Overland Literary Journal: Natalia Figueroa Barroso and EJ Clarence
Natalia is an Uruguayan-Australian poet and storyteller and a member of Sweatshop Literacy Movement, with degrees in Communication, Screenwriting and Media Production. Her work has appeared in the collections Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate and Bigotry; Any Saturday, 2021: Running Westward and Between Two Worlds and various literary magazines.
EJ is an emerging writer exploring the long narrative arc of Forced Adoption through Own Voices fiction, poetry, prose and personal essays which acknowledge the tenth anniversary of Julia Gillard’s National Apology.
ASTRID: This is the first of its kind for The Garret in terms of interviews. EJ and Natalia, you are both writers and you both appear, your essays appear in the latest edition of Overland, that is edition 249 of Overland Literary Journal. And I want to talk to you today about your words and your writing, and also why you write and why you chose Overland.
EJ, let's start with you, and I'm purely starting with you because your name is first in terms of alphabetical order. Your piece is called ‘Dovetails’, and this piece really, this piece really struck me. I'll let you introduce it, but I wanted to let you know that my partner was adopted, and that is his story to tell, but he also put his firstborn up for adoption. And so adoption and words around adoption are incredibly important in my life, and I wanted to thank you for writing Dovetails. Would you introduce us to it?
EJ: Thank you very much. It's a very difficult topic to talk about. The essay that I've written is a first-person account of my experiences as an adopted person. And as you've said, Astrid, the difficulty with adoption is it doesn't stop at the cradle, it goes on and on and on, and it perpetuates itself through all the generations of people's stories. We write about our adoption experiences, I think, because it's important to see, I'm not a teenager anymore, although I've tried to write about all of this since I was very young, and it's taken me all these years in life to be able to write about it because also, too, when I'm writing about it, I can't write about it without touching on so many other people's stories.
In my story, I've touched on a whole braided family of people's lives that are impacted by my story, and it's really hard to do that without hurting other people and being respectful to other people, their grief, their part that they've played. And as you say, it's not unusual to find that... I was up at the National Apology Anniversary, the 10th anniversary in Canberra recently, and there were people with badges, who had badges that they were wearing because of the three generations or possibly four generations of people who were being impacted by adoption. This is why we write about it in an Own Voices, lived experience way so that other people can start to understand these people around them who've got adoption experiences, what that might really be like.
ASTRID: That was a beautiful introduction. Thank you, EJ. And Natalia, you are here as well. Your piece, also, it's very different, but your piece also reflects on and is very explicit about trauma and intergenerational trauma, and I would love you to jump in at any point when we are discussing EJ's piece, I know you've read it. EJ, for the audience who most likely will have read your piece in Overland now, could you speak a little bit to your personal experience, which you have written about, so we have some context to discuss?
EJ: I am writing a full manuscript about these experiences. Basically, I met my mother and father when I was very young, and this has been a lifelong challenge for my family slash families because I don't really fit in with either of my families. I try to, but these experiences of meeting up with my other family when I was young, at an age when it wasn't the done thing back then, it was very shocking for everybody concerned. It was before the legislation that allowed those sorts of things to happen was enacted so it was quite a shock, and I was still at high school. My parents that I grew up with just found it shocking, and I'm still thinking that they've probably still find it shocking even now, even after all these years.
I did struggle to sort of connect with my mother. She's a fascinating person. She's a beguiling, interesting person, and she had the most amazing, colourful life in the inner city of Sydney. She did introduce me to my father who was also living in the city, but he and I have had a sort of a tenuous relationship between then and now where we are still sort of, at this stage, toying around with the idea of phone contact. So yeah, it's a tricky thing and I have to be very careful how I talk about that because my mom and dad are still very uncomfortable with me even talking about it. So even after all these years, nothing much has changed in the sense of how we have all adjusted to these complexities.
ASTRID: It is an experience that is ongoing forever in terms of one's life or one's family. I want to talk a little bit about the language that we use and you use in your piece about adoption. So often, and I think we both have just done this, EJ, we have used the word adoption, but of course, sometimes there is forced adoption or secret adoption, which are the same thing, but, of course, it's how people hide someone's birth and someone's biological family. Could you speak to us about the language that is around adoption?
EJ: Oh, that's such a great question, Astrid. I really appreciate it. Every time I go to an editor to have a piece placed for publication, we have this conversation around language. Sometimes after my pieces are published the language that an editor has chosen to use surrounding my language has been challenged. In one instance, some people who are in the adoption community wrote to one of my editors and complained that I had used colonising language that is part of the problem. This is because my editor used the words birth mother. I don't know if you would've noticed, but when I described my family, I talk about my parents and I talk about my mother and my father, and these are two separate parts of my life that are very, very different. I even look in different directions when I'm talking about them.
It can be hard for people to follow, especially readers, and there is a sort of language of presumption that... I mean, I have one mother. I was born once. But I love my parents who raised me, I'm loyal to my parents who raised me, I care about them. It's a complex thing to talk about because for most people, the idea of mother or father is a profound, simple thing, it's this. But as we move through life into increasingly blended families and genetically blended families and all sorts of different ways of forming families, those ideas of mother and father are beginning to be complicated for many, many people, not just adopted people.
ASTRID: Thank You, EJ. I want to come back to your piece a little bit, but I do want to talk to you, Natalia. Natalia, your essay appears directly after EJ's in this issue of Overland, and your piece is called ‘A Guide to the Colonisation of My Mother Tongues’.
NATALIA: So despite the history in Uruguay, in school, I went to school in Uruguay, I migrated and lived in both countries, they teach you that we are mostly of European heritage, and it wasn't until the film, El pais sin indios, which directly translates to 'the country without Indians' because that's what they refer to us in Latin America. It wasn't until that documentary came out where people started talking about their identity and questioning the history. I just wanted to speak to that because I have been raised not only with English and Spanish because of migrating to Australia, but then I've also been raised with Portunol and with words which, before, I had no idea where they came from, I just thought they were words of the area that my grandparents came from, the country, the north of Uruguay. And I just thought, well, we speak differently, but now I know the germ of those words and they were either from Africa or Charrúa words or Guaraní words, and so I just decided to write about that because language makes who I am, basically.
ASTRID: I was really struck, in your piece, when you were describing talking to your grandparents and when your grandparents wanted to have a bit of privacy or not have the grandkids here, they spoke in a language that they didn't teach your father. Because as you write, it was considered a pigeon language, they didn't feel like it was a good thing to pass on to your father. And of course, that is, I don't know, I found myself thinking about that a lot. That felt like a profound loss. You are sharing that loss with us. I wanted to ask you about writing in English and writing in Australia and the spaces that you find between the languages that you are lucky enough to speak.
NATALIA: Several times I lose myself in translation. This essay started with me exploring losing myself in translation, and then it became a lot more. I was only going to write 2000 words max, then when I realised how much was lost, and that's where I started questioning the history, and it took me a year to write this essay. When I write, I've learned through Sweatshop Literacy Movement to just be myself on the page, to decolonize myself. And so, when there is a word that I cannot translate, I will just write it in whatever language, Portuñol , Spanish, Spanglish, the one that fits best the description and the feeling. Yeah, the reason why I chose Overland is because I've read other people's work and they include language like mine that's hybrids.
ASTRID: You've just foreshadowed on or led us to one of my questions I wanted to ask both of you. Natalia, we'll start with you. Why Overland? You just used the phrase, you chose Overland. What does Overland symbolise for you?
NATALIA: A place without censorship and also a place that decolonizes the page.
EJ: Yeah, I'm just nodding. And I think also, too, Overland really did a great job of pulling this edition together because when you think about everything we've discussed so far, primarily so much of it goes back to language and they have so skillfully pulled together. That line that jumps out of Natalia's piece for me, ‘Language erosion can be emotionally linked to experiences of extreme trauma’. To me, when I read Natalia's work, I could sense how our pieces fit together because despite the things that we are talking about, language is at the centre of it and the trauma in language for adopted people is very much linked to pre-birth trauma. Because when you think about language, we are hearing and absorbing language well before we are born. We are hearing a syntax, we're hearing a way of thinking, almost, that's patented in language, that shows us so much about the world that we're in and about our mothers and about our mother tongue.
And even when we go and live with other people, we are still then having to learn a different mother tongue as well because we are learning how those people think and speak even though it's still English. I can't imagine what... It was fascinating just now, hearing Natalia speak about how she gets lost in the language. For me, I chose Overland because I had a hope that the experiences of adopted people as an own voices representation of lived experience in this very important 10th year anniversary since the National Apology for what the government now calls the Atrocities of Forced Adoption, I hoped that it meant something to a publication like Overland.
ASTRID: I think it means something for many of us who have adoption in our lives, in some way, shape, or form. Now, you've used the phrase own voices and you are both writing of your family's and lived experience. There's so many different ways to put lived experience on the page, and I wanted to ask, what draws you to the essay form? Natalia, I'll start with you.
NATALIA: To be honest, this is the first essay I've written since university. I didn't start writing it as an essay, I started writing it as a memoir, and also, I started writing a collection of poems separately, and then I kind of mixed it all together and started adding information from things that I had read and seen and then connected it, and I realised this is an essay now. So that's how I got drawn into the essay form and I think I will continue doing this.
EJ: Wow, that's fascinating, Natalia. I'd like to just commend you on the way you've structured everything because it reads so beautifully and your process that you've just outlined, really, honestly, I could have been explaining my own process. So for me, I also have published adoption poetry and achieved some interesting feedback with fiction. What I'm doing at the moment is I'm noticing that in a current essay that I'm working on, I'm actually blending them all together. And that where I've written fictional parts of my story, where I'm bringing that in now to an essay form and bringing poetry in, it's illustrating parts of the story that I may not have been able to access if I would've just approached it in one way. And I'm noticing that I'm able to use fiction as a way of pushing away those more difficult parts such as childhood experiences or really confronting early reunion experiences, as we call it sometimes when we meet the other family.
So I find that those fluid processes and a lot of opportunities for literary expansion of those different forms, I feel like people are really ready to read that type of literature where it's really pulling apart different elements of fiction and essay writing and poetry and putting them together in unexpected ways.
ASTRID: I'm excited to read that EJ. I look forward to...
NATALIA: Me too.
ASTRID: That kind of experimental writing, particularly about your experience within forced adoption. You are both writing your own experiences, but you are writing the experiences of those you know and those you love, you are writing in a way that won't hurt anybody else, but is also very true to you. And I wanted to ask you both a question, how do you balance being true to yourself whilst also being respectful to those around you?
NATALIA: This is something that I've learned from Sweatshop Literacy Movement. So basically, we are taught to write as if you're dead. If you feel uncomfortable writing something, then you're not ready. If you are able to write as if you're dead and you're okay with it, then you're ready for that piece to go out.
ASTRID: So that makes me laugh, and I think that is amazing advice. Can we just interrogate that a little bit more. By writing as if you are dead, that is freeing for you?
NATALIA: Yeah. So sometimes I write things as if I'm dead because I'm exploring something and then I realise, no, I can't let this go out into the world because this may offend my father or for whatever reason, and so that means I'm not ready. But then there might be little gems inside that piece of writing and I might use those little gems, which I am comfortable writing about. So yeah, so that does help and it sets my boundaries, where I can step into and where I shouldn't step into.
EJ: I think that's a fascinating idea. I'm thinking of Richard Flanagan and writing from under the water in Death of a River Guide. His whole story is told from under the water after the death and I think it's a fascinating place to speak from. I think for me, what I need to do is often just... Look, it's almost impossible, and then even after it's published, it's almost impossible. Every time the phone rings, I'm terrified of what someone in my family might be going to say to me having read this, but I have to just accept that it's time to tell these stories. They have to be told. It is essential that these stories be told. I can't sit on it. What I do is, I often throw things out. I consult widely with people who know my story and who've known me for a long time, I ask people to read it and to pull me up. And something that I was told to me recently, about writing from a position of anger.
If you're writing from a position of anger, I would say, where Natalia said that sometimes it's not ready to go out, I think if you're writing from anger or revenge, it's not ready to go out. I probably put the anger into poetry, and when you strip away the idea of me writing about adoption from the poetry, it could be writing about anything, it could be anybody's anger about anything. But when I'm writing people's stories where real lives are at stake... Yeah, if I'm writing for revenge or I'm writing for anger or to pay someone back, this is not the place. If I'm writing out of love, then I will allow myself to do that and hope that my family, when they read it, can trust that that was the spirit in which it was presented.
ASTRID: I would like to ask you about the amazing piece that opens this edition of Overland, which was by Elias Greig, and it's called ‘Tasmania First: Eco Fascism and the Settler Invasion Fantasy’. It made quite the splash online. I thought it was an extraordinary piece. I'd like your thoughts.
EJ: I think what it's doing, more than anything else, is, for me, in my topics, it's bringing it back to that sort of colonial sense of, that it's okay to change the narrative and that adoption, if nothing else, is the absolute foreground of thinking in terms of concrete terms of, we're going to look at families this way and take children away and make it sound as though that's okay and massage that language to such a degree that it sounds like it's a heroic thing to do, when in actual fact, the people whose lives were impacted by that have never recovered. I can't sort of think of a more connected way to talk about those topics, and I'm always fascinated in what he has to say.
NATALIA: My first reaction when I read that, well, I didn't even finish reading it, it was straight away, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how is something like this published? How did it get through the editor? How did it get through...’ But then I remember we still live in Australia and I know that the industry is still mostly white. So yeah, it took away that shock, the initial shock. It's an important piece. It's an incredibly important piece because anti-Asian racism is huge in Australia, especially now after COVID and Pauline Hanson, like so many... It's an important piece to talk about, and hopefully no one reads that book ever again, no one buys another copy.
ASTRID: If anyone at this point of the interview hasn't realised that this is an edition of Overland that you should pick up, I hope that we have made this clear. It occurred to me that I should be very specific about this. I don't get paid to do any interviews and The Garret is fully independent. I only interview people whose work I find interesting, and we have all been positive about Overland here, and that's just because Overland is worthy of being positive about. And for the listeners, I wanted to draw your attention to, the 250th edition of Overland will come out next. And in this edition, Overland announced that they have become the first publisher to sign on to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Freedom Charter, and in practise, that means that contributors get more money and contributors will receive superannuation. And I just want to say out loud, that that is a significant contribution to changing the structure of payments and the recognition of creators in the publishing industry. So well done, Overland. I hope many publications follow the lead.
EJ: Yeah, it's an exceptional... I found it very interesting. This is the first time I've written for Overland and I found that to be very interesting in their contracts and great respect and admiration for that decision. Yes.
NATALIA: Yeah, ditto. I was very happy when I received my letter and it said that they were going to pay for my superannuation, which was never happened before, so I'm very happy.
ASTRID: Look, it's delightful, isn't it? I would love more people to pay my superannuation as well. I want to give a shout out to one of my former students, Tim Loveday, who has a piece of fiction in this edition as well, which is a byline I find utterly delightful. EJ and Natalia, thank you for joining me today on The Garret. Much more importantly, thank you for sharing your words with the world. It has been a delight to read them and to talk about them with you.