Interview: Ellen van Neerven

Writing, Editing: An Interview with Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven portrait

Ellen van Neerven was awarded the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2013. That manuscript was published as Heat and Light by the University of Queensland Press in 2014 and has been acclaimed in Australia and internationally. Her short stories have been published in local and international literary journals and she’s a commissioning editor at The Lifted Brow. Van Neerven is just as active an editor as she is a writer. She was a participant in the inaugural Indigenous Editing Internship program at the State Library of Queensland in 2011, part of the black&write! project, and she continues to work with emerging Indigenous writers and editors through black&write! She edited the 2014 digital collection of Indigenous writing, Writing Black. I spoke to her after she had returned to Brisbane after several weeks travelling in Central Australia and the United States.

Catriona Menzies-Pike: Interviews like this often start with questions about how people become writers but given your career trajectory I’d prefer to begin with your work as an editor and how that relates to your life as a writer.

Ellen van Neerven: They’ve been entwined. You can’t really talk about how I started as a published writer without talking about how I got into editing and working with writers and working with the community.

I decided to study creative writing after school at QUT and when I was in my last year there I heard about an opportunity called black&write!. Even if I hadn’t become involved in the project I would still have thought it was very exciting and would have followed it with interest. The opportunity, as it was initially presented, was for two writers and two editors. It was a signature project that was about promoting Indigenous writing, developing and supporting it and really recognising underrepresentation across the industry. The organisers were able to get the State Library of Queensland to come on board as a partner and house the project. Now it’s embedded in the library and the staff of the project are State Library staff.

So that’s how I met Sue Abbey. I recognised her name immediately because she was part of my course. I did an editing subject that looked at editing relationships, at famous American examples like Gordon Lish, then at Australian examples. I knew about Sue’s influence, that she had worked on black Australian writing for 20 years, that she’d worked with writers such as the late Aunty Doris Pilkington Garimara and with Larissa Behrendt.

At uni I had my first exposure to Aboriginal writing through meeting other Aboriginal students. I became involved in the Murri Unit there which was called the Oodgeroo Unit. I knew who Oodgeroo was but I wanted to read her poetry. So I read her stuff, read the work of Uncle Lionel Fogarty, and they became really important influences for me. They helped me realise how tied poetry is to activism.

Anyway so I knew about this figure Sue Abbey. Meeting her in person I was immediately struck by her passion. She was really passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait writing and culturally sensitive editing, still is, and of course about having more Indigenous editors in the industry. She’d previously trained two at UQP in the early 90s, Sandra Phillips and Jacqui Katona, but she was very aware that in this country there were still only a handful of Indigenous people practising editing, particularly in fiction.

And so I applied for the position of trainee editor and started in the program with Aunty Linda McBride-Yuke who is a Bundjalung and Butchulla woman. We already had a connection. Let me get this right, my grandfather was best man at her parents’ wedding. So she’s from Mum’s generation, they both went to the school, Sandgate High. My Mum and also my Mum’s family grew up on the north side of Brisbane. And so our families have been entwined.

In the role I learnt a lot culturally from her and through her experience. She’d worked in the Queensland Government for 20 years and she helped develop the protocols they use nationally, government protocols for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And I was just fresh from uni and really very passionate about books and writing. I felt like I knew a lot about writing with the short course that I had done. But really, I learnt a lot on the job and it was through that journey that I probably started to think about my own writing.

I’m interested in this relationship between being an editor yourself and being a writer. How do you balance being a young writer with this work that you do, nurturing new voices. How do you shift between being an editor and working on other people’s work and having your own work being edited, being subjected to the same kind of process by someone else. Editors and writers aren’t always on great terms.

I need to maintain a healthy separation for my own sanity. At black&write! I have formal relationships where I edit an author’s work but a lot of it is mentoring and community work, designing projects, connecting writers with opportunities and working with partner organisations.

And so when I’m working with editors on my own writing I probably see it through the same lens. Everything is a learning opportunity and what I gain from it will not only help my writing but help the way that I work with writers. And I’m very aware of the process, maybe too aware and that can make me quite anxious before working with an editor.

I have to turn off my brain when I write and get away from my experience of working with other writers. But I do feel I have to credit my editing training. It has made me a stronger writer. I have this sense that when I’m writing that I can identify if I’m going down – well not always – a wrong path. It’s going to be not very fruitful if I do this. I can identify that before I do it. Not always – but sometimes I can take shortcuts.

Let’s turn to Writing Black. It’s a great collection, not only in the diversity of writers that it gathers but also in the breadth of literary practice that it contains. It’s a multimedia work and I’m interested in how you see the future of Indigenous writing particularly caught up with digital publishing.

I probably don’t have a straight answer to that question because when you say Indigenous writing, for me it’s almost not a category.

I see definitely fantastic possibility in writing for children in a digital form because of how tactile children are and how literate they are in digital forms, particularly Indigenous kids, I find. They’re really skipping the book form and going straight to the iPad. So I think there are fantastic opportunities for education and for literacy.

I definitely didn’t want to do a digital collection just for the sake of it. I wanted to use the form to our advantage. So we have Siv Parker’s Twitter fiction, which is an example of social, Indigenous writing and social media. When I talked to her about it was like taking an old form and telling a story around a campfire. Social media can be a cultural tool in places, for passing on information in a way that say radio used to.

For me it’s as much about audience and access. There is a really hungry international audience for Indigenous writing but also lots of road blocks in getting the books out there. Being able to access work online is definitely an advantage and we’ve had a lot of feedback and contact from people overseas who have been able to find out about Indigenous writing and read content from 20 different authors that way.

Sticking with audiences, I was looking through some other interviews that you’ve done and I was reading one with Anita Heiss who asked who you write for and you said that you could be writing for your younger self. What was it that your younger self needed to read?

I think I definitely found a stronger sense of self through reading those poets that I mentioned earlier. I felt like my world had been opened up. As a young Aboriginal woman I knew that my identity was tied in with family and history but this didn’t really match up to the mainstream experiences that I was having through education. My brother and I were among the only Aboriginal students at school. I was such a huge reader as a young kid but I didn’t see part of myself represented in the works that I read. And then when I did realise that there was Aboriginal literature and there were a number of writers expressing themselves through different forms, that helped me, that helped me with my whole growing up experience.

So I’m definitely conscious of young people who find comfort through reading. It made me feel less alone to read works that talk about, I say outsider experience, but you know what I mean. It doesn’t really need to be related to your own cultural background or sexuality or status, but when it is, it’s even more empowering for young people. The mainstream stories of who an Australian is can be quite damaging if you’re not part of that privilege.

One of the books that the water section of Heat and Light brought to mind for me was Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. In the introduction to Writing Black you observe that other Indigenous writers find it useful to cross the kind of boundaries of literary fiction and experiment with genre. I guess I’m interested in you elaborating on why speculative fiction, why did speculative fiction appeal to you? And what is that more broadly, that appeal more broadly for Indigenous writers?

I don’t think I’m particularly conscious of genre – and I think we need to find different ways of defining or talking about this sort of writing. I don’t think maybe Alexis would feel comfortable with the term speculative writing and or with magic realism. For, say South American writers, ‘magic’ is just a part, everyday part of life. We need a more complex language for this sort of writing.

My next question it about categories and their limits, again, in the ‘Water’ section of Heat and Light. Caden describes herself as queer and then finds herself involved in an attraction that completely surpasses the categories that she previously encountered. It’s a glorious imagining of a world that’s beyond binary gender and sexuality. I’m interested in how you see a book like Heat and Light, imagining a queer identity. What else is possible when you leave realism behind like this?

It’s a playful work. That’s the word I would use. I was trying to work with different forms, talk about identity, involve the reader – and expand perhaps a perception of what it means to be Aboriginal Australian.

I guess I wasn’t conscious really of writing about sexuality. It’s more that I followed my interests and wanted to have fun in writing the book. I wanted to attempt to do things that hadn’t been done before. I don’t know how valid is it for me to say that is – but I definitely think there is an under-representation of the Indigenous identities that I was representing: young, female, urban, queer. I think that’s why it’s gotten attention, because people see this is different. Of course in ‘Water’, the work pokes fun at itself a little bit. The playfulness and exaggeration was to not make it exclusive for readers. Anyone could pick it up.

You’ve mentioned several writers whose work has guided you and I’m wondering whether there are others who have been influential on you.

I think Indigenous writers kind of need each other. I feel that more and more, that sense of camaraderie and community. We challenge each other to write better. It is sometimes hard when you’re perhaps the only black writer on a festival or you’re put into a situation where you have to represent a whole community. That’s why we take strength from each other.

Generally there’s a sense of overwhelming support for new writers coming through. Young writers like myself have been taken under the wing by people such as Melissa Lucaschenko, Uncle Tony Birch and Samuel Wagan Watson who I feel are extraordinary writers in their own right but also very generous with their support. I feel culturally that I am always conscious that I want to gain their respect and if I’m ever uncomfortable about the way I represent something, I get their guidance first. Melissa has read some of my writing when I’ve needed an extra eye on it. I know these people will be honest and not be afraid to tell me the truth.

I also feel like I’ve benefitted from the friendship of non-Indigenous writers, particularly in Queensland. I definitely feel like I’m a Queensland writer. I’m quite passionate about Queensland writing and I’m good friends with Krissy Kneen and Kristina Olssen. It’s quite special when you have writers close by: you learn from their writing but you also learn from the kind of integrity that they have in public, from their generosity helping new writers come through. It’s not always the case. Some writers are gatekeepers, very competitive.

You’re a commissioning editor at The Lifted Brow and you’ve had work published in local and international literary magazines. What role have literary mags played in your career and what do you see as their contribution to building the kinds of communities that writers need?

The magazine scene in Australia, probably everywhere is, very hard. Individuals have to work tirelessly to keep them alive. There’s always criticism and politics over funding or representation.

I think there are some big questions right now about keeping the magazines afloat and keeping the writing relevant and getting new readerships because audiences are so low, partly because Australia. We don’t have the reading population of the US because we’re a small country. Many of these journals are going online. You have a bigger audience now if you publish a story online rather than publish it in a print magazine. It used to be a great stepping stone for writers to see their works in print for the first time in Meanjin or Overland, those sort of magazines. Now emerging writers are getting their first sense of publication online. You definitely see a bigger readership, the ability to share through social media and so on.

Hopefully these magazines continue to make themselves relevant in the upcoming years because it’s going to be hard. That’s why I work at The Brow. I’m the only Queensland representation on The Brow so I see my role as really trying to find new voices, trying to increase the diversity of the works that we publish. I feel literary magazine culture is definitely tied explicitly to university creative writing programs. Although that’s a really important pathway to have, we need to be finding ways for readers to read emerging voices from other places.

It’s not an easy time to be a writer. There’s lots of uncertainty about funding. What do you need to keep writing and how you see a career path ahead?

Like the majority of writers in Australia, my career is funded through other employment. I definitely don’t see that changing. I don’t see myself as being able to self-fund a career through writing alone, and all the things that come with it.

I believe you need to write, even if there are no opportunities. The biggest challenge is being able to keep writing, even though so many outsiders see it as a hobby. You have to manage having those ambitions to continue to write, to continue to deliver projects that are going to be important for Australian society and are going to be publishable. I do hope that I can continue to have a voice in this way. It’s definitely a privilege but also a huge responsibility.

My final question is a more general version of the last one. What do we need in the Australian literary scene to hear more young female Indigenous voices?

It’s really quite tricky because Indigenous experience and culture are powerful and relevant and essential – but they also need to be seen as everyday. So what I’m saying is that you’ve got Indigenous writing as a genre, let’s support it but let’s also make sure it’s just a part of Australian writing.

When you said young Indigenous female, I really saw myself in those labels. I thought, I hope I’m not known just through those labels. I hope there’s not only a certain amount of space or number of positions for Indigenous writers. You know, we’ve had our Indigenous writer for the festival. If that’s the sort of thing that is happening it would be a real shame.

We often talk as a community about how we need to have more Indigenous readers and more awareness within the communities of our own work. Maybe these works are not being promoted as much to potential audiences. I hope that things are changing. The more readers we have the more writers we have – and then hopefully there are spaces that pop up for more stories to be told. Which is I think really happening at the moment. Initially the Aboriginal stories that were told or got published, at least, were life stories, stories of struggle, but now its opened up to fiction and to many genres, whether it’s crime or romance.

This is part of the SRB’s regular interview series. Read our interviews with Sofie Laguna and Fiona Wright: