When Bundjalung writer and scholar Evelyn Araluen wrote her debut poetry collection, Dropbear, she was living just one paycheck away from complete poverty.
In April the collection won her the acclaimed Stella Prize and the $60,000 that comes with it.
What really drove Araluen to write Dropbear was not the monetary prize, but the way white Australia has continued to overshadow Indigenous Australia in history.
“Learning about the history of poetry in Australia, I really started to think more creatively about the politics of it as well,” Araluen said.
“Dropbear is not just about things like place, information, identity or anything like that.
“It is those things but it’s also really attempting to think politically about what claims Australia tries to make over the lands, over ourselves, over our history and how poetry can be a tool to undermine that.”
Araluen said learning the language of her grandfather, gave her a larger breadth of knowledge and techniques when it came to writing poetry.
“Going back and learning our ancestral languages is a political process as well as a philosophical process,” she said.
“Learning about the different meanings, sounds and grammars I feel really actually does tell us more about the land and about place and about culture because a lot of that knowledge is built into language.
“Poetry in particular, I think has to be written with a very open mind about what language can do, about what its possibilities are and how it needs to be moulded.”
As a First Nations writer Araluen is excited about the momentum behind First Nations storytelling, having recently also won the award for small publishers adult book of the year at the Australian Book Industry Awards.
However she acknowledges Australia has a past of supressing First Nations storytelling.
“There’s a lot of momentum that’s behind First Nations storytelling, but I always try to measure that by just remembering that there were others who came before, whose poetry or creative writing never got the same amount of opportunity,” she said.
“It’s really disappointing to realise the more and more that I research, those books were out there but they were being deliberately excluded and they were being basically withheld from our curriculum.
“This has really been a place in the institution that was worked for and that was really developed through a lot of hard work and a lot of organising to get to where we are now.”
As for the future of Indigenous stories, Araluen said she hopes to see First Nations creatives in all sectors of the publishing and media industry.
“I would really love to start to see more (First Nations) professionals working in spaces where we produce First Nations stories,” she said.
“It’s really wonderful to see the growth of a new black writer, but I want that to be not just a creative growth but one that’s really nurtured with the opportunity to have their work edited by other First Nations people.
“To work with First Nations publishers, publicists, with people in marketing…I want blackfellas not just writing the stories but also working at every level of these industries.”
After winning the Stella Prize for Dropbear, Araluen is already working on her next novel, this time in the realm of fiction.
“It’s called Carrion, I can share that, which is a word for roadkill basically,” she said.
“It is about an Aboriginal woman who goes to the UK to research Australian authors who expatriated back to England to abandon the political implications of being Australia.
“In the 80s there were quite a few Australian writers who decided they were going to return to the mother country.
“In this novel I’ve got a character who is researching and trying to understand the legacy of people who wanted to leave behind Australia and if they were ever able to really escape the responsibilities that they did have a settler colony.”
Dropbear is available for purchase online at the University of Queensland Press.