Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

2021 Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival: Living on Stolen Land, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

It’s been interesting to see how quickly some LitFests have abandoned the digital option.  Forgetting altogether that digital options make festival attendance possible for people living with disability, festival organisers have rejoiced in the joy of f2f attendance and jettisoned accessibility for others who can’t attend in person.  While this is disappointing for booklovers like me who enjoyed 2020 festivals in Edinburgh, Auckland and Adelaide, it’s more than disappointing for disabled people.  I did not realise how much this mattered until I read Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay.  I would like to see funding bodies make it a condition of the grants they make to festivals, that virtual attendance be routinely offered…

The Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, however, offered a 3-day Virtual Pass to all their events on their main stage.  This option meant that there were a couple of events that I couldn’t attend, but the compensation was a wealth of interesting sessions that I might not have selected if I had had the choice.  It would not have occurred to me to buy a ticket for book club discussions of a book, but it was excellent.

The book under discussion was Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land.  This is a call to and a guide to action for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.  This is the blurb:

Living on Stolen Land is a prose-styled look at our colonial-settler ‘present’. This book is the first of its kind to address and educate a broad audience about the colonial contextual history of Australia, in a highly original way. It pulls apart the myths at the heart of our nationhood, and challenges Australia to come to terms with its own past and its place within and on ‘Indigenous Countries’.

This title speaks to many First Nations’ truths; stolen lands, sovereignties, time, decolonisation, First Nations perspectives, systemic bias and other constructs that inform our present discussions and ever-expanding understanding. This title is a timely, thought-provoking and accessible read.

There is no part of this place
that was not
is not
cared for
by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation
There are no trees
that were not
are not
someone’s kin

The panel was ably hosted by Megan McCracken and consisted of five members of book clubs (including one who called herself a ‘lapsed’ book club member).  They were invited to share their responses to a book which directly addresses non-Indigenous people and is deliberately confronting.

They began by considering Kwaymullina’s artwork on the front cover, which is critical to the first words of the book:

This story begins
with the tree on the cover
which shows futures

The roots go deep
down into the ground
because just futures
must be grounded in respectful relationships
with Indigenous peoples

The panel suggested that it’s not just that visual culture is important for Indigenous people, it’s a political statement, and it’s beautiful.  (So that encourages people to pick up the book and look at it.) It shows the connection between heaven and earth and there’s also a human form behind the tree.  But the title with the word ‘stolen’ on the cover is direct and confronting, and it is indicative of the book which is deliberately declarative.  One panellist said (in contrast to a reviewer who was quoted by Megan, who described the book as “gentle”) it felt like ‘a slap’ — not a violent one, but a wake-up call that sets the tone from the outset.  There is no ‘wriggle-room’, if you are not Indigenous, then you are told who you are, you are a ‘Settler’.

Those who are not Indigenous to this land
are Settlers
This does not mean
being part of peaceful settlement
It means
being part of settler-colonialism
a form of colonisation
where invaders came
and never left
Not like the places
where the colonising nation-states of Western Europe
established outposts
upended ancient governance structures
oppressed the peoples
stripped the land of wealth
but ultimately
went away (pp.3-4)

Settler-colonists never went away.

The panellists were unanimous that the manifesto is all true and uncomfortable to read and you can’t escape from your own racism. This is achieved partly by the verb tense: it directly addresses the individual reader, not a collective, and it repositions the power, taking it from the Settler and giving it to the Indigenous speaker (who is also a woman).  The structure of the lines that travel down the page to one word, shapes attention to the politics of it.   One panellist  felt that some people would reject it, and refuse to read it.

Asked if they thought the book achieved its aims, panellists agreed that it would, because it’s short, and the message is not lost in a longer narrative.  Every word has weight.  It’s also very suitable for younger readers who might be used to shorter texts and wouldn’t wade through something longer.

The poem titled ‘Behaviours’ describes common Settler behaviours:

  • the ones who talk the talk but don’t actually do anything;
  • the saviours who like to ‘rescue’ but are not interested in decolonisation
  • the discoverers, for whom Indigenous worlds only exist once they are recognised and/or appropriated by Settlers; and
  • the changemakers, who are unobtrusive supporters who step off stages and out of spotlights to offer support to Indigenous people to enter the places from which they’ve been excluded.  They don’t claim credit for Indigenous success because it doesn’t belong to them.

Change-makers understand
that colonisers occupy space
and decolonisers yield it (p.47)

Megan asked the difficult question here, and as you’d expect, all the panellists wanted to be changemakers, but there was a lively discussion about how to do it.  The last poem is titled ‘Ask how not what’ which offers guidance for respectful processes but as one of the panellists noted, this is about Indigenous ownership of projects and initiatives.  Unlike one of the panellists who worked with Indigenous women in prisons, we’re not all involved in such activities, and may not ever have the opportunity to have responsibility for, or input into them.

We do however, have other opportunities and responsibilities.  ‘Humility’ means taking responsibility for your own learning/doing your best/to be as informed as possible; ‘Listening’ means understanding silences and to call out barriers/of settler-colonialism/that prevent/Indigenous voices from speaking.  ‘Bias’ tells us to…

Seek out the works
of Indigenous authors
Not one story
not two
all of them
It will take
hundreds of stories
many years of listening
to create change  (p.41)

One way to do that is to join Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers during NAIDOC Week in July.

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible, and congratulations to the panel!


  1. I agree with you in theory, Lisa, of course – for all the reasons you mention – but I can’t help thinking that hybrid events have challenges that “only” virtual or “only” f2f don’t have. Some smaller festivals run mainly by volunteers may not have the capacity to make it work well for both types of audiences? I could be wrong. SWF does it well with their Live and Local streaming – have done it for a while – but they are a big more professional festival. So, it can be done; I just wonder about what’s needed to make it work?


    • (Having a go at being an activist on this issue) I’ve actually had a conversation about this with a regional festival organiser, and I’ve suggested it to CAL who fund some festivals (mainly the big ones, which surprised me). The response was not encouraging. It didn’t suggest that there were technical difficulties or costs that made it difficult, it was rather they didn’t even want to consider it.


      • Haha, good for you.

        But, hmmm, that’s interesting that they don’t seem interested, because your points are so valid.


        • Maybe they were just pressured with work and I was just an added pressure that they didn’t need.
          But I like to think that I made them feel uncomfortable and that their responsibility to facilitate accessibility niggles away at them.
          For too long, accessibility was shelved under too hard, too expensive &c instead of recognising that not providing for accessibility is discrimination. It’s actually a human right.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting thoughts, about both digital attendance and the book in question. Digital attendance was something I really appreciated while living in France for a couple of years recently.
    On the strength of your post, I reserved ‘Living on Stolen Land’ from my local library. I was interested to see that it’s catalogued as ‘Junior Fiction’.


    • Junior Fiction?? I can see secondary school teachers using it, but shelving it in JF would limit its exposure, surely… I mean, I could see from the richness of this discussion that it’s definitely a book for adults as well. Maybe more so…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m intending to read it with an open mind, but if necessary I will be prepared to ‘negotiate’ an alternative classification!


  3. I recently joined in a digital poetry reading session from the Emily Dickinson Museum in Massachusetts. The time difference was challenging, but the session was amazing. It even brought tears to my eyes. I plan to drop in on more of them –


    • What was brilliant about the Edinburgh Festival was that they actually thought about their international audience, and I could watch it in my time because the link stayed live for a while.
      I hope they do it again this year because I discovered so many terrific books that hadn’t had much publicity here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I discovered that the ED museum also keeps the session in their fb page. But there was something special about watching it live that added to the potency of the poetry reciting.


        • Yes, live is always better…unless it involves being awake in the middle of the night!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who doesn’t drive and who’s limited by having holidays which are only the school ones, I find the digital option has opened up a lot more to me than before – Hay, Edinburgh, Charleston, London Library and all manner of talks and online events I couldn’t attend before. So I do hope they continue…


    • It seems like something that should have happened a long time ago!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t go to festivals, live or virtual, but I wonder if not a small part of them is tourism depending on physical presence.

    As for the actual topic of your review, that first step, acknowledging ingrained and unconscious racism, is a big one, too big for many.


    • Good point, Bill, and for regional festivals, part of the sponsorship deal is that people will come and spend money in the local shops.
      But, as one who started going to festivals when there was no one in my f2f life who loved books like I do: it made me feel normal and it gave me a sense of belonging that I didn’t get anywhere else. I love the buzz of being surrounded by booklovers. I like chatting about books during coffee and lunch breaks. I like being able to buy the books there and then if I’ve heard a session that made the book irresistible. So I’m happy to shell out for travel, accommodation and meals, and I usually visit other cultural venues while I’m there as well.
      I know that there are heaps of booklovers just like me so I doubt that attendances would be impacted by the digital option. It simply makes the festival accessible for a wider range of people.

      As to racism, we all start somewhere…


  6. […] Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books), on my TBR, see my review […]


  7. […] Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books), on my TBR, see my review […]


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