Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2017

Heat and Light (2014), by Ellen Van Neerven

To whet your appetite for Indigenous Literature Week, here’s my review of a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while…

If all goes well, I’ll be reading two winners of the David Unaipon Award during Indigenous Literature Week 2017.  (Click here to see others that you can buy).  It’s an important award because as well as a prize of $10,000, the winner receives a publishing contract with category sponsor University of Queensland Press (UQP).   Ellen Van Neerven won the award in 2013 for Heat and Light, and I have finally – at last! tracked down a copy of Larissa Behrendt’s Home which won in 2002.  I’ve read quite a few of the recent winners, and they’ve all been interesting reading (links go to my reviews):

As it happens, I brought home another interesting book from Bayside Library today.  It’s called Black Writers, White Editors, Episodes of collaboration and compromise in Australian Publishing History, (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009 ISBN 9781921509063) and the author is Jennifer Jones, whose research explored the editorial relationship for three foundational Indigenous women writers, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Margaret Tucker and Monica Clare.  I’m unlikely to read it all because … a-hem… it is indeed a scholarly work, but it made me realise for the first time that the process of publishing indigenous narratives can significantly alter what is eventually published.  Jones’s analysis shows (amongst other things) that for the three authors that she researched, there were numerous alterations which were not just spelling and grammar, including

  • changes that increase political impact in a passage;
  • insertion of alternative colloquialisms;
  • minimisation of character’s emotional expression; and
  • standardisation of colloquialisms.

More importantly the editing changed the nature of the writing.  She gives an example of where editing one of Noonuccal’s stories

  • made it conform to the dominant cultural viewpoint on  Aboriginality and Aboriginal sovereignty;
  • messed with the structure to shift it into a Western understanding of chronology;
  • recontextualised it to make it about a bygone Dreaming rather than about the consequences of contact history; and
  • whitewashed some aspects of Aboriginal experience, such as scavenging in the tip or stealing, to make it palatable for the projected white mainstream readership. 

What Jones has to say about the toning down of Aboriginal perspectives in the presumed interests of marketability in the 1970s-1990s, made me wonder whether this still happens at all today, or whether these practices have faded away along with old ideas about assimilation.  I certainly hope things have changed.  I want to read the unfiltered voices of Indigenous authors, no matter what they have to say.

The catalyst for me to make this this digression about editing is the way that Ellen Van Neerven has structured her stories in Heat and LightEverybody is playing around with form and chronology these days, it’s just part of the contemporary writing scene.  But Van Neerven asserts a shared concept of time: in a book written in three distinct sections, the middle section called ‘Water’ has Western time in which  she projects forward into the near future with what is deemed to be progress, and this ‘progress’ is confronted by life forms ancient beyond imagining so that ordinary linear time seems irrelevant.  In the sections titled ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ which bookend this central, (most political) part of the book, linked short stories from the near past tell us about concepts of kinship, memory and storytelling which have been fractured but remain resilient and powerful over generations.

I can’t help thinking how the short stories might have been sanitised in a past era.  Amy Kresinger initially rejects the information that her biological grandmother was a Bundjalung woman called Pearl, a woman who was gang-raped by local thugs and who abandoned her child to be brought up by her sister, Marie.  Amy’s sense of identity is rocked:

My thoughts are running wild as I drive to my place.  If I didn’t know my grandmother, then I could I know myself?  My grandmother as I had always known was Marie Kresinger, Aunty Marie to everyone.  She’s spent most of her life as a domestic.  She died from heart failure at the age of seventy-two.  People said her heart was too big.  (p.5)

Her father can’t face up to it either.  He would tell her nothing of their history, whether he knew it or not.

Yet Amy’s voice remains strong and resilient, and she grows in wisdom and confidence, discovering her sexuality along the way.  This is a lively book, where the narrators of have distinctive voices and usually a laconic sense of humour.

There was a picture of it in one of the magazines, I remember.  We’d made a stack of the mags up high in the office.  I hadn’t read them yet.  I wasn’t ready to commit to weight loss and crosswords and Sudoku. (p.150)

Heat and Light won the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize.  It was also shortlisted for The Stella Prize, the Queensland Literary Award for State Significance, and the Readings Prize.

Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali woman from South East Queensland.   She’s an editor, mentor and advocate for First Nation writers, and she was the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Australian Novelist in 2015.

ILW 2017Heat and Light was my first book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Ellen Van Neerven
Title: Heat and Light
Publisher: UQP, (University of Queensland Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780702253218
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.95

Available from Fishpond:Heat and Light
Check out Sue’s review at Whispering Gums too.


  1. The rise of Indigenous Lit over the past decade makes you hope that editors are now less likely to tone down passages that offend white sensibilities, helped of course by the rise of Indigenous publishers.
    You said in relation to this book 18 months ago that you were not a fan of short stories, do you think now that they are more like linked episodes around a common theme?


    • Hi Bill, I would say that the stories in the section called Light are, but no, the linked stories in Heat, the first part, are more like a novella that’s constructed around the different members of the family. I don’t think they would make as much sense if they were read as standalones, though someone who’s done that could correct me, I suppose That’s the bit I liked best, but I thought the central part, Water, which is a standalone, had a bigger impact thematically.
      As you can see, I’ve reviewed one story from a short story collection today, (Joiner Bay & Other Stories) and it exemplifies the frustration I feel with short stories. Writers must write the way they want to, but readers can choose what they like too, and for me, I like the novel’s opportunities for development in theme, characterisation and plot (if there is one).
      But it’s also a matter of expertise. I don’t read enough short stories to have the expertise to review a collection. Sue at Whispering Gums is the one who’s best at that, just as Tony at Messenger’s Booker is the reviewer to go to for poetry.


  2. Thanks for the link Lisa. And also for sharing those fndngs by Jones. The things we didn’t know eh? As you say, I hope there’s more sensitivity and commitment to honesty now.


    • It’s fascinating. I’m going to try and read at least the whole section about Noonuccal. There’s quite a bit about Stradbroke Dreaming which is a book I used to use with my Year 3&4 students at school. I’m going to see if I can get a copy so that I can look at it with a more critical eye now.


      • Yes, I thought some of her poetry was pretty hard-hitting but maybe not all her poems were edited, or they were even more hardhitting before we saw them.


        • I’d love you to get hold of a copy of this book too, Sue:)

          Liked by 1 person

          • It certainly sounds worth tracking down and I’m very tempted but I don’t seem to have the same ability to pile up my reading and not feel overwhelmed as you do. I admire your capacity! But, hmm, I wonder if there’s an electronic version that I could buy and dip into.


            • I think you’d find it interesting…


  3. Fascinating, but how depressing that the editors believe the Western ego so fragile that it cannot withstand a different perspective. I hope, as you express here, that there is no more tinkering. It is important to share stories as they are told. The Ellen Van Neerven book sounds extremely interesting, I love the concept of projecting different experiences and concepts of time. I’ll look it up, thanks.


    • Well, it was a while ago. I think/hope things are better now, with specialist Indigenous publishing houses leading the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Heat and Light, see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  5. I was a bit mixed about Heat and Light. I loved Heat, quite liked Light but really didn’t like Pearl. At all. That said, it was certainly memorable!


    • Yes indeed. I wonder what she’ll write next…

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I read it, I wished that Heat had been longer… Like novel-length!


        • Yup, me too. I wanted to know more about that whole family.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Award and the NSW Premier’s literary award.  I have reviewed both her short story collection Heat and Light and the collection she edited, Joiner Bay and can recommend these books to readers.  But that is […]


  7. […] Heat and Light (2014) by Ellen van Neervan […]


  8. […] my ANZ LitLovers review. […]


  9. […] my ANZ LitLovers review. […]


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