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A Bonza Ellen van Neerven
30 / 07 / 2015
For our Bonza Sheila this July, nurse we have Kara Beavis, ambulance Policy Leader to a cultural organisation in Sydney interviewing what can only be described as the prestigiously talented, cure good friend and proud Mununjali and Dutch woman, Ellen van Neerven, an award-winning Brisbane-based writer.
Kara Beavis (KB): Ellen, in 24 short years, you have achieved more than most of us would wish to in a lifetime. At the tender age of 22, you won the prestigious David Unaipon award for best unpublished Indigenous manuscript. That work, Heat and Light, was published a year later through UQP and has been shortlisted for (drum roll please): the 2015 Stella Award, 2015 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, 2015 Dobbie Awards, and long-listed for the 2015 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. You are the joint winner of the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2015 Best Young Novelist with Maxine Beneba Clarke, Michael Mohammad Ahmad and Omar Musa.
Over the last year alone, you’ve been invited to writers’ festivals and events in Goa, Texas, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Blue Mountains and Newcastle. Melissa Lucashenko described you as ‘a young writer of immense potential’.
These are dizzying heights by anyone’s standards. I’d like you to let rip with what you see as being your greatest achievement thus far, and why?
Ellen van Neerven (EVN): A lot of it feels surreal – even completing a work and seeing it on the shelves is a dream. I was most thrilled by having the opportunities to present my work overseas, it’s amazing to visit another country, meet people and experience another culture.
KB: In Heat and Light, you write about freedom, longing, belonging.
“When I was growing up in Hervey Bay, the closest I got to a Real Gay Moment was when Maria Hapeta put a kiss on the Christmas card she gave me.”
However, it doesn’t stop at a Christmas card kiss in a coastal town in Queensland that is famous for whale watching! You write sex scenes that are hot, wild, and real.I’ve met your darling mother Maria and dad. Have they read the book?
EVN: Mum did comment on the sex in the book. I can hardly imagine what it would feel like having your child write a book.
KB: I think you’ve made fucking between women incredibly appealing. Did you have fun writing these exquisite scenes? Why write this?
EVN: Thanks. It came naturally on the page, an extension of my characters, who they are.I don’t hold back while writing.
KB: You are a proud Mununjali and Dutch woman, belonging to the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast hinterland. Does your Indigenous identify inform your writing?
EVN: Yes, I’m not sure how it could not.
KB: Have you read Bad Feminist?
EVN: No, have you? I feel like a bad feminist for not reading it. I saw Roxanne Gay speak in Adelaide and I’m interested.
KB: I haven’t yet, but I saw Roxanne Gay speak at the Opera House on International Women’s Day and on TV and now I want to. Who do you want to read your book?
EVN: When Indigenous women or men read my book, when a young, confused person reads my book, when a lonely and suffering person, a reluctant reader, an older person, students from a private school, or someone who says they learnt something or they were challenged, I feel very happy.
KB: What’s for lunch?
EVN: Soba noodles with tofu, or tacos with beans and avocado.
KB: We have been friends for years, so I know you have journeyed through dark nights of the soul. In your own words, and those of that songbird Gotye, your heart has ‘been a mess’. Yet, you live with enormous authenticity, dignity and heart. What keeps you strong? What fills your heart with hope?
EVN: I don’t know if I can give advice, as it isn’t often I feel ‘strong’. I think allow yourself to have obsessions – mine at the moment is Christine McVie, that song ‘As Long As You Follow’ is quite hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time.To keep busy but to not lose perspective – to have faith you will attract and keep friends and love and luck by just being the best version of you – kind, generous, motivated, curious and fair. Food is made to be shared, and we need to have fun to understand our hard work. Keep culturally healthy by connecting to family, country, community, language and art.
KB: What are you writing at the moment?
EVN: There’s a poetry collection and novel on the way. Comfort Food, a selection of poems that use food as a vehicle to explore ideas of family, love, sensuality, culture and belonging, will be released in 2016. The novel and the essays I’m writing at the moment speak to environmental issues and rewriting the past with a black pen.
KB: I hungrily await the next publication. Thank you Ellen for the poetry,and powerfulgift of,your writing, and for being a Bonza Sheila.
EVN: Thank you Kara.
Interviewer Kara Beavis is the Policy Leader at a cultural organisation in Sydney. She is completing a dissertation on feminist economics at the University of Sydney and a guest lecturer in women’s policy at Flinders University. Kara is a proud board member of Domestic Violence New South Wales and ANTaR New South Wales. Follow Kara on Twitter: @karsybee
Ellen van Neerven is a Senior Editor at the State Library of Queensland. She is the coordinator of the black&write! Indigenous writing and editing project which aims to support and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. Ellen is the editor of the digital collection Writing Black: New Indigenous Writing from Australia.Follow Ellen on Twitter: @EllenvanNeerven