I would like to acknowledge the Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respect to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people here today.
I would also like to acknowledge the ancestral stories of our people, which we safeguard in the world’s oldest library—the land, seas, skies and atmosphere of this country.
I wish to acknowledge distinguished guests and thank everyone for being here this evening.
It is a great honour and privilege to give the 2018 Boisbouvier Oration. I would like to acknowledge John Wylie and his wife Myriam Boisbouvier-Wylie for their great support of Australian literature. They established and fund the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature that I currently hold at the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with the State Library of Victoria.
It is also a great honour to have this session chaired by Professor Tony Birch, the Dr Bruce McGuinness Chair at Victoria University. Tony is one of this country’s most exceptional storytellers and authors.
I thought I would begin this talk about the power and purpose of literature by talking about my 1998 book Take Power. The title Take Power, came from a Gurindji Elder while telling the story of the ten-year battle his people fought against Vestey’s, a British Pastoral Company who owned the Wave Hill pastoral property in the north-west of the Northern Territory, when in 1966, two hundred Gurindji, the traditional land owners, walked off the cattle station where they worked on their stolen lands because of the harsh treatment they were receiving by the management of the pastoral property. Vincent Lingiari, who led his people off Wave Hill, said: ‘We can’t go back to that Vestey’s. Vestey’s been treating me like a walagu (dog). Make mefella worry.’ The Gurindji kept telling their story straight and, eventually, they achieved land rights over part of their traditional lands.
I developed Take Power for the Central Land Council’s commemoration of the enormous land rights struggles and achievements during the first twenty years of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. It is one of this country’s most powerful stories. Each land claim was bitterly fought and contested. Several land rights cases lasted decades. This was a war over the ancient story maps, the original land titles of this continent, and how these ancient storied laws still tied the traditional land owners to their country in title, sovereignty, and governance, and how they still retained the titles to their land. Many of the stories of the traditional land owners in Take Power were about master geographers, exceptional memory men and women, and revered ceremonial leaders who kept their country alive. One such knowledge man carried in his head at least three thousand site names on his traditional country, perhaps more, and each with a sacred song, a Dreaming story, and sacred history.
Another story described how an Eastern desert man travelled with certainty over vast areas of flat sand country marked on maps as ‘featureless’ and empty. He was at home on his country. He read the land through stories he knew for every part of his traditional land. Another story, titled Who Decides the Last Time, was about the Akwelpe song cycle, a sacred story on the northern fringes of the Simpson Desert that the anthropologist Ted Strehlow thought he had heard for the last time in the 1950s, and that only he had all the knowledge for it. This was not true. The site was found again by the traditional owners in 1987 when they had a chance to go back to this part of their traditional country, and there they sang the Akwelpe song cycle, ‘in a loud, intoxicating, confident, almost defiant, chorus … for several hours until they were satisfied. None of these men knew what Strehlow had written in his book, Songs of Central Australia, but they knew he had taken and never returned the (sacred) objects.’
Another man of great wisdom said that he was only an ignorant person because he did not know how to make it rain. He said that all the rainmakers in his traditional country had died. Who will make it rain? This was the question. How would you bring land ravished by drought back to life if nobody could perform the ceremonies anymore? But he thought after a while that some rainmakers lived not far from his traditional country, and maybe they would make it rain again. Look after the rainmakers. This country needs them.
A senior Western Desert man of high importance, a deeply knowledgeable guardian of important Law stories for his traditional country, told me that he did not call himself boss of other peoples’ land, and this was the story he wanted to tell me for the book. This respected story man of ancient epics and disciplines, with in-depth knowledge of the religious realm of his traditional country, and holding great responsibilities for the stories he safeguarded, knew how to use the power of stories. When I had finished recording his story, I offered to make a copy to send back to him. But not wanting to wait, he reached into his swag from where he was sitting and gave me his own cassette to put into the tape recorder, so he could tell the story again. I knew that I had ended up making two identical recordings in Warlpiri that night, because both recordings were exactly forty minutes in length.
He told a powerful story about people trespassing on other peoples’ land in his traditional area, and he had a pretty good idea about what he would do with his cassette. This was a man whose word had great authority in the Western Desert, but who was wise beyond measure. Apparently, while flying over country in a helicopter for sacred site clearance work, he would sit at the back the whole time with a stony face, sunglasses on (of the type where you could never tell whether he was looking at you or not), and he would just nod slightly when the younger men under his guidance located sacred sites. He was checking to see whether they knew what they were supposed to know.
So, not wanting to frighten people too much by an authority that came from the spiritual realm of his storied world, he said to me with a chuckle, that he would use his cassette as a warning. He was thinking of a gentler way to give a powerful message about trespass to his intended audience, possibly not wanting to evoke the immensity of ancestral power and outcome for anyone breaking the law. He said with a smile, that he would leave the cassette playing on a tape recorder somewhere in his community where people walking by would hear it. Maybe he would leave the tape recorder playing on a table in a place where there was no one around, but anyone passing would hear that somebody was talking to them about these things.
I feel that we have much to learn from the high value Aboriginal people place on the ancient practices of storytelling, in how to use one’s imagination, in how to gain knowledge, in how to read deeply, how to safeguard stories over vast periods of time in caring for the ancient scripture of land title, or what the anthropologist Mike Smith referred to recently in Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, as being, ‘a memory code, and guide to country—a map and, a framework primarily concerned with the sacred, rather than secular, landscape.’ I also believe that more than ever, we are in urgent need of dedicated Aboriginal Narration and Oration Centres in our regions to build stronger storytelling skills, and leadership in how we build stories and storytellers, and in how we use and safeguard stories.
• • •
On the dust cover of our hefty Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature published in 2007, it is said that Australian literature reflects the diverse experiences of Australians in their encounter with their extraordinary environment and with themselves, in a ‘literature of struggle, conflict and creative survival.’ Nicholas Jose, as the general editor of this massive collection covering over two centuries, notes that Australian literature is a ‘… transforming struggle with existing realities and existing forms of expression, … as it reaches beyond normative bounds for new kinds of utterance.’
The most challenging question I have struggled with as a writer is how to expand the scope of my imagination to change perceptions. This search has drawn on the oral storytelling of my background, and not just with Australian literature, but through a wide and varied, inexhaustible search of literary ideas stretching across the world. I admire all writers, and specific writers whose works enrich my thoughts and have left a lasting impression on the way we think. We are indeed rich beyond measure to live in a time where we have greater access to far more of the literary traditions of the world than ever before.
The questions I have when thinking about Australian literature are often about how we dig from this country’s blood-stained earth. Do we have the heart, mind and soul, or feel we have the responsibility to reach this point of respect and trust, to dig into the oldest continent with the oldest living culture on Earth? What do we make of the foundation stories millennia in age, that have survived since ancient times through the care and responsibilities of the custodians of these stories? Do we know what these stories can mean for Australian literature, or to the literatures of the world? Or how can we give stronger roots to our literature? Or how can we, in our relationships with each other, being people of many different backgrounds and cultures, make great literature here? What does it mean to be Native to this land? I do not think we have come anywhere near to resolving these questions in Australian literature.
I think these are important questions, and this is where we seem to be. The beginning. We are either ignoring, or describing, exploring or grappling on the contested ground of stolen lands, with unsettled matters. This is the fuel of creativity in the engine room. This is the conversation we are having over and over in Australian letters. The furnace, more gently stoked—groaning, rather than spewing like an ancestral storm. This seems to be where the power and purpose of our literature is, still at the introductory stage, drawing from the surface layer of stories of our two-and-something centuries, but growing with a lot more truth telling, re-imagining and re-writing history, and now, with far more of our stories coming from different cultural backgrounds. But we are still on the surface, repeatedly introducing ourselves to each other, finding out about ourselves and the country, and trying to grow an interesting literature from a multi-racial makeup. A snapshot of the world on one continent perhaps—a vision of the world to come. Australia can and must challenge itself to create a greater vision and expectation for our literature, and we must know how to challenge ourselves to build a visionary literature for our times. Put some money into buying rocket fuel, instead of a few dollars here and there to top up the gas bottle for the barbie. The creative possibilities are endless, and it is exciting to think about how we might draw strength from our combined heritages, to grow stronger imaginatively, and more creatively, and not just about how we sit among ourselves, separate from the rest of the world as if we are the only people on the planet. We need more literature that shows we are at home with all of the realities of our region, and in the world. Can we build a literature without walls, one not separated with borders enclosed either by oceans, or by walls built in the mind for us or by ourselves, or that stand through our historical circumstances? These are big questions and challenges for our literature.
• • •
Writing through the lens of my own cultural background, I know the antiquity of roots grown here are fundamental to this land. I have also thought about the replanting of old roots formed elsewhere, and about those who see themselves as being rootless, being severed from ancient memories, illiterate and immune to the deeply thought through ancient story, and belonging only to the present time, or to the future. And I have thought about how Aboriginal people continuously think very deeply about how to nurture a cultural heritage from all times while being smothered by what grows on top, tangling the surface, and I am also mindful about how we are being enriched by our own self-styled relationships with the world.
It will take a long time of soul searching to know how to become established amongst our ancient, deeply rooted stories, to know how to bloom amongst the old foundation stories which will never go away, cannot be assimilated, that will never be at peace in our differences. Can modern stories continue these epics? What will be the topics of the new epics, our great works of literature? Our Australian brother Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish journalist being held on Manus Island, explained that literary language is fundamental to expressing difficult truths, that: Only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition. The landscape writer Robert Macfarlane wrote that books are gifts that keep moving and creating new forms (of thinking) through reading. Literature awakens the imagination and it is procreative, because through reading he said, ‘we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say … it broadens perception.’
Literature is the most heightened example of words in action we have. It’s the most complex and rewarding of verbal practices, as Edward Said claimed. And it is still, I believe, the continuing contribution writers make to the world, to help grow our combined humanity towards a greater human competency, as the French Caribbean writer Patrick Chamoiseau—the great warrior of the imaginary—has rightly claimed. In Chamoiseau’s new novel Slave Old Man, there is a marvelous passage describing how the old slave man cannot be really bothered being the wise man to his people, or the all-knowing sage about plantation matters for the plantation boss. The message is that if you are a slave, or feel enslaved, then you are incapable of giving either wisdom or direction. I agree with Chamoiseau’s theory about literature’s independence, and that it must become more fully part of the world, to be more recognisable of ourselves and of others.
• • •
I have a passionate relationship with books because I cannot find out enough about this world and I want to live in it, and know people far away from us and hear their stories, of what it feels like to live in other landscapes, other countries, other parts of the world, to be elsewhere, to be in the shoes of other people, to think and to imagine places that we may never see in our life. The idea of closely reading books is to lift ourselves into the embrace of the world, like I felt once while listening to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking passionately about the history of his Americas, in his trilogy Memory of Fire. He spoke about how he had spent months reading volumes of anthropological studies about a long vanished tribe in South America, but in the end he told us that he had only found one line in this mountain of facts that could really tell him who these people were. What Galeano was searching for was the sovereign imagination of the soul of this lost tribe, how they lived through their physical reality, which we see through literature, the art of storytelling, to humanise our existence, to help us to see beyond the facts.
• • •
A writer of stories spends a considerable amount of time alone with their work, while observing near and far, to find ways of evoking a new way of seeing the world, to create an imaginative and powerful response to their own place. In describing this work, the Chinese Tibetan writer Alai said he started by constituting his own world instead of rushing off to embrace other worlds, as such urgency could lead writers to warp their own rich, self-styled and gradually built up world. These are the complexities in his works, his observations and thoughts and ideas, and of our being taken on a journey across boundaries, and walking into the imagination of a writer from another place.
My initial and continuing passion for literature originated from our oral story makers and story keepers, and from a continuous grounding I seek from our understanding and sensibility. This is the palette of Indigenous cultural philosophy, and which an Aboriginal land owner from the Ngukurr area in the Northern Territory explained in Stone Country to Saltwater is the interconnectedness that gives you backbone, ‘otherwise you gonna swim all round like Jellyfish.’1 Aboriginal storytelling is about form, and being formed from deep relationships to ancestral stories, and our strength comes from the strength of these stories, and ancestral heroes being imbued into our spirit.
All my literary challenges have been long journeys of thinking and writing through quietness and stillness for days that turn into years and more years while I get to know my story and my characters. I usually bend to words of attitude, characters of high temperature shaped by time, and beauty of the country too, in the hope of describing on the page with a degree of certainty, authenticity or truth, a story of this place. Writing was once a very solitary situation for me when I was living in Central Australia, when I mentored myself while writing Carpentaria by reading the calmness of mind of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney dug into his country with his heart, his mind and his soul and etched his Irish imagination into the soul of humanity. This is what literature is, and what it can do to evoke the spirit of place, such as the unforgettable opening chapter of Timothy Mo’s, An Insular Possession, in the description of the Pearl River Delta in the mid-ninteenth century gathering water from its many sources, and picking up people, boats, and bodies and everything else, on its long journey to the sea.
• • •
While hoping to achieve a high degree of art in literature, my focus has been on bending and mixing ideas in the execution of a story that will keep playing in my mind with images of our humanity, images of country, images of the world, until the work is finished. I sift through large quantities of material I have thought about, as well as what randomly floats around in my mind about how to build the novel’s characters that have been waiting and growing into larger representations of themselves over years. All of this is to be used in the long creation of hundreds of pages that contain a form, a structure, a big story resembling, or that will be recognised as literary fiction—or as a mountain! For instance, the characters of my new novel Praiseworthy are waiting in my mind, in several notebooks, and in manuscript, and will live with me more than most of the real world, until the novel is finished.
I think my job as a writer is about creating magic, illusions, alchemy, and exactitude, of bringing the right arrangements of words from the mind to the page. This was the reason why Italo Calvino felt it was absolutely necessary to use exact words, to the point where he preferred to write down everything he wanted to say. While writing Carpentaria, I often felt that I was trying to create a contemporary epic about ourselves, similar to an ancestral story of heroic deeds to tell the ancestors. I am interested in how I might weave stories, and I look at the physical evidence of woven ancestral stories seen in the galleries of rock art—for instance, the mystery of stories in thousands of rock carvings of the Burrup Peninsula now partly destroyed or desecrated by heavy industry.
• • •
I believe that powerful literature requires powerful thought, along with the ability to control thoughts. Perhaps the bottom cannot hold for an author’s work when the story accumulates too much thought, knowledge, and distraction. The more a writer thinks about story, the more thoughts escalate and stockpile, and the writer today will need even greater mental and physical energy to keep up, to harness the insurmountable amounts of information in the world to think about, puzzle us, and annoy us.
• • •
The world is becoming more in need of writers who can think far more deeply and bravely than ever before, to tell of the complexities, scope and connectiveness of our existence, to find the words and ways to express how we will live through the massive changes of global warming, in stories that can capture the imagination of far more people in the world, and in the hope that literature—these stories of ourselves—will have a role to play in helping to shape the future of our combined humanity. Call it survival literature, works that make you think, or food for the mind. This is why I believe that the task of literature is endless. Unless writers can keep up with the demands and rigors of the storytelling practices required for this new literature, the mountain of thoughts being generated throughout the world and not worked through or cared about will break away from our combined humanity more freely, and becoming random and unmoored, and will prey on whatever scattered ideas befall our combined civilizations. As Patrick Chamoiseau wrote in his novel Texaco, ‘literature in a living place must be taken alive …’
• • •
Amos Oz, the Israeli writer, believed that the writer’s stories must be as frightening as the spirits of the night, told ‘shamelessly,’ ‘… to tell about the primary things in a primary way, to conjure the fears and phantoms and terrors and filth… to bring relief either to the whole tribe or to some of its members, even if the tribe is ungrateful, even if it howls with pain and fury, even if it shouts what will the neighbours think.’ To start he explained, ‘Once upon a time… and at once bring to light all the terrors and demons in the depths of one’s psyche … to use words to bring everything to the surface, to the light.’ One author he used as an example to show what literature should do was Gunther Grass, sitting in Germany, conjuring his tribal ghosts, in Oskar, the child in The Tin Drum, ‘bringing out into the light the spirits of madness and the horrifying, grotesque, schmaltzy-sentimental, sadistic nightmares of his tribe.’
A writer passionate about what the art of literature can do will need a strong heart, mind and spirit all working together with the body and the hands. Never underestimate the energy required, and the cost of holding up a mirror to our ever increasingly complicated world. You really have to be brave to stay on the journey, to control the power literature has in taking over your whole being with its wiles, its willfulness, and on the other hand, the destructiveness of the self-consciousness generated by ourselves, to turn you against the work by questioning your ability to tell the story. A writer may become like the Welsh nationalist poet R.S. Thomas’ tireless ousel singing in the woods of Cil-gwri (Wirral), or become bitter and full of fearfulness of the world, feeling as old and as wretched as the toad of Cors Fonchno, Who feels the cold skin sagging round his bones.
• • •
In Carpentaria, by entwining all times and with strong characterisation based on the powerful heroes of our ancestral stories, I believed I could create an authentic story. In The Swan Book, I was thinking about what happens if you mixed the Dreamings, in a story about the power of dispossessed swans and Aboriginal people moving towards global warming realities, with a big question in the middle of it asking, What is the future?
In Tracker, I turned to our cultural practices of consensus storytelling, of giving everyone the opportunity to tell their part of the story in a collective memoir about my old friend, the Eastern Arrernte visionary, Tracker Tilmouth. Consensus is also a world matter. In his new book Dear Zealots, Amos Oz writes about Jewish cultural heritage as sitting ‘superbly,’ with ideas of a pluralistic democracy of being: Many lights, not one light. Many beliefs and opinions. Not one. The French Caribbean philosopher Edouard Glissant talked about the collective memory of Caribbeaness as vertigo, flux, and absent history. Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco speaks with ‘a polyphony of narrative voices.’
• • •
We all have emotional responses to the stories of importance told by our families, community, nation, our law men and women, the story keepers, the wisdom people of one’s tribe. We make up stories about ourselves every day of the week. The human mind is eternally hungry for stories. Sometimes the story will bring relief, and cause you to leap for joy or to laugh out loud, or will bring a deeper understanding, or new perspectives to what we thought we knew but had not fully understood. Sometimes stories make you feel humiliated and deeply ashamed, where we despair for our intransigence and inability to change, to recover, to cure ourselves, or of our inability to change humankind.
But we will not outlive the need to tell stories, and if our storytelling was ever curtailed or banned, there would be some deeply entrenched part of human nature that will find a way to continue telling stories, and will seek and listen to the storytellers, as human beings have been doing since ancient times. It all rests on storytelling. All we can do is to get better at telling stories, and better at understanding how important stories are in our lives, and for the future. I think great lessons can be learnt in how we treat Australian literature and publishing by understanding the story custodians I began talking about, the ancient Aboriginal traditions of valuing stories, building storytellers, building imagination, integrity and strength in storytelling practices, teaching lessons of close attentiveness to stories, about how to read stories, and knowing how to value and look after stories so that they endure as cultural treasure.
• • •
A country’s literature will only be as strong as its authors and its readers, and I am also reminded by what Kafka said about books: ‘I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us… We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.’
We could say that the type of literature that Kafka was thinking about, is not necessary in the twenty-first century for our thinking, or for the purpose of literature for our time. Who will read literature such as this? I feel that many authors might censor their thinking about going too dark, too bleak, too hard or difficult, or feel that it is not their place to write books that would wound or stab the reader because they believe, or their publishers believe, that no one will read books that are meant to cut into the mind of the Australian readers like an axe. Who wants an axed-up mind? I absolutely believe that we need deep thinking and deep imagination in our literature to shock the daylight out of us, to make us see what is happening in the world, to make us think, and if we teach how to read more deeply, think more, then perhaps, perhaps, we might stop harming ourselves and the planet.
I am interested in our relationship to others and how to assimilate some of the vast fields of knowledge I am exposed to, to the extent of my ability and purpose as a writer, but I will always return to my own cultural inheritance. This holds the most importance to me, of belonging to this total world, yet one that relates to the worlds of others. This is really where I had originally gained my interest in literature and other writers of the world, through the great sense of Aboriginal cosmopolitanism—of being interested in other peoples, but choosing our own ways of being ourselves.
And all stories are exactly that: about what we can say about ourselves. About how far we can use, and take our imagination. About how far we can explore ideas to test the willfulness of our thinking about how we see the world, or our relation to it, or what we have learnt in style and form from the many who write today. We write to find out how we might even survive. We write our way out of a quagmire of questions we have that have to be thought about at length, that must be written to relieve the burden they have on the mind, to pass through fences—fence after fence, to find an explanation in our thoughts, to reach an understanding we can live with.
To be able to tell the story, to be the witness of some inexplicable experiences, may be the only way to survive psychologically, to be able to find solace, to be able to move on, to be able to find a way to navigate a future. I remember once reading what Edward Said wrote about how to be human on this planet that we all share, is that we must be able to tell our own stories, and that, ‘One ought to be able to say somewhere and at length, I am not this “we”, and what “you” do, you do not do in my name.’2 This is the power and the purpose of literature, to be able to tell your own stories.
To be able to tell a story in depth, to be able to find a way through the complexity of the mind, to extract exact words to describe what it is you can see, or think, or feel, by the art of crafting ideas into a work of literature, chiseling an art form from deeply felt imagination and emotions into words, for one outcome, to live. A writer may be lost forever if they cannot tell the story that they feel must be told, if the story fails from our inability to tell it. We may never find the way out of having failed, to be left with self-loathing, from being unable to achieve the mind’s purpose of telling stories in the way that we have challenged ourselves to tell them.
Storytelling is a human value in every part of the world, to tell stories with freedom of spirit, of one’s part in the story of humanity. The true spirit of a human life can only survive and flourish in its freedom to be able to tell the straight, honest story, and each good story is dependent on its ability to tell the truth as it is honestly felt, otherwise, it becomes an amputated story, a muted story, a censored story. Freedom to think and write honestly, ethically and with astuteness, is the power and purpose of literature.
Then to be the reader of literature, to listen to the story told, is to give the story company, to allow the story to go inside your spirit, to share the experience of the story, to be affected by it, and to be able to take the story inside the world of your mind, to connect with the world of others. And this is exactly what the important story man, the late Bill Neidjie of the Bunitj clan in Arnhem land, explained about his ancient stories, by saying: You listen my story and you will feel im Because spirit e’ll be with you You cannot see but e’ll be with you and e’ll be with me This story just listen careful.
• • •
Only an arrogant mind, someone who thinks stupidly and blindly refuses to acknowledge the power of story to change perceptions, will believe that they or anyone else cannot learn anything from reading literature, or any book, or that stories—fiction or otherwise—are not important, or that literature has no place in today’s world. And believe me, there are people who think like this, who do not believe in the importance of literature, and our children are deprived from developing their potential to imagine, to know and to continually seek knowledge, to understand the world more fully, including their own part of the world. And I am not just speaking about people who have not been able to learn to read. You will sometimes find that those who claim to be the most educated and are holding positions of power are the most illiterate in this country. If a person cannot recall one word, or one line in a work of literature, they have not realised the power of literature to alter the mind by what was read, or the way stories have the power to be absorbed in the mind. The story will be remembered by the simple act of consideration, in the act of remembering, or being recalled. The mind has already been shaped by what was read, just as our people believe with story: You listen my story and you will feel im. I remember a countryman in the Gulf of Carpentaria once told a school teacher who said my novel Carpentaria was too difficult to read, to keep on reading because it will start to sink in.
The journey of a book can be endless. Once published, it becomes independent of the author, and where it was originally published. It performs its own work. It’s original sovereignty will lie within its region of origin, but it contributes its sovereignty to the world. I was able to witness this with my novel Carpentaria. Initially, I thought I had to help this book on its journey but then in the end, I had to stop trying to keep up with what the book was doing itself. It is still travelling, and I hope its journey will be a long one, and that it will be important to those who are reading and studying it in faraway lands I will never visit, and in other languages that I will never know. In a letter I received from a well-known Chinese critic I met in Inner Mongolia recently, he spoke about fiction as being an important means of composing the reality of human culture, and ended his analysis of literary influences in the Chinese publication of Carpentaria, by saying it was a book that not only belongs to me, but belonged to the world.
While beginning work on this oration some time ago, I was listening to the news on the radio about whether Donald Trump would meet Kim Jong-un, and though my initial thoughts were negative (as I am about politicians these days), my thoughts suddenly changed to a peaceful scenario of two white doves flying through the slender branches of a weeping desert oak tree. This thought of the tree quickly transformed into an image of an old Aboriginal man watching a massive flock of white doves he had raised himself flying in tight formation in clear skies over desert country, and he was directing their movement. What could I make of this? Perhaps my old countryman was nurturing all people and at any moment, he could recall the cloud back into his mind, reshape it, and let it go again. This is why I like working with the imagination. To be able to imagine, to be able to think about the mysteries of our world, frees the mind from the burden of reality while it tries to understand what to do about it, how to think and write your way out. Literature, working with the scope of what can be imagined, is one of the great miracles of humanity. A gift. Never to be undervalued.
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the author of the prize-winning novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book. Her most recent book, Tracker, was awarded the 2018 Stella Prize. She holds the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne.
This oration was given at the Melbourne Writers Festival at Deakin Edge, Federation Square on Wednesday 29 August 2018.