Congratulations, Paul, on ‘Dancing Home’, which won the David Unaipon Award and is a powerful story of rebellion and injustice. Can you tell us a little bit about the novel, its conception and how it came to be written?
I wrote Dancing Home as the artefact for my PhD – I completed a PhD (Creative) at University Canberra. I think I completed the study in 2015 or 2016, I don’t know much about dates and things. Anyway, Dancing Home is an imagining of mine, though the characters in the novel and most of the story is taken from aspects of my life I’d lived when times were hard for me. I decided to try put words on paper and see what that time of my life looked like…guess it was pretty sad times, broken homes, broken relationships and broken into pieces I was. And many of the people I hung with were much the same. No one was giving us much of a chance or a decent break. So, when the PhD opportunity came up, I decided I’d try write something in my own words. Wanted to show that beneath all the sorrow and hard living, I still had feelings, even though I dressed in yesterday clothes, and many people walked past me like I was just a piece of shit. Dancing Home is that product.
The book contributes to Indigenous writing in Australia, and you have spoken about the importance of diversity and black representation in art. What did it mean to you to write a novel from the point of view of several Aboriginal protagonists?
It means a lot to me to write in this perspective. As I said above, often the homeless, the down-and-outers, have little voice. I searched for many years for what I call a ‘Blackfulla’s voice’ in literature. I read some beautiful poetry – very strong and powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful poetry by Lionel Fogarty when I was 19 years old. Lionel wrote like I talk – in a Murrdie way.
I didn’t find other’s writing like that, so I wrote like I talk. I wrote about how I seen the world, and I presented a story through the eyes of a certain Aboriginal protagonist. If these perspectives are not presented, then we are in some ways, ‘invisible’. In fact, that was the original name of my thesis and of the novel, you know – ‘Invisible’. Yeah, true.
For me the most moving scene in the novel, aside from the ending, is where the main character Blackie enters a pharmacy seeking help, and the dialogue and events that unfold from there. How do you go about writing a scene like this, one that shows racism and prejudice with so much empathy?
Yeah, that chemist scene, it was the only thing I had in my head when I sat to begin writing that novel. I remembered times I stood in line to be served and the person behind the bar or the desk or the counter refused to address me as a human being. They’d not look at me – standing there, they’d protect the till. That’s what Professor George Yancy would call ‘whiteness’, you know. Its straight off racism most of the time. So I wrote, remembering, feeling the rage build up inside me. When Blackie pretends he’s deaf, I really had fun with the hand signs thing he was doing. He had to pretend his disability was deafness to get any consideration at all out of the white woman character. The real fact is that it was a social disability of being black skinned Aboriginal that he was suffering in the story. And though one may be a ‘social outcast’, one can still use their mind. I think that that scene in the novel is a cleverly written piece. I’m glad that you appreciated it.
There are several Shakespearean references in Dancing Home, and the Macbeth allusions particularly have resonance with the way the weather plays out in the book. Can you comment on the Shakespearean allusions and what they meant for you as author?
I love Shakespeare’s plays. He was such a great storyteller and had such imagination. He knew how to create tension and empathy. Macbeth is my favourite for many reasons – the prophecy by the Witches; the ghostly presence of Banquo; the guilt; the love Macbeth had for his wife; and Macbeth’s ultimate bravery, though he knew he was doomed as he faced Macduff, he doesn’t squib and run away, instead he takes his medicine and cries; “Lay on!” Ahh, it has everything, that wonderful play. The use of Shakespeare in ‘Dancing Home’ was ‘always on’ for me. The realisation that those guys who fell from under the trees in the park in Dubbo to Blackie that knew to be “no witches were they. . . They were Blackfullas…” The prophecy within Macbeth appears throughout Dancing Home, in some ways. Blackie’s driven, by anger, by passion, by love and he’s a decent man. A man of learning and he’s a troubled soul too. And throughout the Aboriginal culture in which I grew, there’s lots of stories about prophecy and ghostly presence – the allusions of ghosts as signs are everywhere. It seemed very natural to use Shakespeare in the novel – especially Macbeth.
You are also a poet, and I’m wondering how your experience with the poetic form informed the writing of your first novel? Did it influence the timing, sound, or texture of the prose?
Poetry certainly does influence my writing. Yes the timing in Dancing Home mostly comes through writing, reading poetry. And song writing too, plays a part in all my writing… There’s a sense of lyricalness or ‘music’ in my work too, I think. My mum and grandmother Ruby sang most every day. My grandparents could play accordions – both button and piano styles and most of my relations are great singers and guitar players… so poetry and songs influence most everything I write and are present in my everything.
The book starts off with a humorous tone in the first chapter, and there is comical dialogue throughout. How did you find the process of balancing the humour with the darker, disturbing aspects of the novel?
The dialogue is as I said before, the way I talk. There’s a humour in most things through life – even ‘gallows’ humour’, and I wrote plenty of that in the novel. But what people don’t often see when I’ve been interviewed about Dancing Home is the strong sense and use of satire that I apply throughout the story. There’s plenty of ‘left-handers’ throughout the book. Satire is a powerful tool which many Aboriginal people who’ve lived on reserves, as I did, use and, have used to reply and make comment with and upon the world. And when you’re hangin’ out with a good satirist you can really see how they attack with language in a beautiful way.
The novel is described as ‘part road-movie, part Koori-noir’. Are these generic labels meaningful to you, and if so, how do they inform the way you see and think of your art?
I love road movies. And God knows the wild road trips I’ve had over the years…. A lot of good men and women rolled with me along some pretty ‘rocky roads’. Yeah! I love noir style, also.
And what I love about noir movies is the ‘broken-good hearted characters’. The Street Way All Mine was a book I enjoyed a lot by an American author. Great book. And most every person I’ve met are broken in some way. I wanted to bring forth in my novel the ‘single black male’ – Blackie’s character. Though there’s other people in the novel, they mostly all play to Blackie. Blackie causes grief to cousin Dot, but he pays the cost of that drama, willingly with an open heart. Blackie’s an amalgam of guys I’ve met – my brother Glenn, some uncles, cousins, friends and a bit of me all make up that character. I like all the parts of him. At the graveyard scene and in his final scene in the cell, there’s that influence of Shakespeare all over the place. I loved writing this book.
You are a creative writing academic at the University of Canberra. Do you have any general advice for emerging writers of poetry or prose? Also, what’s next for you creatively?
I’m more a storyteller, I reckon than writer. Don’t you think? I’m a storyteller who writes, I guess.
Sometimes students ask me questions about what to do with some part of the writing or another. Often the issues are one of dialogue and voice. I say, “…find your voice, mate. Change the tone, there… look for another way to say that bit…” Most of the students get the plot points down fairly well, but they often all sound the same thing… So, find your voice, is what I tell many people.
I’ve been working on a research project the last couple of years named Story Ground, looking at where creative story making and the Academy collide, asking questions like, if there’s no Aboriginal stories in the classroom, will Aboriginal students come, stay, participate, succeed?
And during the research, we’ve been engaging with some Aboriginal communities – in particular the communities of Bourke and Brewarrina. Building relationships, gathering thoughts, we have. I also have been hosting Creative Story Making Workshops – I’m about to have published the Anthology of mixed genre’s works from the Story Ground Project, this year under Recent Works Press in Canberra.
I’ve had a few poems published here and there… I probably have enough poems now to have a book of poems published, I guess that’s the next thing for me – a published book of Black Poems.