A first-time author has been awarded a record four prizes and a total $85,000 at the New South Wales premier’s literary awards, a recognition she described as “overwhelming” and “significantly shocking” given she never set out to publish her memoir in the first place.
Gudanji/Wakaja writer Debra Dank’s book We Come with This Place won the prize for major book of the year at the NSW state library on Monday night, and was also named winner of the Indigenous writers’ prize, the prize for non-fiction and the award for new writing.
Dank’s book, which was also shortlisted for this year’s Stella prize, is partly a story of her family, telling of her late father Lurick, or “Soda”, who was falsely accused of stealing livestock and then chased from his country in the Northern Territory across the Queensland border by white pastoralists “armed and threatening death”.
In a memoir that spans many different timelines, Dank also writes of the shocking sexual abuse inflicted by white men on her paternal grandmother, and delves into the Dreaming stories of her people, and the intergenerational trauma suffered after massacres in Australia’s frontier wars.
The judges praised Dank’s book as “culturally rigorous and deeply thoughtful” with “emotional depth”, communicating how country provides “physical, spiritual and psychological nourishment”. The author demonstrated a “powerful path forward from colonial trauma towards a space of mutual respect and self-determining futures”, they said.
Dank, who lectures in Indigenous studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast, never envisioned publishing a book. She had written down her family’s “ongoing stories” as part of her PhD in narrative theory and semiotics. She handed them for proofreading to a friend and former colleague, Karen Williams, the former executive director of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, where Dank had worked.
“I just wanted it to be readable,” Dank told Guardian Australia. “Karen said: ‘oh, this is great, we have to talk to publishers.’ I thought: ‘yeah, sure, we’ll do that, and they’ll say, “that’s lovely, thank you, goodbye”.’
“I’m still in the space of, ‘Is it really a book?’ because books have always been critically important to me,” she said. “There’s always been this other place of existence for people who produce books; they’re almost next to godliness for me.”
In a review for the Guardian, Miles Franklin-winning author Tara June Winch described We Come with This Place as “a jewel of a book” to rival Australia’s great desert memoirs.
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Dank’s publisher, Juliet Rogers - the managing director of Sydney-based Echo Publishing and a former chair of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – said Dank “manages to say so much … [but] she doesn’t ever have to belabour a point. It’s done with such nuance, and when she speaks she’s utterly spellbinding”.
Small publishers are having a moment of outsized acclaim in Australia: more than half of last week’s Miles Franklin longlist were published by independents, and the entire Stella prize shortlist was devoid of major publishers. While Echo’s parent company is Bonnier Books in the UK, the small publishing house has full editorial control over its “intrinsically Australian” author list.
“Smaller presses, we do a lot more searching out,” Rogers said. She reads every manuscript herself. “[We’re looking for] new voices talking on something unexpected … Sometimes what happens at the big publishing houses is the [manuscripts] just don’t get through.”
The book’s structure – moving back and forth between past, present and future – was inspired by polyphony, or the fact many Indigenous voices contribute to the narrative of communities. “The non-linear time reflects the normalcy of all Aboriginal storying across our continent,” Dank said.
As a child, Dank grew up with a “taste for learning”, which she credits to her late mother Maxine, a “teacher with a deep curiosity about everything”. Lurick, her late father, was born on the banks of a birthing creek on Wakaja country, and “didn’t read words on paper. He heard them in the voices in the wind, whispering through the grasses”.
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When Dank was a teenager, her father told her “vaguely and in bits and pieces” about his flight pursued by white pastoralists. “[But] it continued to impact him absolutely until he passed away. He developed dementia, and those memories manifested themselves in horrific ways.
“It frustrates me, the lack of ability of us as a nation to own and to articulate and talk about this history,” she said. “The non-Aboriginal community really struggles to accept these horrors and traumas are our shared past.”
Dank agrees “absolutely and utterly” on the principle of the Indigenous voice to parliament, which is likely to be subject to a referendum before the end of the year. “But having been in education as long as I have – and seeing the commitment to ignoring the first populations of this country – we need to understand it’s not policies that will help; it is actually people understanding that it requires them to make personal change.”
She’s not filled with hope: “We have been sidelined, ignored, purposefully forgotten about,” she said. “As a nation I don’t know that we have an ability to imagine even committing to actions, which are the only thing that will make the voice a reality if the referendum gets up ...
“Whether we [Indigenous people] are represented in the constitution or not, I don’t think is the big question in all of this. Me going out and experiencing racism at my local shopping centre is not a result of policy, it’s not a result of anything other than a committed ignorance to being aware of the diversity of this country.”
Winners of the NSW premier’s literary awards also included Katerina Gibson, who won the fiction prize for Women I Know; Kim Cheng Boey, who won the poetry prize for The Singer and Other Poems; Dylan Van Den Berg, who won the playwriting prize for Whitefella Yella Tree; Corey Tutt and Blak Douglas, who won the children’s literature prize for The First Scientists; and Lystra Rose, who won the prize for young people’s literature for The Upwelling.