My colleague Katie, and I, attended an event at the State Library of Victoria, run by the Victorian Writers’ Centre and chaired by Joel Becker, VWC President. It featured talks by writers Alexis Wright, John Marsden, Arnold Zable and Adrian Hyland.
The event was apparently filmed for SlowTV, but at time of writing it is not yet up on the site.
On the way there, we dropped in at Reader’s Feast bookstore, which also held an event during the day. The cashier said they had over 100 people in store for the event, and a great many customers purchasing on the day particularly in aid of the cause. I was on the lookout for Janet Frame’s short fiction, but as they didn’t have the collection I bought John Marsden’s Hamlet, which is something else on my (exorbitant) list.
The speakers at the event were to talk about how literacy has made an impact on their lives. There were many interesting points raised about literacy and the project itself. To sum up, all writers made note of the fact that literacy enables empowerment of the voice of a people who may not otherwise be heard. But they also all recognised problems with placing too much emphasis on English and the written word when other forms of literacy are also valid and important. Oral storytelling, for example, carries ancient stories and wisdoms rhythmically into the present. It was raised that the Indigenous languages themselves are something that could be embraced and learnt by the wider community (as the group Australians Against Racism is doing).
Language itself was given life and vivacity by the speakers, expressing the way that it enables a person to see the world differently. One example was Zable’s story of a Chinese man whom he had sat with in silence many times. When it was time for Zable to move on, he wanted to thank the man for his company and the time they’d shared together. He expressed it to a translator who came back to him and said that the Chinese man said he should write a couplet about his experience. Zable thought it an enormous challenge to fit all those moments into one tiny couplet, but he did so, and on the last line he struggled with whether to write ‘heart’ or ‘mind’ – he settled for heart. When it was translated back for the Chinese man he learned that the Chinese character for heart, and the character for mind, were one and the same. You can imagine how different one’s perceptions may be, based on the languages they have grown with, and the languages they learn.
What was also expressed was how rich the Indigenous languages are, in that they contain the knowledge of centuries of this land. The languages then hold keys to protecting the land and environment from the chaos that progress has wreaked. We must also respect the Indigenous individuals and communities learning English and find texts of relevance and interest to them.
All in all, it was of course a complex discussion, but a wonderfully necessary one. And the point still came out of it that the joy of being able to engage with literature, and then utilise these new language skills to tell the stories of their own people, or to have a voice day to day in a changing world, is an extremely positive and rewarding step. It just needs respect and an understanding of the importance of preserving the ancient languages at every step.
There was an auction on the night with items kindly donated by publishers and other organisations, and donations were also made at the door. John Marsden outbid me for a five-year membership to the Victorian Writers’ Centre – doh!
It is not yet known how much was raised this year as the bookseller and publisher figures will take about six weeks, but apparently there was great enthusiasm for the project Australia-wide and plenty more Indigenous children in remote communities will be seeing books and resources in the coming year.
If you would like to support the project, click here.