Sister Cities/First Nations – WORD Christchurch

We all consider ourselves good people, so it can be confronting to realise that we’re unwittingly contributing to oppression. For peace of mind it can seem easier to ignore the evidence rather than engage in change, thinking if we cover our eyes then it isn’t there, it’s all the past, it doesn’t affect me. Or we go to the other extreme, demand our education from those we meet rather than listen to those already speaking.

Ali Cobby Eckermann. Photo by Adrain Cook. Image supplied.
Ali Cobby Eckermann. Photo by Adrain Cook. Image supplied.

Ali Cobby Eckermann (Aboriginal Australian descended from the Yankunytjatjara language group) and Elissa Washuta (member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe) are two who are well worth listening to. First Eckermann read from her poem Black Deaths in Custody:

when I walk down this wing and peer

into this filthy room the door closes behind me

the feeling in my heart is changing

from a proud strength of duty to fear

all the stories I have ever heard

stand silent in the space beside me—

a coil of rope is being pushed

under the door of this cell

And Washuta read out her essay This Indian Does Not Owe You, which I recommend reading in full:

When you quiz me on genocide highlights — “Were those smallpox blankets real? I’ve always wondered about that” — to sate your hunger for facts, I do not owe you a free education of the kind that my university students pay for, and I am not so flattered by your interest in my people that I might unfurl a lecture on 500 years of colonization for your edification.

Elissa Washuta. Photo by Elizabeth Ogle. Image supplied.
Elissa Washuta. Photo by Elizabeth Ogle. Image supplied.

Nic Low asked about the role of anger in writing. Both have been through traumatic experiences – rape, disordered eating, the removal of a child – but are still gentle, kind people in person. Writing provides a safe space for anger. Eckermann brought up the idea of good anger and bad anger, and Washuta responded:

We have that bad anger and what do you do with it? A lot of us just destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, because that bad anger has just embedded itself, and then we’re told Oh that’s all in the past, that was hundreds of years ago, get over it. The reality is that in our communities we are experiencing ongoing colonisation every day, all the time. We are still a colonised people.

Eckermann agreed – they don’t want to hurt others, so they hurt themselves. She hopes writing can bring us closer to a collective understanding and healing. By acknowledging pain, maybe some can begin to heal.

Cover of Inside My MotherWho are you writing for?

Initially I thought I was writing for myself, or for my community, but now I think I’m writing for the future. Poetry is supposed to change and inform lives… I mean statistically we know that one in four women is raped in their lifetime, but we have to share our stories so it’s not just statistics, it’s life lived. – Eckermann

I wanted to see people like me on the page – I didn’t know any other native people at college, I was diagnosed bipolar, raped, had an eating disorder, and to me they all seemed interconnected but I couldn’t find anything that reflected my own experience. So my books are a gift to other college students. I knew there had to be other people like me, and there are. – Washuta

How do you feel about your country?

I’d like to remove the culture of denial in Australia.  It’s been really rewarding going to other countries that know their histories, who aren’t afraid of their history. — Eckermann

There’s this cheerful narrative about the brave pioneers who crossed the continent to create something out of the “pristine untouched wilderness” when really people were doing all sorts of maintenance work. The pioneers just didn’t understand how the land was being used, or couldn’t see it. But it’s always “It’s really nice that the Indians helped the settlers make something out of this super boring place.” — Washuta

The session ended with a plea for greater friendship and connection in the face of the tsunami of racism that seems to be washing over the world.

So listen to others. Be kind. And go read their books.

WORD Christchurch

Nic Low: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Nic Low – author and artist

Cover of Peace, power, and politicsWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

I grew up in Christchurch in the 80s. I have great memories of my parents taking us to Peace Group in a church hall. We’d paint anti-nuclear banners and learn protest songs (accompanied, badly, on a ukulele) and have a damn good time. So what I’m most looking forward to is the People Power session with Nicky Hager and Maire Leadbeater, talking about the history of New Zealand’s nuclear free movement. I live in Australia and travel overseas a fair bit, and I often talk about our nuclear-free status as an example of Why New Zealand Is Awesome. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of about being a kiwi. It’s also one of the reasons why my stories in Arms Race are about mischievous political shenanigans.

What do you think about libraries?

I’m obsessed! As a kid I probably borrowed and read 75% of the books in the kids and YA sections of the Christchurch Public Library. I lived in libraries while doing both undergrad and postgrad. The 11th floor of the UC library is my favourite: having a view of mountains while being surrounded by books remains a lifelong goal. In Melbourne I do my daily writing beneath the State Library of Victoria’s magnificent vaulted dome. And in 2012-2013 I created my own library – hundreds of books packed into six hand-made travelling cases that transform into book cases – and toured them 2000km across India by train. That project was a roving writers festival called The Bookwallah, and you can learn more about it during the opening Pecha Kucha night.

Cover of Arms RaceShare a surprising fact about yourself.

A lot of my ideas for short stories seem to come from … tramping trips. There’s something about being in the mountains, often with my brother Tim, that gets the imagination going.The closing story in Arms Race, ‘The Culler’, came from a mid-winter trip into the Lewis Pass back country. There’d been heavy snow – the Lewis Pass road was snowed in for two weeks – and the beech forest had been shattered. The tracks were impassable with fallen limbs. We spent five or six days wading in the rivers instead, and along the way we stayed in a tiny hand-hewn shelter called Slaty Creek Hut.

The ground outside was a boneyard of deer jaws and teeth. Sitting by the fire, my brother and I got talking about the cullers and hunters who escaped society to live and work from huts like this after WWII. We chatted about the mountain radio service, and imagined what it’d be like living in total frozen isolation, and getting news reports about major world events. What would it be like spending your days hunting among the moonscapes of the Alps, then getting word that the Americans had put a man on the moon? What if you actually met a party of Americans in those mountains, carrying a flag and a movie camera … ?

Now I know how much tramping seems to fire my imagination, my second book is all about the mountains. It’s an imaginative history of the Southern Alps, told through eight crossings of the mountains on foot. It’s called Eight Passes and it’s out with Text in 2016.