The link below is to an article that looks at 5 ways for writers to stay motivated.
The link below is to an article with some suggestions as to what to do when you don’t feel like writing.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the use of the semicolon and the rules of writing.
Recently I did something that many people would consider unthinkable, or at least perverse. Before going to see “Avengers: Infinity War,” I deliberately read a review that revealed all of the major plot points, from start to finish.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to share any of those spoilers here. Though I do think the aversion to spoilers – what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently lamented as “a phobic, hypersensitive taboo against public discussion of anything that happens onscreen” – is a bit overblown.
As a cognitive scientist who studies the relationship between cognition and narratives, I know that movies – like all stories – exploit our natural tendency to anticipate what’s coming next.
These cognitive tendencies help explain why plot twists can be so satisfying. But somewhat counterintuitively, they also explain why knowing about a plot twist ahead of time – the dreaded “spoiler” – doesn’t really spoil the experience at all.
The curse of knowledge
When you pick up a book for the first time, you usually want to have some sense of what you’re signing up for – cozy mysteries, for instance, aren’t supposed to feature graphic violence and sex. But you’re probably also hoping that what you read won’t be entirely predictable.
To some extent, the fear of spoilers is well-grounded. You only have one opportunity to learn something for the first time. Once you’ve learned it, that knowledge affects what you notice, what you anticipate – and even the limits of your imagination.
What we know trips us up in lots of ways, a general tendency known as the “curse of knowledge.”
For example, when we know the answer to a puzzle, that knowledge makes it harder for us to estimate how difficult that puzzle will be for someone else to solve: We’ll assume it’s easier than it really is.
When we know the resolution of an event – whether it’s a basketball game or an election – we tend to overestimate how likely that outcome was.
Information we encounter early on influences our estimation of what is possible later. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a story or negotiating a salary: Any initial starting point for our reasoning – however arbitrary or apparently irrelevant – “anchors” our analysis. In one study, legal experts given a hypothetical criminal case argued for longer sentences when presented with larger numbers on randomly rolled dice.
Plot twists pull everything together
Either consciously or intuitively, good writers know all of this.
An effective narrative works its magic, in part, by taking advantage of these, and other, predictable habits of thought. Red herrings, for example, are a type of anchor that set false expectations – and can make twists seem more surprising.
A major part of the pleasure of plot twists, too, comes not from the shock of surprise, but from looking back at the early bits of the narrative in light of the twist. The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before. This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage.
Remember that once we know the answer to a puzzle, its clues can seem more transparent than they really were. When we revisit early parts of the story in light of that knowledge, well-constructed clues take on new, satisfying significance.
Consider “The Sixth Sense.” After unleashing its big plot twist – that Bruce Willis’ character has, all along, been one of the “dead people” that only the child protagonist can see – it presents a flash reprisal of scenes that make new sense in light of the surprise. We now see, for instance, that his wife (in fact, his widow) did not snatch up the check at a restaurant before he could take it out of pique. Instead it was because, as far as she knew, she was dining alone.
Even years after the film’s release, viewers take pleasure in this twist, savoring the degree to which it should be “obvious if you pay attention” to earlier parts the film.
The pluses and minuses of the spoiler
At the same time, studies show that even when people are certain of an outcome, they reliably experience suspense, surprise and emotion. Action sequences are still heart-pounding; jokes are still funny; and poignant moments can still make us cry.
In fact, when a major turn in a narrative is truly unanticipated, it can have a catastrophic effect on enjoyment – as many outraged “Infinity War” viewers can testify.
If you know the twist beforehand, the curse of knowledge has more time to work its magic. Early elements of the story will seem to presage the ending more clearly when you know what that ending is. This can make the work as a whole feel more coherent, unified and satisfying.
Of course, anticipation is a delicious pleasure in its own right. Learning plot twists ahead of time can reduce that excitement, even if the foreknowledge doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the story itself.
Marketing experts know that what spoilers do spoil is the urgency of consumers’ desire to watch or read a story. People can even find themselves so sapped of interest and anticipation that they stay home, robbing themselves of the pleasure they would have had if they’d simply never learned of the outcome.
When I was researching and writing my new book, “The Gist of Reading,” I wanted to explore long-held assumptions about reading and how we process what we read.
Some of these assumptions have changed through time. For example, as novels became popular in the 18th century, many warned that they were dangerous and had the potential to cultivate ignorance and immorality in readers, especially female ones.
Today, many would consider that view antiquated. People probably think that reading a narrative – fiction or otherwise – might be able to influence a reader’s opinions or personal beliefs. But their prior knowledge of real-world facts should be safe.
For example, readers might read a story in which a character mentions in passing that Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump, won the 2016 election. This shouldn’t influence readers’ ability to quickly respond that Trump was the real winner, right?
And yet I came across a substantial amount of psychology work that has demonstrated how reading stories – both nonfiction and fiction – has a powerful ability to distort readers’ prior knowledge.
Did George Washington really become president?
In psychologist Richard Gerrig’s 1989 study “Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty,” Gerrig developed short, nonfictional narratives about well-known events, such as the election of George Washington as president of the United States, that he gave to participants.
Some participants read a version of the narrative that foregrounded facts that made it doubtful Washington would become the president; others read a narrative that made his presidency seem likely.
Readers who read the doubtful version took longer to verify that he had indeed become president (or to recognize that a sentence denying that he had become president was not true).
Even though they knew Washington eventually became president, simply reading a very short narrative had enough power to make readers significantly less sure of what they already knew.
While Gerrig’s experiment presented readers with nonfictional stories about real events, another study demonstrated that reading a short fictional story containing falsehoods presented as facts can make readers more likely to treat them as facts, even if readers have previously shown that they know the truth.
In the study, participants took an online survey that quizzed them on their world knowledge – for example, identifying the world’s largest ocean (the Pacific) – and then had them rate how confident they were in their answer.
Two weeks later, the same participants read two fictional stories and were warned that these stories might contain some false information. The stories actually contained inaccurate versions of the very facts that the readers had been tested on two weeks earlier. For example, in one story, a character (incorrectly) mentioned, in passing, that the Indian Ocean was the world’s largest.
After reading the stories, the participants took the same world knowledge test they had taken two weeks earlier. The inaccurate information turned out to have a serious effect: Readers did worse on the world knowledge test after reading the stories than they had done two weeks before. In particular, questions they had gotten right two weeks earlier they now got wrong – even for the questions that they had answered most confidently on the earlier test.
And remember: All of this happened despite the fact that readers had been explicitly told that the stories would contain inaccurate information.
Pushing back against misinformation
Given our struggle to discern misinformation from fiction, psychologists have been interested in exploring how it to combat it. It seems especially vital to develop strategies that make people smarter about what they are gleaning from what they read, and to encourage ways to become more skeptical.
In a 2016 article,
psychologist David N. Rapp outlines how to defeat, or at least reduce, the misinformation effect.
Rapp describes four key strategies that have proven especially effective.
First, when readers actively tag information as accurate or inaccurate while they read, inaccuracies lose much of their effect. It’s not enough to know that something you read is incorrect: Unless you actively tag it as wrong while reading it, you may suffer the misinformation effect.
Second, the further removed fiction is from everyday reality, the less vulnerable readers are to believe false facts that may be embedded in it. Rapp and his colleagues found that misinformation in fantasy stories had much less effect on readers’ knowledge than misinformation in more realistic stories. Rapp argues that this could mean readers are able to compartmentalize their response to fiction. Fantasy stories like “The Hobbit” probably have less of an ability to alter real-world knowledge than, say, a piece of historical fiction, like Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which is grounded in historical events but nonetheless riddled with historical inaccuracies.
Third, Rapp found that some inaccuracies are so flagrant that readers do notice them. They may be persuaded that St. Petersburg, rather than Moscow, is the capital of Russia. But it’s much harder to persuade them that Russia’s capital is Brasilia. Brasilia is just too different from anything that readers associate with Russia to make it a convincing capital.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly in today’s climate of “fake news” – readers may be sensitive to the authority of a source. False facts from a generally credible source seem to have more effect than false facts from a disreputable one. The challenge, of course, is that what counts as a credible source to one reader may count as the opposite to another reader.
I find all these psychological experiments telling precisely because they generally avoid having participants read about hot-button issues that may make them feel defensive or partisan.
The traditional suspicion of fiction arose from its ability to excite and engage. Yet the materials in these experiments are comparatively dry – and the fictional information was nonetheless able to cast a spell on the reader.
In other words, even without emotional appeals, by warping the most neutral of facts, readers can easily be persuaded to question or even reverse what they already know.
Such work underscores more than ever that suspicion of reading is not entirely ungrounded. Today, not only is the internet filled with dubious information but there are also deliberate attempts to spread misinformation via social media channels. In this era of “fake news,” scrutinizing the sources of our knowledge has become more critical than ever.
The book was launched at The Australian Museum. The blurb says:
Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating, or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.
This is what we’re all about at The Conversation – making sure that all our articles are supported by evidence, and at the same time helping readers see the relevance, the importance, the nuances but also the joy of science and technology.
Our selected authors are good examples.
In Peter Ellerton’s What exactly is the scientific method and why do so many people get it wrong?, he explains there’s a big difference between science and pseudoscience. But if people don’t understand how science works in the first place, it’s very easy for them to fall for the pseudoscience.
In Gender equity can cause sex differences to grow bigger, Rob Brooks writes that moves toward gender equity in opportunity – including the dismantling of patriarchal power structures – might, paradoxically, also widen sex differences.
Robert Fuller’s piece How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network likens many thousand year old Indigenous travel techniques with modern day GPS tracking. Aboriginal people have long used the stars to help remember routes between distant locations, and these routes are still alive in our highway networks today.
John Long tackles the myth that giant predators might still be cruising around our oceans in Giant monster Megalodon sharks lurking in our oceans: be serious!. Yes, giant sharks did once exist in our oceans – but these went extinct many millions of years ago.
Also included in the book is regular The Conversation author Alice Gorman, with her piece Trace Fossils: The Silence of Ediacara, the Shadow of Uranium, which we republished from Griffith Review State of Hope. The essay won the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2017, which recognises the best short, non-fiction piece of science writing for a general audience.
These The Conversation pieces are presented in the book alongside 27 other selected science essays published in Australia during 2017, and written by scientists, journalists, philosophers and writers.
Science writer and artist Margaret Wertheim received the UNSW Scientia Medal for Science Communication at the book launch, and prizes for science writing by students in years 7-10 were also awarded.
In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?
A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.
The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:
Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.
How to train your robot
To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.
As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).
As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.
The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.
Can a computer be creative?
The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.
But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.
Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:
It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.
Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.
The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.
But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.
One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.
So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.
A video explaining the project is available here, in Dutch.
A blackmailer steals a compromising letter from a woman of high standing. The police know he is keeping this letter in his home, but they cannot find it. Using the latest forensic tools they search every inch of the apartment, recording their efforts as follows:
We examined the rungs of every chair …. and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.
A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing – any unusual gaping in the joints – would have sufficed to insure [sic] detection.
Back in 1844, this description of the police using a powerful microscope with the promise of instant detection would have dazzled readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Yet this is not what solves the mystery. Instead the private investigator, Auguste Dupin, correctly surmises that the best place to hide such a letter is in plain sight. He finds it on the blackmailer’s mantelpiece.
The story is one of the earliest and best examples of crime fiction. It suggests that science and technology are sometimes not as powerful as empathy or intuition in solving crimes. Indeed, Poe queries science throughout his writings. In one poem he calls it a vulture that preys on the poet’s heart, replacing the magic of a writer’s imagination with its “dull realities”.
Try telling that to modern readers of crime fiction. These days, forensic scientists are one of the great staples of the genre. They are integral to everything from popular TV franchises like CSI and Line of Duty to blockbuster names like Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver to many of the works showcasing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. There is also something about their incredible achievements that we often overlook: they are often a long way from the reality.
We love crime fiction because it is reassuring. Yes, human beings are capable of evil and cruel deeds, but criminals are always caught and usually punished. This formula, as WH Auden suggested in a 1948 essay on the genre, restores us to a “state of grace”. It helps us believe we are basically innocent and good, and that criminality is an aberration.
Forensic science amplifies this sense of comfort in crime fiction: it produces evidence that cannot lie; it brings the most cunning of criminals to justice. In a world with no god and no certainty, these fictional scientists fill a void. They let us think that our world can be examined, analysed and rendered legible. They are modern-day magicians whose wizardry reveals indisputable truths.
But does forensic science really hold all the answers? Sadly, no. Val McDermid, one of the big names appearing at Bloody Scotland, is one of the few authors who help us understand this. In Out of Bounds (2016) for example, the police are trying to determine whether a man was murdered or shot himself.
The amount of gunshot residue in his hand is inconclusive, we learn, and not inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. How can scientific evidence be inconclusive? How come scientists talk of things being “not inconsistent”, rather than dealing in certainties?
This is where the trouble begins for forensic experts. Imagine a scientist giving evidence as a witness in court and having to explain the limitations of their field. Jurors are unlikely to appreciate that forensic evidence often relies on human interpretation; that blood spatter patterns or bite mark analysis do not tell a single, compelling and unambiguous story the way they do in books.
Yet the reality of the uncertainty of forensic science was recently laid bare in relation to the DNA laboratory of the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner. Seen as one of the most sophisticated forensics labs in the world, carrying out work for investigators across the US, certain scientists are now claiming some of its methods are unreliable. A group of prominent New York defence lawyers is calling for the inspections watchdog to carry out an investigation.
Meanwhile, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently accused the forensics industry of lagging other professions when it comes to looking into and resolving errors. It said:
In recent years, high visibility errors have occurred at crime labs in almost every state. These have ranged from simple mistakes, such as mislabelling evidence, to testimony that overstates the scientific evidence, to criminal acts.
In thrillers, forensic evidence almost always leads the investigative team to a satisfying conclusion. We never finish a novel thinking the killer might be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined. Even when all is as it should be, forensic scientists have their work cut out trying to communicate the complexity of the evidence, while explaining how it might be both subjective and reliable at the same time.
To make their case, scientists need much more than hard facts. They need to make their expertise accessible by using similes, metaphors and narrative examples. In fact, they need to be a little like novelists – which is ironic given that they have to dispel some of the misconceptions created by novelists in the first place.
If there is a consolation in any of this, these experts can at least thank novelists for their public image. No matter how hard they have to work to seek and communicate knowledge, at least forensic scientists will always look glamorous while doing so. They might be the victims of our need for reassurance and certainty, but we don’t tend to treat them with the same hostility as Edgar Allan Poe.
I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.
I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.
I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.
I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.
Inuit peoples live in two worlds
Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.
Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.
When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.
While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.
Deciding to publish
Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”
The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.
When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.
However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.
I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.
As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.
If my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.
Do you read Australia’s First Nations (Indigenous) writers? If not, why not? People read for many reasons: information, entertainment, escape, to contemplate in company, to be moved. Reading can also be a political act, an act of solidarity, an expression of willingness to listen and to learn from others with radically different histories and lives.
In his new book, Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide, professor Colin Tatz writes that Australia suffers from “wilful amnesia”; storytelling is a way of remembering.
Despite good intentions, Royal Commissions, and endless policy initiatives such as Closing the Gap, conditions for many First Nations people remain unacceptable. During National Reconciliation Week, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was released, calling for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”. Even if there remain differences of opinion within First Nations communities as to process and aims, the onus is on non-Indigenous Australians to respect First Nations demands to speak and be heard.
The time is well overdue for non-Indigenous Australians to engage with the First Nations of this country, and their narratives, on their terms. Interest in the experience and concerns of others is crucial to combating social ills like racism. Writing and reading literature can be acts of intimacy, and as such reading can be a vital form of listening.
Where to start?
In Australia, white writers and scholars are more read than writers and scholars of colour. Non-Indigenous Australians often simply fail to seek out other voices and perspectives. Sometimes it’s a case of not knowing where to start.
Tony Birch and Sandra Phillips have offered excellent suggestions for those keen to explore First Nations writing, and as Michelle Cahill points out, literary journals are also a rich source of discovery.
My own list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. It is but a handful of books I view as important reading. These are unique literary voices that command attention.
Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Ruby Langford Ginibi (Penguin Books 1988, UQP 2007)
This bestselling autobiography precedes the impressive entries into the emerging 21st century First Nations canon that follow. It is a contemporary classic of Australian literature, and it was the first book I read by a First Nations writer. Published the same year of Australia’s contested “bicentenary”, Langford Ginibi’s story continues to test the learned indifference of white Australians. Written during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Don’t Take Your Love to Town tells the tale of a woman caught at the intersection of gendered and raced injustice with admirable and endearing honesty.
I’ve written about Carpentaria in an essay for Reading Australia, and I discuss both books at length in my forthcoming academic book The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma. In short, these books matter. This is innovative writing forging cross-cultural trauma testimony that portrays a country in crisis and in desperate need of recovery from the devastating realities of colonialism and racism. There’s no way around it, Wright is not an easy read. These two novels are as far from literary comfort food as it gets. But those able to relax into Wright’s wildly experimental world-making are rewarded with insights and nothing less than a renewed vision of this land and appreciation for the complex communities that inhabit it.
Natalie Harkin (Cordite Books 2015)
One of my favourite books of recent years, Dirty Words is a whip-smart conceptual collection of poems about the state of the nation and the spectre of its shameful history. Authored by a Narungga scholar and creative practitioner, this slim volume may well knock your socks off and leave you questioning everything you read and hear. Harkin’s poems about the domestic servitude of her Narungga forebears might even move you to tears.
Smoke Encrypted Whispers
Samuel Wagan Watson (UQP 2004)
“Childhood anxieties would eventually help me realise the power of imagination”, writes Wagan Watson in “author’s notes # 1”. This generous, award-winning collection of poems later became a multi-modal arts project when its cycle of 23 poems served as inspiration for musical compositions. Poems like “white stucco dreaming” evoke familial ties within societal divides and the daily rituals of suburbia, while “a verse for the cheated” depicts the hidden tragedies of Queensland’s glamorous coastal tourist traps. At times Wagan Watson turns his muscular lyricism outward to consider the world at large, but he soon circles back to home-grown griefs and wonders.
Other highly recommended titles
These books do the crucial work of testifying to transgenerational trauma and representing and celebrating surviving First Nations cultures and peoples. Each demonstrates, as Tony Birch puts it, the “potential for Aboriginal writing to productively shift the national story”.
Australians, generally speaking, have an inadequate understanding of transgenerational trauma and underestimate the effects of the extreme and sustained traumas experienced by First Nations communities. Transgenerational trauma is the process by which trauma is passed down through successive generations.
There is some debate about if and how this takes place, but transmission likely has various pathways through families, individuals, and culture at large. Colonialism and its aftermath – frontier wars, slavery, dispossession, and stolen children – proved a hotbed for severe traumas and legacies of transmission. The challenge is for non-Indigenous Australians to take responsibility for their own education and become familiar with the voices and concerns of those who have peopled this continent for eons.
Given the depth and scope of the inequity, clearly much more than reading alone is called for. But reading truth-telling accounts of our history and contemporary Australia by First Nations writers is one way of participating in a national dialogue.
What’s your favourite book by a First Nations writer? Leave your recommendations in the comments below.