Award-winning novelist Melissa Lucashenko will deliver the next PEN Free Voices address on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on November 15.
Indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko is tough and resolute. Her award-winning novels reflect the powerful force of their author. Her books are, she says, a reflection of modern Aboriginal life. And so the subject matter may be seen to reflect something of her own life.
“Yes,” she says, “there is truth in my work because I do not write very far from my own experience.” She gives one example. “Two of my brothers have been in prison; that gives me insight into the prison experience.”
She says she sees her job as a writer as not rebelling against the orthodoxy but rather paying attention to the life around her. Her new novel, Too Much Lip, to be published in July, is described as partly inspired by Ned Kelly and partly by a hillbilly sensibility – it looks at Aboriginal life in the bush and addresses intergenerational trauma in an honest and hopeful way.
“I wanted to write about the grassroots mob who are constantly living on the edge of things – the law, racist violence, family implosion.”
Ms Lucashenko, who won an $80,000 Copyright Agency Cultural Fund Author Fellowship to work on the manuscript, says she found inspiration in American Pulitzer Prize winning writer Alice Walker. “I thought if she can write with searing honesty about her culture, I could do the same in an Australian context.”
Publisher Madonna Duffy describes it as a novel of dissent and social commentary, written with Melissa’s razor-sharp wit and fearless eye. “Just like Mullumbimby before it, it will be a game changer for Australian Indigenous writing,” she says.
Ms Lucashenko says she had many conversations with people while preparing the book. Her research was prompted by the methodology of Alice Walker whom she met when she facilitated a conversation between the American writer and Australian author Alexis Wright at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
She found writing Too Much Lip difficult, she says. “I usually plot the narrative to the end. This was the first time I did not know where I was going. It is a complex book.”
She wanted to write a powerful antidote to narratives of the depression and family violence in much Aboriginal life. “I’ve knocked around a lot with women, and men including my brothers, who have done time and I wanted to portray those women’s defiance.”
While she was writing the novel, the image she kept in mind was of her protagonist Kerry giving a finger to the world as she rides off on her Harley. “It’s a very gritty novel but I like to think it’s pretty damn funny, too,” she says. “No doubt some readers will find it shocking but I am not writing to make people feel warm and comfortable.” When readers enter her world she wants them to feel they can find a place to belong in her story.
She says that when she first started writing, she was fuelled by egotism and neurosis as much as by creativity. Now she seeks an emotional truth that avoids voyeurism and sensationalism. She found she was writing more in the vein of a memoir than she had imagined.
“Readers must judge for themselves how much I might resemble my protagonists,” she says. She takes the risk of alienating the reader with a dialogue that is slang, rough, partly Indigenous, deceptively unsophisticated rather than formal English. “It is the voice I talk to myself in. It is my internal voice.”
Melissa Lucashenko is a Murri woman of European and Bundjalung descent. She was born in Brisbane in 1967 and grew up on its southern outskirts. After working as a bar attendant, housepainter and martial arts instructor, she graduated with an Honours degree in Public Policy from Griffith University and has since lived in Canberra, Darwin, Tonga and the north coast of NSW.
When asked if she is a writer or an Aboriginal writer, she says it is complex. “The word ‘Aboriginal’ means something different to outsiders. When I say ‘Aboriginal’ or better yet, ‘Goorie’ or ‘Bundjalung’, I assume things like being of mixed race, being literate, and having a wide appreciation of modern Western culture and so on. But to most outsiders, ‘Aboriginal’ implies something different, usually something much more restricted and restrictive. So the question runs into a difficulty of semantics. That doesn’t happen quite so much with say, Indian or African American writers, because there is more familiarity with their subcultures.”
When asked why she describes herself as an Aboriginal when she has European heritage, she says being Aboriginal is about culture and family links, not just biology.
“I know very little about my Russian/Ukrainian forebears although I hope to one day change that. But the essence of who I am is far more about being proudly Goorie than about being white.
“You have to remember there was an official government policy of assimilation for many decades. That was intended to wipe out the Aboriginal culture and people by ‘breeding out the colour’. We were often forced to marry whites. Mixed-race children were stolen up until the 1970s and placed in institutions to grow up white.
“Our family oral history tells us that our great-grandmother was removed from Bundjalung lands and sent to Kabi country just north of Brisbane – a vast distance in those early times. Then they attempted to remove my grandmother as well. As a result of these assimilation policies, many of us have fair skin. There are plenty of blond, blue-eyed Aborigines out there as well as all shades of brown and black.
“But you have to understand the culture before you call yourself Aboriginal. If you have ancestry without the understanding or connections, you have a very big journey in front of you. And people must make their own choices. Nobody has any right to tell stolen generations descendants who they must be or become.
“Not everybody belongs in a neat little box marked ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘white’ and it is very dangerous to think they do. ‘Of Aboriginal descent’ is a perfectly okay place to be, for instance. Peoples’ humanity must take priority.”