Kim Scott interview
ALUMNI FEATURE – APRIL 2018
Kim Scott, 2018 Guest Author at the Varuna Sydney Writers' Festival
Introduction and interview by Features Editor Diana Jenkins
As job perks go, some people love nothing more than a free lunch, tickets to see a boy band, or a boxful of Botox, but for this little duck, being asked to interview two-time (and counting…) Miles Franklin winner Kim Scott is right up there. Top of the heap, no question.
A guest of the 2018 Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival, Scott will be interviewed by poet Caitlin Maling, on Monday 30 April. As most of you will already know, Scott hails from the South Coast of Western Australia. A proud descendent and member of the Noongar, he is at once storyteller and -keeper, academic and author, cultural excavator and activist.
Weaving together passages of brutal honesty, humour, whimsy and a little critter-conjuring to explore contemporary Indigenous (and indeed non-Indigenous) identity in his latest novel Taboo, he is widely considered a contender for a Miles Franklin trifecta and is universally acknowledged as one of Australia’s very finest writers. I’m so honoured to have spoken to him ahead of the festival and I’m delighted to share our conversation with you now.
DJ: Kim, I read several different reviews of Taboo, and each time the reviewer mentioned being left with the overwhelming impression of optimism and a commitment to healing – was that something you were conscious of as you began the project?
KS: I don’t know about optimism…hope, certainly. One thrives on hope. Yes, hope – I’m not sure about optimism.
Yes, I am really interested in [the] connection with a pre-colonial heritage and the healing that's possible through that. Not only for Aboriginal people, but also for non-Aboriginal people: the healing that's possible for relationships, really.
DJ: To what extent do you feel this work and your oeuvre in general is about that project of recovery, and I mean that in both senses: in terms of healing and in terms of recovering or excavating that pre-colonial Indigeous history and identity?
KS: Yeah, I think that's a lot of what I'm about generally; the last couple of decades, I think: investigating that. On a personal level, that motivates me a great deal. Then at a family and community level, I see it happening. And then without getting pretentious or pompous, I can see it happening, the possibilities, at a national level as well -- once we get over certain hysterical fixations, it seems to me.
DJ: Would you like to elucidate on what some of those hysterical fixations might be?
KS: Oh, I think they stem from power: rigid power relationships and the desire to maintain them; perhaps [also] a certain amount of insecurity in those who hold power now, or who’ve held it historically. What would it mean to give up some of their certainties and sureties about who we are and what we’re founded upon? You see what I mean about not wanting to get pompous.
DJ: No, not at all! I always think of that expression, ‘All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ I don’t know that you can have power without some distortion or perversion.
KS: Yeah, and just some notions of British-ness or not, or wanting to hang on to things – that’s sort of hysterical and historical.
DJ: Hysterical history, one might say. Now, Kim, I read an interview in which where you said Albany in the ‘60s was really like living in a state of apartheid, so I’m interested in [the teenaged] Tilly’s character in Taboo and that daily duality that she has, in terms of her discovery of her Indigenous family and history. There’s that great quote in the novel when she complicates her own sense of herself, when she says she ‘felt really Australian’ when she found out she was half Indigenous, but her very next thought is, well, ‘what else is she?’ So I wanted to ask you about that duality as well, not just how you explored that in Tilly’s character, but also how you’ve experienced it yourself.
KS: Yeah, I’ve had Tilly’s background there, hoping that would make for an entrance, and also to encourage us to think about some of those identity issues, and even the notion that there is that duality, when you’d like to think there need not be, if our society was put together a little bit differently and the history was interpreted somewhat differently. That is, it’s an Aboriginal country, and that’s the foundation upon which identity and belonging could be built upon, it seems to me.
That quote [about] the ‘60s…I don’t know if that’s an apartheid-like situation or moving from an apartheid-like situation, that clear division between black and white, for want of better labels. It very much comes out of that power relationship, anyway, and that exclusionary tendency from those in power.
DJ: I always find descriptions of these vast WA rural holdings, and the kind of pastoral life some people lead there, really quite hard to identify with, because it’s something I don’t recognise at all, but I’m always really interested in the question of how you resolve that tension between the traditional Indigenous owners of the land and those who occupy it today.
In Taboo, the Hortons, for example, have their own really genuine and long-term ties to the property – and actually that’s a point of commonality and amity between Dan Horton and the [Indigenous] Gerrys – so how do you feel about that and how do you attempt to explore that tension and to recognise that there’s some common ground there as well?
KS: Yes, it is seriously tricky. I have the characters leaving Dan’s farm at one point and saying, ‘Well, it would really mean something if you gave us back the land,’ so if that’s not going to happen, what do you do?
I think recovering heritage that is land-based in collaboration is an interesting starting point. In this little bit of Country that I know about, there [are] ancient sites on private property, like what happens in the novel, and if you get access to them through the current landowner, that’s a complex situation, but it helps. It helps me, those sorts of situations, as an Indigenous person, but I also think it helps to some extent – this is only partial recoveries – it helps the current landowner as well in terms of adjusting their relationship to history, land and prior owners, and their own sense of identity and belonging.
What’s a just negotiation? I might be a misty-eyed novelist, but I’m also quite pragmatic, I think. You bring people together and you try and sort it out. You try and look at the issues together. None of this is easily resolved, but it’s better than continued denial. For those of us who’ve been dispossessed, dispersed or whatever, it’s really important getting back on Country, it seems to me. I am very provincial and parochial a lot of the time, with an ancient language, that’s an ancestral language, reuniting stories and songs in that language, with landscape, and you have to negotiate – other people, good or bad, they do control your access to that to a some extent, so if you want to work there, you’ve got to work with them somehow, or change things around and try and do all those things at once, and just in doing that new possibilities come back, I think.
DJ: I think so too. At the Program Launch for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the gentleman who did the Welcome to Country said something I’d never heard before. He said if anyone in the audience was from Sydney, if they were born in Sydney, then that Welcome to Country was on our behalf as well, and that we were also Gadigal– I can’t even say it without crying– [cries].
KS: That’s very generous of him, yeah.
DJ: Well, it was, and I wanted to ask you about it, because for me [still crying], I felt this unbelievable sense of… inclusion and...um… it really makes me emotional, sorry.
KS: I think it’s very generous of him, but I think it’s too early to be saying that, unfortunately. But that’s where we could get. That’s where we could get.
DJ: It was generous, and it felt like such a gift, but I’d never heard it before, and I wanted to ask, ‘Really? Is that true? Is that something we can feel about ourselves?’
KS: I don’t think so yet, because there’s just too much inequity, too much injustice. My activist brothers and sisters will tell you without stopping and it’s perfectly understandable.
DJ: That’s the thing. He was one of the only Indigenous people in the room, quite clearly, and it was still a pretty white crowd.
KS: But it keeps the door open.
DJ: It certainly kicked the door open – I was quite breathless. But I can also completely understand why that would be inappropriate and even unwelcome on some readings of it, but you sort of get a glimpse of what’s possible if we make the kind of progress we so desperately need to make.
KS: And it’s a long haul and it might not ever end. These sorts of processes – it’s a continual negotiation. Again, Tilly’s character, she’s coming back to Community, and they are in power in terms of affirming and reassuring her, and people are very generous with her. There are some other lines about, ‘Oh, I don’t know if she’s one of ours or not,’ but generally those reservoirs of spiritual generosity are there still to be drawn upon, and that’s why reconnection and strengthening of a bond with pre-colonial heritage and those ways of thinking are so potentially important.
DJ: Yes, I first read years ago about about your Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project [in Varuna Alumna Charlotte Wood’s excellent interview with Scott in The Writer’s Room] – tell us more about that.
KS: It is many years now.
DJ: In terms of language recovery and retention, how much of your time, academic career and so forth is dedicated to that project?
KS: A lot. A lot of psychological and emotional energy and wear-and-tear too. It sort of started when I did a book with Hazel Brown – Auntie Hazel, Kayang Hazel – Kayang and Me, and I thought about what’s not being transmitted, and what’s held in pockets around the place, and if you could bring those pockets together – so, consolidation and recovery – and the sort of empowerment that’s possible in sharing those appropriately. And then on a greedy, selfish, personal level…it means a lot to me.
You mentioned academic career…I worked for a number of years without it being a job – I was sort of house-husbanding [with] no real income. That was after I did that book, Kayung and Me, just setting that up so that these are possibilities of consolidation and recovery. So we work with ancient stories, ancient songs, returning them to the families of linguists, informants or people who’ve given me – or some of the people close to the centre of this – material: songs, dances, stories, and we try to return that to small circles of people and then share them from there.
It includes reuniting them with landscape, so the book’s trying to address those sorts of things: the possibilities that come out of that kind of work. So that’s quite scholarly, in a way. It’s community development sort of principles, except we’re improvising most of the time, certainly in the first few years, so it’s a little bit disorganised. But it has such great emotional intensity, and as a literary person, whatever that means, operating in some sort of – inverted commas – ‘postcolonial context,’ it feels really important.
I think it’s really political, but it’s not polemical, and I find that really attractive, even though it’s quite awkward to articulate some of this sometimes. Because it’s not so immediately polemical, it doesn’t exacerbate community tensions and anger that’s present in Community because of trauma and turmoil, but it nurtures these other qualities that we have in our heritage that nothing else seems to get to.
There’s other sorts of action that’s necessary as well, but this – that’s healing, recovery, consolidation It’s not an individual, bio-medical healing – and I have some issues with the Closing the Gap construct – it’s something else again. It’s as if you’re closing the gap from the bottom up, for want of a better way of putting it. I hope that makes sense – there’s quite a lot in there. I could talk for days on this, I think.
DJ: It does make sense, and I think it feeds something rather than impoverishing…there can be an impoverishing effect in this country in our inability to share with each other, our inability to listen to each other. I was thinking as you were talking how moving it must be for you when that gift of returning a story or a song to a community [takes place]. That’s really, really important – and the reception to that must be amazing to see.
KS: Yes, and it’s not me doing it, it’s a core little group of us indulged in this, it’s elders, and ‘fixers and dealers,’ so to speak [laughs]: people who know people and can bring us together in certain ways. And there are scholars and creatives in the mix, so it’s a nice combination.
DJ: A collaborative community effort…
KS: Yes, with all the complexities that involves.
DJ: So to what extent do you see writing Taboo as a political act itself, in the sense of its being an opportunity to influence, educate and change things?
KS: Yeah, I think it is, but I think it’s more again the word hope. It’s like an offering, that you hope some will take up and help open space for other things to happen. If you’re lucky, it’s strategic, it’s part of creating a need and a way of looking at things, and action will follow from it, but to do that…
A lot of writing, like other creative things, [is] a gift and you declare your vulnerability. So again, it’s collaborative: you rely on other people helping out in one way or another – either they’re reading or they’re talking about it – but I don’t think this is an instrument to achieve certain political ends, other than the hope, and you try to be really human all the time – hang on to that. Hang on to that, rather than being strategically driven so much.
DJ: Oftentimes with these Varuna interviews, it’s other writers who are reading, people who’ve stayed at Varuna and Varuna alumni, and they like questions of craft as well, so what can you tell me about your process, Kim, and how you approached the structure and built the necessary scaffolding for the story of Taboo?
KS: Yeah, there’s a lot in that, I think. Partly I wanted to give a sense of the deep mythos behind land-based stories and ancient stories, but not exploit them. To get a sense of what’s there, so to do that was part of a bit of genre-hopping, even if sometimes that’s only phrases to signal something, and then changing that again.
I used a sort of motif from some old Noongar stories of people being damaged, killed and brought back to life or healed, through Community offering their breath, or their tongue, their language to them. And also from some of the old stories: there’s a trajectory of a sole person moving from Community and orbiting back again, so some of those things are in the mix. And I wanted to talk about – and this is the critter that’s at the beginning and the end – the idea of constructing something of an obvious power that’s not been anticipated or expected from the old, bits of the old and bits of the new, that is animated by language and breath. So they’re some of my concerns. A thing goes through it about creatively constructing something of power in improbable circumstances and that creation comes from community and place.
I’m not quite answering your question directly, but they were concerns of mine that I articulated in the process of putting the novel together. And also the way it ends, linking back to the beginning, I think they’re things to do with craft and wanting to suggest continuity and so forth.
DJ: What was the most difficult challenge you faced while writing the novel?
KS: As always, I think, trust: in it as a project, and in myself. And a tricky little balance to try and signal something of great portent but not to get all heavy-footed, heavy-tongued [and] heavy-handed about it. Not to shout significance, not to march with too much conviction, but to try and be truthful and win people over in the creation of something in improbable circumstances. All that was difficult. The trust. The trust and faith.
DJ: And that’s something that visits you with every project, is it?
KS: Yeah, probably. Yeah.
DJ: Taboo’s set in the present day. Did that present any difficulties or did that decision prove a shortcut into the story?
KS: In some ways it presented me with difficulties. Because there’s so much trauma and turmoil in the Community I know, because of the legacy of our history, there is sensational material that is available, and I didn’t want to wallow in aspects of that or to exploit them. And I wanted to signal a bit of a way out, so they were things that concerned me.
And then talking about [ancestral] language but not actually using it…I spent some time wondering about that and chose to not use it, but to speak about it, partly because there’s many Aboriginal languages, but partly because I didn’t want to just signal difference and think that that was important all on its own. I think they’re the main things.
DJ: Do you have a view on cultural appropriation and invention in fiction by non-Indigenous writers writing Indigenous characters?
KS: Yes. Yes. But I try not to be hard and fast. I’m not someone who likes being too strict about, ‘You can’t do this and you can do this,’ but I do think it’s an issue worth talking about and not just to dismiss because of some greater creative good, possessed by those of us who are privileged enough to be writing or working creatively. I think it’s a lot about an awareness of the historical power relationship and the extent of dispossession and how important recovery is to dispossessed communities.
DJ: You operate, Kim, at that axis between land, language and people, and with that comes history as well, so to what extent do you think that damage and trauma can make you a hostage to the past? One of the things about Taboo being set in the present day is that it’s very much about contemporary identity and the idea of this potential for a way out, as you say, so is there a possibility for unshackling from the past, or do you think it’s always going to be there, it’s always going to be the ghost at the heel?
KS: That’s interesting. Can we escape from the bind that history’s put us into? Yeah. I’d like to think we can. I’d like to think we can. I mean, I’m aware that may make people giggle, if not sneer, and it’s to do with tapping into this other heritage to do with this continent: a deeper history, and recovering that in an appropriate way, and that probably touches on the cultural appropriation stuff.
But I think Indigenous peoples recovering their ancestral heritage and then sharing it with others – which is a long-term project, I think – that’s a way of helping us not escape our history, but escape the bind that our history has put us in, because that would become part of our history, if we could manage to pull it off.
DJ: Kim, thanks so much for your time. It’s been such an honour talking to you. Thank you and best wishes for a wonderful Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival.
NB: At the time of writing, limited tickets are still available for Kim’s Varuna SWF sessions. Please visit Varuna’s dedicated festival site for up-to-date information and bookings.