A Conversation with Evelyn Araluen

Erin Ewen

Content Warning: Racism, death, r*pe 

Vertigo was thrilled to sit down with author, poet and researcher, Evelyn Araluen last week to talk about her new release, Dropbear and her upcoming appearances at Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

Dropbear explores ideas of country, nation and Aboriginal identity at the intersection of Australian 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 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 New South Wales 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; 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.

All of the poems, prose and essay sections are all concerned with ideas of country, nation and identity, and how Aboriginal people engage with, and are in constant resistance to the iconography of nation and Australian settler coloniality, and what it means to love country through, around and in spite of, those images that sometimes distance us from our own ancestral lands. 

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. 

“…honesty and vulnerability are found in your willingness to engage with things that are painful for you.”

It’s not simply that these things are potentially taboo, or are socially and politically problematic. These are the things that you’re scared to be honest about. I have a variety of techniques and styles in this collection to say things that are, perhaps to me, difficult to say. I also hope to create a space of engagement with the things that I’m comfortable saying, but that I know are quite disarming and disorientating for some readers. 

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 feel is often extended to Aboriginal people, and particularly not to Aboriginal women — the idea of the larrikin spirit — in Australian culture. 

Astrid Lorange wrote a really amazing essay about the ‘larrikin’, and her counter to it, the ‘ratbag’, in Cordite poetry review. That essay really encouraged me to think about my own voice, and play with a balance of cheekiness and provocation, alongside that vulnerability, honesty and the raw emotion of somebody who is joking about drowning the settler colony, but also is deeply saddened by the ongoing devastation of colonization. It was an intentional balance to try 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: ‘The Last Endeavor’ and ‘The Last Bush Ballad’ are two very intense, dialogic pieces. These are exhaustive pieces to write because they’re the most archival, research-based pieces out of the entire collection. Even my editors were saying, ‘Listen, this is incredibly intense. We don’t know who’s going to be able to stay with these pieces.’ I actually have another piece that never ended up getting into the collection called ‘The Last Rebellion.’ 

I have done research around archival histories of Aboriginal women’s writing and how they are suppressed or removed from the broader colonial archive of Australian literature and storytelling. We’ve also 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 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 hostility of the landscape. 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 conceptualize 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. 

EE: Can you tell us more about this idea of the white ghosts? 

EA: 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 of the invading nation. So 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 the 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? 

EE: Do you have a favorite piece in the collection? 

EA: One of the most tender pieces for me is probably the personal essay, ‘To The Parents’, which is about actively thinking about Mum and Dad, and thinking about everything they sacrificed for me, for my family and my siblings.

Last year, one that came to mean an insane amount to me, was one of the last in the collection, ‘See You Tonight’. Basically, it was an exercise in fantasizing about what it would be like to be able to come home after eight months of not seeing my family. So, I used that poem as a device for hope, aspiration and comfort. I have a lot of fondness for that poem, it’s probably one of the more sentimental ones. But I think, after the year we’ve all had, a bit of sentimentality isn’t the worst thing in the world.

EE: Have you revisited the ‘Inevitable Pandemic Poem’ with it being April, 2021? 

EA: That poem is weird to me now. Because when I look back on it, I’m like, Oh, my God, You foolish creature. It was so early in the process. You’ve been locked up, for what, six weeks? Big deal. Get over it!

It’s a poem I kept on adding to as lockdown got deeper and weirder. That was a dark time for everyone I think but, reading it now in April again, does produce a strange effect. But, I am certainly not nostalgic for that period anymore. 

EE: In the collection, you mention that you spent Invasion Day 2020 overseas in the U.K. at Cambridge University. Can you talk about that experience? 

EA: So this is now two Invasion Days that I have spent in weird circumstances. This year’s Invasion Day, I was actually in COVID-19 quarantine, because I had to be tested and wasn’t allowed to go to the rally. The previous year was the first one in a long time, since I was a kid, where I hadn’t gone to Yabun, or gone to a rally. 

It was the last day in the U.K. after a speaking tour about Aboriginality and Aborignial writing, particularly with a focus on climate and climatic disaster; which was really strange and eerie, because all of this was occurring while most of Australia was on fire. 

I was in Cambridge, which is one of these sites of colonial thought that was used to endlessly justify imperialism, and settler colonialism. It was a very strange experience. I was very lucky to be there with other mob, and to be able to share something of that experience with other Blackfellas.  

Literally, the only thing we could do was hold space for our own grief and sadness, because that is what ‘Australia Day’ ultimately is. I think the rally is important to advocate for justice, and to advocate for change. But, as I get older, I really am just so much more sensitive to people’s needs to take care of themselves on that day. So, to spend that day with mob, in a place that I know we all wished we weren’t, on that particular occasion… to have access to clap sticks, and ochre, and just little things that reminded us of home was probably the best thing that we could do. But it was so strange. I would not recommend doing that to anyone. 

EE: Can you tell us about the events you’re involved with at Sydney Writers’ Festival?

EA: I’m speaking at two events this year, and very excitingly this is my first year exclusively speaking alongside other First Nations writers, which is really cool. I’ll be speaking at the opening address with Melissa Lukashenko and Tara June Winch who are both incredible and amazing Black novelists. It’s going to be an enormous privilege to be able to share a stage with them. We will be talking about the intergenerationality of Aboriginal literature, and also thinking about the kinds of work that needs to be done for our future, so that there will be space and resources for the next generation coming in. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to share that space with women — with Black women — so it’s going to be incredibly exciting. 

Next, I’ll be speaking with Tony Birch, who was the mentor for Dropbear, as part of a series focused on getting more established writers in the industry to talk about what new releases they’re excited about. But, what I expect is gonna happen is that Tony and I are just going to yarn about both of our writing projects at the moment. He’s got two books coming out this year, so we’ve got to have a lot to talk about. It will be nice to speak about Dropbear in Sydney, and to bring that work back to the broader Dharug-Eora community, so I can start sharing it outside of Melbourne… where I have been trapped for so long. 

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.

It’s an Aboriginal principle that we honor those who came before us, and that we make space for those who are coming next. That’s what we are instructed to do in terms of our caring and our responsibility. In that structure, you can be comforted and reassured by the knowledge that those who have come before you and those who are coming, will look after you. So, you don’t have to center yourself in that work, because you can be assured that you will be looked after and respected.

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. 

“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.”

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 best way of respecting that is to continue this legacy for future generations. I’m conscious that I’ve worked hard on my writing, I’ve worked hard on my career… but it would not be possible if it weren’t for people like Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Aunty Jeanine Leane and other Black women working in spaces of writing and publishing. I’m very deeply grateful for that. 

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.

Evelyn’s Sydney Writers’ Festival program can be found here.

Click here for the full program. 

You can find Dropbear here.