Being a writer can feel a lot like writing and giving up on writing at the same time.
—Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
There was a Facebook message from Hetti Perkins, which was an odd coincidence. I was working on a poem about her late father Charlie for a collection, which I would later abandon as I grew aware that I lacked the precision for poetry. The early interest I had attracted leading to these opportunities was more about a literary industry driven to uncover diverse new voices than an acknowledgement that with hard work and patience I might become a great writer. Attention that provided motivation but pushed emerging writers in directions at once exhilarating, confusing and premature. At the time I was considering using the title ‘Peeling’ for the poetry chapbook when I noticed her message. The poem was about her father’s role in the Nancy Prasad incident, where a five-year-old Fijian girl was deported to Fiji, symptomatic of Australia’s racist immigration policies of the 1960s.¹
While the story was known and recorded I was worried that she’d heard about the chapbook and was contacting me to express her concerns or interrogate my right to tell her father’s story. The likelihood of this was incredibly low considering my emerging profile and the small independent publisher I was working with. But it touched an underlying fear that the stories we tell have consequences and the choices we make carry responsibilities that are easy to neglect, swept away in the heavy adrenalin of a new idea.
Not long after Hetti’s message another unexpected email arrived, which was both exciting and disorientating. I was invited to meet a publisher for a coffee to discuss the possibility of pitching a book. Before I had time to consider what this meant and if I was ready to present myself as a serious writer deserving of a book, we were scheduling a meeting. I arrived early and found a small table in the expansive warehouse, which typified Brunswick café culture. As I waited for her I was desperately aware that this is what a writer longs for, but I was also ill prepared and a little embarrassed about the process of trying to sell an idea. I had thoughts and I explicitly knew the type of books I hated: the feminist essay collection-cum-memoir, which seemed to be popular. But I couldn’t quite articulate what I wanted to do either, other than strange, disparate thoughts ranging from a queer detective novel to a surreal experimental nonfiction collection in the style of Claudia Rankine. Both of which I assumed she wouldn’t be interested in.
When she arrived she was smaller than I imagined, had a British accent and ordered a Diet Coke, which I liked. She was easy to talk to and while I didn’t have a pitch we talked about current trends and the books we liked. I started to relax into something, which felt good; as if I could see myself in the future without knowing how I was going to get there. The image of myself as a writer materialised quickly but hidden in the background was an underlying question I couldn’t neatly frame. Was the interest in my work explicitly linked to my identity? Were they looking for the next successful blak book—whatever that meant—and could I write it, I didn’t know.
I couldn’t ask these questions but we talked around these issues as I explained that I was strongly attracted to Native American writers such as Tommy Pico, who talked about the trauma of genocide alongside the perils of OkCupid in the same breath; the work of First Nations people who were aware that their identity was linked to the past and the present, a present that was resoundingly different to their parents’, navigating burgeoning fame in hipster Brooklyn. For a moment I thought I could write a book about these tensions; an inner-city urban blak perspective on identity, but quickly realised Anita Heiss had already done it brilliantly in her 2012 memoir Am I Black Enough for You? And Bronwyn Carlson’s astute The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today? captures these ideas with resounding rigour and sensitivity. It was a book that I returned to regularly to make sense of what was happening around me.
So I walked away with a startling sense that I’d let an opportunity slip, one that might not happen again even though I wasn’t sure I was ready to take it. As I headed to the train station my shadow looked unusually long across the pavement, as if there was someone else in it. Writing often felt like living with something or someone that I was hiding from others, stories or elements of me that I wasn’t really sure I should share, uncertain of the moment when the idea spilt across the page. On the train my shadow left but when I noticed the reflection in the window I didn’t immediately recognise it as myself. She felt like a double or a ghostly look-alike that I didn’t know how to face, vaguely familiar but moving too quickly. She had a faint smile and held herself with a confidence that I didn’t possess. She looked like the writer I wanted to become but was equally scared of, as a combination of guilt and anticipation moved through my body.
I replayed the conversation with the publisher in my mind, asking myself whether I was worthy of a book, whether the ideas that kept me awake at night needed to be elaborated in print. There were so many Aboriginal people with important stories to tell in a country that required a new narrative, but in this urgency I felt increasingly unstable. I remembered listening to Eugenia Flynn reflect in the lecture ‘Beyond Indifference, More than Difference’ that the attention we attracted was not evenly split. With her distinctive confidence she held the gallery crowd at ACCA as she explained that there is:
a teeny, tiny space that’s been opened up for diverse people to tell their stories. That space is more often than not, moderated by the dominant culture, what it views as important, what it values, what it can understand … And this is how we end up missing a plethora of good work that’s out there that’s not up to ‘standard’, not up to that standard. It’s misunderstood by those with the power to include difference and diversity, and they get to set what diversity looks like.
I thought about the plethora of good work out there, the other voices that the white industry fails to notice because they don’t resonate with its ‘standards’ and wondered whether I was contributing to the problem. Were more deserving voices forgotten as others like mine gained attention? If I was going to write a book there was an enormous responsibility to create something significant enough to occupy this contentious space and I didn’t think I could do it. These were thoughts other writers would never have to analyse but they were doubts and ideas that consumed many blak writers I admired and the conversations we had about our work, the industry and what we were hoping to achieve in it.
At the launch of Alison Whittaker’s book Blakwork I remembered the way she shared the stage with other blak writers, inviting them to read before her as if to address the industry’s tunnel vision. But she also acknowledged that while her previous collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire was written for queer blak people growing up in regional Australia, it wasn’t surprising, but a little disappointing, that it proved to be incredibly popular with the white middle classes. I wondered where this left us and if our words changed when they reached these audiences. In the African-American context Hilton Als writes that ‘the subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought; first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and, second, because it has generally been assumed to have one story to tell—a story of oppression’.
I understand that it’s not always helpful to compare our experiences with the Global North but there were palpable similarities that always stayed with me when I read authors like Als. Whittaker mirrored his experiences; she also had to explain herself to white audiences to be heard. The oppression narrative lingered too. I recalled being told by an editor that they wanted something ‘more’ Aboriginal for an anthology they’d invited me to submit to. I realised after a series of emails that this meant they were looking for something about family violence, something I was lucky enough not to know and did not feel comfortable depicting. There were other stories to tell too, positive ones.
As I looked at my reflection in the train window, both eerily familiar and aloof, I didn’t know who I was anymore in a stifling cultural landscape where I and many others were asked to talk about our culture for the middle classes, engaging politely in university halls. A platform had appeared that felt exhilarating for a brief moment, like having your voice heard for the first time. But as the panel circuit intensified we rarely progressed in the industries that might enable the change we were looking for. While I tried to imagine a radical rethinking of the current systems, my reflection remained fixed in the train window. Faintly satisfied, like a writer who was just starting to gain attention still anticipating a future somewhere in this stifling framework, prepared to ignore the inconsistencies.
There were times where I believed I could remould the framework into something useful by documenting the trouble that I saw around me. But this created an uncomfortable division, where the cultural capital I gained through writing was not easily transferred to the subjects I wrote about. Distressing incidents captured in an essay rarely transformed the lives of people who slipped from view once the essay was read and forgotten. When the editor who had commissioned me for the anthology interrogated me for producing work that wasn’t ‘Aboriginal’, I started to understand that there was a specific market for pain lurking on the edges of the literary landscape.
It was easy to perform this pain but it also felt directionless and worrying. When I resisted the demand to write about my racial heritage from a position of atrocity and family violence, I began to think about the women I had chosen to write about. Pregnant women on the verge of something new and beautiful whose lives were marked by obstacles that most white Australians couldn’t fathom but who expressed nothing but hope and kindness in their demeanour. Illuminating their story in an essay that aimed to address the disempowerment of Aboriginal women felt important but left me with a lingering anxiety that there was a power imbalance that unfairly favoured me, the writer.
This editor’s desire for an ‘Aboriginal’ story had stirred a deep irritation, and as we exchanged emails attempting to find some sort of middle ground I swung between pulling out and finding a way to create something that felt truthful and addressed the stereotypes that constrained us. I chose to face the morality I was struggling with by writing about the ethics of what I did and whose right it was to tell these stories. The decision felt vindicating but in this space I made decisions that I would later regret, replicating the very trap I was attempting to undermine.
I wrote about a family incident and the loss of a relative that had generated some public attention in order to illustrate the fetishistic need for stories of trauma. But in doing so I also brought familiar pain to the surface, which wasn’t mine to share, which wasn’t necessary to do even if I had sought broader permission among my family, a family so distanced from hedonistic literary scenes that it increasingly felt like an act of betrayal ever to consider writing about them. This guilt erased the cleverness I held in; the cerebral moment of pleasure that came from writing. There was some relief when the book failed to attract attention and the publisher was threatened with closure. But a small essay in an underrated book, which vanished from existence, couldn’t alleviate the conciseness I carried. I had moved into uncertain territory hoping that writing might lead to something that was about me, as much as it was about commenting on the deep-set problems of our country.
Towards the beginning of 2019 I decided to stop writing because I wanted to distance myself from the image I had seen in the train window. I wanted to do something real even if I didn’t know what this meant yet. Small commissions trickled into my inbox like a reminder of what I thought I wanted to be. I read them not knowing where I fitted or what writing meant anymore. This was an odd feeling considering that I was at the beginning of this journey and not experienced enough to stop something that I hadn’t really started. Wherever this came from it pushed me to re-examine my qualifications, believing I could do more as I continued to read other writers who described the endless despair that spread across the world.
On a flight to Perth I read Valeria Luiselli’s essay Tell Me How It Ends, sinking into the relentless cruelty of US border control. I thought about the Indigenous mapping conference I was flying to on Whadjuk country and whether it marked the beginning of tangible improvements in my own country, of new ways to address the imbalances I’d witnessed in the urban-planning system and regularly wrote about. In her essay Luiselli describes the horror she experiences volunteering at the New York federal immigration court as a translator for undocumented child immigrants desperate for permanence at any cost. When she is stopped by border control on a family road trip an officer asks what her occupation is. When she tells him that she is a writer he then asks what inspires her. To which she replies:
How do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do you say, no we do not find inspiration here but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that.
Her words expressed why I wrote—but why I also wanted to stop. There was nothing inspiring about the essays I had published and I needed to detach myself from the anger they induced and the clarity that I never found in my own country, a country that felt like it was broken from the inside out. Later in her essay she describes how her niece, who also volunteered in the court, was drawn to transfer from a social work degree to law. At first she is surprised, attacking her decision, before she understands that her question is unnecessary: ‘I already knew the answer. It’s lawyers that are desperately needed.’
Her realisation marked a juncture in my own career. In the Melbourne subcultures in which I mixed, writing was everywhere, and while this was important there were other things that were desperately needed and I wanted to believe that having an urban planning degree would allow me to contribute in some way. I needed to imagine new ways of thinking to reframe policy grounded in settler patriarchy, to butt against the colonial planning and environmental laws that limited how we lived in urban environments. This is what was desperately needed.
In the weeks after the Indigenous mapping conference I thought about my responsibilities and what I had learned at the peculiar but instructive event, where the head of Google Outreach from Oakland, California, taught ArcGIS mapping software to Nyiyaparli and Palyku women from the Pilbara for whom English was a second or third language. And while these oddly placed contrasts seemed bizarre and frustrating they also illuminated the endless work that was needed to repair a country where mining tenements bled furiously into the map of Western Australia and native title claims disappeared into nothingness. I needed to feel hope beyond the confusing presence of the charming American whose broadcast accent and TV image were annoying and strangely reassuring.
However I felt, the workshop presented a chance to see our culture and ourselves in the mapping systems traditionally used to oppress us and to use this to speak back to the Western systems that were killing the environment. An atmosphere was building where paradigms shifted and while these processes felt unclear I also wanted to be responsive in some way. I saw these collaborations differently, avoiding my usual cynicism and attraction to critical writing, choosing to pursue freelance project work instead. So when an architect from a leading studio approached me to discuss Indigenous design principles not long after the conference I felt open to what this might bring.
His LinkedIn message asked if I was interested in collaborating on urban projects. Blak visibility was emerging in inner-city Melbourne/Narrm Birrarung-ga through public art. The Western regularity of spaces such as Swanston Street was broken by building facades, which referenced Koori culture. But the imagery remained stuck in the cement and concrete, which it attempted to decolonise. I replied with the following, clarifying that while this work was important it required practitioners to go deeper than surface change to the built environment:
Thanks for getting in touch. I’m really interested in how we move from engagement to collaboration and understand what the needs and desires are of diverse urban Aboriginal communities. With this in mind I think we are often too focused on incorporating Aboriginal culture into design outcomes without thinking about inclusion, such as how many if any Aboriginal people are living, working or socializing in the buildings we’ve designed using their motifs. I’m Melbourne based and happy to chat further.
He responded quickly, writing that he wasn’t interested in meaningless gestures but was still unsure what he should be doing, which was why he was so eager to engage with people like me. I agreed to chat further sending through my email and number as requested. As I waited for a response I started to conceptualise ways of working together, particularly as his firm was fast becoming an important actor in the social and affordable housing market. I imagined what a housing system that prioritised the First Peoples of the Kulin Nation would look like and how these conversations could occur. As a guest on their country it wasn’t my role to negotiate what this looked like but I wanted to address the industry’s lack of understanding. Months passed and although I regularly saw his name at architecture conferences addressing innovation in housing I never heard from him again. His silence sat like a distressing premonition of the impossibility of change.
I gravitated back to writing as a means to address the anger that grew, even as I remained acutely aware that writing was as useless as the tokenistic Indigenous-engagement strategies that saturated the design industry. These were the strategies that I would ironically critique again and again in another online article, which floated in hyperspace creating the image of progress, which could only ever exist on the internet. I didn’t know what else to do. The design industry’s silences repeated themselves with a gruelling consistency, which meant that I predictably reorientated myself to these literary spaces, which felt limitless and open to the conversations that the industry wasn’t. I tried to reinsert myself into real life but was reminded that my emerging online identity, which confidently ‘imagined a black queer Melbourne’, was impossible to translate into urban policy. This is what was desperately needed. This was why Valeria Luiselli’s niece switched to law, but as we moved into these professions the change we wanted felt as unattainable as the decolonial desire that proliferated on the web.
Caught between two industries, which existed on promises that never appeared to go anywhere, I slid into apathy. I was content to perform a job that provided security, unsure if there was anything else to push for. The shadow, which had been large and persistent when I first met the publisher, started to vanish, my reflection was barely visible. Someone still existed in the reflective glass surfaces hoping to be released, believing they were important. I just couldn’t look at them anymore.
At Mesa Verde, a faux Mexican bar in Curtain House, I met Shane, a Gadigal planner who had reached out to me, echoing my own concerns. We discussed the trends, ironies and complexities of the predicament we found ourselves in: overexposed via public platforms, debating the need for inclusive cities but never finding ourselves in the senior positions that might create the change we were asked to speak of. I was beginning to understand that change was a relentless series of administrative processes that stretched the imagination of what was possible in a system that continued to harm. It involved activism and internal antagonism and was rarely accomplished in one generation. In Melbourne, public events were programmed quickly where a string of diverse voices critiquing the status quo gave the illusion that we were achieving something. In a city distracted by an image of progressiveness legitimised by a saturation of these festivals and events it was refreshing to meet someone who also saw the pointlessness of it all.
A bearded waiter brought us sugar-free mocktails as Shane started to explain to me that her supervisor at the Faculty of Architecture and Design recently asked her if she knew me and was familiar with my writing. Why, I asked, feeling slightly concerned and intrigued as she revealed that the senior lecturer of the subject she was tutoring in had concerns that an essay I had written critiquing white feminism may be about her. It wasn’t and while a slight flicker of satisfaction ran through me I realised that this wasn’t what I intended when I started writing.
I asked Shane if the incident had made her uncomfortable, limiting her experiences in the faculty. While she assured me that it hadn’t, the critical nonfiction I wrote felt misdirected and unkind. I felt nervous as if another element had surfaced in the image of myself reflected in windows, which was beginning to taunt me in other ways. The desire to illuminate the prejudice I saw rarely shifted the power imbalance that permeated this city. And while I never imagined that writing was stronger than the cycle of panels and events that circulated through our calendars, for a while I had clung to the belief that something important remained.
Shane wasn’t asked to tutor the following semester, which didn’t concern her. She seemed relieved, preferring to focus on a career in the private sector. But the woman who had formed the basis of the essay I wrote progressed into the type of leadership roles that would see her appear at empowering-women-in-the-workforce events, providing advice to others on how to break the glass ceiling. A LinkedIn post revealed her recent executive position, unencumbered by a 3300-word essay, which attempted to expose the devastation she’d caused others. As I paid for our drinks I hoped we would see each other again, that something might evolve from our conversations to alleviate the confusion we felt.
Walking down the dark stairwell I tried to visualise better ways to express the anger I felt and rarely knew what to do with. I knew I could never appear on another panel event weaving Indigenous design into cities and where a crowd of well-meaning white people engaged enthusiastically then left with a supportive look in their eyes that seemed to disappear whenever tangible ways to re-centre Aboriginal people in land-use policy materialised. It was just too difficult, a confounding difficulty that weighed the most wilful practitioners down that even I didn’t know what to do with. But I was equally frightened of writing about the discrimination that surfaced everywhere I looked because it felt repetitive, momentarily cathartic, but directionless. I wrote the same thing in different ways and never seemed to move anywhere as the people I critiqued did.
That night sleep evaded me with a menacing quality that was becoming regular. When I closed my eyes the presence of a writer, which I first saw in the train window, flickered in and out of focus but remained present in my small bedroom with claustrophobic grip. I started retracing things I had written, googling different articles, suddenly unsure what they signified. I was eager to distance myself from an online identity, where decolonialism replicated itself manically but struggled to enter ‘real’ life. I didn’t want to see a reflection in windows or Google searches, where the image showed an addicting confidence that I didn’t have.
In a moment of clarity I decided to clean the expectations I had been holding on to. I started to Marie Kondo my online literary profile. If the TV show and books had helped millions declutter their homes by getting rid of physical items that did not bring them joy, I hoped it would offer me the same comfort. I emailed editors asking them to remove opinion pieces, poetry and other articles I had written, with a frenzied resolve, which felt liberating. They responded without hesitation.
I watched my opinions dissolve from the web. I wanted to disappear into something else even though I understood that these opinions, which had circulated on websites for a number of years, had meant something, had represented the zeitgeist of young and emerging black writers who were voicing truths that remained unpalatable and impossible to capture in the realms of other institutions, in the careers we had hoped for but increasingly left us disillusioned. And while this body of writing represented a significant ideological shift, it also felt hopeless, because the more I wrote about cities the less change I saw.
Like the image in the train window, my image on the internet had started to unnerve me: something that should have represented growth felt suffocating. In the clarifying essay ‘The I in the Internet’ Jia Tolentino writes:
The internet was drastically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stayed the same, or possibly shrank right in front of us. I had started to feel that the internet would only ever include this cycle of heartbreak and hardening—a hyper engagement that would make less sense every day.
On the internet we were hyper engaged, leaving a body of work that addressed systemic injustices by writers who presented answers to the alarming incarceration rates, deaths in custody, climate change and racism with such clarity that it broke my heart to see that change disappeared from sight. This cycle of heartbreak so eloquently described by Tolentino didn’t diminish the strength that blak writers embodied or the urgent messages they spread online, but it left me questioning how I wanted to engage. The internet appeared to offer unlimited freedom to express dissent but I didn’t know if I had anything left to say. Happy to watch from the margins and remain hopeful that this body of work, which existed in HTML, might with time influence something.
As I started to disengage from the online, my job became weirder and more unpleasant than usual. I overheard colleagues complain about the immorality that permeated our industry and seemed impossible to avoid. Their casual tone made it seem like a minor inconvenience, but the consequences for our work left me anxious and unsure if I could continue. It was these moments that I often felt like writing about but didn’t know if it was the answer anymore. Part of me fantasised about leaking documents to Nayuka Gorrie, wondering if they might be able to do something with them, an online article so damaging that when it went viral it would be enough to start something.
But I also thought about the recent raids on ABC journalists and the overwhelming fear and uselessness of it all. With uncanny serendipity another publisher contacted me during this time. Writing felt like an aspect of my identity that I was avoiding but my shadow grew boldly across the pavement as I walked up Swanston Street on the irregularly hot day to meet the commissioning editor. I was surprised by how quickly I was lured back into something I thought I’d walked away from.
The conversation was familiar from the previous meeting, but I asserted myself differently. Not wanting to be a writer enabled me to critique the industry and its diversity trends, which placed enormous pressure on us. But the publisher also played it differently, like it was social. She made complimentary remarks, which suggested an intention but provided little clarity on whether she was interested in seeing a proposal, manuscript or anything further. She seemed to imply that I send her some essays but I worried that I was misinterpreting the situation. I tried to enjoy her company, ignoring the cynicism hidden beneath my breath, imagining that she was genuinely interested on some level but lacked the resources to offer anything other then the small reassurance that my writing showed some merit. Maybe this was enough: a free drink and conversation, which flowed easily, but I also felt disappointed, even though I didn’t know what I was looking for. I sensed something brush past me coarsely in the small café, realising that the image of myself as a writer had materialised, hoping that she wouldn’t notice its brazen desires, its expectations and longing. I finished the iced latte when she told me that she had other people to meet but it was nice to catch up. I assumed she meant other diverse writers, who were probably people I knew. I was ashamed by my skepticism but I could see a multitude of identities that had suddenly caught the industry’s attention as she walked away from the table.
As I left the café I tried to avoid my reflection in shop windows. Its shape was vulgar, unsettled by the meeting and the unlikelihood of ever being released. I didn’t expect anything meaningful to transpire with the publisher and knew that this would hurt because there was something about her that I liked. But it was just another encounter that I would deliberate over for a few days before I eventually wrote about it, aware that this felt unclear but still hoping to find a resolution. Gradually I understood that writing wasn’t meant to provide answers to the confusion I experienced. Writing existed to ask more questions, to interrogate the dead ends and the cycle of disappointment, which left me sleepless and panicked at night; even if the answers seemed further and further away. •
Timmah Ball is a nonfiction writer of Ballardong Noongar heritage whose writing is influenced by studying and working in the field of urban planning.
1. In 1965 Charlie Perkins, with the Student Action for Aborigines, staged a kidnapping of Nancy Prasad, who was being deported to Fiji, to generate public attention on immigration laws and contributed to ending the White Australia policy. Despite his actions, Gough Whitlam is most commonly associated with the policy’s end.