ask your experience as someone who is a creative, and you write poetry, and you exist in the art scene and are beloved in the art scene in Australia, but you also exist in the world of sport. Sometimes I feel there is a tension there between creatives and sport, and apart from the obvious thing, which is sport gets way more money than the arts, how do you navigate the experience of both?
ELLEN: Yeah, and that also is a good question. It also comes out in the book, it also comes out in the motivation for writing the book. I think a lot of people will have their own experiences of this, because I think it's common to enjoy both sport and artistic pursuits. And I also think it is common to just favour one as well. I think when I was younger, I did feel a really strong sense of tension, and it wasn't tension that necessarily hurt me. I wouldn't use any of those strong words. But I just it found quite interesting I guess, between me being in a writer kind of existing in that environment, but also being really into sport. And so I would be in my footy kit and I'd be at a poetry reading, because they were always at the same time as well. It is almost like you have to choose.
I actually have a really beautiful memory of performing, sort of doing an opening performance for Uncle Archie Roach at the Judith Wright Centre a few years ago, and then having a grand final later that night. Actually having a neighbour come with me to the Judith Wright Centre and then drive me to the final, because I don't drive, so that's definitely sometimes a barrier to be able to go to matches. And so I was thinking, ‘Oh, I'm just going to have to choose one or the other because of the timing’. and doing both, being able to have that beautiful experience meeting Uncle Archie and performing on the same stage. So I think those are the kind of nights where I'm like, ‘My life is complete’, because I got to do both.
I think sometimes a certain camp of literary people can think that sport is anti-intellectual, it's all about the body, of course rightly responding to some of the toxic attributes of organised sport in this country can produce. And likewise, I've had the same conversations with people that I've played sport with who don't really understand the arts, and there might be this suspicion when I sort of explain what I do. Not everyone, I'm just talking about a certain group of people. And so that's kind of a hard thing to communicate, and I think sometimes there's this pressure to choose between one or the other. But like I said, I've always seen it as a very fluid thing because a lot of my family members, a lot of mob... We love the arts, we love sport. You can be at a writer's retreat for Aboriginal writers, tortured underwriters, and then we could be writing all day and then we could be watching the State of Origin or something that night, and everyone will get into it.
I've seen the community in both, and I've actually seen a lot of parallels between both worlds. Yeah, thanks for the question.
ASTRID: Reading Personal Score has made me reflect on an experience I had about two years ago. I went with some friends to see Roxane Gay and Jamila Rizvi in conversation live on stage at the Melbourne Convention Centre, and that was a phenomenal arty, writer reader kind of event. And then we walked out and of course it was AFL season, and walking back towards the centre of the city, there was like a hundred thousand people coming out of the MCG, high on a great game that they saw. And kind of seeing this crowd mix, it was a beautiful thing. And it was a lovely, lovely moment of the arts and sport physically meeting as a crowd as they crossed. And I don't know, I've been reflecting on that after reading Personal Score quite a bit.
Now, this is being published in May, and it's in time with the 2023 Women's World Cup. If we think about the logistics of publishing and selling books and all of that, that strikes me as a very different way to publish a book than your previous poetry collections. How different is it for you on that side? You're with the same publisher, UQP, but I don't know, are you going to different events? Are different things scheduled in order to talk about Personal Score?
ELLEN: Yeah, I was going to tell you my schedule for the year only to realise that a lot of it's embargoed, so I won't talk to that. But I will say that I definitely am going to try and see as many matches as possible of the Women's World Cup. And like you said, it's not as if UQP were Aviva, feeling my publisher was forcing me to finish this book in time for the Women's World Cup. But we definitely had conversations about it and it does, like you said, add a different layer when you're writing a book that will come out when an event is happening. Because for me it was a motivation I guess, because I was thinking so much about country, which is, like I said, such a present theme in this book. And I was thinking, ‘Well, what is country going to feel like when we have this event that I've been waiting my whole life to have, and be able to go see?’
And I think it's going to be huge. Like I said in my book, I went to the last Women's World Cup in France, and I think this one's going to be way bigger, and it's going to be here. And for anyone who doesn't know, I believe it's this winter, so I think the final will be in August. So July, August. The book will be out for a while before then, and of course it's not just a book that is about this event. It's just going to be out there at the same time as this event, and there's going to be many conversations that are going to be had before it, and there's going to be many conversations that are going to be had after it.
ASTRID: You're not on social media, are you?
ASTRID: That strikes me as an incredibly good life choice. You also strike me as a relatively private person. In parts of Personal Score, you are writing about yourself, you are writing about gender identity and orientation. You are writing about your experiences on and off the field. That is a profound sharing with the world. I teach, and a lot of students are in the process of or considering writing about their experience, their identity, sometimes their trauma. I wanted to ask you the motivation for putting that into the world.
ELLEN: Yeah, that's a good question. A big question, a good one. I'll circle back and just talk about some of my favourite writers that have influenced me writing this book. So non-fiction writers specifically, which helped me think about writing non-fiction. I see myself as someone who moves through genres because it's a very fluid way, it's a way to move freely and tread lightly and be nimble, be agile to use various sports metaphors. But I really needed to read the works of Billy-Ray Belcourt, Maggie Nelson, Helen MacDonald, and others, to be able to see what I wanted to do, and feel that sense of that openness of putting yourself on the page, but knowing that you are doing it for the reader, and for other people, and that it's a collaboration with the reader. And choosing those moments to dive deep and choosing those moments where you might just want to sit at the surface a little bit.
Whenever I was feeling like, ‘Oh, I'm not sure how much I want to reveal here. Have I revealed too much?’ I would think about those writers and the journey that their books took me on. And then I was listening to Mahogany Browne speak the other day, who's an incredible poet. And she was talking about trauma, writing trauma, I think in much more elegant terms than I can. And what's an interesting thing that she said in this talk was about how much we equate writing a book, producing a piece of art, with healing or therapy or something like that. It's become equated to that, but for me, it's not that.
And maybe for some people it is, but she was sort of saying something that I really, really identify with. She was saying, ‘Writing the book is not the therapy, it's not the healing, it's the first step. It's the object that you can take to the therapist, or you can use as sort of a tool to realise, what's the next step? I've written my story down. I've written my hurt down. I've written these hurtful things that have happened not just to me, but maybe to my family, my community. What's the next step after that?’ And that's crucial.
I think it was something that I really needed to hear, because writing this book wasn't cathartic at all. It was painful, it was a struggle. Well, that's my approach to writing. It is hard, and it hurts. You are thinking about whether it is worth it, and you are having conversations with other people about whether it is worth it. But I saw a way forward with this book, and I saw that it fit into my journey not just as a writer, but as a person as well. I hope that answered your question.
ASTRID: Absolutely, Ellen. What you just said about being in collaboration with the reader was a really beautiful phrase. Personal Score does feel like that in many cases. You are reflecting on your experience on books you've read, books that have influenced you, games that you played, so many different aspects of your life. And as you mentioned earlier, you cover other people's stories as well, in this book. There are elements of journalism, and I wanted to specifically draw listeners' attention to the essay ‘Trans Sporting Utopias’, given that the news is sometimes not a very nice place in 2023. In that essay, you interview several people about their own experience, putting you in a very different vantage point in that piece of writing. And I wanted to ask, as a writer, how you approached those interviews.
ELLEN: Yeah, thank you. Some of this book was already published by that time in other avenues, other journals, other means, before this book comes out. And that was one of them that I was writing as a piece that existed as a standalone piece on its own, but I always knew that it was going to make its way into the book as well. And it's through Griffith Review. I received a fellowship with them, which allowed me to think about all the ways that I could approach writing a story about trans people and their relationship with sport, which as you alluded to, is a really kind of an active pushing against mainstream media and anti-transness, that kind of anti-trans agenda that exists out there in the world and that are always popping up in new ways, particularly in sport. The conversation around sport and trans people always seems to be about exclusion. There are very few stories that are just about trans people enjoying their sport, or their achievements in sport.
So constantly coming against these hurtful and violent sort of attitudes towards sports people, trans sports people, that can really be very harmful, particularly young people who are trans, or gender questioning, or non-binary. I think I wanted to approach writing a piece that would be a different kind of piece. And I was writing it through the lens of my own experience, but other people's experiences as well. And so that's why I really wanted to write kind of a journalism that was coming from a community perspective and from a plural perspective, and in friendship with the people that I interviewed, some of who are really good friends as well. I wanted to write the sort of piece that they would feel like I captured them in all of their fullness as people, and that they would be proud of. I was sort of writing portraits of them.
And again, I do write about professional trans and non-binary athletes, but again, I'm also writing about people who don't play sport professionally that might just have a kick on the weekend, might be really into weightlifting as my friend Ali is, and write about how... Chart their experiences from a young age to now, and how they feel about sport, and what they imagine a more inclusive and a more radical and trans sporting world could look like in the future.
I felt so honoured to have their voices in the book. Definitely always imagined that it would be a book that would have other people's voices in it. And it kind of makes me think about how in Throat, that became part of my practise to include, with permission and with respect, other people's voices, particularly people that I'm very close relationally with, so my mom and my auntie. So to have that, to use those same approaches to write that particular piece, which as you said, does appear in this book. I think it sort of appears in maybe last section, I think.
ASTRID: It is a beautiful essay. Thank you so much for your time today, and real congratulations on Personal Score.
ELLEN: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk to you as always, and have a lovely day.