Review: Jeanine Leaneon Native nonfiction

As We Are: A Call Across The Islands

It is not difficult to read how the Australian publishing industry, a cog in the wheel of the colonial nation state, curates a picture of First Nations’ life through the literary fiction that it wants to sell. Settlers have become familiar with stories of our lament that we are either physically disconnected and removed from our ancestral lands or that we still live on our ancestral Countries but cannot own or care for them as in precolonial times. Either way we are in deficit. And these stories allow settler readers to offer condolences, to make claims to understanding our pain and loss, all the while knowing that such stories also reinforce the comfort zone of ‘settler ownership and control’. These tropes of settler expectation are artifice.

Trauma unfortunately does exist in our communities due to the brutal ongoing colonization process; and connection to land – ancestral Country – is very real. But these are not the only things that define us. Images of amalgamated settler expectations of authenticity according to colonial metrics and markers, the continued focus on whether we are real or not, these fail to recognize how we as First Nations peoples have and continue to articulate our relationships with change and modernity. This insistent settler expectation of the possibilities and parameters of what First Nations story should be contains and restrains the space of First Nations writing. Such expectations entrap us in a static relationship with place and time. They deny us the reality that land is everywhere, and so too are First Nations peoples making and re‑making relationships with place. This constraining view denies us any cultural dynamism and agency in remaking and re‑belonging and continued storying of place.

First Nations literary fiction and poetry in Australia is a vast, rich, acclaimed, and growing body of writing. Novels, short stories, poetry collections and auto/biographies and memoirs by First Nations writers have won some of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards, such as the Miles Franklin Prize, the Stella Prize, the Victorian and New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. But there is a whole genre of First Nations writing waiting to take shape, to break space and to expand existing literary and genre conventions.

Enter creative nonfiction, the lyric essay, a form that is unpredictable, that derives meaning through the act of writing itself, not through a structured plot of stylised characters that will communicate a predetermined message or perform a particular theme. In 2019, two Turtle Island scholars, Cowlitz writer Elissa Washuta and non-First Nations scholar Teresa Warburton, curated a collection of First Nations creative nonfiction titled Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. They focus exclusively on ‘form’ – the act of being through telling and writing, rather than a focus on providing information to a non-First Nations reader or performing an identity that is familiar in settler colonial society.

Shapes of Native Nonfiction explores many of the complexities of Native writing and Native life. The writing within goes beyond asserting existence (in opposition to the ‘Vanishing Indian’ myth) or recording heritage or linear history. The contributors to this anthology are working authors with a wide range of perspectives and experience. Some were raised in traditional communities. Some grew up in urban areas. Some were ‘adopted out’ as part of a cultural genocide campaign that placed and still places Native children with white families. In this sense, Shapes is anti-monolithic.

One of the many impressive things about this book is the demographic. It contains essays from older writers, younger writers, and those in between; writers whose ancestral grounds span the geography of Turtle Island; writers from LGBTIQ+ communities; writers who choose not to reveal their orientation; writers who work within universities in creative writing and literature programs; and writers who are freelance. Most writers live, work, and write in urban settings, others are more transient. Some speak openly of ancestral country and indigeneity, and some do not. As Kumeyaay writer Tommy Pico notes in the endorsement on the back cover, Shapes of Native Nonfiction:

Provides a space for Native nonfiction to be indigenous (sic) without pressure to perform indigeneity. The writing gets to be weird, joyful, wounded, flip, deep, unflinching, terrified, secure. Expression over cultural expectation.

First Nations peoples contained within settler states have been the subject of much euro-centric settler non-fiction. Works written about First Nations peoples and our material cultural artefacts and crafts fill the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums of the world. The value of this amassing of all things of and about the other from a western perspective is its content – what it shows, says, tells a settler reader, through a western lens about First Nations peoples. And what it displays or tells is either a static culture that belongs to a past era or First Nations peoples in deficit, debt, trauma, tragedy, or terror. Labelled as factual research – a term that in English is loaded up with such authority, power and prestige – First Nations peoples in such writings were objects of information. Couched in what western readers consider the infallible robes of research this writing is what informed and still does inform the settler public about First Nations peoples. As a First Nations reader raised by Blak aunties, formally educated in western classrooms, I have made a habit of stripping away the majesty of certain words by tracing them back to their etymological origins, definitions which are usually far less grandiose. The elevation comes from the word’s use and the way it is used to broker power of one group over another.

The word research takes its origin from the old French word recerchier meaning to search or seek. The modern usage of the word research came in the mid-sixteenth century, during a period in western history called the age of expansion and exploration. The original word was repurposed and assigned the meaning of studious inquiry or examination: investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts. Research framed within this context takes on the guise of a quest to an end; a search to prove a certain belief or theory; and an authority to take information, experiences, material objects and artefacts, to reinterpret such information, images, or objects from the researcher’s cultural standpoint and to label the findings as factual information. If the word is split in two, like fibres on a reed that might be used in the art of weaving – a craft practised in many different forms, for many different purposes by First Nations peoples across settler colonies, re‑search takes on a different meaning. Western research can be reframed as that devoid of the shape and form of its maker/creator. Repositioned in this way research is an unstoried collection of disconnected objects and information extracted from others, rather than a gathering of diverse and intersecting stories of being. As Elissa Washuta argues in the introduction to Shapes: ‘To speak only to the content of these vessels would be to ignore how their significance is shaped by the vessels who hold them’.

This repositioning can disarm the stultifying western impact of ‘research’ and the narrow meaning of nonfiction – and can reclaim such terms and practices in new empowering ways for First Nations writers. Research can be destabilized and challenged through the writing in Shapes of Native Non-Fiction. Drawing on the recent scholarship of First Nations writers and critical thinkers such as Creek scholar Craig Womack and Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice, Washuta and Warburton note in the introduction the shift towards an approach to Native (sic) literary criticism that eschews ethnographic methodology in order to open new areas of inquiry by shifting the key words of scholarly conversation from identity, culture and meditation to history, politics, citizenship, sovereignty and diplomacy. They go on to say that while First Nations creative nonfiction does write to and of these topics (and more), the writing moves beyond an ordering that depends only on content, only on information that Native (sic) authors can provide about Native peoples (sic). Instead, the lyric essays in Shapes focus on the relationships and connections between content and form; between the telling and the material; between the teller and the story being told and/or object being made.

Lenape scholar Joanne Barker and I-Kiribati scholar Teresa Teaiwa, whose words ‘the telling and the material’ are placed as an epitaph to the collection, articulate the relationship between form and content where attention to form (the telling) and how it shapes the content (the material) enables a move away from a focus on the static idea of ‘Native information’ (sic) and instead emphasizes the dynamic process of ‘Native in formation’. Reframing research in this way can destabilize the colonial demand for factual information about Native (sic) life, instead insisting upon an understanding of indigeneity as a dynamic, intentional form which shapes the content that is garnered through its exploration. Barker and Teawa write:

This is native (sic) in formation: as we have been informed by, as we are informing as we are in-formed. It’s about process not stasis. It’s not about romanticizing the dead of our history onto sides of defaced mountains carved up for all time. It’s about the way we move with the time and with each other.

Teaiwa and Barker call ‘Native in formation,’ an understanding of indigeneity that depends on a sense of movement, of being in constant relation. Rather than dislocating Native (sic) peoples from the time and place to which they belong, this term highlights the myriad systems of relations that Native peoples have developed and maintained since time immemorial, systems of relation that involve everyone, including those of us who are non-Native.

First Nations creative nonfiction like that exemplified in Shapes is a re‑search through the wreckage of colonialism; First Nations’ creative nonfiction slashes and burns through galleries, libraries, archives, and museums that have amassed information and research about us, writing instead what it means and continues to mean to be a First Nations survivor and descendant; and how indigeneity is made and remade by and of its own cultural dynamic. Driftpile Creek writer and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt describes the growing body of First Nations creative nonfiction as ‘uncovering a genre of experience from the graveyard of Indigenous history’.

Shapes features essays from twenty-one contemporary First Nations writers. Washuta and Warburton use a basket weaving motif to illustrate the concept:

Just as a basket’s purpose determines its materials, weave and shape, so too is the purpose of the essay is related to its materials weave and shape.

Washuta went on to say in an interview with co-editor Teresa Warburton and Meranda Owens, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History Chicago, that in writing essays that asked readers to consider form as a primary concern of the essay, an actual thing the essay was about, she was doing something that non-First Nations readers did not expect, but also doing something that Native writers and artists have done forever:

What I once thought of as formal innovation is not, exactly, because innovation suggests newness. While fragmentation, gaps, braiding, and emphasis on the visual presentation of the text layout have recently been considered innovative or experimental by the literary mainstream, these qualities have been Coast Salish methods for a long, long time. This is evident in the construction of baskets, each an exquisite vessel whose shape and construction are chosen with a mind toward the contents that will be carried.

As First Nations peoples we are located in time, we are situated in space. Dispossessing an essay of its time and place is a colonizing gesture because colonization severs bonds between people and place. Colonization tells us that where we are and where we come from doesn’t matter. This approach allows for what Washuta describes as floating, ungrounded, uncontextualized, unanchored western meditations of us couched in terms of research and information to be centred and canonized.

It is the on-the-page shape of the essays in Shapes that carries the weight of meaning. Shape matters. It turns the essay into a resistant form, pushing against the mythscape of the deficit, dying, disappearing ‘Native’ and asserting a new narrative that is not subject to colonizing. Or as Washuta and Warburton write:

For Native writers … nonfiction allows for a revision of the dominant cultural narratives that romanticize Native lives and immobilize Native emotional responses: the essay is the work of thinking and feeling.

They continue:

When we talk about basket weaving, we’re conscious of traditions that are both old and current. This is work against stagnation, against fixity. We reject the ancient/contemporary dichotomy and instead embrace the abundant evidence of continuity. Essays are sites of contact between exterior and interior—between place and mind, between pressure and imagination. Where and when we make them matters; who taught us matters; what we carry matters.

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is full of cognitive and emotional work. It turns the essay into something alive and breathing.

The collection demonstrates that First Nations writers don’t shy away from experimenting with form in order to explore the painful and the violent. And they refuse a voyeuristic obsession with tragedy as the only possible contribution of First Nations literatures to the broader field. Instead, these essays demonstrate that First Nations writers offer innovative, astute and transformative literary interventions beyond nostalgia or lamentation of a romanticized past or a tragic future. Both are the narratives of the colonial mythscape. The authors in this collection embark on carefully crafted interventions that both challenge and expand genre conventions. They also confront the prolific undercurrent of the interpretation and discussion of First Nations nonfiction writing: the expectation that First Nations peoples remain subjects spoken about rather than speaking subjects.

Shapes is structured using forms and components of basket weaving. To this end the book is organised around four strands: technique, coiling, plaiting, and twining. Technique is for craft essays:

Basket makers attain control of technique to the degree that the basket is perceived as a harmonious whole. Such harmony can be achieved only by careful preparation of materials and technical perfection in construction.

This section features essays from Ernestine Hayes (Tlingit Kaagwaataan) Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfoot), Chip Livingston (Creek), Bojan Louis (Navajo Nation) and Sasha Lapointe (Upper Skagit and Nooksack). These works often combine poetry, prose, and oral storytelling to create a form of conscious creative nonfiction that extends beyond the words on the page. For example, in the opening essay, ‘Contemporary Creative Writing and Ancient Oral Tradition’, Ernestine Hayes details the craft elements of Tlingit storytelling that centres place and land as the foundation upon which experimentation with form occurs. Hayes writes:

Place is not limited to setting but is an active participant, not only in this story of this glacier’s history, not only in an Indigenous way of seeing the world, but in the certainty of all life experience.

Blackfoot author Stephen Graham Jones’ ‘Letter to a Just Starting Out Indian Writer – Maybe to Myself’ is a series of numbered prose poems that mounts a pointed expose of the marketing and publishing demands and constraints on First Nations writing. Graham Jones advises emerging First Nation writers to ‘write bad Indians’ and circumvent colonial labels, stereotypes and expectations. In a pointed barb at the publishing industry Jones writes:

Understand that the market, the publishing industry, is going to want to package you as “exotic” …

Jones goes on to say,

…please note that this is happening to American Indian writing more and more, where the first little bit of a piece isn’t the writer telling a story but the writer establishing whether he or she is really Indian by showcasing “expected Indian things” … it is us submitting to legitimization. It’s taking blood quantum onto the page.

Coiling features essays that are seamless: ‘Coiling begins at the centre of a basket and grows upon itself in spiral rounds, attached to the round before.’ Authors featured in this section are Deborah A Miranda (Olhone-Costanoan Esslen Nation), Terese Marie Mailhot (Nlaka’pumua) Bojan Louis (Navajo Nation), Tiffany Midge (Hunkpapa Lakota), Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree) and Ruby Hanson Murray (Osage Nation). These essays are not fragmented in their approach and are constructed using unifying threads that are wide ranging across time, place and meaning. In Deborah A Miranda’s essay ‘Tuolumme’ the river is the central thread that unifies an otherwise disparate family of adult children who come together around the illness and passing of an estranged father:

I’ll go because this is an Indian river, our river, and we go there when we have questions, when we have need. We go there for guidance. We go there for cleansing. We go to say goodbye.

We go to start over again. We go because there is one prayer we have never forgotten: water is life.

Billy-Ray Belcourt’s ‘AND SO I ANAL DOUCHE WHILE KESHA’S “PRAYING” PLAYS FROM MY IPHONE ON REPEAT’ is an uninterrupted stream of consciousness and reflection united by the central thread of two First Nations brothers – one addicted to booze, the other to the bodies of white men:


The entire essay is capitalized with either single or double forward slashes separating short, raw thoughts. As we read, we can hear the words pounding in Belcourt’s head in circular rhythm:


Plaiting is for fragmented essays with a singular source:‘In plaiting or checkerwork, two elements are woven over and under each other at right angles.’ Plaiting is applied to essays that are segmented in structure and include material from a single source, usually the author’s lived experience. Writing in this section, Eden Robinson (Haisla/Heitsuk), Natanya Ann Pulley (Dine) Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation), Michael Wasson (Nimiipuu), and Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), plait together essays from fragments of reflection. Just as the weft and warp threads can be indistinguishable in a finished fabric, the weaving is still visible as is the crafted form of these pieces. Kim Tallbear plaits 100-word prose poetry segments together in ‘Critical Poly 100s’ in reverse chronical order. These fragments draw on Tallbear’s polyamorous experiences with multiple human loves, as well as ‘other-than-human-loves’ like various knowledge forms and approaches to life. Tallbear writes:

Multi-amorous relations are not always about sex. I love sex unapologetically and without shame. But my indigenization of the erotic does not privilege sex among intimacies. There are many ways to relate. Routing oneself between multiple bodies is another ethical roadmap. This is a different way of inhabiting the world.

Michael Wasson’s ‘Self-Portrait with Parts Missing and/or Smeared’ is an essay of sharp breaks and staccato images that are crafted from memories that span Wasson’s life. Separated by a dinkus symbol – i – that could be read either as the Roman numeral one or the small letter ‘i’, Wasson structures a series of non-linear memories that appear as flashback:

So who’s missing is the first question we’re asked. I’m inside my ten-year-old body inside the classroom that looks out on the hill we rolled down last spring…

We each say here when the teacher says our names. My name smears and smears my lips, growing into lilies and out the crevices of piled rocks.

And finally twining is for essays that bring together material from different sources:

Twined work begins with a foundation of rigid elements or warp rods – around which two and sometimes three or four, weft elements are woven. The wefts are separated, brought around a stationary warp rod, brought together again and twisted. The action is repeated again and again, building a basket.

Warp rods or threads are vertical and run the length of a fabric or basket. Warp threads are the spine or anchors of any woven piece – they give the piece its shape. Weft rods or threads are the horizontal threads that give a basket, net, or fabric volume and which connect the warp threads. Authors in this section are Laura Da’ (Eastern Shawnee), Siku Allooloo (Inuit/Haitian), Tiffany Midge (Hunkpapa Lakota), Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz), Toni Jensen (Metis), Byron S Aspaas (Dine), Joan Naviyuk Kane (Inupiaq), Sasha Lapointe (Upper Skagit and Nooksack) and Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora). These essays combine the author’s personal experience and narrator perspective with researched and/or theoretical material. For example, Laura Da’s lyric essay ‘Pain Scale Treaties’ brings together the illness of the violence of Shawnee removal which juxtaposes the work of historical research methods alongside the interiority of intergenerational memories:

The gore of the battlefield seeps into the ground and is lost; ink on vellum its approximation.

Byron S Aspaas’ ‘Goodbye Once Upon a Time’ begins with a journey home – Dinetah, a home they had abandoned ten years before. Starting at Colorado Springs with their partner as its warp thread around which many other stories are twined and intertwined as they head north into Utah, Apaas weaves conversations with his young nephew; reflections on his father – a night-worker at Pittsburgh Midway Coal Company for thirteen years – ‘his eyes red with sleep’ against the backdrop of the continuing state of hypocrisy in American politics:

On February 15, 2017, the elected president announced to America:

“The state of Israel is a symbol to the world of resilience in the face of oppression… I can think of no other state that has gone through what they gone, in the survival of genocide…

On February 23, 2017, Sacred Stone was evacuated, forcibly. Those who stayed were gassed with chemicals and shot with rubber bullets and jailed and remover and charged for trespassing…

Aspaas asks:

How can you ever forget, America?

Most of the writers whose work appears in Shapes of Native Nonfiction came to the essay after developing their craft in poetry or fiction. As Ernestine Hayes writes in the essay that opens the collection, in comparison to American narrative norms:

Indigenous artists tell different stories and advance different values. Indigenous artists are the storytellers of their generations. Indigenous artists are their generations’ witnesses. As much as any fairy tale, those stories remain alive and carry their testimony into the millennia.

These essays are in dynamic relationships with various times and spaces. They call upon objects; insist on the materiality of the word; and shape essays out of material that’s been stored, remembered, and persevered. And make new material in new spaces and places that connect across time and place.

Between mid 2020 and 2021 four new, dynamic First Nations collections of poetry and prose were released into the Australian literary landscape: Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today, edited by Gomeroi writer and law academic, Alison Whittaker, published by University of Queensland Press; Homeland Calling: Words from a New Generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices – a collection of hip-hop song lyrics edited by Munujali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven, published by Desert Pea Media; Guwayu: for all times: A Collection of First Nations Poems, commissioned by Red Room Poetry, edited by me, and published by Magabala Books; and Flock: First Nations Stories Now and Then – a collection of creative fiction short stories, edited by Ellen van Neerven, published by the University of Queensland Press. In addition to the rich and diverse works of poetry and prose featured, these collections broke a long drought in the publishing of First Nations collections per se.

This year also saw the release of two single-authored collections of intertwined personal, social and political commentary by First Nations authors. Munanjahli and South Sea Islander author Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony (2021, UQP) is a collection of hard-hitting essays that combine personal, social, and political commentary. And Nyoongah author Claire G Coleman’s Lies, Damned Lies: A Personal Exploration of Impact of Colonisation (2021, Ultimo Press) blends the personal and the political in a series of essays.

The later part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw a flourishing of First Nations fiction collections published in Australia. For example Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry (1988), edited by Wiridjuri writer Kevin Gilbert; Paperbark: A Collection of Black Australian Writings (1990), edited by Nyoongah writer Jack Davis, and authors Mudrooroo, Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker; Message Stick: Contemporary Aboriginal Writing (1997), edited by Wiradjuri poet and writer Kerry Reed-Gilbert; Those Who Remain Remember: An Anthology of Aboriginal Writing (2000), edited by edited by Nyoongah writer and elder Rosemary van den Berg, and settler authors Anne Brewster and Angeline O’Neil; and Fresh Cuttings: A Celebration of Fiction and Poetry from UQP’s Black Writing Series (2003), edited by Wakka Wakka Goreng Goreng editor and scholar Sandra Phillips and settler author Sue Abbey. In 2008, Wiradjuri writer Anita Heiss and Aboriginal poet Peter Minter edited the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature which showcased excerpts of First Nations’ published works beginning with Bennelong’s letter to Lord Sydney’s Steward in 1796 across the genres of poetry, prose, drama, journalism, petitions, and letters from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century. Alongside this and continuing to the present, many local First Nations writer’s groups and collectives have produced local anthologies and collections.

In 2005, Osage scholar Robert Warrior made this observation of the Turtle Island literary landscape in his book The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction:

The expansive history of Native writing has been obscured by the near-exclusive focus on fiction and poetry in literary criticism.

In 2019, in the introduction to Shapes, Washuta pointed to the same tendency to look away from creative nonfiction by First Nations authors. The same may be said of the Australian literary scene. Yet nonfiction offers us the opportunity to unsettle our position within literary publishing by asserting agency in recalling, narrating, forming, re-forming, organizing and interpreting our experiences.

No Australian publisher has yet released such a vast gathering of First Nations creative nonfiction, of lyric essays that foreground form as part of the telling, that do not do what Stephen Graham Jones describes as ‘preferencing one model of Indian (sic) experience over another’. In his words,

That creates hierarchies that leads to the authenticity shuffle, which is an ugly, ugly, dance for all people who really want us to do it. Us doing that dance keeps us looking at each other, not at the world.

Many of the writers contributing to the earlier mentioned collections are still writing and publishing; alongside this, many new writers have become established, and many are still emerging. How rich and timely would a collection of nonfiction lyric essays that focused on form be? A collection whose contributors were free to write First Nations-ness in any and the many rich and diverse forms it takes in Australian literary culture now? How much potential could this kind of creative nonfiction have to break new ground and make a more expansive context for different stories of First Nation’s lived experiences in our fiction? How far could this writing push and/or break down the western binary between ‘factual research’ and fiction through First Nations creative nonfiction that draws its meaning through the form of telling and the practices and processes of the act of writing. How much more could our creative nonfiction shape a cartography of literary resistance and culturally led and informed literary review and critique of our works?

Shapes of Native Nonfiction brings together and solidifies a genealogy of what First Nations creative nonfiction could be through documenting a gathering of lyric essays that push and expand the boundaries of nonfiction beyond the auto/biographical and/or the academic. In doing this, Shapes of Native Nonfiction invites and gives shape to an approach to First Nations nonfiction that demonstrates moving beyond ethnographic and academic methods; one that experiments with form and embarks on carefully crafting and re-crafting interventions that both challenge and expand existing genre structures. Shapes is a call across the Atlantic – from island to island, across two large island-lands of First Nations’ countries and territories never ceded – there’s a whole new genre waiting to take shape, to be shaped by First Nations Australian writers. One that is formed, informed, and re-formed by us.

Published November 29, 2021
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Jeanine Leane

Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, teacher and academic from southwest New South Wales....

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