On my desk, I keep a stack of books. Sitting on the top of the pile at the moment is butterfly song by Terri Janke. The cover is soft blues with pictures of butterflies, a pearl shell, a hibiscus, old photographs. It is the only fiction novel for adults I have read by a Torres Strait Islander author. The story follows Tarena Shaw, who takes on her first case as a lawyer for her family. Her journey expands from Cairns to Thursday Island to Sydney. It shows the warmth of Torres Strait Islander family, love, and history. To me, it is inspiration to write.
I am in the midst of a Master of Philosophy, researching young adult speculative fiction books written by people of colour. In my research, I have been reading about my history and my culture. It is emotionally difficult to constantly see the racism, so clearly reflected in the old ways, and still clearly around today. Quotes by 19th century expedition leaders and Queensland government policies from the 20th century make my stomach roll and my heart beat in anger. I won’t repeat them here, to avoid passing those possible triggers along.
But it has led me to the questions: how do I keep writing? How do I stay motivated and inspired?
Australia’s history is a hard pill to swallow. Most writers of colour, specifically First Nation people, must navigate it in our work and in our lives. In an interview for The Guardian Noongar writer Clare G. Coleman, author of Terra Nullius, said that her writing is a process which allows her to vent, “…Aboriginal people live in a dystopia every day. The problem is that the world we live in, people don’t understand that.”
The root of the problem I am analysing in my research is representation. The representation that is harmful or non-existent. Helen Young, an academic in the field has said, that in speculative fiction, especially on TV, First Nations people have been said to be either “…marginalized at best; monsters at worst.” People of colour are often represented as:
- Magical and mythical beings to be used for the white protagonist’s story progression, or
- ‘Savage’ bad guys.
Reading about these topics can set a ripple of emotions through my mind. So, what do I do? I talk to family, friends, my peers. I read from other voices who come from marginalised backgrounds to see how they cope, how they write their lives and history in their books. I keep a little word document of links to talks and interviews of people of colour discussing their work and how they relate to it and the realities of the real world.
One of those quotes is from Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire, who said that the make-believe world in her novel was “…really a love letter to my [her] heritage.” She was inspired to create her fantasy YA novel from her Chinese and English background. A love letter to my heritage? What a beautiful concept. Her words moved me to consider the strength in my people, evident through our history and hopefully it will be clear in my writing.
Nigerian-American writer of fantasy, Nnedi Okorafor said she was inspired to write her Binti Series “… because of blood that runs deep, family, cultural conflict, and the need to see an African girl leave the planet on her own terms.”
It’s these sentiments that keep me going. They keep my motivation up and the fire in my belly. I want to write my own love letter to my heritage, to show that First Nations girls, Torres Strait Islander girls and African Australian girls, can be in fiction and have adventures and be very important to Australian literature on a whole.
To stay motivated, I look to those who came before and to my people around me. As Terri Janke wrote in the butterfly song, “They say that each generation draws from the spiritual strength of those who came before” (292). And so, I look to the spiritual strength of my family, of past and current First Nation writers, like Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch, and Terri Janke. I look to people of colour around the world who keep persevering in their writing, like Tomi Adeyemi, Maya Angelou, Natasha Ngan, and Nnedi Okorafor.
During my studies – particularly over the past few months – Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ has been so helpful in lifting my spirits, and my hope.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
On my list of books to analyse in my research are two Aboriginal authors: Palyku author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, who wrote The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and Shane Smithers, a Darug man, who wrote Wraith with Alex Smithers. These two books also sit on my desk, urging me, encouraging me. The #OwnVoices movement – when books with diverse protagonists are written by people from that same background, like these two – is gaining even more traction. There is a growing number of First Nations work (even within the speculative genre) in Australia. And that is inspiring.
Jasmin McGaughey is a Torres Strait Islander and African American. She is studying a Master of Philosophy in creative writing and works as a Junior Editor at Queensland State Library in the black&write! team. She is also a recipient of the Wheeler Centre’s 2019 Next Chapter Fellowship. Jasmin’s passions have always been writing and reading and she is proud to be able to work and learn in this field with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing.