(Originally posted on Blogger: image reimported. September 2012)
Last October I was talking to an indigenous woman of the Biripi nation who lives here in the Blue Mountains (pictured). We were discussing the possibility of creating a website for Australian women writers, back when this AWW reading/reviewing challenge was little more than an idea. I told her I’d like to feature her on the blog once it was up and running, even though her work has yet to be published.
This writer, who prefers to keep her name private for now, was shocked at the suggestion. Although I’d been working with her and her writing for several months, the idea that she could genuinely be considered a “writer” seemed to her outlandish, let alone for her to be the first featured on the AWW blog.
I challenged her. What better way to honour women whose voices have been silenced than by honouring an unpublished Aboriginal woman writer? Although she has yet to be published in print media, her songs have been heard: she has had a dedicated audience of one, usually over the phone; I know for sure she’s a writer because her work, for me, consistently passes the Emily Dickinson test:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body
so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically
as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the
only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Regularly when I listen to this writer’s lyrical, heart-felt, devastating words, the hairs over my body stand on end. I don’t know whether her short pieces are prose or poetry or prose-poetry; I do know her work sings with a power that, as a creative writing tutor, I have only rarely felt when reading students’ work. To me, she’s a writer, published or unpublished.
A few weeks later, in November, she asked me what was happening with the website. Nothing, I told her. Quite a few had joined the Australian Women Writers Facebook page and I’d networked with a handful of booksellers, but I couldn’t see myself dedicating the time and effort to create a website when the numbers of those interested seemed so few. She told me to create the website up and people would come.
I thought about what she said and realised she was right. I had to get on with the task and trust the effort would be rewarded in some way. Then I came up with the “challenge” idea.
That night and the next day, the next week and the next month, I dedicated my time to creating the Australian Women Writers website and 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge. As I’ve blogged previously, I received help from unlikely sources, bookbloggers and authors mostly, dedicated readers who thought nothing of giving up their own time.
Just before New Year, I met up with my writer friend, along with a bookblogger from Sweden and an artist from Lawson. We grouped together at the picnic area above Minnihaha Falls in North Katoomba during a rare moment of sunshine amid a very cool, wet summer. My friend had offered to do a ceremony to launch the book challenge and, with it, usher in the New Year. I imagined I’d feel nervous, awkward, self-conscious, but I felt none of those things.
First, she lit a sage stick (“Borrowing from the Native American tradition,” she said*) and danced around us, chanting – words without meaning, sounds that came to her specially for the purpose.* Brushing the ground and air with smoking twigs, she swept us up in her chant, explaining that the ceremony would shift and dissolve stagnant areas, and usher in good things for the website, for clear communication:
After, she gave us snapped off gumtree branches and invited us to dance in a circle, all of us chanting, “Djirribaa, djirribaa, djirribaa/ Booroongulli, booroongulli, booroongulli.”
I’d like to say I felt something spiritual during this ceremony, some fundamental shift. But the reality was it was over all far too quickly… In the days following, I was still busy with my visitors; I didn’t know what I would write for the first entry on the blog. January 1st came and went without me getting time to meet up again with my friend or to post anything. Then her dog died and our planned meeting to discuss my feature on her was postponed again…
I still wanted the first official post of the AWW blog to be about her, so I waited.
Now it’s January 18 and this post seems way too late to proclaim, “Welcome 2012”. But I realise, the timing doesn’t matter. We did usher in the New Year, back in that picnic area above Minnihaha Falls. We blessed this venture and wished it well, directed our wills to summon up a creative, co-operative energy for all the women (and men) who have signed up to give their time and effort to this challenge; we willed that we might all be connected in some way, so that we could support and encourage each other as we attempt to overcome the barriers that have kept women silent.
An aspect of what we hoped for then has already come to pass. Since January 1st, a dedicated group has been reading books, writing reviews, and sharing our joy in discovering talented Australian women writers via blogs, Twitter, Facebook and GoodReads. Already links to over 100 reviews have been posted to the AWW Challenge page, and one participant (Jo Tamar) has already finished! A group of us has already begun a Twitter Australian Women Writers on Wednesday review discussion via the #AWW2012 hashtag.
As for the feature on my friend? I’m still hoping she’ll overcome her shyness and allow me to profile her properly on this blog, maybe as a “Guest Reviewer” – if not as “soon-to-be-published”. (I am encouraging her to submit her work and already have had one editor of a literary journal express interest…)
My friend was right about creating the blog first, instead of waiting for people to come; maybe I’m right about the quality of her writing? We’ll see.
My thanks to everyone who has signed up to this challenge. My original pre-launch post, thanking everyone who helped compile the lists, disappeared somewhere in cyberspace while I was trying to edit it on cyberspace, but you know who you are, right? Happy reading.
* I gave my friend a copy of this post and she asked to make certain changes, including the reference to the sage stick.
** My friend explains the sounds she used in her chant in this way: “These words, letters and tones arrive or are given for this particular undertaking. The words themselves don’t have a specific meaning. It is about the tones and the notes. If these words resemble any word in any indigenous language and bring offense, it was not the intention. They were simply sung for their resonance.”