Portrait

A Skype call with award-winning author Alexis Wright about the big issues that inspire her. By Omar J. Sakr.

Waanyi author Alexis Wright’s stream of words

The dull tones of the Skype call ring out. There’s a catch, and an image resolves. Alexis Wright, the award-winning Waanyi author of Carpentaria, appears on my screen: mild-mannered, short auburn hair, black-framed glasses.

“I can’t see you,” she says straight away. I fumble around to turn on my camera. “It’s the little video button on the bottom.” I say I’m sorry, citing nerves.

“Oh, don’t be,” she says. “I’m always a bit nervous about these things anyway. It’s just a chat.” She proceeds to nonchalantly eat her cereal, as if to prove the point. Wright is polite, her words coming slowly and with frequent pauses. On the subject of her own Indigenous history, the history of her people, she picks up speed.

“I always credit my own people as teaching me everything I know,” she says. “They were my university, really, even though I’ve been to university and I’ve studied a whole lot of things. And it grew from there where they wanted me to – they were teaching me to listen, and you know, to have respect.”

Wright’s ability to read and write meant she had extra responsibilities to her elders and community, and had to learn a great deal very quickly about the various struggles they had to face, from land and property rights to basic things such as water supply and decent roads. Writing was a political act as well as a cultural act. From that wellspring came the desire to tell her own stories, the recognition that she had a duty to do so, both for herself and her people.

“Writing grew from all that. I was quite a young person at that stage and quite, quite radical in thought and about what I wanted to see happen. I wanted to fix the world and straight away.” That sense of activism is on display in her 2013 work, The Swan Book, which tackles the twin subjects of climate change and dispossession, a deep imagining of future resource wars and the way it will make refugees of us all.

“There’s clearly a discriminatory act in what’s happening in Western Australia, in closing those communities,” she says, no hesitation in voice or manner, language unfurling in her passion. “The people, that’s their homeland, they’ve got nowhere to go. They’ll become fringe people in urban areas, and we’ve seen all that, we’ve been through all that history, and it seems like in recent years, it’s been a turning back to what we’ve been through and going through it all again, and in the process, destroying more and more of who we are and our cultures and our languages, our homelands and the meaning of those homelands in this process of assimilation.”

Her glasses glint as she speaks, light reflecting off them. “There’s this great push where they think everyone should be assimilated, which includes people from non-English backgrounds, to be assimilated into this picture of what an Australian ought to be, or, the people who are making these decisions, how they see themselves. And it’s not a country like that, it’s a country made up of a whole lot of different people these days.”

The cereal lies largely forgotten. A phone rings in the background, but there’s no stopping now. “With refugees, Australia’s had a lot of practice. They practised on Aboriginal people with the sort of reserves that Aboriginal people were shunted to years ago, and some of the policies, they kept us contained. It’s been a whole series of policies like that – they know about containment and sweeping people away, out of view. There’s a whole history of that here.”

The writer speaks softly and evenly. Hers is not the zeal of the raging bushfire, but the reassuring steadiness of a tide, resolute.

“When people become refugees, they take their stories with them, and what happens to those stories? How do you keep those stories? They are a part of
who you are, so I don’t know, I don’t know the answers but I’m raising the questions because people are affected, people are becoming displaced, people are losing their country.”

This theme runs through the heart of her work and her message in our discussion; she is concerned not just with exploring human relationships, but also the relationship between people and the environment.

“We live in a world with billions of other human beings, but we’ve got responsibilities to one another… And taking care of the world we live in means taking care of each other.”

I can only agree, swept up in her words, nerves long vanished.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "Swept up in words". Subscribe here.

Omar J. Sakr
is a poet and writer. He is the author of These Wild Houses.