Evelyn Araluen: On ‘Dropbear’

Evelyn Araluen is the coeditor of Overland, as well as a poet, educator and researcher working with Indigenous literatures. 2021's Dropbear is her first collection.

Her shorter works have won the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship. Born, raised, and writing in Dharug country, she is a Bundjalung descendant.

Evelyn has appeared on The Garret before (talking about literary journals in Australia), and you can listen here.

Evelyn Araluen: On 'Dropbear'


ASTRID: Evelyn, welcome back to The Garret.

EVELYN: Thank you so much for having me.

ASTRID: Now, we spoke in 2020 about your work as co-editor of Overland Literary Journal. But today I would really like to talk to you about Dropbear, your debut collection of poetry. Can you tell us about your book launch? Because I have to say, I wasn't there Evelyn, but I have seen pictures and I am very impressed.

EVELYN: Yeah, it was the coolest thing to happen in a carpark in my lifetime, and that puts it above some of the incredibly impressive carpark fights that I've witnessed growing up in Western Sydney. So, we launched Dropbear like a week or two ago now, and it was a partnership with MPavilion and the Wheeler Centre and Pavilion, of course, do a lot of really incredible installation, art, and performance work around the city of Melbourne; and their newest space is a converted floor of a carpark, which is pretty cool, pretty different. Apparently people aren't driving into the city and parking as much anymore. So it was a little bit unexpected when I went to go and view the space, but it turned out to be amazing.

We do what we do for COVID safety, to go and be able to hang out on beach in deck chairs and a carpark with people I love and adore was amazing. So, Jonathan Dunk, my co-editor at Overland launched the work, where we had some really incredible performers, Kiernan Ironfield, who is a really amazing Dharug Yidaki performer. Annie Janine Lane, who is a really beautiful writer, herself and Melody Paloma, who is an incredible poet. So it was ridiculously special, I'm so blessed, and I'm so lucky that people were willing to rock up to a car park to hear about my weird poems.

ASTRID: I'm really impressed. So much of what I, and I think many in the writing, and reading, and literary community have missed is that interaction with people. I mean, we get it online, but to see someone at a book launch to see the faces of people engaged and there for the love of words, I'm really glad face to face book launches are coming back. And also I'm really impressed that you braved the way in a carpark. So thank you, Evelyn, but now, because Dropbear is so new, can you introduce our listeners to what you have done in this remarkable collection?

EVELYN: So drop it is sort of a mix of poetry, prose, poem, essay, sort of personal memoir that is all concentrated around the ideas of kitsch, nostalgia and Australiana, and they smashed national iconography of settler colonial city and the different ways in which it obfuscates Aboriginal lands, and really it's just about unpacking how I, as an Aboriginal person, have navigated those ideas and experiences basically like since I was a child and what they mean to me and the particular and very complex forms of love and nostalgia that I also feel for things that I know are very problematic and complex. So it's a book basically that attempts to be atheistic, but also honest about what it is to love colonised land and to love land that you are dispossessed in this place from, through this sort of debris of national iconography.

ASTRID: Obviously the ideas in Dropbear, you had been thinking about for a long time, some of the pieces in Dropbear, very clearly referenced events that happened in 2020, pandemic, bushfire, the last international trip, how much of 2020 changed what you were putting in here, if at all?

EVELYN: A lot changed actually. I was working originally on this collection with Tony Birch through The Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter Writing Fellowship. So that was throughout a lot of late 2018 and the majority of 2019, I was researching around Australiana and kitsch national iconography. And it felt like there was a much more direct conversation between me and my sort of historic negotiation of these symbols and ideas.

And then in 2020, after I'd had basically a manuscript and the particular idea of what this book would look like, I moved forward with a very different kind of story. Things felt necessary to be added. There was a lot going on globally as well. Further discussions and movements around Black Lives Matter. There were more things going on in Australian literature and poetry. There was just a lot happening that had to be woven into the book. And the pandemic as a way of focusing my attention, but also kind of creating distance, given that I did move to Melbourne and I moved out of country that I felt like I had a really clear and direct relationship and responsibility for, gave me simultaneously I think like more perspective on the intellectual ambitions of the work that allowed me to kind of move around a little bit and play with some of the language and ideas.

It just forced me into a different kind of poetic practice that felt like it had kind of caught up to some of the more difficult aspects of the work that I had been putting off, assuming that like one day I'll get better and be able to do those work. It kind of accelerated something that I think it would have taken me a couple of years to get to the point that I am with my writing. Had I not been locked in a tiny little house somewhere in a very new place where I could only explore five kilometres and at that time I couldn't afford animal crossing. So I really only had writing to keep my attention focused.

ASTRID: What a thing to keep your attention focused. A few moments ago, you use the phrase intellectual ambition, which I think is a beautiful phrase. And my experience of reading Dropbear was pleasurable until I got to a point where I'm like, I know there is so much in this sentence or in this stanza and I need to stop and think about this for a while. Like you challenged me and I liked that. That is a thing that I don't always experience when I read. So on a personal level thank you, Evelyn. But I'd like to explore further the idea that it accelerated your poetic practice and your practice as a writer. I assume that you mean, you were in a room and you didn't have that many places to go and what a writer needs is time, but what was it beyond that physical time and space to not be able to go anywhere?

EVELYN: I think at some point in the pandemic, and this was always going to happen, I just needed a bit less distraction to take me away from my own kind of inevitable telos towards a state of slight unhingement. I lost my sense of confidence in a lot of the paradigms and sort of basically in the stakes of the universe as I knew it. My stakes in what poetry needed to be, what my kind of poetry needed to be, who it needed to speak to and for, and there are certain poems that literally begin with lines like just fuck it and then proceed from that point. So it really was, it wasn't just the sort of the time to sit down and read extensively, which I did. I'd probably say that I read about over 60 different poetry books last year, which made me much more assured in my own practice.

Actually, I was very much worried that I would start to emulate other writers and maybe I have, but who knows, when you lose the sort of the social performativity and structures, which endlessly create a kind of play that affirm the role that you're supposed to play, whether that's a gendered role, a role tied to a profession, a career and identity or anything like that. When you lose the social performativity around those roles and those structures, you can lose confidence in your own practice. You can lose confidence in your own identity. You can lose all sorts of things. But what I weirdly kind of found that I gained was just absolutely no, I gained a kind of apathetic response to my own career where I was really only focused on what I felt to be my own improvement. What I would know to be my own confidence.

There are poems where there's like 20, 30 references in a single poem that maybe no one's ever going to get, I'm really fine with that being the case. I want people to enjoy the work. I want them to feel like they might be familiar with different ideas that they've encountered them. Maybe they'll read a book in 10 years and realise that there was something going on there and not in a sense of like, look at how clever I am, but rather more to demonstrate. I think that there is this insane and very layered intertextuality that defines a lot of Australian literature because we have just essentially constantly repeating the same tropes and ideas and images.

And when you're just sitting around and you have the capacity to be reading and researching these ideas, you see their recurrence so endlessly. I wrote about a lot of these things in a way that I perhaps would've got too distracted by or in my own head about to include in the collection. And I just really think that that comes from just losing whatever kind of naive faith I had in certain structuring of these spaces and disciplines. And just deciding that I could write what I wanted to write. People have been giving some really positive responses so far. I'm sure there will be people who don't like it, and I'm very fine and prepared for that.

ASTRID: As you was speaking, then Evelyn, I suddenly had this image of university students at whatever level in 10 years’ time unpicking all of the different layers that you put in one poem and continually trying to add to each other, by finding another reference that you've like put in there. You also referred to your question that you have, whether reading 60 poetry books influenced your writing or not. That is a question that I, that so many writers ask. If you are working on a major work, should you be reading the work of others or not? Will you be influenced by them or not? I don't have a good answer to that question, but I would like to ask you something that I often find myself musing on. If someone chooses not to read, how will they not just reinvent the same wheel as opposed to create something different?

EVELYN: I always find myself returning to reading as the first thing to encourage my own writing, but also to encourage other people to write. So I'm a big believer that if you're not actively reading quite consistently, whether you see that as a part of research process or not, you just won't be a good writer. And I know that's a kind of definitive statement that's unnecessary for the discipline of creative writing. I've taught so much where people have insisted 'I don't want to be reading other people because I'm worried that will get in the way of the originality of my voice', which I just find such a lazy kind of remark to make. I think it's necessary. I also think it's respectful. I don't think that it's fair to expect participation in your work when you aren't actively participating in the broader conversations and in the landscape of that discipline.

I really think that it's incredibly important for the development of one's own practice. I would say that I could point out throughout the collection, a lot of resonance with writers that were threatening at the time, Sean Bonney was a massive influence over some of the latest stylistic developments in my work, many others. And I'm really incredibly grateful for that. And I think that that gives my own writing practice something better than it would have had without isolation. And honestly, I would have been really absurd and ridiculous to have expected people to give the respect that I would want for my work without that context.

But also, this is a book that came out of years of reading and research around the Australian Canon. So I think reading and like a really active reading and research practice, which we don't often associate with poetry should be central to somebody's creative development. Like I just don't know what kind of person could get to what kind of stage in their life and say, I'm done reading now I feel like I've finished all of the reading I need to do. And now I can just write and put something else out in the world. I wouldn't trust that kind of work honestly.

ASTRID: Well said, Evelyn. Now you just use the word, canon. Canon is such a difficult and problematic thing to exist. I grew up as a teenager, Evelyn, as a precocious teenager, I heard about the Western Canon and my 15-year-old self thought, I was going to read the whole thing and love it and be inspired. My 40-year-old self thinks that that is horrific in terms of the Australian Canon, that too is problematic and Dropbear is showing some of those problems and writing against the idea of the canon and the things we keep repeating and trotting out as if they're original and wonderful. Can you explain for our listeners, what you think is problematic with the idea of the Australian Canon?

EVELYN: The Australian Canon in particular is governed by some very unreconciled problems. So I would say that intellectually, there is a very clear relationship with very Euro-Western tradition and you see that manifested in some of the earliest journals and diaries around the initial invasion and exploration of so-called Australia, that continue to kind of reoccur and are constantly reasserted, whether that be through kind of ironic technique or kind of blind faced reassertion. So you can see really interesting poetic and literary relationships between writers, such as Kenneth Slessor and then journals of Cook and Phillip and Mitchell and such, and that kind of constantly religious certain tropes and expectations.

The ones that I focused on most particularly were those that constellated around ideas of haunting and ghostliness because that was what struck me as perhaps one of the most damaging insistence's throughout a long history of Australian literature. This idea that Aboriginal people don't need to exist in any voiced or embodied role in a literary imagining of Australian landscape, they need to be bones. They need to be a grave. They need to be like a ghost or a spectre. And perhaps even in the kind of platonic idea of shadows on a cave wall, you have the cave paintings and all of these sorts of tropes that are just constantly re articulated in different genres.

So most recently in this idea of post-Mabo literature is emerging and has been emerging since the nineties where you have this supposed reckoning of Australian writers to the implications of native title and that the basic logic that Aboriginal people actually yes, we belong to the land, but we also own the land. Like it is our land. And it's just so ridiculous that the only kind of voicing of Aboriginal grief and presence, and that history is so often white discovery of Aboriginal deaths and bodies in the landscape.

Which I just think is so typical of this essential formulation that Aboriginal people need to exist creatively. We need to be there as a kind of aesthetic guide for white discovery. And so throughout the collection, what I most explicitly tried to play with is the idea that not all of the ghosts that are here are ours, some of them were brought. And a lot of the time that ghostliness, that is perceived to be Aboriginal presence is actually just whiteness, constantly projecting itself and placing itself in the landscape and attempting to re animate these different literary traditions and ideas with the constant rediscovery of their own presence. So it's all just settler colonialism, basically just constantly repeating and playing in the same tired and unreconciled tropes. So a lot of this book just comes out of the frustration exhaustion of that. I lost perspective of whether I was trying to ironize that or not. I no longer know if any of this book is ironic.

ASTRID: I don't think that you need to know. I really appreciate, Evelyn, the way you just described how the literature that we have in this country has got blinkers on and has had blinkers on for centuries. I am new to poetry. I have always been a reader, Evelyn, but poetry is not something that I felt confident reading or understanding until the last couple of years. So I feel like I'm coming to this interview as a baby poetry reader, and I'm slightly embarrassed about any really basic questions that I might end up asking you.

But from my baby poetry experience, I was confronted quite a lot reading, Dropbear in a really good way in that way, where I'm kind of like, how did you do that in like a phrase or a line. Now I have to go away and try to unpick this. And I was wondering who you wrote the collection for? Now I know it's quite personal and obviously you wrote for yourself, but who, maybe the question I'm looking for here, Evelyn is who do you want to read this collection? And maybe what do you want them to do after they have read it?

EVELYN: That's a good question and it's one that I think that I'd have to say that I do have multiple answers for that, that I remove in terms of their priority. So everything that I do is always just me and Leslie trying to reiterate my love and gratitude for my parents and for the people who raised me and the community that I grew up in and the different networks that come out of that community. And there is like a very long standing Aboriginal tradition of constantly trying to honour those who came before you and then make space for those who will come next. And so I feel like there is this impetus behind the project to make space for emerging Aboriginal writers who might have been confronted, or might have been disconcerted by this almost impenetrable wall of logics of erasure and elimination that radiate out of the Australian Canon.

So, if in any way, this work helps deconstruct so that impenetrability and lays bare some of the violences of these traditions that helps other people step forward and say what they want to say themselves. That's amazing and I really want Dropbear as a project to not just be this book and my own work. I feel like I said, what I need to say about my own relationships and I think it was important that I did have to be honest and vulnerable about the reality that for all of the critique I can offer for Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie, Blinky Bill, and all of that stuff, I was raised with these stories and images and the ideas that they create. I was raised as them and I still have a strange complex kind of love.

I'm hoping that there'll be writers who will critique this work. Aboriginal writers who say, this didn't go far enough and look at me, go further. Like I want that. That would be incredible and amazing. But there is also a really clear voice is constant anaphora for a throughout the collection where I am speaking to a white audience, I am speaking to colonisers, to settlers, to all of these different roles of non-Aboriginal bodies on stolen Aboriginal land. Some of them very explicitly respond to specific works. So I've got older, canonical works like Wake in Fright. There's a poem that responds to a very new novel, it was only published like last year or something like that The Inland Sea, and I would be naive to expect that the authors of these books didn't in some way read or respond. I love it if Nick Cave read this, honestly, there's a lot of jokes about Nick cave songs in his collection, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

I say things to writers and thinkers that I perhaps wouldn't necessarily say to them directly in a conversation at a bar, but I'd definitely say it in the carpark after. And so maybe this book, like its launch, is the carpark of my brain, where the things that I would like to say, but don't always feel confident saying can be anaesthetised and performed in such a way that the cattiness and the rudeness that does underlie a lot of this collection are explained and justified. I'm a very bitter person, but I usually feel like it's a justified business.

ASTRID: You say that with a smile, Evelyn, I think that you, I wouldn't describe the collection as catty. I would go back to the word you used at the beginning of this interview, honest. There should always be a place for honesty. I have a big question for you. So many things changed in 2020, and so many things were exposed in 2020. It takes time to create art. It takes time to process and to write, but once artists and writers and thinkers have had that time, what art do you hope to see come out in the next few years?

EVELYN: I think we're going to have a really interesting aesthetic intellectual creative outpouring as a result of the pandemic. And I'm not expecting it to occur that quickly, I think we need time. As you say, like we do need time to try to unpack the implications of global crisis like this.

Honestly, my biggest hope is that it focuses attention on other crises, as opposed to just constantly reaffirming and reiterating something that we all went through. So I want people to talk about what the pandemic can teach us about climate change. I want people to talk about what the pandemic can teach us about the never ending constant forms of injustice, such as child sex-trafficking, wage labour, slavery, all of these interconnected global issues that require focus, attention, organising, resources that we have demonstrated we are beyond capable of attending to if people care and if people focus their work on particularly on issues and communities that need that and can't mobilise themselves. So I want work, which exposes the essential parallel between the pandemic and other forms of crises, as opposed to just mourning something that by virtue of their being work in some way, we survived.

ASTRID: This brings me to your role at Overland and the new prize that you launched at the beginning of 2021. Can you tell our listeners about the Kuracca Prize for Australian Literature?

EVELYN: It's a bit of a trial run and like everything we've been doing at Overland, we are really just finding our feet and trying to offer up what we feel that the community can benefit from. But the Karaca Prize was established in memory and honour for Aunty Kerry Reed Gilbert who represents this really important time in Australian literature where predominantly women and now older women, many of whom have passed, and in Aunty Kerry's instance, Wiradjuri woman, a really strong, amazing Wiradjuri woman who was working constantly towards the emergence of new opportunities for emerging writers and unfortunately often young writers. That seems to be the thing that people always associate emergence with. And they worked incredibly hard and then many of them were shut out from those own opportunities. Many of them never got to reap the benefits of that work.

And we can't correct that we absolutely cannot correct that, but offering a prize, which is not restricted by age or experience or genre form, which rather just attempts to recognise that various brilliance and creative power in things that have not yet necessarily been represented and have not been valued sufficiently. That should be the work that we are all trying to do to make space for those who have been left in that process.

So, it's not categorised, whoever wins it, wins it, whether that's essay, poetry, fiction, memoir, graphic design, storytelling, audio, whatever it is, we're ready and prepared for it. We have three incredible judges Jeanine Lane who was a dear friend of Aunty Kerry, Elena Gomez, and Justin Clemens. And these are all very interdisciplinary creators, they are very confident across a range of fields and mediums, and it was supported with funding distributed through Creative Victoria as a part of COVID release strategies to help Australian writers in this time to survive the impacts of the pandemic on the industry. So, we are hoping that we're going to be announcing the shortlist in a couple of weeks and so we're hoping that it demonstrates some really amazing talent in Australian literature more broadly, but that it finds those writers that we were looking for around generosity of spirit, intellectual integrity, creativity, all of those things that Aunty Kerry champion herself.

ASTRID: Evelyn, the idea of a prize that welcomes all forms of art across mediums feels very liberating. I cannot wait to see the shortlist. Congratulations, once again, on Dropbear. I really recommend everyone listening to pick it up and have to put it down to think like I did. Thank you so much, Evelyn.

EVELYN: Thank you so much for having me.