First NationsInterviewLiterary fictionMelissa LucashenkoTeaching materialsWriter

Melissa Lucashenko on ‘Too Much Lip’

Melissa Lucashenko is a multi-award winning Goorie writer. Her novel Too Much Lip received the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It was also shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and the Australian Book Industry Association Awards.

Her 2013 novel Mullumbimby was awarded the Deloitte Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, won the Victorian Premiers Prize for Indigenous Writing, and was longlisted for both the Stella and Miles Franklin awards as well as the Dublin IMPAC Literary Prize 2015.

Melissa is a Walkley Award winner for her non-fiction, as well as a founding member of the prisoner’s human rights group, Sisters Inside.

You can also listen to this interview with Melissa, recorded in 2019 the day after Too Much Lip was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Melissa Lucashenko

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Melissa.

MELISSA: Thanks Astrid.

ASTRID: Thank you so much for agreeing to come back to The Garret. Today we are going to just talk about Too Much Lip, which is your phenomenal novel published in 2019. I have now read it twice… or was it published at the end of 2018?

MELISSA: I actually forget. [Laughter]

ASTRID: I'm pretty sure I was published at the beginning of 2019. Now we are recording at Avid reader in Brisbane, and I have to say I've never been here before. It's quite a famous bookstore. So, thank you for having me.

First off congratulations. Since I have spoken to you, which was the morning after you were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Too Much Lip has received and been shortlisted for many other awards, including The Stella Prize, the Voss Literary Prize, the Prime Minister's Literary Award, and several categories in the Queensland Literary Awards. Why do you think the book had such an immediate impact?

MELISSA: Hhm, maybe because I worked my ring out on it for two years. [Laughter] I actually sat in this chair in this room upstairs at Avid Reader for two years, tearing my hair out and wandering downstairs to wail or the staff that my brain wouldn't work, and I couldn't get all the plotlines to fit, and was it supposed to be like this? And they would pat me on the shoulder, and go ‘there, there’, and send me back upstairs again.

ASTRID: That must be every writer’s dream, writing above a bookstore.

MELISSA: I don’t know. I think every writer’s dream is to pay the bills, really.

ASTRID: Well, there is always that, there is always that.

Now getting straight into Too Much Lip, you open with a quote from the Brisbane Telegraph that was originally published in 1908. And at the end of the book in the afterward we find out that this quote from real life was actually referred to your great grandmother.

MELISSA: Yes.

ASTRID: What does the quote illustrate? And more importantly for our discussion, how does it set up the novel?

MELISSA: I guess it illustrates that Aboriginal women have long been thought of with contempt in Australia, long in the timespan of European history here anyway. And there's a kick in the quote, which you don't understand until you get to the very end of the book, not just that the quote refers to my great grandmother who shot her would be rapist, but the fact of who exactly it was that tried to rape her and referred to her as just a gin who was basically good for nothing and ripe for exploitation. But I won't I won't do the full spoiler here.

ASTRID: Well actually, I think in this interview we can do the full spoiler because hopefully people are reading this in school. This interview is sponsored by The Copyright Agency, with the intention of encouraging contemporary Australian literature to be taught in schools.

MELISSA: All right. Well, if you haven't read the book skip over the next 10 or 20 seconds of the interview, because at the very end of the book I reveal that the man that she shot, who was attempting to rape her in the bush near Wolvi in Queensland, was also an Aboriginal man. But throughout the course of the book you don't know that the quote is about that, and people will assume reading the quote that it was a white man who referred to her in such disparaging terms and was attempting to rape her, but that wasn't the case.

ASTRID: So, Too Much Lip is about many, many themes that includes race, but it's also, you know, the lasting impacts of colonialism, it's poverty, it's drug abuse and domestic violence, it's incarceration.

MELISSA: And it's funny!

ASTRID: It is funny, it is funny. The list I gave you was quite depressing, but it is a funny read, a fast-paced read, a page turner I should say, and it is a work of fiction, obviously, but you do draw from real life and you do draw from the broader experiences of your friends, family and your own experience. How did you balance what you wanted to say and the points that you wanted to make with a great read?

MELISSA: Well, that's the 64-million-dollar question really, isn't it? I guess I started from a point of wanting an energetic book, because there's a lot of depression in the Aboriginal community and the wider community. And I think the antidote to depression is action, and to, you know, let loose the feelings that depression is about suppressing. I wanted a character that embodied fierceness and rebellion and fight, and I actually think that's what readers are mostly responding to this kind of liberation that comes with reading a character like Kerry who, you know, is afraid of very little. You know, that's always… I find it energising to be around people like that.

And I think some people see me like that, because of course they don't understand that like most people I do have fears and anxieties, but I don't present that why in the world I think. Yeah. I guess courage feeds upon itself. It's a virtuous cycle. And so, so long as I had that central character who was going around the place saying well this is a crock of shit and I'm not going to stand for that, and, you know, you can stick that up your arse and this is what's going to happen instead. I think so long as I had that driving the plot, that her and her energy carried the story through the whole lot.

ASTRID: Oh, she carries the entire narrative. She is the heroine, or the antiheroine, and I've actually heard you describe Kerry Salter as ‘a bisexual black woman on a stolen Harley’.

MELISSA: [Laughter] That’s the one.

ASTRID: That is a great description. She does drive the action. But also, a lot of the action happens internally, characters evolve, characters change, as well as the plot moving forward with action. And one of the overriding themes is, you know, a home, or belonging in a variety of different ways. Coming home, staying home, choosing to leave.

When we are first introduced to Kerry she is introduced as a stranger who is not a stranger. And in the scene we're introduced to the crow, which is one of the family’s totems and it is a motif throughout the novel. And the crow, waark

MELISSA:  Yeah, waark.

ASTRID: Talks to Kerry and accuses her of not knowing where she is and not having the lingo. And this is the first instance in what I suppose is magic realism, the magic realism element of the novel. How did you structure that within the novel?

MELISSA: In a way the use of the Indigenous realism or magic realism, whatever you want to call it, comes very naturally to me as an Aboriginal writer, because that's just one way of seeing the world that I have access to. It’s not the only way that I see the world. You know, I'm bi-cultural at least. But you know, using an Aboriginal prism, that's how the world actually operates.

And it occurs to me talking to you now that what I was doing there only semi-consciously was privileging the animal inhabitants over the human, or some of the human inhabitants of the place. And I refer to that glance singly in Mullumbimby as well, when Jo and the other characters see I think it's a turtle when they go fishing, and the turtles always been there, the turtle has never gone anywhere, it belongs to the ocean in the way that humans can't and never will, because humans are more transient. And so, the crows, they represent everyone who's always stayed on country. And it was also just a fun way to take the piss out of Kerry. And then at a third level, it draws on an experience I had years ago that I actually put into Mullumbimby but the editor cut it out, and I think she was right to. I drove past a cow in a paddock, and I didn't know if it's alive or dead. It was lying like it was dead, and I went over to it and even when I was standing there I didn't know if it was alive or dead. And there were crows on the overhead line hanging around, you know, attracted by the meat I guess. or the death. And that was a scene that's stayed with me really, really strongly, because it's a funny thing when you're next to a big animal and you don't know if it's alive or dead. And so that years later filtered its way through into the book.

ASTRID: Now Kerry, when we first meet Kerry she's coming back. She's coming back to the family home. She's been away for a few years and she doesn't really want to come back. She's drawn back, she has to come, she only intends to stay for 24 hours. You know, her goal is to flee. Can you talk about why your main character... Why you wrote a main character who had already left? What drove her away?

MELISSA: I think I wanted to be an outsider in lots of ways, and that was just another way of her being an outsider. And it allows the reader to enter the town and the family as Kerry re-enters it, in a way, so there's a craft thing there. And then there's another kind of much less serious reason, which is there's an aphorism about there's only two plotlines, and one is a stranger arrives in town and the other one is someone leaves town. And so, I wanted to… I just thought it was a really good line, you know, a stranger who wasn't a stranger arrives in town. So, it may… I can't really remember now, to be honest, but that could have played a big part in it.

ASTRID: Now when she comes back home, a stranger who is not a stranger, she's on a giant Harley. Now I just have to ask, apart from being fun what does the Harley represent?

MELISSA: Oh, well it's the ultimate symbol of rebellion, isn't it? [Laughter]

ASTRID: And it's stolen, no doubt.

MELISSA: There is actually a question mark over whether it's stolen. Originally in my mind it wasn't stolen, but she was telling people it was stolen, mainly to keep Ken off it. But then throughout the course of writing the book it evolved into yes it is actually stolen it. It represents that she's a loner. It represents that she's a rebel, and that she's a criminal, and it represents power. You know, it's a very powerful symbol of anarchy, and unusually of male power too. And so, the fact that she's not only riding it but that she stole it I think sums her up.

ASTRID: It really does. Now, she's coming back to a family, her own family, in distress, mourning, not happy with a variety of conflicting emotions. I'd like to start with Owen, her grandfather, who of course opens the novel. We have a couple of pages of Owen’s story from 1943. Owen was about 14 then, he was a child of the Depression, of World War II, at a time when the missions were still very prominent in Australia. He experienced violence and abuse. And in that opening he is described as, and this is a quote, ‘just a handy half caste’ moments before it is implied that people like him are lynched. Structurally, why start with Owen’s narrative that flashbacks to the 40s?

MELISSA: I guess it was signalling to Aboriginal readers in particular, but all readers of colour I suppose, that this was a book about the impacts of racism. You know, I took quite a risk to talk about the abuse within the Aboriginal community that the book talks about. And I was frightened, the whole time I was writing this book I thought I was going to get absolutely savaged, which I haven't, interestingly. But I wanted to make it very clear where the origins of the abusive behaviour are, and that was that was the easiest way and the best way that I could think of.

And I wanted also, I wanted to show Owen, who is just Pop the all the way throughout the book, I wanted to show Pop as he was and to say that he could, it could have been a different life for him. You know, he could have not been abused in the way he was, he could not have been beaten in the police cells, he could have won the silver gloves and gone on to stardom. You know, there was another trajectory that he could have taken, but that was robbed from him.

ASTRID: It was robbed from him. And that scene in my reading, and I am, you know, of white settler descent. So in my reading, it sets up the violence and abuse from society against the family, as well as, you know, the consequences of that, which is the violence and abuse that happens and plays out through the generations in the family. A moment ago, you said it was a risk to write that and you're worried about the reaction. Can you explain that for me a little bit more?

MELISSA: Well, I've worked as a founding member of Sisters Inside, I've been involved with Sisters Inside for 25 odd years now, and you know, pretty much every woman that walks in the doors of Sisters Inside has been beaten or raped or abused in some way multiple times. And there's a narrative in Australia now that is… there is discussion of Aboriginal family violence in the media, but it's usually disconnected from, you know, a structural analysis. It's usually saying, ‘Well, the problem is these Aboriginal men who are drunks and abusers, and aren't they terrible? And oh, the poor women’. Ali Coby Eckermann's actually got a fabulous poem about this, ‘Tell me about the women’. And yeah, I wanted to put the violence in context, because I was sick of on the one hand of hearing the violence denied, and then on the other hand I was equally sick of hearing the violence spoken about by white people who are essentially racist who refuse to see the way that Australian society has set this up for centuries.

ASTRID: And the impacts are still playing down generations. So, Owen, Pop, has four grandchildren, and I'd like to talk through the story from each of their points of view, of their experiences. So, let's start with Ken, the oldest brother.

MELISSA: Yeah.

ASTRID: When Kerry does return home and she is going into the house you write, ‘Ken had long held a monopoly on anger in the Salter family’. And we don't know it yet, but you know, at this first moment that is a legacy of Pop and the wider history that Ken has experienced, as well as his own life choices. When we get into the household, it becomes clear to the reader that you are depicting a household that still has violence and the threat of violence within it. Do you see that elsewhere in Australian literature?

MELISSA: I think Tony Birch refers to it. Yeah, I see… Well, the first thing is that all Aboriginal households live with violence, because the violence of colonisation still exists in an altered form today. And everyone who's visibly Aboriginal walks around, you know, expecting racist treatment, or anticipating and I suppose is a better word, including fatal violence from police and other authority figures each day. So that violence is in every household. Do I see it in other Australian literature? I see variations of it in lots of Aboriginal literature, including poetry and song.

ASTRID: We've spoken a little bit so far about intergenerational trauma and the violence that can contribute towards, as people's trauma bubbles out in ways that maybe they would wish it didn't. But as a storyteller, it's an incredibly powerful narrative to depict this family who, you know, this is a story of a family with wider connotations.

I think Richard Flanagan's… one of his early novels that was made into a film – I didn't read the novel, but I saw the film – and it was about Slavic people or Eastern European people and it was a family saga. I remember being very affected by the film when it came out and reversed my car into another car {Laughter]. Luckily she didn't get me to pay. That was when I was very broke in my 20s. So, I think he looked at it, and yeah I'm sure there's plenty of other family sagas that you know family stories that talk about in intergenerational violence.

And I've just realised the reason I'm struggling with this is that all violence is intergenerational violence, it all has roots in previous generations. And there's no such thing as spontaneous violence erupting, except possibly if someone's got an acquired brain injury I suppose.

ASTRID: Now black Superman is Ken's younger brother. He is gay and living in Sydney with his partner, although he's visiting home throughout much of this novel. Ken and Black Superman, these brothers are almost foils of each other that come from the same place, they've had a lot of the same experiences, but they have experienced different trauma and abuse, and they have made different life choices. I'm interested in discussing where you took both of these characters, but firstly, tell me about the name Black Superman.

MELISSA: [Laughter] I guess I was trying throughout the book for kind of a light touch with the humour, and then it was also part of that spirit of rebellion. You know, I would give these strange and ridiculous names to characters sometimes, but it's just thought… Yeah, I would think at one point I was going to call him Superman and then I thought now Superman doesn't cut it, he's Black Superman.

ASTRID: Black Superman sounds way more powerful. Now, at one point the family is at a funeral and Uncle Richard essentially anoints Black Superman, the younger brother, as leader and I have a quote here for you. ‘An openly gay man was being anointed as Pop's successor in a dusty country town run by corrupt rednecks. Wonders would never cease’. What is happening here?

MELISSA: That was as much as anything, that was a decision about craft in order to ignite Ken's smouldering anger. But it was also to position Uncle Richard as both shrewd and sympathetic to the reader. And it's also a reflection of reality that, you know, being gay it's not… it doesn't doom you in country New South Wales to being low on the pecking order. It's definitely a struggle, but the Aboriginal community is I think open to leadership from all kinds of people these days.

ASTRID: Now Black Superman is also looking after two children, distant relatives who have really fallen through the system and come from an abusive home. They're very young. Both are traumatised, especially the young boy. And it's revealed that he may or may not have a diagnosis of schizophrenia. It's not a major part of the narrative, but I did want to ask you about the choice of fleshing out characters with their own daily lives but also bringing in another element of the Stolen Generations and the continuing impact of trauma through families. There's… Black Superman and his partner, he expresses how hard it is, how it's a struggle to look after these children, to be in that role of the foster parents, the adoptive parent. And maybe he can't do it anymore. Where was this...

MELISSA: Yeah. Well there were two... My sister in law was fostering two boys at the time I was writing the book, and the boys, you know, their presence in my life came through in in those characters, not that they are identical by any means, but I wanted to show the reader... My general readership that usually the conversation in mainstream Australia stops with there is violence, or the kids must be made safe, the kids must be taken away. And yes, kids must be made safe. But you know, there's Aboriginal families fighting tooth and nail to keep kids within kinship structures. So, I wanted to show that there is a place within the community where kids can be removed from violence and made safe, but at the same time show how hard that is. So, I wanted that to be really clear that kids belong within families.

ASTRID: Moving from Ken and Black Superman to Donna, now known as Martina in the novel, the sister. Now Donna has a completely different approach to the family and her childhood. She fled sexual abuse in the home, she then ended up in an abusive relationship possibly abusing substances before creating essentially a new identity for herself, and not an Indigenous identity, which she leaves behind. So, of all of the characters thinking about race in a variety of ways in the novel, Donna, Martina, takes the most extreme approach by creating a different identity.

MELISSA: Yeah, she does. She basically just wants to leave everything behind, all the pain in her life behind and completely cut herself off from the horror that was her upbringing in Durango. Yeah. And she… I think in reality characters like Donna, maybe some of them do that but a more likely trajectory for Dinna would have been to hit the streets in Sydney, you know, become a heroin addict and to die young probably, or to cycle in and out of jail, you know, spend the majority of her adult life in jail. But yeah, I guess I wanted to... I remember starting the novel, and I've got to cast my memory back quite a few years now, but originally I wanted five siblings and I cut it back to four. And they had to have very different responses to the violence, and so that's how Donna came about. And it turned out to be really fortuitous, because then that meant at the end of the book that she had material resources, she had money to bring back to the family and set the family up for a different future.

ASTRID: She does have material resources, she's gone and become a very successful real estate agent. And at one point, I have a quote for you, you write, ‘Martina will decide who comes to Durango Shire and the circumstances in which they come’. Now that is a very obvious reference to former Prime Minister John Howard's very strict immigration policies, but what did you want the reader to take from that?

MELISSA: Again, there's a lot of jokes in the book that probably only I will ever get, and it's kind of me mucking around and having fun. That to me was getting the reader to think that… To unconsciously put Martina and John Howard's side by side in their minds and saying, ‘Oh, she's that kind of white person, you know, she's just as brash and egoistic, if that’ the right word. She is as controlling as John Howard, that's the kind of person she is. And then of course by the end of the book you understand that it's got a completely different reason.

ASTRID: It really, really does. Now, her real estate skills and career and resources is, you know, one of the plot elements that all come together with the family and the family situation. And that all takes place, I guess, at a physical location, the island, Ava’s Island, which is a physical place the family visits but it's also their spiritual home and a symbol of their past and their future. The way Ava’s Island is loved and considered a spiritual home by the family is very different to the white settler approach to land, which you symbolised by making it the site of a future property development, for a correctional facility no less. Were you making comments on the different approaches to land?

MELISSA: I don't know that I was consciously... Well, to me that's just the air I breathe. And as you said that I could hear some white listeners to this say, ‘Oh, but my father or grandfather loved his farm’ and, you know, ‘I love the bush where I grew up’. And yeah, of course non-Aboriginal people have attachment to the bush and the country. But it is very different, and a lot of the time people don't have attachment to bush. I remember being gobsmacked when I ask someone out in the Boonah district who I just came across who'd lived on a particular road for ten years and I said, ‘Oh what's…’ – I must have not been familiar with the area myself at the time – and I said, ‘What's that mountain there at the end of the road?’ And they didn't know, they had lived there for ten years and they didn't know. Now that might be unusual or it might not, but all I can say is that connection to country is very different for blackfellas if you've grown up in culture or if you have been exposed to culture.

ASTRID: So, Ava’s Island is also a place of revelation in the narrative. The family has lies and mistruths within it, as all families do, and Ava's Island is the place where some of those lies happened and where some of the reconciliation for the characters takes place. As a writer, as you work on your craft and you structure your story – which is a page turner as I said before – how important is it to have a place where everything can come together at once?

MELISSA: Well, it's an interesting question. I hadn't thought of it in those terms. I suppose I Ava’s Island is somewhere where history coalesces, and so is Durango generally.

Originally Mount Monk going to be that place, but a very good friend of mine who was a sister to me died in 2013 and her funeral was at the place that in the novel becomes Ava’s Island, and the pine tree that her coffin was under at her funeral, that's the pine tree in the novel.

So, I think that's… I write for a whole lot of reasons, and the things that traumatize you in life are the things that become the subject of your fiction, often, as a fiction writer, I think. The things that you can't let go of or that don't let go of you. So, Ava’s Island is based on a place which in reality is really important to me and is still a place of great grief for me.

From a craft point of view and a cultural point of view, I suppose, the place where Granny Ava shed blood into the water needed to be the place where blood was shed in the current era as well, to close the circle.

ASTRID: So Too Much Lip is a fictional novel, and you have – although you are drawing from real places, as you just mentioned –Durango is a fictionalised place, you've made it up. We just know that it's northern New South Wales and Kerry has come down from across the border from Queensland.

MELISSA: Yes.

ASTRID: I've spoken to Tony Birch and discussed The White Girl with him which also came out in 2019, and he discussed how he fictionalised all of the places so the story could be available to everybody, not just one particular region.

MELISSA: Yeah.

ASTRID: Was that one of the reasons why you did it or am I conflating?

MELISSA: No, I couldn't… So, like for example set the book in Mullumbimby or Murwillumbah

or Kyogle or Casino or Boonah or Beaudesert, because to do that would be to say this particular Aboriginal community… it gets almost to the point of naming individuals, you know, because Pop is one of 12 people who set up the housing co-op. So, then you go, ‘Oh OK, who runs the housing co-op in that town?’ And you know, ‘Which of them used to be an ATSIC Councillor?’ So that's not fair on those people.

It probably would be my preference to write real places. I'd love to write a novel set in Ocean Shores, and maybe one day will. But again, you get to play around a bit more with fictional towns and incorporate things that actually have happened and things that could have happened but didn't.

And the reference to the nigger minstrel show, in the scene where Kerry breaks into the council chambers, I was googling Trove, I do a lot of digging around on Trove, and there was there was a nigger minstrel show in the very early 1900s, I think it was in Maryborough in Queensland, was up in that area anyway, and I just thought, ‘Oh, that's what was going on at that particular time’. And so that made its way in, even though it was from a place a couple of hundred miles away.

ASTRID: Fair enough. Melissa, I’d like to talk to you about language. So, from the first page you expect your readers to either know or to pick up words of Aboriginal English. I didn't know all of the words, and I read a lot and I feel ashamed. But you come out with such expectation on the reader, in a wonderful way. I learnt words. But can you talk to me about dugai.

MELISSA: Yeah, dugai. Well, there's no need to feel shame. It's not your language. So, there's no shame involved, it's just what it is. I thought I was pretty light handed with the amount of Aboriginal language in this book compared to Mullumbimby. And I always underestimate how difficult it is for people, because of course I understand the words and to me they're as easy to read or write as English.

Dugai means ghost, and as in most of Australia the word for ghost became the word for white people, because they were assumed to be ghosts at first contact. It's not a word that's used a lot because the word migaloo, also meaning white or ghost, is the common word in Brisbane, but dugai is used around the Gold Coast hinterland and some parts of northern New South Wales.

ASTRID: That's one of the first words that I learnt, and it's also one that Kerry calls Steve quite a few times throughout the novel. And she also calls Steve, and also white people in general, whitenormalsavages. And not only white normal savages but all one word and in italics. Talk to me about that.

MELISSA: [Laughter]

ASTRID: It made me laugh every time, but I want you to describe it for me.

MELISSA: I think I was just trying to stir the possum there. I wanted to be very clear that the prevailing view, certainly for Kerry and you know within the family to an extent, from Pops point of view, was to invert that idea of us as savages and to say ‘they are normal, but they're savages’, and that's what's normal in modern Australia is the whitenormalsavage. And that's pretty accurate for a big part of the Aboriginal population, you know. We see the behaviour of white people as astounding and brutal and hypocritical and everything that goes to make up that word savage.

ASTRID: So, from a craft point of view, why italicise it? As a reader just make it fun for me, but…

MELISSA: Yeah. Is it italicised all the time? That could have been an editorial decision. No, it was probably me. I think just to underline that this is a category, and a label.

ASTRID: Label, that I think is a good word, because I another leading question for you. I'd like to ask you about Kerry's relationship with Steve. They're lovers and she doesn't take him very seriously to start with, partly because he's a whitenormalsavage. She does change her mind as she opens up and comes to a variety of different realisations in her life and has a measure of healing, but she's still slightly… maybe not embarrassed but questioning his potential status as someone who sticks around in her life as a white man.

MELISSA: Yeah, well she doesn't want to trust him and she has fairly good reasons not to trust him, what and that's not taking him seriously is about. He's actually not a whitenormalsavage. A whitenormalsavage is a category of people who are unthinking and ignorant and happy in their ignorance and they redneckery. So, it takes in most of the population of Durango. But yeah, people can jump out of that category and Steve is one of them.

ASTRID: I have a quote here from you and you are talking about Durango. ‘This wasn't Logan, this was Durango, where dark skins were few and far between and whitenormalsavages ruled.

MELISSAL Yeah. That's right. You go to Logan City and you’ll see a lot of brown and black people, but you go to country New South Wales and it's mostly the Aboriginal people and maybe a very small handful of Asians that aren’t white.

ASTRID: So, tell me about Aunty Val. She is a woman who lives next door. She is not Indigenous. What was her role in the narrative?

MELISSA: Yes, she came out of a family that I was working with for Sisters Inside, an Aboriginal family who had been through all sorts of trauma and had more trauma to come, although I didn't know that at the time, well I could anticipate it but I didn't know the specifics of what was going to happen, but that's another story. And they lived next door to a white family of underclass whites, and the underclass whites called the Aboriginal grandfather of the first family uncle, and the way they interacted, there was so much in common with those families, and their vast expertise about psych medications, it was just mind boggling with their extensive experience with the mental health system. But yeah, the way those two families were close and shared resources and shared relationships was really striking. And I wanted to show that, and I wanted to show the potential closeness of white underclass and working-class Australians with blackfellas.

ASTRID: Melissa, I'd like to talk about Donny, Ken's oldest boy.

MELISSA: You've only asked me about the male characters!

ASTRID: I started off asking you about Kerry, and we talked about Donna and Martina.

MELISSAL Oh, that's true.

ASTRID: Donny is an adolescent. His father…. He's at the mercy of his father, if I can put it that way. He also has an eating disorder, possibly anorexia, which is unusual to see in a male character in literature. What was his role?

MELISSA: Donny… his anorexia came from my extended family, my partner's family, where there is a boy who I think probably was or is anorexic. His role, his role, his role… I guess I wanted to have a range of males, of Aboriginal male masculinity, I suppose. You know, Ken's a bully and a damaged person. Owen was a political operator and also very damaged. Uncle Richard is the good guy who's running around doing political work and is a decent and a good person. I think because Donna suffered so much within the family I wanted there also to be a male, from the beginning a male victim for want of a better word within the family. And yeah, I wanted to capture that sense of teenagers feeling on the outside, feeling alienated, feeling hard done by, because teenage self-harm and suicide is huge in the Aboriginal community.

There was a very early iteration of the novel, very early thinking about the novel. The mother, Pretty Mary, was going to be the central character rather than Kerry. And then I figured out that I couldn't actually write it that way, I had to make Kerry the central character. And the opening scene of the alternative version had Pretty Mary on the front veranda of a house and she was stuck on the house she couldn't leave the house because she was supporting the body of her teenage grandson who had tried to hang himself, and she was the only thing stopping him from hanging to death, that she was beneath him and carrying that weight. But as I say, it changed and that image got lost along the way.

ASTRID: Wow, that’s a good answer. [Laughter] You distracted me then, I was just imagining that as an opening scene.

ASTRID: What would you like high school students to take away from Too Much Lip?

MELISSA: Well if they're non-Aboriginal I'd like them to take away the knowledge that Aboriginal lives are not what they think. You know, you might think you see something from the outside but there's a hell of a lot more going on. You know, we're not poor by accident, we're not in jail by accident. There's a whole history that you need to understand before you can... Before we can begin to comprehend what's going on in Aboriginal lives. So, I guess to take away some of the arrogance. You know, there's that classic Native American thing about not judging someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. And I think that's really useful because, you know, if you don't judge someone until you've walked mile in their shoes, by the time you turn around and judge them you are a mile away and they can't hit you. Plus, you've got their shoes.

ASTRID: Well said. And what about for your Indigenous readers? [Laughter]

MELISSA: There's such a diversity of Aboriginal readers as well. I don't know. I hope people find it funny. I hope people thought it moving. I hope people feel less alone. And that's what my Aboriginal readers are telling me.

ASTRID: So, when you think about Too Much Lip being taught in the Australian classroom, how can non-Indigenous teachers approach bringing Too Much Lip into the classroom and do it well?

MELISSA: Yeah, I think it's a real issue, but I think so long as people so long as teachers approach it professionally and don't expect the Aboriginal students in the class to answer cultural questions for them. Don't put your Aboriginal students on the spot and ask, you know, what they think about the abuse, for example, in front of a classroom of kids. And don't set up a situation where those kids are on their own, having to defend their culture or explain things that they very likely can't explain.

And yea, just continue your own education as an Australian living on stolen land.

Have a crack at it.

ASTRID:    Melissa, thank you so much for coming back to The Garret.

MELISSA: Thank you.