Sovereign People, Sovereign Stories: Five Books by First Nations Writers

This piece was originally published on Indigenous X 29 August 2019

Over seventy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, poets and playwrights recently gathered in Canberra. From 23 to 26 August 2018, this third national gathering presented by First Nations Writers Network (FNAWN) provided spaces for writers to talk craft and aspirations

The workshop theme Sovereign People: Sovereign Stories was apt, given many First Nations writers use story to highlight issues of relevance to their communities – from recent times, right back to the invasion – and to imagine a fairer future.

FNAWN also co-presented an inspiring evening with Canberra Writers Festival at the National Library of Australia on 25 Augusts. Introduced by Chella Goldwin from Us Mob Writing, poets Ellen van Neervan, Charmaine Papertalk Green, Jeanine Leane and Yvette Holt read poems in response to the NAIDOC 2018 theme Because of Her We Can.

This was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Cathie Craigie with Alexis Wright (via Skype), Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko, on the theme Sovereign People: Sovereign Stories.

Observing new writers talking passionately at the FNAWN workshop with some of Australia’s most awarded writers, it’s evident that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers have established themselves as an unstoppable force within Australian literature.

To present a complete list of publications by the writers that attended the FNAWN workshop would be a daunting task. Instead, I have compiled a short list of recent books by a few of the presenters.

Taboo  by Kim Scott
Pan Macmillan (2017)

Kim Scott is a Noongar man from Western Australia and an established writer of much esteem. Kim is Chair of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Story Project and Professor of Writing in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University.

He has been shortlisted for three Miles Franklin Awards, and the recipient of two. Taboo, Kim’s fourth book, was the recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and Indigenous Writers Prize.

Taboo explores facing up to the past, no matter how difficult that might be. Set in rural south-west WA, it tells the story of a group of Wirlomin Noongar people who revisit a massacre site after many generations. They have been invited by the elderly owner of the farm on which the colonial violence occurred, who wishes to fulfil his wife’s dying wish for reconciliation.

Parts of the story are brutal, overlapping past violence with a current generation that is dealing with racism, abuse, addiction and incarceration. This is balanced with language revival, reconnecting with land, decolonisation, and a sense of hope.

In reviewing Taboo, Melissa Lucashenko stated “This is a complex, thoughtful and exceptionally generous offering by a master storyteller at the top of his game.”

Tracker by Alexis Wright
Giramondo Publishing (2017)

Alexis Wright, a Waanyi woman, is an award-winning writer from Queensland. A past recipient of the Miles Franklin, Victoria and Queensland Premiers’ Literary Awards, Alexis Wright’s latest book, Tracker, was awarded the 2018 Stella Prize and 2018 Magarey Medal.

She is currently the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne.

Tracker is a biography of Tracker Tilmouth, an Aboriginal activist and visionary who passed away in 2015.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
University of Queensland Press (2018)

Melissa Lucashenko, a Goorie writer, has set her latest novel on Bundjalung country in New South Wales. Melissa was awarded the 2016 CAL Fellowship to work on Too Much Lip.

Melissa is the past recipient of the Deloitte Queensland Literary Award for Fiction and the Victorian Premiers Prize for Indigenous Writing. She is also a Walkley Award winner for non-fiction.

Released in August 2018, Too Much Lip has already received strong reviews. Melissa’s sense of humour and intellect shines though in this modern story, as does hidden histories. Melissa has said that she felt as if her great-grandmother was her muse throughout the writing of this novel.

The protagonist Kerry Salter returns home on a stolen motorbike to pay her respects to her grandfather, who is dying. Amongst the drama of family dysfunction and Kerry’s attraction to an outsider, there is the fight for the Salter’s ancestral lands.

False Claims of Colonial Thieves  by Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella Magabala Books (2018)

Charmaine Papertalk Green is a Wajarra, Badimaya and Yamaji woman from Western Australia. A visual and installation artist, Charmaine has been writing poetry since the 1970s.

False Claims of Colonial Thieves is a collaboration between Charmaine and John Kinsella, a well-known Western Australian poet.

This book of poetry explores identity, colonisation, politics, hope and country by weaving together the voices of a Yamaji and non-Indigenous writer.

Sorry Day by Dub Leffler and Coral Vass
National Library of Australia (2018)

Dub Leffler, a descendant of the Bigambul people of south-west Queensland, is a writer and illustrator of children’s literature. His award-winning books are sold internationally. He has written two books and illustrated 23.

Sorry Day was developed with Melbourne-based children’s writer Coral Vass. Through entwining two stories, the book highlights the importance of the Apology to the Stolen Generations – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed under past government policies. Sorry Day is suitable for readers aged 5+ and is suitable for starting discussions about Australian history.

 

I have patrons for my writing!

The last couple of weeks I’ve been peeking through the growing pile of debts, at my computer screen – reading arts grants, job pages, and other sources of potential income. And, as usual, spending too much time procrastinating on Twitter.

As is often the case for me, it was on Twitter that a potential solution was found. A means of managing the practicalities of living AND pursue my long-time dreams of writing. Another artist I follow on Twitter, Alysha Herrmann, was promoting her page on somethings called Patreon. What is this……

Curious, I did some research: starting with a read of the official blurb on the Patreon site. Ah, another crowdfunding platform. This one is aimed at linking arts patrons/supporters with creators. So they can do what they do best – create! There is a choice of per project, similar to other crowdfunding platforms, or monthly contributions, which sounded a bit different.

I’ve read a lot about crowdfunding, but have not gone there before. Some sites and projects are great, some not so. So I did some more looking into Patreon. I searched for reviews exposing the darkside of Patreon. Scam or not? And other than people saying how hard it is to attract patrons, supporters or backers, I didn’t find anything too worrying.

Having self-published my debut novel, I know it takes nerves of steel to promote yourself as an indie. But I’ve also learnt a fair few social media skills along the way. Why not give it a whirl? Nothing to loose, and perhaps something to gain.

First up, the platform is really easy to use. Very similar in usability to Google+ or Yammer. Setting up a creator profile takes about the same amount of time and skills as designing a WordPress blog. My newbie tip: have at least basic skills or find someone to help you.

The most time consuming part is what to say. So do some thinking about your goals, rewards, creator needs, and capabilities before you start. It will make it easier. Look at accounts by artists/writers/designers similar to you – what are they wanting, what are they offering, what tone do they use?

Patreon recommends using videos to attract sponsors, but that’s not my thing. I have a morbid dislike of putting my image and voice out there. Many introvert creators are the same. So I had to make sure my written words could do a good job of promoting me. Luckily, I’m a writer so could manage this without too much stress.

Setting up the financial side of a creator account was fairly easy for me as I already had a PayPal account, and had my financial details nearby. I’ve been selling my book online for three years, so the USA tax forms weren’t daunting. It was great that they have the form ready to fill in electronically. Many other US-based platforms don’t give users as much help and information.

Links to commence promoting my page was not too difficult for me, again because of my experience as an indie author. I already have a fairly strong author platform (i.e. social media presence) so it was fairly simple to link these accounts.

Coming up with goals, rewards, background, intended use of funds etc wasn’t too daunting for me, as I’ve years of experience working in project management, grants writing, research and policy. All I needed was to downplay the corporate speak, don’t overshare, and write a clear plan for potential backers. I’ll go back and tweak these sections, once I get the hang of crowdfunding.

So I set up my creator account, wrote embarrassing things about myself, invented some rewards, and clicked the launch button. Simply by posting on Twitter, I had three patrons within the hour, and reached six by the next morning. For a newbie, and having peeked at other accounts, I think that’s a promising start. I still have to do a proper launch, but its a good start.

And something that surprised me – although very grateful to my first patrons, I didn’t suffer from my normal feelings of not being worthy, guilt of taking other peoples’money or other forms of self-doubt. This is an important milestone for me. And a massive step to overcoming my dislike of being too visible – as well as my fear of success.

If interested, my Patreon site is here. I just used my real name to make it easier for people to search for me, as I read that Patreon’s search engine is one of its weaker points.

Feedback is welcomed. I see typos every time I look at the page. So its still a work-in-progress. I won’t mind if you point out more typos.

Would you like to support me to develop my career as a writer, but the thought of monthly payments put you off? You still can. Simply use the PayPal button on here (ie WordPress blog) > over there in the right-hand sidebar (not visible on mobile devices). I also have a PayPal button on my Wyld Words bookshop website, for people who’ve expressed an interest in helping me keep another local bookshop from closing.  I love book lovers   🙂

Okay – time for me to get back to being a bookseller / writer.

Such as it was…..

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Here is another snippet of what I’m currently editing. Its some years past the previous piece I shared. Its from a work-in-progress, which will hopefully become my second novel, called Where The Fruit Falls. Its a rough draft, but I hope you enjoy the read.

As the last plutonium-loaded cloud settled over the red sands in the south-west, many miles away three strangers emerged from a sister-desert; seeking rest from a road seldom travelled. Even though they had entered town cloaked in dawn’s light, news of their arrival had spread before the last rooster finished crowing. This flurry of curiosity was not because it was unusual on the gibber plains for people to suddenly emerge from out of nowhere; others have arrived in such a manner. Nor was it unusual to see strangers, even though the town was in the middle of nowhere; as the train, in passing, often spewed out adventurers, government officials, wayfarers, those of a missionary-bend, and other lost souls. And it was not the shock of seeing a young woman unaccompanied by a man; for strong, independent women were a familiar sight in the desert terrain. No, the inquisitive stares behind curtains and the gossip that raced at the speed of wild-fire was fuelled by the peculiar guise of the two girls that walked alongside the woman. For even in this era of fast-tracked social change, it was still unheard of for one of her kind, for the woman’s bloodline was unmistakable, to be travelling unaccompanied with a white girl.
And such a pretty little girl, a precious rose – many would add to their recounting of the tale. Obviously cared for, loved dearly, despite the marks of a long trek clinging to her clothes – others would remark to their neighbours later that day. Such flawless, milky skin – sighed many behind sun-withered hands. And what eyes, they pronounced, like precious opals – they all pronounced. Even though, in all reality, her eyes were more akin to a less precious but equally enchanting gemstone: malachite.
Once they could tear their attention from this child, they took in the other girl; reluctantly at first. They openly appraised this child, and not with kindness in their eyes or truth in their hearts. This other one, wearing the trials of the road so well, brazenly strode into town; or so they thought. With the steadied gaze of a sun-browned cameleer from days long gone, this girl kept her bright blue eyes focused on the road, ignoring the crescendo of disapproval. Clearly she hasn’t been taught her place in the world – some muttered. She needs to be knocked down a peg or two – grumbled others. Such arrogance, but what can we expect from the likes of them – verbalised a few. Giving them the vote will ruin this country, mark my words – others predicted.

That last comment drifted down the street, carried by the wind, towards the town’s edge, where it floated over the unseen boundary and fluttered around a gathering of makeshift homes. Those still trying to catch a few moments more of sleep tried to shoo the words away with the flick of a hand, not at all concerned about being bitten in exposed places. Others took a broom to the nonsensical declaration, sweeping the air until that unwanted opinion was encouraged to move on. As smiles of redemption began to brighten sun-toughened faces, they soon realised that there was now an unpleasant smell in the air. One by one, the fringe dwellers gathered outside, trying to locate the source of such a rank odour. An old man caught the eye of another, and then another, and another, Until soon they were walking away from the town, carrying only the essentials. They hadn’t needed a second whiff, for they had smelt this unpleasant odour many times before. Younger kin, refusing to follow, instead walked closer to the main part of town, allowing curiosity to be their guide.
Standing unseen, in the shadows cast by the rising sun, they saw the town-dwellers staring at a trio of travellers. The new spectators were also taken aback by what they saw, even if their comments were vastly different than those already dying in the dust or floating off on the air. For rather than seeing what was different, they had immediately noticed the similarities. Eventually, everyone began to see. It’s something in the bone structure, some thought – such high cheeks. No, it was the way they both moved, the way they hold themselves, certain aura. They could see that those girls had shared secrets, for they speak in a clandestine language only known by twins. Those young ones were the mirror images of polar opposites.
Never before had the townsfolk seen such non-identical twins; one white and the other brown. Only the fringe dwellers could see the truth of the matter, even though it was so very obvious: both girls were in fact black.

While all this was unfolding, the woman kept moving, oblivious and quite accustomed to the astonished stares and whispers of strangers. As she walked down the main street, such as it was, the woman took no notice of fingers clasping at almost-closed curtains, nor did she acknowledge the slack-jawed affliction that her progenies left in their wake. Steadfastly she walked up to the veranda of the general store, such as it was, dropped her bags and shook the red dirt from her skirt. Leaving the uncanny twins sitting on a pile of road-worn bags, she walked into the store, with her head held high enough for trouble to find her.
A short time later, the three of them turned a rusty key in a dusty lock, entered a pre-loved shack and set to turning it into a home; such as it was.

Where did you get that idea from?

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Front cover of When Rosa Came Home. Image by Ukraine artist Natalia Maroz (www.maroz.com.au)

I’ve been a bit neglectful of my blog this year. I could tell you that I’ve been on interstate-trips for the day-job, dealing with grief & loss and family issues, travelling overseas, busy marketing my first novel, and just busy with life in general. All of this would be true, but none are valid excuses for not writing regular posts. It’s not for want of ideas. Inspiration for blog posts are everywhere. I write at least two posts everyday – in my mind. Actually writing the words is the problem. Not sure why I’ve been avoiding my blog, but its time to stop. Pick a topic, sit down and just do it. After all, that’s what writers do.

Inside the Writer’s Mind
Over the years, I’ve been curious about the writer:reader relationship. Specifically, the interest that some readers have in what inspires the writing process. This is most obvious at Writers/Readers events, such as the recent Adelaide Writers Week I attended. Audiences happily sit at the feet of some writers, hanging on their every word. And when it comes to question time, inevitability the discussion turns to: where did you get the idea for your book? What inspires you to write? Is it about you/people you know/real events?

Being a writer myself, and now being able to call myself a published author, this always makes me smile. There is no magical formula to writing. We aren’t actually opening up a vein and spilling out life-force all over the pages. The hideous antagonist isn’t created as sneaky revenge on those who have crossed out paths. Nor is the amazing protagonist a desired version of ourselves. A lightening bolt of inspiration did not hit us. And we aren’t aided through writer’s block by an otherworldly muse. Really, it’s not that interesting. Or is it?

Catching Butterflies
Ideas for novels, blog posts, short stories and other forms of writing are everywhere. Day and night, inspiration can be found in many places. They flutter around us in everyday situations. Some are just a blur, as they rush past on the wind. Others float gracefully, trying to catch the writer’s attention. Whilst others sit on a shoulder, patiently waiting. Seeing them is not the hard part. Neither is catching them. Keeping them alive, until the story is written, is the hardest part. For when we work on one piece, especially something as long-term as a novel, we can easily get distracted by all the pretty things fluttering around us.

A Gardener is Needed
Rather than spending our time butterfly hunting, perhaps a more beneficial approach would be gardening. Whilst catching butterflies is possible without any devotion to developing skills, for all that is needed is a keen eye and a swift hand, gardening requires at least some basic knowledge, hard work and lots of patience. So lets switch metaphors: an idea for a story is like a seed. Seeds are common, they are easy to find. Their hidden beauty is not obvious, but each seed contains something far greater than itself. And they generally have a long shelf-life – there is no need to rush.

The difference between someone who notices potential seeds for stories and a writer is that the latter devotes the time and resources to plant and nurture those seeds. Seeing seeds isn’t special, it isn’t an ability that very few possess. Being disciplined and driven to sit at a computer for hours, weeks and years so that you can water, feed and shine on that bloody seed is where the dividing line between writer and non-writer lies. And being committed to learning the tricks of the trade, the rules of grammar, structure of stories and other must-have skills and knowledge is what separates the pot plant owners from fully fledged gardeners. 

The Seeds
I would hazard a guess and say that the average writer has countless seeds lying around. Some are carefully guarded, awaiting the right time to plant. Some are tucked away in a drawer, and may or may not be planted. While others are already in soil, being nurtured until they bloom. I do all three. I have ideas for stories everywhere, in different stages of growth or dormancy. Where I get these ideas from differs from story to story. As does the process of growing them, but that is best left for another post. Instead, I’ll explain where I got the inspiration for some of the stories I have written or currently working on.

The Chocolate Box
Recently I published my first novel, When Rosa Came Home. I work full-time, so producing this book took many late nights over many months. Over the last two years, I have been working on a number of manuscripts and short stories. I have three manuscripts in different stages of editing, and concepts for four more – all waiting their turn to be nurtured. Rosa was the one I chose to go first. Not because it was the ‘best of the bunch’, but because it was one that I most enjoyed writing. Amongst the agony of countless edits, I enjoyed creating that story and spending time with the characters; whilst breaking a few of the ‘modern’ writing rules and blending genres. At every stage in its development, ideas for plot, characters, dialogue and hooks came from many sources. Mostly when I wasn’t working on the manuscript, like when I was driving or trying to sleep.

The actual seed for the book came from one image. I have a vivid imagination, and sometimes it feels so strong that it’s as if I can actually see an image. This one was simple: I ‘saw’ a withered hand reach into a drawers of a tall boy dresser and pull out a flat wooden box. I had the sense that this person was going to open the box, and share the contents with someone. Many months later, I recalled that image and started to ask questions: What is in that box? Who holds that box, and why? Weeks later, the seed sprouted, and I sat down to write. First I recorded the image, and from there another image, and then another. I don’t plot, and I don’t write in a linear path. Instead I take an idea, write it out, and add another and another. Sometimes this includes jumping from one bit of the emerging story, to another; changing, deleting, rearranging, adding as I go.

About three years after I had that vision of an elderly hand reaching for a wooden box, a novel was born. The actual scene of the man and the chocolate box is minuscule in the whole novel, and its omission would not alter the overall story. It’s not a crucial scene at all. Its whole purpose was to inspire me. It was a seed from which a story bloomed; after many months of hard work and dedication to finish.

The Unspoken Fruit
The manuscript I am working on now is already over 75,000 words, and will hopefully be finished mid-year. I have learnt that I can’t forecast completion time, because life gets hectic sometimes and unexpected things do occur. Also, I often hop from manuscript to manuscript, working on whichever is ‘calling me’ the loudest. The one I am writing at the moment is called Where the Fruit Falls. It is a quite a bit more serious than my first novel, and has not always been as fun to write. Mainly because it explores darker times in Australian post-colonial history. Its style of writing, or genre, is magic realism. I chose this type of writing as it’s a non-confronting way to write about socio-political issues in fiction. Magic realism also lends itself to indigenous ways of storytelling, and has the ability to incorporate the conflict between timeless cultures in changing worlds.

The inspiration for this story comes from a song: Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. One of the many unforeseen benefits of technology that has enabled people and news to travel around the globe at a greater speed than ever before, is the increased connectivity and solidarity of peoples that have experienced oppression and other atrocities – both in the past and in the present time. The words of Strange Fruit are powerful, and even though they speak of a horrible era for African-Americans, I immediately felt a connection. Like many colonised nations, Australia’s first nations peoples have experienced the violence associated with occupation of invaders. In earlier decades, there were many instances of massacres, public hangings and other forms of ‘allowable’ murder. Later there were other forms of government driven harm, oppression and deprivation of human rights, such as forced removal from homelands, segregation, incarceration on missions, unpaid labouring and removal of children.

All of this came into my thoughts as I listen to that song. Powerful words, strong images of grief and loss, and the dark side of humanity. At first I painted my thoughts, producing a contemporary piece using dot painting techniques. My paintings are for me, I don’t display or sell them. They are just another way for me to voice thoughts and tell stories, just like my weaving and writing. Eventually I had other images, which I wrote down, until a story emerged. This story will eventually be published. Using magic realism techniques, with non-identical Aboriginal twins as the protagonists, Where the Fruit Falls confronts the social injustices, racism and ethnicity-based inequality found in Australia during the 50’s- 70’s, and the ongoing clash of cultures and world-views.

The Underwater Grave
Another manuscript I have on the go was inspired by ‘place’. There is a small rural town near me that has a large reservoir. Up until the late 60’s, where that water now lays was a town called Lovely Valley. The old stone buildings were dismantled, and every thing and person relocated for the sake of the dam. There are a lot of urban myths about Lovely Valley, including reports of hearing the old church bells ring during times of water scarcity. These tales are not true, proven false by archaeological research and dives. Still, it is intriguing. So I started writing Lovely Valley, a modern gothic tale. Compete with mysterious deaths, dark secrets and a ghostly woman of the lake.

Gardening while the Sun Still Shines
I have many other examples of where I have found inspiration and ideas for writing, most of which are based on thoughts, places, images and dreams. However, none of this matters in the least if I don’t find the time and discipline to sit down and flesh the ideas out, to nurture them until they are a fully fledged story. That is the hardest part.

When daydreaming, I imagine myself on a stage far from home, with a sea of faces in front of me. Unlike the seeds that I tend until they are novels, I know that this image may not come to fruition, despite how much energy and time I devote to my writing. Making it in this industry is not mappable – talent and hard work is often not enough to get you to the desired destination. Still, there is no harm in dreaming. I wonder if my imagined audience will get around to asking me about where I get my ideas? And if so, could I possibly make it sound interesting?

It just came to me – I know why readers ask writers where they get the ideas or inspiration from. Not because they yearn to know some heavily guarded secret, or to discover what makes writers different from them. It is more banal than that. They ask those questions because the answers are so much more interesting than the other questions, the ones that new writers might ask: how do you write? You see the act of writing, locked away in front of a computer, and the endless solidarity moments of editing, are simply boring. Discussing that part of producing a book would drain the magic out of any story. Maintaining the illusions of the writer and the creative journey is the better alternative.

I won’t disillusion anyone, then. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a garden to tend to.

  

Is That Your Story To Tell: non-indigenous writers and First Nations stories

20140711_133655Its time writers stopped cultural appropriation of First Nations peoples stories – their heritage, cultures and places. Its time to progress the conversation beyond a writers’ rights to tread where they wish, and instead talk about decolonising Australian literature.

As a starting point, writers should consider cultural safety. Many other sectors have introduced this intercultural model to their workplaces and practices. It could be of benefit to the Australian literature sector. 

Cultural safety
Cultural safety originated in New Zealand in the 1980’s as a solution to the inequity, cultural bias and systemic racism that Maori people encountered when accessing health care. It has since spread to other sectors, such as education, and exported to other nations, such as Australia. Its a good fit for countries that have a similar history of colonisation, and the subsequent ongoing socioeconomic disparities.

In simple terms, cultural safety is a form of interpersonal relationship-building that takes in to account the complex sociopolitical influences and cultural elements of individuals: history, culture, heritage, power & privilege, worldviews and values.

Identity, colonisation and literature
My identity is uniquely mine. I am complex but I know who I am.  And where I sit on the constantly shifting Power & Privilege Spectrum. At this point in time, part of my identity is that I am a middle-aged motorbike-riding Aboriginal writer and bookshop owner.

When I write, it’s important that I have a clear understanding of me, and an honest awareness of my limitations. And there are limitations to the creative process. Writers do not have free-range to write whatever they want, without regard to others. So I am aware of the need to follow cultural protocol; to write in a responsible and respectful manner; to know what I can and can’t write. In simple terms: to do no harm.

Harm has always existed in Australian literature. Regardless of whether its fiction or non-fiction, literature is yet another means to colonise and oppress First Peoples. To silence voices of Indigenous peoples by myth-making and constructing a non-inclusive national story. To reinterpret the violence of nation-building; from invasion to appropriation.  

Honestly, I’ve slowly drifted away from Australian fiction. Dreading the moment when the non-indigenous writer would introduce an Aboriginal character or appropriated story, I knew it was time to look elsewhere for reading material. I now mostly read books by non-white writers. We read to see parts of ourselves represented. There’s been some improvements, but Australian literature is not inclusive.

Reading books containing paternalistic, out-dated and offensive terminology is uncomfortable. Even traumatic. All that misinformation, romanticised versions of history, and cultural bias that oozes from some pages isn’t an enjoyable reading experience. That’s not cultural safety. These writers, and their publishers, show no regard for Aboriginal readers. No respect for the culture, heritage, and lived experiences of First Nations peoples. This type of writing is cringe worthy at the least; appropriation (i.e. theft) of cultural knowledge at the worst.

Embedding others while resisting otherness
The intention of this blog post is not to scare writers off from including Aboriginal characters, history and places in their works. We should build capabilities to embed intersectionality in our works, and explore a broader range of values and ideas.

However, we should also be wary of resorting to otherness in our depictions of diversity. Not everyone can, or should, write outside of their lane. A writer needs to be competent. And the inclusion of intersectionality needs to be more than a token gesture.

Research is the first step, but make sure your sources are reputable. Reflecting on your own background is essential. Get advice – and remunerate Aboriginal people for their time and expertise. Listen to that advice: if its suggested you make changes, or remove elements, then take those recommendations seriously. Always write from a position of respect – not entitlement. Do you want a badly written or unconsciously offensive piece hounding you for the rest of your writing career? 

Whose story is this?
The above advice is good for minor characters and story elements. However, i
f you are considering a main character who is of Aboriginal descent, or intend to depict a historical event involving Aboriginal people, or include an aspect of others’culture (i.e. lore, law, spirituality, ceremony, protocol, language, songlines), then extra care should be taken. In most cases I would suggest writers reflect on the harm their work may cause others, and to reconsider what they intend to write.

If your only source of information is the internet, if you have not engaged an Aboriginal cultural adviser, and if you are not of Aboriginal descent – should you be even writing that story or inventing those characters? In most cases: No. Find another story, other characters, or at least another approach. And if you are non-indigenous and intend to write from the point of view of an Aboriginal person – seriously, think before you go there.

Not only do you run the risk of being culturally unsafe and inappropriate, but you will probably misrepresent Aboriginal peoples, history and culture. We have enough Australian history books, novels, research papers and movies that do that! 

Its time to move away from paternalistic, entitled, irresponsible and lazy storytelling. No more appropriating other people’s stories, stealing their cultural knowledge. Globally, indigenous peoples have lost enough. Find your own stories.

The lone black duck in the room
Australian literature sector is really really white. Blindingly so. Its still extremely hard for Indigenous writers, poets, journalist, editors and academics to get a foot in the door. This is not from lack of talent, passion or capacity. Its because literature is one of the last vestiges of colonialism in Australia. And there’s an abundance of cultural bias, racism, cultural incompetence, and paternalism lurking in the book making/distributing realm.

Recently I sat on a panel with other members of this realm. There were two strong voices on the panel passionately speaking about the need to protect Australian stories (ie white middle-class stories). As the only non-white panel member, I reminded them a couple of times that there is no such thing as a collective Australian story, and that many peoples’ stories remain unheard. I was then schooled and ‘corrected’, by panel members and audience. Told that there is enough diversity in Australian literature. And told, quite aggressively, that there were plenty of Aboriginal books, and adequate opportunities given to Indigenous writers in Australia. Oh really? 

At the beginning of this session, I had introduced myself as an Aboriginal writer – who sits on the Board of the First Nations Australian Writers Network, and actively promotes diverse books in my independently-owned bookshop. As the only non-white person in the room, I felt very isolated and under attack by a dominant worldview. And this wasn’t the first time I’d had this experience – its so suffocating! Driving home, I had to stop in a darkened carpark for an hour to shake that feeling off. Deep breath. Keep moving forward. 

Make some space for Aboriginal voices
Stories of colonisation, grief & loss, racism, inequity, and historical wrongs need to be told. As do stories of survival, resilience, family, culture, heritage, community, and future-building. However they need to be told the right way, with the right voices. White writers should be wary of taking on others’ voices, and be more aware of potential harm they can cause others. All writers need to take the time to reflect on where they sit on the power and privilege spectrum.

Aboriginal people need to be given more space, and resources, to tell their own stories. Protecting, maintaining and owning culture and story is a globally recognised right of indigenous peoples. Publishers need to acknowledge and support this right by facilitating more opportunities for Aboriginal writers to become published. And stop publishing works by white writers that are offensive or that appropriate others’ stories.

Find your own voice
As a non-indigenous person, writing your interpretation of others’s voices, you potentially silence peoples already striving to be heard. You also miss opportunities to find your own voice; to tap into your own wealth of knowledge, experiences, heritage and culture. Its important to know who you are, and write what you know. There are plenty of story-seeds closer to home. 

If you are driven to write about other peoples because of a desire to ‘do good’, then maybe you could find a more appropriate way than using a voice that is not yours, or telling a story that is not yours to tell. Walk the talk by being mindful of what you are writing, and why. Be a champion of cultural safety in literature.

Decolonise literature
It will take a multi-pronged approach to decolonise Australian literature. Writers, readers, editors, reviewers, publishers, event organisers, peak bodies, booksellers, librarians and teachers all have a part to play. From my professional experiences in government, health and community services, and education (including delivering cultural safety training), I know it won’t be easy. However, other sectors have made a commitment to be more inclusive and culturally competent. They have pledged to reduce systemic racism, inequity and cultural bias. Why can’t the literature sector do the same? If more people speak up, become advocates for equity in literature, then change will happen.

Together we can do this. Let’s decolonise literature in Australia!

 

This article was originally posted on 4 September 2013. Re-worked on 10 September 2016

Dragon’s Breath

Little Patch of Scrub (July 23, 2009) by Dave Clarke, Bush Philosopher

Little Patch of Scrub (July 23, 2009) by Dave Clarke, Bush Philosopher (taken near Clare, South Australia)

As the day drew closer, I found myself having those moments, where I asked myself: What have I done? 

Like all things done on a whim, signing up to participate in a magic realism blog-hop seemed harmless at the time, but the closer I got to 22 of July, the more nervous I became.

I will admit upfront, I am not an expert on magic realism, or any other genre. I do enjoy writing and reading magic realism literature. Although I am slightly choosy with what works I deem fit within this distinctly unique style of writing. I have previously expressed my thoughts on the core elements of magic realism in a previous blog post, which resulted in some interesting discussion (http://wp.me/p37mgG-cf). 

However, for the next few days I will strive to put aside my narrow view of magic realism. Instead, I am entering the magic realism blog-hop with an open-mind, eager to learn more and keen to enter into discussions with fellow readers, writers and bloggers.

 Why Magic Realism?

 It would be fair to say that my writing is erratic. None of my short stories or novels-in-progress are consistent in style, technique or genre. As I am still finding my voice, I think that its ok to experiment. Enjoying life as a creative person, I hope that I never lose the desire to experiment, to push the boundaries, to express and bring to life what is not easily seen. Which is probably why I find magic realism appealing: it creatively pushes boundaries.

As someone who has a strong political streak, especially in regards to rights for indigenous peoples, magic realism is a perfect way for me to explore inequity and injustice in a manner that is more digestible for mainstream readers. I am not alone in this, as writers such as Gabriel GarcĂ­a MĂĄrquez, Isabel Allende, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison have used magic realism to depict sweeping social change, political unrest and unsavoury moments in history.

As an Australian writer of Aboriginal descent, magic realism feels like a comfortable fit. And I am really pleased to be joining this blog-hop, even if I am still nervous. I intend to contribute a couple of posts over the next few days; what I will contribute is still undetermined.

To start off, I offer a snippet of a work-in-progress, which I feel has strong magic realism elements. Please note that this manuscript is still in first draft stage, so the below is still a bit on the rough side.

In the tradition of magic realism, where the fruit falls weaves a big tale, interjected with whimsical asides and musings on a nation’s history; while using ordinary lives to explore vital themes of identity, place and belonging.

This novel (expected release early 2014) sets ordinary people against Australia’s beautifully wild terrain, amidst a backdrop of post-colonisation and social transformation. There are strong themes of identity, belonging, place and family within where the fruit falls; told through the eyes of a young Aboriginal woman and her daughters.

Magic realism melds respectfully to indigenous models of storytelling; where the arcane is often accepted as natural, and time has a different meaning. Magic realism is reminiscent of songlines: cautionary tales with transcendent qualities, inspired by the many unseen and seen beings found within earth, waters and heavens.

In the below scene, ‘magic’ and reality is blended to:

  • create a rapid transition out of childhood
  • connect the generations; explore family legacies
  • describe the relationship of trust between the sisters
  • make reference to a well-known world event; one symbolises social-technological change

Characters in this extract are:

  • Victoria and Gracie – identical twins
  • Kathleen – young Aboriginal woman; mother of Victoria and Gracie
  • Iris – frail woman who Kathleen has been employed to care for (in exchange for food and use of the workers cottage)
  • The Man – Iris’ husband, a renown artist

I have titled this post Dragon’s Breath because that is what I have always called mists. Growing up on a farm, watching the fog fill dips in paddocks and small gullies, to then roll up the hill towards the house, I could never just watch. I had to enter the Dragon’s Breath, even if it was cold and moist, even if I was slightly scared. I’m not sure where the term came from, I have a feeling that it was either said or inspired by my paternal great-grandfather. Migrating from Ireland as a young man, and having had many wild adventures, in his later years my great-grandfather instilled in me the value of a good story-told well. As you will see when reading this extract, I have drawn slightly on these memories.

Extract from where the fruit falls

The afternoon sun peeked out from between the heavy clouds and penetrated the half-drawn bedroom curtains. Cocooned under a bright patchwork quilt, Iris could feel the sun’s warmth as it crept across her bed.  Despite the spreading warmth, this light from afar, Iris was tired of winter. Tired of the way that it got into her bones, made them feel like screaming. She called out for Kathleen, needing help to sit awhile on the veranda. Even though Iris had shrunk even more the last few months, as if she was retracting from the winter’s wind, Kathleen still needed Victoria’s help to lift the old woman. Together, they gently carried her outside, trying not to cause too much more pain. After placing Iris in the worn rocking chair, Kathleen sat down, a pile of clothes to be darned in a basket at her feet.

As Kathleen mended a small hole in the toe of a sock, Iris’ fingers twitched slightly at the sound of the needle. Her fingers remembered the motion, in and out, in and out; the rhythm of metal piercing cloth. Iris thought back, seeing in her mind all those patchwork quilts that she had created over the years; many of which were now scattered around the globe, being cherished by others. For her husband was not the only artist in the house. Iris was renowned for her quilts, which were works of art, not mere bed-linen. Now, all that she had of those works were her memories, and a fading quilt in her bedroom. Which was used to conceal her sometimes unsightly sick-bed, and to cover the ever-shrinking Iris.

With great effort, Iris pulled a thin rug up past her knees and studied the scene before her: thick mist concealing the paddocks, closing her in.  She felt uncomfortable, as if something was not quite right.  Fog always made her feel uneasy but today there was something more.  Wickedness lay in wait, concealed in the mist; that she was sure of.  Although she was not sure who it waited for.

Victoria had also noticed the mist but not the foreboding presence.

Without any hesitation, she ran inside, ‘Gracie, come and see this.’

Kathleen frowned as the front door slammed shut, having more than once instructed her daughters not to be too unruly when up at the house, out of respect for Iris.  However Iris rejoiced in secrecy, barely concealing a smile. For Victoria’s wildness always reminded Iris of her own girlhood. And as memories were all that Iris had left to enjoy, prompts were always welcomed.

Victoria soon rushed back outside, dragging a reluctant sister. Kathleen looked up, wondering when Victoria would mature a bit, stop all this rushing around.

Straightening the sleeve of her jumper, Grace said, ‘What is it? Come on, show me, it’s too cold to be outside.’

Her reluctance quickly vanished when she looked up, out past the veranda. At the mist that crept towards the house, after having already swallowed their small shack.

Victoria took her sister’s hand, ‘Let’s go.’

Gracie pulled her hand free, ‘No. I can see it from here.’

Victoria looked disappointed, but not defeated.  She knew that she could talk her sister around, Gracie always followed her sister, no matter the risks.

Iris caught Victoria’s eye, ‘Don’t be going out there, girl.  It’s not safe.’

Victoria paused, considering the old woman, thinking on her words. She then turned to her mother, torn between her need for adventure and, out of respect for Iris, the good sense to follow a word of caution.

‘It’s ok.  Go and play,’ said Kathleen with a smile.

Iris sat up, eyes widened, ‘It’s not safe out there. She should be content with watching it from here.’

Kathleen put down her darning, and considered the mist for a moment. Victoria waited, prepared to defy them both. Whilst Gracie stood in the doorway, hoping that her sister would change her mind.

Turning to Iris, Kathleen said, ‘It will be alright. My grandmother taught me about this type of mist, about the breath of dragons. They were common in the land of my grandmother’s people. These girls have the blood of those ancestors running through their veins, nothing in that mist can harm them.’

Victoria glanced at Gracie, eyes shining with excitement at that one word: dragons. Gracie refused to meet her eyes, she was well aware of her sister’s attraction to adventure. All those years on the road had not taught Victoria the folly of seeking the unknown. Gracie thought back to that time when she, herself, had acted against her better judgement. And remembered the chain of events that her decision had created, the loss that others will continue to bear because of her. She reached her arm out, and rubbed her left leg; the moist air seemed to aggravate the soreness that Gracie always carried, a physical reminder of that best-forgotten escapade. Now, Gracie appreciated the quieter life, the one that they had so recently found. She was not interested in any of Victoria’s wild ideas.

‘Real live dragons?’ Victoria asked.

Kathleen said, ‘You will have to find out for yourself.’

Victoria looked at Gracie, who shook her head.

‘Come on, there is nothing to be afraid of. Mother wouldn’t let us go in there if it was dangerous. Anyway, you know I will always protect you,’ pleaded Victoria

Gracie stepped backwards, letting the screen door close; placing a barrier between herself and the moment that she would give in.

Victoria walked over to the door and leaned her face on the mesh. Gracie could feel warm breath on her face. The sisters stood, face to face, neither willing to cave in, neither willing to say yes to the other’s needs.

‘That’s a good girl,’ said Iris. ‘Don’t go listening to your foolish sister. Stay here, where it is safe.’

Gracie blinked, just once and Victoria knew who had won this particular standoff. Despite the fear of what may lay beyond, in the mist, Gracie was not going to let someone get away with calling her sister foolish. Victoria opened the door, and took Gracie by the hand. With a wary glance at their mother, Gracie allowed herself to be led towards the mist.

Kathleen smiled lovingly at her shy, little mouse. Soon replaced by feelings of pride for Victoria, who always evoked memories of Kathleen’s own childhood. This adventurous streak had missed one generation, for Kathleen’s own mother was a home-body, just like Gracie was. Kathleen’s grandmother, she was different, much more like Victoria. Picking up the holey sock, Kathleen was soon lost in recollections of her grandmother’s stories; colourful tales from a faraway place, from another time.

As they ventured into the mist, Gracie was determined to not let go of Victoria’s hand. Droplets of water clung to Gracie’s skin and hair, but they didn’t make her feel cold. On the outside, beyond the veil, sounds had stopped. It was as if they had stepped over a threshold, in to a different place.  The girls walked cautiously, unable to see too far ahead.  Gracie concentrated on where she placed each foot, looking intently at the ground for obstacles that might trip her.  While Veronica looked brazenly around her, not wanting to miss anything that lurked, obscured within the thick fog.

Victoria stopped suddenly, squeezing Gracie’s hand, ‘Can you see it?’

Gracie lifted her head, her heart beating faster, little puffs of smoke accumulating in front of her. ‘Look. My breathing makes smoke, just like a dragon.’

‘There’s the real thing,’ said Victoria, pointing to her right.

Gracie looked, fearful of what she would see. She saw nothing.

‘Can’t you see it?’

She shook her head, glad for once that she didn’t see the same as her sister.

Veronica explained, ‘It’s more like a snake than a dragon. I can see how people would get confused, though. She’s so large, frightening even. Also beautiful.’

Gracie pulled her sister’s hand, ‘Let’s go, I don’t like it in here.’

‘Ok, come on then.’

As they wandered through the thickening fog, taking each step with care, far away a man was taking leaps of abandonment. As hundreds of thousands gathered around small boxed-screens, the man in the bubble-suit jumped over craters, unaware that the world held its collective breath in astonishment. It would be many years later that the sisters would hear of that first lunar adventure. Or saw their first small screen. In the meantime, they would have to emerge from the mist.

The first thing they noticed when they approached the veranda was the man, dressed in black. He sat in a straight-backed chair, shoulders hunched, bottle in hand. They had never seen him there before. Behind him stood their mother, who held a finger to her lips. Quietly they stepped up onto the veranda, knowing something was wrong.

Hearing a noise, the sisters looked over at the empty rocking chair, just in time to see it make one last movement. Silently, Kathleen led them to the workers shack, where she helped them to select more fitting clothes. Soon clad in black, they were told to stay away from the house, to play quietly; out of respect.

Want more?

A few months ago, I posted another extract from where the fruit falls (  https://karenwyld.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/the-unseen-ocean ) that also contain a touch of magic realism. In this prologue, I use elements of magic realism to assist the reader to slip into the right frame of thinking, before the story starts. Much like the act of sitting around a fire/kitchen table, where many stories of old were told.

Without reading the rest of the book, it would be easy to mistake this extract for fantasy, but it’s not. It’s very much set in this world, a long-time ago, in a time remembered by fewer and fewer people. The prologue describes this time, and reminds the reader that First Nations peoples have been around for a very long time, they have witnessed many changes, have had to endure much hardships; and they have survived, as they will continue to survive.

The Other Hoppers

I encourage you all to check out the post from the other writers/bloggers participating in this week’s magic realism blog-hop. You can find their links on Zoe Brooks’ blog (http://magic-realism-books.blogspot.com.au/) or at the bottom of this post.
Zoe has been reading and reviewing magic realism books for the past year, and is hosting the blog-hop.

http://magic-realism-books.blogspot.com/2013/07/what-is-magic-realism.html

http://kirstyfoxbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/night-logic/

https://karenwyld.wordpress.com/sporadic-musings/ 

http://zoebrooks.blogspot.com/2013/07/magic-realism-or-fantasy.html

http://leighpod.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/flying-high-with-magic-realism-2/

http://www.tadcrawford.com/blog-2/

http://hearth-myth.blogspot.com/2013/07/urban-fantasy-and-magic-realism-matter.html

http://muriellerites.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/serendipity-down-the-rabbit-hole-by-rebecca-davies/

http://joelseath.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/real-magic-and-the-mythkeepers-of-the-world/

http://allonymbooks.com/2013/07/22/facts-and-fiction-historical-magical-realism-evie-woolmores-blog-for-the-magic-realism-blog-hop/

http://edieramer.com/2013/07/22/magical-realism-blog-hop-giveaways/

http://curatedbookshelves.blogspot.com/2013/07/white-is-for-witching.html

http://christinelockebooks.blogspot.com/2013/07/magic-realism-by-christine-locke.html

http://susanbishopcrispell.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/every-little-thing-i-read-is-magic/

http://jordanrosenfeld.net/everyday-magical-realism/

When magic is the reality

735011_10151317440863518_1886868707_nLike attempting to compare a fish to a bird, Magical Realism is not akin to Fantasy.

To begin with: lets remove that ‘magical’ tag that has recently crept in, and return to the original title of ‘magic’ realism, for what we discuss here is not magical at all; there is no fantasy within this genre. I must confess, I am a fan of magic realism; although slightly pedantic in what I feel deserves to carry that well-earned title. Yes, its genre we are talking about here – well, sort of. I hope you didn’t think this was a post about magic? I suppose the heading and picture were somewhat deceiving, but they got your attention; so I hope you do read on.

Luckily, I am not an academic or a genre-expert, so you will not find a long-winded, heavily researched piece here. And I have a short-attention span when it comes to discussions on genre, so we may just skim over that. Anyway, I tend to see genre as a (somewhat necessary) box that writers are often forced into for the sake of marketing our work. And perhaps sometimes genre is used as a form of elitism among writers, publishers, academics and reviewers; especially when the term ‘literary fiction’ is thrown in to the pit for them all to scramble over. Instead, what you will find here is written from a reader’s point of view; someone who aspires to be a writer of magic realism.

Like all stories, this post needs a beginning, so let’s make that ‘this morning’. So, this morning….actually, it was the afternoon: late night with friends + weekend = sleep in. Anyway, today I woke with the awareness that it was once again time to compose a new post for my blog, but with a deep sense of: what do I have to say that anyone would want to hear today, or perhaps ever? Before I could be dragged into that fiery pit of despair, known more commonly as Writers Block, I was saved. Thankfully, a chance sighting of a post on the ever-a-pool-of-knowledge for us writers – the Indies Unlimited blog (check it out at: http://tinyurl.com/cogmryp) – gave me the inspiration I was seeking.

It lay in just one sentence, a harmless one really, which was repeated as a question on the Indies Unlimited facebook page: Do you think that magical realism [is] nothing but fantasy with an accent?

This question (or shall I say challenge) was put forward by Lynne Cantwell; fellow blogger, published author and frequent contributor to Indies Unlimited (information on her books can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/ccr2g4m). It’s important to note here that my post is not a critique of Lynn’s post, and the only point in common is the interesting idea that magic realism is a posh form of fantasy.

Well, simply put, the answer to Lynn’s question is: No

And now the non-simple response:

Fantasy and magic realism come from totally different places, written by authors who see the world from a unique angle, because of the way that they belong in this world, their realities; their identity, their cultural knowledge and the historical experiences that continue to impact on their kin and homelands.

If we look at the works, lives and origins of the masters in magic realism, we see some common threads. I speak of authors such as: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Alejo Carpentier, Franz Kafta and Toni Morrison. They have all experienced, or are descendants of those who have experienced, massive social upheaval such as: colonisation, slavery, genocide, diaspora, loss of land, conflicts and wars, and other forms of inhumanity that humans continue to inflict on each other. These things, and the telling of them, are truths, they are real; they are not akin to fantasy.

An author uses magic realism to tell of these big picture (macro) moments within their lives, or the lives of their ancestors. However, their stories focus on the little picture (micro) happenings; broken down to simpler terms, relationships among families and communities, and those from outside that sphere of belonging and identity. Their stories are based on reality, on history and truths that many would prefer were buried; never to be spoken off again.

There are no glittering vampires here, no trips to the underworld, no dancing with the pixies, or transportation to other realms. There is just reality, a different view of history, that the author is asking you to accept as realism.

Magic realism uses devices still found within indigenous storytelling; an oral tradition which continues despite all attempts of cultural genocide. It subtly tells historical facts by blending the difficult-to-swallow parts with the ‘magic’  or arcane elements found within traditional storytelling; for the purpose of planting greater understanding in a reader’s awareness of humanity, to gently shift the worldviews of those who have not had the experiences that the author endures/has endured.

Indigenous peoples use stories in a multi-leveled manner; like an onion, there are many layers to carefully uncover. On a simple level, a story is a form of entertainment, told around the communal fire to both children and adults. This story often has the dual purpose of being educative: a cautionary tale as to what may happen if a child strays too close to the fire, or a person steps beyond the cultural norms; breaching law or lore. As a person grows in their understanding of the world, and are judged ready for more knowledge, the same story would be re-told, but with some additions. This adding of layers to a story continues until it reaches an arcane level; usually only accessible by Elders – that which is secret-sacred.

To be fair, I have read some books labelled as magic realism, written by authors who are not indigenous and/or do not have a lived or ancestral experience of the historical events I have mentioned. However, I would hazard a guess that they have a deep connection to the land on which they live, and a respectful understanding of the hidden side of history.

Now for the (more?) controversial statement: I believe that it is the lived or hereditary factor of social and/or political upheaval, and a continuing connection to culture and identity, that forms an author of magic realism.

We might give you a peek into our worlds, share with you parts of our culture, or you may feel a deep connection to country, or even a sense of shame for what has happened/continues to happen to our peoples, but you can never fully step into our realities. Instead, we give you magic realism, so that you may have a glimpse of our worlds for a fleeting moment, and perhaps accept a new realism, one which will hopefully help you to grow in your understandings. Just like the stories of old.

Back to that notion that magic realism is fantasy with an accent. It may not be fantasy but it does have an accent. Not a hoity-toity accent, like that of ‘esteemed’ literary fiction. It has the accent of the many (or their descendents) who have seen the horrors that humans can and do inflict on other humans; and have survived to continue their way of life, their culture, their deep connection to country and treasured sense of identity.

As I said in my opening, I aspire to write magic realism. I may never reach that goal, but still I can try. For an example of my work, please see the (for now) opening to a novel I am writing (http://tinyurl.com/c9qs4wg). On the surface, yes this extract could be confused for fantasy. However the intent of this piece is to set the scene for the bigger story, which explores themes such as: identity, colonisation, stolen generations, belonging, culture, diaspora and Country. This piece asks the reader to put aside their worldviews and values for just a moment, and accept that Aboriginal people have always been on Country and always will be; despite the social-political upheaval that they have had to/continue to endure.


Image downloaded on 4/5/13 from:  http://tinyurl.com/c726fnu