When Ellen van Neerven, Brisbane-based author and managing editor of the State Library of Queensland’s indigenous writing and editing project black&write!, was working on her debut novel Heat and Light, mentor Anita Heiss was surprised by one particular element.
“She pointed out to me that it’s not usual for Indigenous writing to have sex in it, let alone queer sex,” van Neerven laughs.
“It came together in quite a strange way. I was just writing about the things I was interested in as a young, queer, Aboriginal woman. I didn’t think about it at the time, but my book is kind of one of the first to write about that experience.”
What makes this triumvirate of award-winning stories spanning ancient culture, family history and a strange, allegorical future even more surprising is that one of its queer sex scenes occurs between a young Aboriginal woman and the female-identifying leader of a recently discovered, plant-based life-form at risk of being forcibly removed from their island homeland off Moreton Bay.
Heat and Light's central story, 'Water', is an intriguing work of speculative fiction set in a future Australian republic which has the Jessica Mauboy song ‘Gotcha’ as its national anthem and is presided over by a female president in Tanya Sparkle. It clearly lampoons successive governments’ failures in both environmental and Indigenous policy, as well as our country’s dark history of forced dislocation.
“It gets weirder and weirder,” van Neerven admits.
“I remember one reader going, ‘I loved your book, but I just don’t know about the plant stuff’. I wanted to give people something to talk about, and they certainly have been.”
Heat and Light scooped the David Unaipon Award for unpublished Indigenous writers in the literary community-driven stopgap between former Queensland premier Campbell Newman abolishing the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and current Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk re-establishing them.
Subsequently published to great acclaim, Heat and Light was shortlisted for both the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Van Neerven will discuss her pathway to publication and Indigenous representation in the Australian literary cannon at three events during Melbourne’s inaugural Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival, Blak & Bright. It’s something she’s passionate about, singling out the University of Queensland Press and Magabala Books as leading lights.
Getting involved with black&write! when she was 20-years-old inspired van Neerven to begin work on what would become Heat and Light.
"black&write! really came into formation thinking about two gaps: one in opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers who are still not getting the representation in our national literature, but also for Indigenous editors,” she said.
“There aren’t many of us working in the industry. It gave me more confidence in myself and I felt more protected, part of this community, writing when I’d get home from work.”
Van Neerven’s confidence took a knock while attending her northern suburbs high school in Brisbane where she and her brother were two of the few Indigenous kids.
“I was made to feel ashamed of who I was. We had family close by, but being at such a white school I remember always thinking, 'how do I hide my difference?'"
“I was made to feel ashamed of who I was. We had family close by, but being at such a white school I remember always thinking, 'how do I hide my difference?' People were constantly pointing that out and I thought about it as a weakness. I was just so sick of the names I was being called.”
When she began to identify as queer in her senior year and said she saw it as just another hurdle to happiness.
“I remember my best friend, I loved him so much, but he would say a lot of homophobic stuff and I would just be like ‘oh no, I can’t tell him’. But he was really supportive in other ways. He told me later on that he would go home and cry because of the [racist] names I was called at school," she said.
"We both couldn’t understand how people can turn on each other just over colour of skin or appearance.”
While Heat and Light isn’t autobiographical, it draws deeply on van Neerven’s personal experience, tackling race, sexuality and gender politics in a playful way that she acknowledges has echoes of both Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood, particularly recognisable in the 'Water' sequence.
“I riff off so many things in that piece and the idea of difference, with the plant people being the other,” she said.
“The country that we live in is unstable. As a nation we are so quick to exclude others and to demonise minorities. It’s just a trick of language, propaganda.
"At the same time there’s this real stinginess in terms of the country and the land. Australia is such a large continent - one of the least populated countries in the world - but anyone would think we were the Netherlands, one of the smallest, the way we put borders up.”
Van Neerven said she's looking forward to catching up with fellow writers at this week's Blak & Bright, including South Australian Natalie Harker who took boxer Anthony Mundine to task in poetic form when he claimed that queer people had no place, or history, in Indigenous communities.
Traveling extensively after breaking up with her long-term partner, including a treasured escape to India, inspired van Neerven to pen her own collection of poetry, Comfort Food, out later this year. Sydney-based fans will be able to hear her read at the Queer Provocations Festival.
“It’s a lot about love and my sexuality and it really also just comes down to trying to find what is home when you are living alone or drifting from one place to the next. It’s a little bit of a journey.”