Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and lawyer whose stunning collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, won the 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship and is published by Magabala Press. She studies and works in media law and Aboriginal women’s law and policy, and has written for Meanjin, Tincture, Vertigo and Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives.
Hi Alison, and thanks for finding the time to chat with us at The Suburban Review! We are really excited to feature you here; we’d love to get to know you and your practice a bit better.
Thank you! It’s lovely to talk to you.
Where are you based and where do you work?
I’m based on Gadigal and Wangal lands, where I work and live respectively. I do my word work across these lands, at home, commuting, and in the office. When I’m at home, I do loads of writing in those in-between times of the day—in bed before my alarm goes off, before I go to sleep at night, while cooking dinner, before getting dressed after a shower. On some rare but wonderful occasions, I can work from Gomeroi country in Tamworth and Gunnedah, where I was born and raised.
How do you get started? What kind of headspace do you need to be in in order to write?
A while ago, I would need a spark. That made writing reliant on a particular set of circumstances. Spark needs silence, food, stable housing, life stability, or it’s certainly helped by them. How can you write in a context that doesn’t always have those things in place? I’m working towards making my writing less contingent on spark. I do that through free-writing without thinking about quality until things come to the surface. I also try to get in a creative space by reading or listening.
I write with prompts, too, and then just adapt to whatever direction comes out of it. Subject matter is everywhere. The goal is to write in any headspace, acknowledging that not all headspaces are conducive to particular writing, but also being content with writing as process, rather than just whatever it produces.
Do you have a daily routine?
Most days I’m working, so I do the 9-5 thing. I eat breakfast, commute, work, eat lunch, work, commute, come home. Writing happens in the gaps. I’m still studying full-time, so a few of these days also include night classes. Other than that, I try to avoid routine as much as I can!
What does it feel like when you are on a roll and things are flowing nicely?
It doesn’t feel like anything! It feels literally thoughtless. Coming out of it is refreshing, like coming out of a nap! I normally suffer a lot of background noise in my head, but that fades when I’m in flow. While it probably seems like clarity, often I think of it as consciousness through writing, incapable of having a thought that’s not on the page. That never lasts long, and then I’m back to the noise. I need both flow and not-flow to write; they’re both good for writing different things and being disciplined in different ways.
Whose writing have you been influenced by? Did a particular text trigger a reaction that’s been formative for you?
I would say I’ve been influenced by a lot of the invisible writing that we take for granted as creative practice—conversations, social media, graffiti, post-it notes. The everyday is a rich source of literary influence. I think we can deliberately restrain ourselves from the everyday because we try to elevate our work from it, and that, in my mind, is a mistake. In terms of formal and published works, I’ve been strongly influenced by black feminist writers such as Maya Angelou, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Anita Heiss, Ali Cobby Eckermann.
Weirdly, though, Alan Turing and his postcards to Rabin Gandy also resonated with my practice. Even though they were a satirical inside joke fused with scientific theory, I was completely and solemnly awestruck by them and their imagery when I was fourteen. Actually, I treated them with a reverence that’s probably embarrassing. For me, they opened up the chance for poetry to be interdisciplinary—at once comedic, a letter to a friend, a cultural meme and a way of exploring maths, science, law, intellectual critique. That was formative.
As well as being an awesome poet, you are also studying and working in media law and Aboriginal women’s law and policy. You’ve said that law interests you because of how it ‘intervenes in people’s everyday lives, and […] can make changes systemically’.
How does poetry’s power differ?
I’d say poetry’s power is horizontal. The law’s is vertical.
You’ve talked about the lack of black and women’s representation in the law and elsewhere, and said ‘its about building your own space rather than searching for a place in the system’. How does your poetry experiment with this, with building a space?
To build space, I suppose first you have to take it! Having a poetry collection that can stand in its own right and be a self-sustaining, Indigenous-centric and culturally-reciprocal text is a way of taking literary space that’s not always conducive to the meanings that are put upon it by non-Indigenous people. I’ve coded levels of access, probably unconsciously, into my poems. The space should be there, I hope, for all Indigenous readers to take and understand meaning, and to introduce their own.
I also hope that levels of the text aren’t instantly accessible to non-Indigenous readers. I hope those readers have to ask, research, discuss and probe in a way that takes their space, rather than them taking up the space that Lemons in the Chicken Wire took back. I’ve had non-Indigenous readers come to me and say ‘I just really don’t get this’. Of course, you sympathise with people who are frustrated by what they think is obtuse meaning-making, but there’s some worth to that frustration. Even if there isn’t, in my mind it’s outweighed by my mandate to make Indigenous feminist space in my writing.
In the poems O, Eureka and Essay, Dissolved, there’s this brilliant conflict between ‘white theory words’ and wisdom acquired through living. In O Eureka, the wise figure of Nan ‘sliced her finger on a crossword/ and wrote with that a dissertation’, as if in blood.
How do you balance the world of lived experience and the world of academia and theory?
Critical Indigenous Research Methodologies, which I’m a big fan of and try to apply in my writing, reject the distinction between lived experience and the world of theory. Each inform the other, and especially importantly, if theory gets precedence over the world, or if it’s made in a way that exploits or baulks from communities or cultural frameworks, then it’s especially harmful for Indigenous people. We are over-researched and under-empowered to direct all the theory that gets made with our bodies and lives. White theory does that often.
It’s important to realise, though, that brilliant and independent bodies of Indigenous theory also exist (and thrive), and those, obviously, have less of a colonial motivation. I would call those characters in O, Eureka! and Essay, Dissolved Indigenous theorists, grappling with white theory about themselves and finding it lacking. Good theory, at least the kind I think is good theory in the spaces I work in, doesn’t stand in contradiction to Indigenous experience. I would say, for me, it’s less about balancing experience and theory and more about thinking about their relationship.
You’ve also written about how Aboriginal women’s poetry is ‘grounded in the lived, suffered and eavesdropped’. The work you mention seems to stem from, or be centred on, the body. What role, if any, does the body play in the making of poetry for you?
Aboriginal women’s bodies are so vexed; they are used as projections of victimhood, colonial conquest. Long-standing metaphors about the work of women of colour refer to white feminisms and white women’s representations as using the bodies of women of colour as a bridge. That metaphor draws itself from the real—our bodies can’t take up physical space without it being scorned or taken over. I make poetry with my body, I talk with my body, and my body interacts with others. I think O, Eureka! says it best:
the messianic, and the self, and the
blades of grass that pierce the pulp
of weedy toes, that the world should meet you
and wound you as you wound it
made Descartes wrong about that split
To some degree the mind/body split is a Western idea. I think bodies are everything. Being upfront, frank and adoring about bodies can combat their abjection.
One of the things that makes Lemons in the Chicken Wire such a force is how it embeds ‘queerness deeply into Aboriginality, rather than in opposition to it’. Can you elaborate on that for us and our readers?
Queerness is often thought of as antithetical to Aboriginality. I see it as fundamentally embedded in many of our cultures through language, social norms, kin structure, lore and law. There’s a complicated colonial framework that tries to say otherwise. I think the anxiety of whites to, firstly, pin down what Aboriginal queerness is, and secondly, try to find the source of it, says more about how European queer-phobia was constructed and introduced here than it does about Aboriginal queer history, which is made on wholly different terms.
And finally, where does your writing come from?
Great question! It’s not exactly a mysterious, stroke-of-inspiration process, but I haven’t got a clue! Where does yours come from?