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Wright wins Miles Franklin for story of homel -

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Wright wins Miles Franklin for story of homeland

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

As governments continue to grapple with the failures of past policies on Aboriginal affairs,
Indigenous author Alexis Wright has just been announced as the winner of the Miles Franklin award,
the most prestiguous literary prize in Australia, for only her second novel, Carpentaria. Wright is
a member of the Waanyi nation in far north Queensland, and long time activist on Aboriginal
affairs. Her sweeping, poetic book explores the rich mythology, chequered history and present day
drama of her Gulf Country homeland, and was praised by judges as the standout in a highly competive
field, which included dual Booker prizewinner, Peter Carey.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN: Coincidentally tonight, as governments continue to grapple with the on-going social
crisis in Aboriginal communities, Indigenous author Alexis Wright, has just been announced as the
winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious literary prize for only her second
novel Carpentaria.

An Indigenous member of the Waanyi nation of Queensland's far north, and long-time activist on
Aboriginal affairs, Alexis Wright's sweeping, poetic book explores the rich mythology, chequered
history and present day drama of her Gulf country homeland, and was praised by judges as the
standout in a highly competitive field, which included Jewel Booker Prize winner, Peter Carey.

Alexis Wright, who has also been shortlisted twice for the Commonwealth Prize, has clearly arrived
as an important Australian writer. She would have viewed today's action by the Howard Government
with mixed feelings, having written a book called Grog War ten years ago, about how hard it was for
the Aboriginal Community of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, to have alcohol restrictions
introduced in the town. I spoke with Alexis Wright, as the Prime Minister was preparing to announce
his national emergency in Aboriginal affairs.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Alexis Wright, you've been a long time getting to this point. What have you sought
to achieve with Carpentaria?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Oh, a fine book, a fine novel. That was the hope, that I would do a good and
honourable piece of writing that celebrated something of who we are, but also contained our
realities and was done as authentically as I possibly could make it, because it was telling a big
story and it was based in the Gulf country which I consider is my traditional homeland.

And I wanted to give something back to a lot of people who've given me a lot over the years and
have spent time trying to help me to understand who we are and the sort of person I ought to be.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Describe the influence of your grandmother in Cloncurry on your life and ultimately
on your writing?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: At a very early age from about the time, I think when I was about three, I would run
away from my mother and go down to my grandmother's place. She lived about I don't know, a couple
of kilometres away. I just knew the way. So I spent a lot of time with her and her taking me round
in the bush and down the river and all around the place, outside of Cloncurry. And she talked all
the time about the Gulf country and always wanting to return there and the way she described it was
only something that I could imagine at the time.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Even in your own family history there was violence way back, wasn't there, in terms
of what happened with Aborigines up in north west Queensland?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: That's right.

KERRY O'BRIEN: With your grandparents, your great-grandparents?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Yes, that's right, yes. There was indeed. My great grandmother was taken by the
pastoralist Frank Han when she was just a little girl when at a time when I don't know what may
have happened to her family, if they were massacred.

And my great-grandmother and another little girl were taken away with him. And I don't see how they
could have volunteered to let their young daughters go with a strange white cattleman and his
workers, and there's a history and that's been well recorded of the massacres that took place by
some of his workers and the kind of person that he was.

So, I don't know what happened and I can't tell, I wasn't there.

KERRY O'BRIEN: No, you had to try and put the pieces together to make sense of it.

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Yes, we had to put pieces together, records that exist and also through the stories
that our family keep telling.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You wrote in an essay five years before Carpentaria was published that you'd
inherited all the words left unsaid in a family to save the peace. "Words that have buried 1,000
crimes and 1,000 hurts." What did you mean by that?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: It's very hurtful for our family sometimes to talk about that history. And I think
it gets passed down to the next generation through the following generations of not wanting to
bring up hurtful things and hurtful things that happened to us even now, and family will just say,
"Let it go, don't say anything."

KERRY O'BRIEN: What is the heart of this book?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: My countrymen up in the Gulf country and also Clarence Walden, they would always
say, "We're of one heartbeat," and I hope the book is of one heartbeat. Not only for us, but for
anybody in Australia as we move towards the future and try to understand better.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've quoted Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. If I can quickly read a part of that.
"My only drink is meaning from the deep brain. What the birds and the grass and the stones drink
let everything flow up to the four elements, up to water and earth and fire and air." Why have you
put that in this book?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: There are a lot of things happening in Australia today and a lot of things we're
dealing with as Aboriginal people and a lot of those things are not of our making. In spite of it
all, I wanted to feel that. When I was writing this book there was more happening in our world and
to bring the soul of our world into the book. And that's the country, that's the land and that's
the land I love.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What do you think of where Aboriginal people are today in terms of gains and losses
in your lifetime?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Well, I'm very disappointed. I've worked for many years and so have many other
Aboriginal people have worked for many years trying to do a lot of things with poor resources and
often very poor policies from government and I think we're at a all time low.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Exactly 10 years ago you wrote a book called Grog War about the impact of alcohol on
the Aboriginal people in Tennant Creek. In the past two weeks two more reports, one from the
Northern Territory, one from Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute. Fundamentally about the same
issues. You must feel very frustrated when you see today's headlines and reflect on how little
you've travelled down that road?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Well, that's right. The book that I wrote for the people, the Aboriginal people in
Tennant Creek, the Warramunga people, Grog War, it is a book that they asked me to do to document
10 years of an enormous struggle that they had to introduce some pretty, I don't think they were
major restrictions, simple restrictions to the availability of alcohol in Tennant Creek and they
took 10 years just to bring in some restrictions in that town and they had to fight every inch of
the way. When the restrictions came in, that created even more problems of licencees for instance
not wanting to honour of those restrictions, other people not wanting to honour those restrictions.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You wrote in Grog War Aboriginal people are still being forced to hold much of their
contact with white people locked away inside of themselves. The best parallel which describes that
hidden history is describe that it's trapped like angry hornets inside Pandora's box. Those words
must still resonate with you?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Well, they do. If we expose our anger, sometimes if we express our anger we're
criticised for being too emotional or too angry.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Do you feel those angry hornets in you?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Yeah, there's anger there. There's also a lot of other things in my heart, and I
hope I've been able to express them in Carpentaria.

KERRY O'BRIEN: After Carpentaria and with Aboriginal, Chinese and Irish blood in your veins you
reflected on what might constitute a lasting form of reconciliation.

You wrote, "I've often thought about how the spirits of other countries have followed their people
to Australia, and how those spirits might be reconciled with the ancestral spirits that belong
here. I wonder if it is at this level of thinking that lasting form of reconciliation between
people might begin, and if not, how our spirits will react." Do you see a glimmer of that kind of
reconciliation today?

ALEXIS WRIGHT: I think there's great efforts on our side to try to reconcile the spirits and to
think about those ideas, cause we're quite spiritually minded people and we're dealing with spirits
of our country all the time and trying to honour the spirits of the ancestors.

I think we need to think about where our hearts and minds have come from and how they might live in
this country.

I think we're making the effort and we work very hard in what we do and it'll be a good time to
start talking about reconciliation from that level of, where our spirits connect.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Alexis Wright, thanks very much for talking to us.

ALEXIS WRIGHT: Thank you, Kerry.

(c) 2007 ABC