In collaboration with this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which will be held from 24-28 October, Asymptote is pleased to present this interview with Kim Scott. An Indigenous Australian writer of Wirlomin Noongar descent, Scott has written five novels, two of which—Benang: From the Heart (1999) and That Deadman Dance (2010)—won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award. His latest novel, Taboo (2017), was longlisted for the same prize. In addition to writing novels, he worked together with Noongar elder Hazel Brown to create the account Kayang & Me (2013), transcribing their conversations and interspersing her memories and his, her knowledge and his research, to create a family history of the Wirlomin Noongar people.
Scott is also involved in the Wirlomin Noongar Language & Stories Project—an initiative to reclaim Wirlomin stories and dialect for the purposes of fostering and promoting Wirlomin Noongar arts and culture, the wider Noongar community, and the Aboriginal community at large. Asymptote Editor-At-Large for Australia, Tiffany Tsao, had the privilege of interviewing him over the phone in late August 2018. What follows below is an edited transcript of their conversation. We hope you enjoy the first ever Asymptote blog post discussing the Noongar language!
Tiffany Tsao (TT): The power of language comes up often in your work: language’s ability to create and cohere a shared culture and community that will restore to the Indigenous characters of your novels a strong sense of who they are and where they belong. What was the process by which you came to this conviction about the necessity of language in Indigenous Australian identity building?
Kim Scott (KS): Particularly in Taboo it’s informed by the work I do with the Wirlomin Noongar Language & Stories Project. Earlier on, particularly in Benang, I was still working it out. Benang is in some sense an interrogation of the [Australian historical] archives, I suppose—a sort of deconstruction. And there was an awareness of if that’s all that you’re doing, then it’s a very reactive process. So the alternative, to find something deeper, more nurturing, is Indigenous language itself. And in that book, the sounds the narrator makes, which are so distinctly of place—that’s a metaphor in my mind for Indigenous language. That’s what grounds him so to speak, that’s what nourishes him. It’s almost inexplicable in the language of the archives.
There’s also very good research, particularly in Canada I think, that indicates a whole range of indigenous communities’ health and social indicators are much better based on the extent to which they are connected to their ancestral traditions, countries, and language.
TT: In the afterword to your latest novel you write: “There is little literal Noongar language in Taboo. I would have it speak to a wider audience and do more than posture difference.” Similarly, in an interview about Taboo, you say on purposely leaving Noongar words out: “I was thinking what it would mean to put our language in a book that I hope speaks outside of our country. Would I just be posturing or feigning authenticity?” Could you elaborate more on what you mean?
KS: It’s something I’ve wondered about and exploring, related to my working in two strands, with literary fiction and Noongar language dialect: What are you doing when you write such a provincial language—and an endangered language—where print in many ways problematizes the language? There’s not a known alphabet that fits it, [writing] it affects the way people learn it, there’s a lot of argument and wasted energy over correct spelling and orthographies and so on. And if you are doing it, is it to marginalize or exclude readers? Most of the readers wouldn’t be Noongar.
So I just wonder what is the point of it if you don’t explicate or unpack aspects of the language while you’re writing, which you don’t necessarily need to draw a reader’s attention to. You can have the language inform some of the writing you’re doing.
And then maybe one might be doing it for reasons of posturing authenticity, out of some sort of insecurity. And sometimes that’s part of the reactive trap that we’re in when we’re writing in a mainstream way and using Indigenous language. I wonder about those sort of things. But I’ve not got definite, firm conclusions, and I reserve my right to change my mind on the next writing project.
TT: I thought I’d ask the question because I was curious about the issue of cultural exploitation, which was raised by an Indigenous writer whom I heard speak at a literary festival last year.
KS: That’s not my reason for refraining from using the language, but it’s an interesting and relevant point to make. Indigenous knowledges—one might regard them as major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging in a settler nation-state, with all its psychoses. After a history of denigrating this sort of knowledge, there is now a movement towards something like celebration, which can involve exploitation and appropriation and a reduction of that very same material. So I think it’s appropriate to be thoughtful about that. At the same time, things like language and story can gain strength from being circulated in many circumstances. So it’s about finding a curious sort of balance.
I get a bit of flak about using Noongar language in some circumstances, so that question of exploitation and appropriation is relevant. I try to be thoughtful about it. I put together a public text to go around a new sporting stadium in Perth, and I used Noongar language in some of that—because of this business of inciting interest, and language being an important part of identity and belonging. And because the relationships between a settler nation-state and its indigenous community are complex. And I’ve had criticism from some quarters, which I would disagree with and reject, but it shows that there’s sensitivity around these sorts of issues.
But because [Indigenous heritage] is a major denomination in the currency of identity and belonging, some sort of activity is needed to increase its value in that sort of way, for purposes of exchange and the negotiation of relationships.
TT: You often use that phrase when speaking of Indigenous cultural heritage: “a major denomination in the currency of identity and belonging.”
KS: Yes, I like to use it. It seems to sum up a whole lot.
TT: Could you speak more about the relationship between your fiction and a non-fiction account like Kayang and Me? And between your fiction and the work you do with the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project? You mentioned that you consider them two different strands.
There’s definitely a relationship and I’m working on the relationship. It probably comes out of, without overstating the case, the sort of crisis that came out of the success, such as it was, of Benang. In particular, winning the Miles Franklin and wondering what’s the point?
It seems to me that one of the ways fiction can be used is to reread history and historical archives. And any literary work provides a platform to shine a little light on or get the momentum up with projects like the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project—not only because of the interest it attracts from a wider non-indigenous readership, but if you’re referring your literary work back to a project like that, it can help raise [the project’s] status in its own community, and see that it’s valued outside.
So it interests me to try to be more useful than just being a literary writer or a community development person. It’s trying to combine them and use one’s apparent strengths as best one can.
TT: Could you say a bit more about the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project? It’s produced six picture books, which are retellings of traditional stories. . .
The idea of pulling people together around stories or around rebuilding stories collectively is something I find very rewarding personally, and I think it’s got enormous potential for building and strengthening community. Whether books are the best way to do it, or whether books are just a by-product of all sorts of other things that are going on—there’s truth in both. And they allow us to bring a number of people to an intersection point, the cusp of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worlds—illustrators, co-authors. We do small school and community tours through the country where that language belongs, and that’s useful community work, I think. It gives status to our heritage. It brings members of the Noongar community, including students, to the centre of an institution rather than having them be marginalized. It brings pride. It gives a strong sense of identity.
And we’re working on a similar process with songs, old songs, rebuilding and relearning them, and performing them. That may be even more effective with digital modes, and it may be more effective than just books. But they complement each other, these different products.
But it can be tiring. It touches the psyche so much, ancestral language and stories. And it makes you, forces you to reflect on identity and family history and so on. That very intensity can make it quite hard sometimes.
TT: One reviewer has described Taboo’s politics as “quietist, rather than radical.”
KS: “Quietist”, eh? Hmm. There’s a whole range of ways of being an activist, I suppose. If you’re in that frame of mind, then books, stories, songs are by and large what you might call quietist. I don’t know, that’s a peculiar distinction to make, I think.
I don’t see that we can return to pre-colonial conditions, but we can draw strength from and learn from our past, particularly our neglected, diminished past—our indigenous cultural heritage. And that’s important to all Australians, and it holds the possibility of transformation. That’s what I think Taboo is going on. That’s possibly what I’ve learnt from the language, story, and song work I do: that possibility of transformation. Again I’ll use my little cliché of heritage being a major denomination in the currency of identity and belonging. If there’s truth in that, there’s the possibility of shifting the power relationship, if that depth of identity and belonging comes from Indigenous communities.
I try to show this through an anecdote, and I’ve done this a number of times publicly as well. At one stage of the Wirlomin project, you hand out a number of prepublication copies [of the books] to the wider Noongar community in the region. The idea is to involve people in what we’re doing, to break down any sense of rivalry between factions, which is a harsh reality, and to be inclusive. And at one point my cultural elders insisted that we bring along a couple of individuals representing the so-called “pioneering” families in the region, to which I objected, saying, “it’s not theirs, this is ours. We need to connect with it. It’s our identity. They stole our land. You worked like slaves on their property. We don’t want to include them, not at this stage.”
But they insisted that we do so. We invited one fella from one of these pioneering families, to come out to this group of sixty or more people, ninety-five percent of them Noongar, to receive a little package like we were doing with key people in many of the Noongar families. It was a mildly ceremonial thing. And he was grateful—through the words he said, through his stance and body language. And as he was returning to his seat, he was crying.
And I thought then that was a pretty radical transformation in the normal power relationship in the community. That Noongar people were at the centre of things, were the powerful ones, being inclusive, and handing out. There’s a sort of reconciliation going on there. It’s nice, and sweet, and it’s very grounded.
I’m not against reconciliation. I’m just against such empty phrases being used as shortcuts through difficult areas, and the sort of bullshitting that often surrounds them. People use them as buzz phrases, as substitutes for doing anything, or thinking.
TT: If you had to draw up a short reading list for people outside Australia unacquainted with Indigenous Australian history and literature to educate themselves on the subject, what would it include?
KS: Wow, off the top of my head? I would probably come up with different answers at different times. And they’re not all by Indigenous writers. Some of Kevin Gilbert’s work: Because A White Man’ll Never Do It and Living Black. His stuff meant a lot to me at one time. At the moment, I’d put those in the list; they leap to mind. A work like Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth from a couple of years ago is really valuable.
I like a book by Tony Swain called A Place for Strangers, particularly its chapter on the Dreaming, for want of a better phrase—and on place-based consciousness.
Some of Jack Davis’s work was very important to me, like No Sugar.
There are a lot of songs that come to mind. Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s From Little Things Big Things Grow is relevant in this context. Some of the classics of Archie Roach—Took the Children Away, of course, and Native Born.
I think some of Anita Heiss’s work—because of its passion. Like, Am I Black Enough For You? It’s a great title.
Let me add another book which is a provocative companion piece to Benang: A.O. Neville’s Australia’s Coloured Minority: Its Place in the Community, because it’s a startling book. And an exemplary instance of a certain way of thinking. It’s a horrible thing to read, but it’s interesting.
TT: What about your work or yourself would you love to be asked, but that, disappointingly, no interviewer has ever raised?
KS: Ah, a little more on the craft, I think! For me, novels have quite a subtext about the craft of writing, and the conscious attempt to mobilize literary devices for the purposes of what you’re doing. In That Deadman Dance, the chief protagonist is a creative person—a creator, as is a novelist. His schemes and goodwill and all his talented intelligence come to naught. And in many ways, that’s me writing.
And similarly in Taboo, the critter at the beginning and the end of the book is itself a hybrid being, of the very materials of that place and nowhere else plus things that could be anywhere. It points to the hoped-for importance of creativity itself: to come up with the good in hostile circumstances, to surprise with its affective effectiveness in hostile circumstances. Even in Benang, the fella is working with the magic of stories.
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Image credit: Janine Boreland
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