Australia’s current moment of racial reckoning has led many established literary and arts institutions to begin engaging robustly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, many for the first time across the past five years. While many literary and arts institutions have sought to work with Black writers and artists in the past, as a way to redress historical exclusion, often these engagements have been piecemeal, short term and still do not see First Peoples in positions of power.
Being asked to guest edit one of Australia’s oldest and most esteemed literary journals is one way to address these issues, with two Black women given the power to curate and edit Black stories, truths and words. Not unsurprising, yet still notable in 2023, this kind of action by Meanjin is still a rare occurrence. Of course, we do not claim that this one edition will solve everything, as there is still considerable room for improvement. What of issues of sovereignty? How can one edition in a long history of 80 years carry long lasting change? How can Australian literature reckon with its very core, built on the denial of First Peoples’ sovereign words and sovereign storytelling?
Until now, Meanjin has had only two editions focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and themes, with a notable number of non-Indigenous writers included in those editions. The first, in 1977, was followed up almost 30 years later by a second focused edition in 2006; this current edition of First Peoples writing follows almost 20 years later. Within the past First Peoples-focused editions, and throughout the intervening years, tensions continue to be felt, between what the majority non-Indigenous Australian literary sector considers ‘literature’ and how this often indirectly or purposefully excludes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.
In approaching this edition, we understood the limits of the power we have been given as Aboriginal Guest Editors for an all First Peoples edition and have sought to exercise our power outside of those limits as well as within. We have seen the tensions that exist in this work, between Black and white, between Western literary tradition and First Peoples’ words and storytelling. In navigating these tensions, we ask ourselves: Who are we doing this for? Who are we accountable to? What is our responsibility?
The answer has been to work through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of being and doing, to pull and push Meanjin into conforming to our traditions and to ground this issue in Black sovereignty, through the theme of ‘place’. What comes from this is a different way of working, a Black way that involves taking our time with careful curation and editing, taking care of each other as Black people when sharing our stories and our truths, starting with Elders and Country, and being inclusive of the diversity of Black writers beyond what the white literary sector will traditionally accept.
We have pushed at the established limits of Meanjin—of Australian literary arts—and commit this as our own small contribution to the world of Black Literature.
Dr Eugenia Flynn is a Larrakia, Tiwi, Chinese Malaysian and Muslim writer. Her essays, short stories and poems have been published widely including in IndigenousX, Peril magazine and the anthology #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement. Eugenia’s academic research focuses on Indigenous ways of writing and engaging with Indigenous texts.
Bridget Caldwell-Bright is a Jingili and Mudburra editor based in Melbourne. She currently works as an editorial policies advisor at the ABC. She was previously co-editor for ArcherMagazine’s First Nations Edition, managing editor for Blak Brow and has worked as a freelance editor across various trade publishers including UQP, Hardie Grant, Affirm Press, Allen & Unwin, Penguin and Scribe.