Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2021

2021 Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival: Indigenous storytelling

It was Day Three of the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, and after lunch out with a friend I came home to catch the last part of the irrepressible Jane Caro in conversation with Donna Mazza, (author of Fauna), Toby Walsh and Kate Mildenhall on the topic of AI (artificial intelligence).  I think my ticket enables me to replay the session later on, so I’ll be doing that because it’s a topic that interests me.

Then there was a session featuring environmental activist Bob Brown, and authors Jonica Newby, and Adam Thompson and poet Caitlin Marling.  It was surprisingly hopeful because all the panellists were convinced that there’s more people who care than not.

At 2 o’clock my time, and 4 o’clock in WA there was ‘The View from Country’: Storytelling is a strong cultural tradition in the Indigenous community, a way of teaching knowledge, honouring Country, and reinforcing community bonds. Storytelling has also been a powerful tool for sharing testimonies that have been historically silenced. It was presented by Noongar woman Cassie Lynch in discussion with Indigenous authors Dr Robert Isaacs, Karen Wyld, Evelyn Araluen and Adam Thompson to discuss how Indigenous-authored works are a vital part of truth-telling.  I really like the way this festival has made Indigenous storytellers front and centre in the program.

Robert Isaacs is a Noongar Elder and a member of the Stolen Generations, and asked how he was able to tell his story, he answered that he could do it because it was his lived experience.  He was actually there in the Clontarf Boys Town and really saw what went on, just as he later on as a senior bureaucrat in Aboriginal Housing, he witnessed what was actually happening.  He used his education to rise to the top of organisations that had never had Indigenous input into their decision-making.  I reported on yesterday’s session with this most interesting author here.)

Karen Wyld’s multi-generational novel Where the Fruit Falls (on my TBR) is set across multiple time periods that enable her to weave in the different programs that impacted on Indigenous people.  This involved a great deal of research and subsequently a lot of editing — she cut out 40,000 words! She wants people to think more about the land, such as being aware of the inland sea, now gone, but which is part of a story from one of her characters.  Karen Wyld is of Martu descent (people of the Pilbara region in Western Australia)

Goorie-Koori Poet Evelyn Araluen talked about her book Drop Bear.  (I’ve read some of her writing in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.)  She attributes her storytelling in part to the wealth of books she was exposed to as a child and the way her parents helped to deconstruct it.  The Australian literature she read then did not include any representation of her people, and she found ‘some really dodgy stuff’ in it when she studied AustLit at university.  She says she doesn’t want to ‘cancel’ May Gibbs, but Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, for example, are stories of sweet little white babies terrorised by scary black creatures in the Australian bush.  It also appropriates a lot of Indigenous culture which takes no account of what it was actually like in those days.  So it’s not a book we should be sentimental about.

Adam Thompson, whose short story collection Born into This is on my TBR, is the first book I’ve come across that is by an Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania.  Like Evelyn, he was wary of the label ’emerging young writer’ because it’s so important that Indigenous authors are supported to tell their stories at whatever age they feel ready to write them.  He’s not afraid to tackle difficult topics: one of his stories is about the divisive identity politics that are a feature of Indigenous Australian life in Tasmania.

The final session featured Andrew O’Hagan who is one of those writers whose books I buy and then don’t get round to reading.  So I haven’t bought Mayflies yet… but I am very tempted!  (Especially by Brona’s review here).

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible.


  1. This sounds a fascinating session and such an interesting variety of writing. It’s great that the festival was able to make it accessible – I hope events will carry on with this option after restrictions ease on face-to-face meeting.


    • So do I! I am so hoping that Edinburgh offers a digital option!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a great festival – fingers crossed some of the big ones in the UK will continue online (I know Hay is, because I’ve booked some sessions!)


  3. Would love to have attended some of these, Lisa. I thought I would find time to attend these online festivals, but somehow life just gets packed out, but at least I can read your write ups.

    I plan to read Born into this for ILW this year. My Tasmanian brother gave it to me for my birthday and I told him I would read and review it in July. There, I’ve said it, so I really will have to do it. I have the Wyld too, but we’ll see, as I have a couple of other Indigenous books on my little ATSI pile!

    (BTW Yesterday afternoon we went to a gorgeous house concert featuring a solo harpist. It was a worthy alternative! On Saturday it was my Jane Austen group meeting.)


    • LOL Sue, I am starting to have conversations with friends now about how busy it seems now that things are opening up. Really, I am not doing any more than I was before lockdown, but I seem to have lost the habit of being organised so that I can fit everything into my day.
      I look back to when I was working full time and studying and doing voluntary work and being a mother and cooking and renovating my house and I marvel at what I was able to fit into my life!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, exactly. I can’t believe what I achieved back then, as you say. Still, I think there’s something good for us in slowing down – but it’s frustrating because there’s so much we can see that we’d like to do isn’t there!


  4. I’m glad you enjoyed the festival, Lisa :-)


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