Award-winning Aboriginal Author ‘Zooms in’ to Notre Dame Class

02 November 2020

Dr Anita Heiss, a proud Wiradjuri woman (Central New South Wales) and one of Australia’s most beloved and respected Aboriginal authors, recently joined Notre Dame students to talk about her memoir, Am I Black Enough For You?

Students of Fictions of the Self: Life Writing, a course for both writing and literature undergraduates, read several extracts of Heiss’s book in preparation for the guest lecture. It was an extraordinary opportunity to hear from Dr Heiss on the topic of writing and her life experiences. Associate Professor Deborah Pike, Head of English Literature at the University of Notre Dame's Sydney Campus, interviewed Dr Heiss about her book in the live Zoom session.

Dr Heiss said that writing her memoir allowed her to unpack issues and challenges that had affected her since childhood. She drew on multiple sources, including her mother’s memories, grandparents' letters and cousins' photographs. “Many writers like myself are writing [Aboriginal people] into the literary landscape and into the literature of this country and writing our truths and our history," said Dr Heiss, emphasising the responsibilities of writers. She also gave an abundance of advice for budding authors: "Write with warmth and generosity of spirit in a way that brings your readers into the conversation… write to be read.” Dr Heiss encouraged students to read widely and write about conversations that impact them. "Things that matter to you will matter to your readers," she added.

Dr Heiss spoke about the recent explosion of interest in Aboriginal literature, in part, due to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also due to the requirement that Indigenous perspectives be embedded into the school curriculum. “As an author, I’ve been inundated with requests from teachers, parents, students, all asking for reading recommendations.” Dr Heiss described this as “heartening”, adding that “so many people turned to books written by Aboriginal people to fulfill their own personal desire to learn about Aboriginal cultures, society, politics, history and experiences.”

Dr Heiss is also author of commercial fiction, children’s novels and travel articles. She said that the move to write more commercially allowed her to reach the biggest audiences on topics such as “black deaths in custody, the Northern Territory Intervention, identity, Indigenous intellectual property rights, arts and culture.” Literature is an opportunity to challenge perceptions and create new stories, so she posed the question: “I want to know why we can’t create positive stereotypes?”

A passionate advocate for reading, writing and literacy, Dr Heiss is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. “Literature has a great role to tell us stories about history, to record history, to tell us stories about cultures, countries and societies… I think it’s an exciting time to be a writer. It’s an exciting time to be a reader.”

Students of the class found the talk truly enlightening. Education student, Joseph Woolnough, remarked that it was “amazing and so insightful", while Jacob New, another Education student called it “absolutely wonderful”. Tcharne Sawyer, an English Literature and History major, noted that it was “an informative and inspirational talk”. Ruby Mikolaitis, a student who is working on her own memoir piece, exclaimed, “I feel so inspired and motivated now.”

Photography credit: Ruby Olive (Katie Bryan)

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