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Holocene 2021  •  02 July 2021

A Conversation with Evelyn Araluen

By Erin Ewen
Content Warning: R*pe, death, racism
A Conversation with Evelyn Araluen

Vertigo was thrilled to sit down with author, poet and researcher, Evelyn Araluen, to talk about her new release, Dropbear. 

Dropbear explores ideas of country, nation and being an Aboriginal Australian at the intersection of settler coloniality. Through poetry and personal essays, Evelyn dissects her complicated relationship with Australian iconography as an Aboriginal woman, born and raised on Dharug country. For Evelyn, this collection examines “what it means to love country through, around and in spite of, those images that sometimes distance us from our own ancestral lands.” 

EE: I’m really excited to chat with you Evelyn. Firstly, could you introduce yourself to our readers?

EA: I’m a poet, writer and more broadly a researcher, in the very final stages of submitting a PhD on contemporary Indigenous women’s writing, in the global and international context of how we read and interpret that literature. 

I’m also the co-editor of Overland, a literary journal, which is a publication focused on social justice, equality and broader political issues in our community.

I’m an Aboriginal woman, born and raised in Western Sydney. My family line, from my dad’s side, is Bundjalung. Through my mum’s side, I also have connections to Central NSW and into the South Coast through Wiradjuri and Yuin. 

EE: Can you talk us through your process of writing Dropbear?

EA: Yes! It’s my first solo-authored book, or collection. The official stuff is that it was developed through a Wheeler Center Next Chapter fellowship, under the mentorship of Tony Birch. He’s a really amazing novelist, poet and researcher himself. 

The unofficial stuff is that it came about following a couple of years’ process of me reading, researching and writing responses to the broader canon of Australian literature, particularly focusing on what I was exposed to as a child. 

I write about my parents choosing Australian books for us, trying to ensure that their kids were growing up with a strong sense of the place that we were living in; the place that is a part of our ancestry. Along the way, in that storytelling, they encountered a lot of racism and representations that made them uneasy. I was raised not just with these stories, but also with a lot of critical thinking skills, so I developed a very strange relationship to these stories through my parents and the border community that I grew up in. 

EE: One of my favorite things about Dropbear is the play between light and dark. Some lines tore me apart, and others had me stifling a laugh. The line: I hope this email finds you aching, from your piece ‘In Fright’ perfectly encapsulates this tone. Is this space between making a joke, but actually making a strong critique, one that’s comfortable for you to occupy? 

EA: I’m somebody who has developed a pretty strange sense of humor over the years. I really do think that honesty and vulnerability are found in your willingness to engage with things that are painful for you. 

I’m willing to make jokes about burning down institutions and taking back land, because for me, these are political objectives that I know disorientate and disarm a lot of people… Throughout the whole collection I tried to play with an impulse that I don’t really feel is often extended to Aboriginal people, and particularly not to Aboriginal women — the idea of the larrikin spirit — in Australian culture… It was an intentional balance to evoke — I don’t necessarily know if it’s one that’s going to make me a lot of friends — but was very much an active and intentional process in my writing. 

EE: The selective memory of white Australia is a really strong theme in this collection. Your poems ‘The Last Endeavor’ and the ‘Last Bush Ballad’ both explore this in a sort of dialogue. Can you share the experience of writing them?

EA: We’ve got a very, very literary history in terms of writings about conquest — influences of Biblical traditions in Cook’s writing, in Phillip’s writing — during the early exploration of Australia. There’s a real richness of imagery that doesn’t seem to understand the country that it is on. There’s this constant invocation of the idea of the landscape’s hostility.
The implication that we get from reading a lot of these stories is that Australian land and country is hostile to the white gaze. 

In my process of writing this book, I initially found this constant emphasis on hostility and ghostliness to be really problematic. Because of course, it just turns Aboriginal people into spectral creatures. We don’t have agency, we don’t have a voice, we don’t even have a corporeal presence in the landscape. I attempted with those pieces to conceptualise what happens if we think of the ghosts that are being described in the colonial writings as white ghosts — as ghosts that were brought over here and that escaped. 

In this weird pseudo-imagining, things like SnugglePot and CuddlePie, Blinky Bill, and even the dropbear... these are the things that grew out of those white ghosts. This is what happens when you let something like that marinate in this land. It takes on shapes that might look like they are of this country, but they’re not really. 

They’re all the escaped ghosts of the settler colony from the invading nation. Messing around with that just opened up a lot of possibilities. 

I think it’s a really rich poetic and creative space to reimagine the spiritual and cultural states of conquest. I could say a million times, in a million ways — and I kind of have in this collection — invasion was bad. You killed us, you raped us, you stole our land. That was bad, that was awful, you shouldn’t have done that. Readers these days would be like, ‘Yeah, they shouldn’t have done that.’ Where it’s more interesting to push that — and more importantly — is beyond this guilty acceptance that doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t produce advocacy. It doesn’t produce justice. It just produces guilt. What happens if we push that into a more creative and conceptual territory?

"Many stories and representations of women, Aboriginal people and people of colour had been erased, or had never come to their full potential."

EE: I think the best place to wrap this up is with your acknowledgements section. It was a very powerful chapter. As words that so often get skimmed over — a sentiment explored in your piece ‘Acknowledgement of Cuntery’ — what did it mean to you to write the acknowledgements for Dropbear? 

EA: I have really tried to guide my work by some very Indigenous centered principles, around the time that we have, and the time that we owe. I know that all the work I do is made possible by generations of Aboriginal people, but also people of color — specifically women — who’ve been working for many years and decades, to create opportunity, to create access and to create more equity in literary and artistic spaces. The work that I do would not be possible without many of their sacrifices and their struggles. 

In developing this book, I was struck by the centrality of racism and misogyny in the Australian literary tradition. Also, by the way many stories were clearly missing from the archive. Many stories and representations of women, Aboriginal people and people of colour had been erased, or had never come to their full potential. 

I believe that was very deliberate on behalf of some individuals in some institutions. But, I also know that it must have just been exhausting, and I have the deepest sympathy for many of the people who lost their own struggle against these institutions. The book was written in memory of them, with an acknowledgement and a commitment to hold space — as I think everyone should — for the legacy that they built. 

The acknowledgement in my book is really just one thing that I can personally do. Placing it there is a structure of accountability. I’m committing myself to that acknowledgement and also, I hope, throughout my career, committing myself to fulfilling those expectations and that need for the continued struggle towards justice. And opportunity for future generations.

You can find Dropbear at:

You can find Evelyn online at: @evelynaraluen on Instagram and Twitter. 


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