The Stella Interviews: Debra Dank
What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
I have always been a reader; I truly cannot remember not being able to read. I am almost positive that I have studied and became a teacher to validate my reading habit. To now be included on a list celebrating and acknowledging authorship surprises, shocks, and confounds me but mostly, I am humbled and excited to be on the Stella Prize longlist for 2023 and I offer my best wishes to my co-longlisters.
Your longlisted book, We Come with This Place, has been described by Tara June Winch (The Guardian) as “part memoir, part bush guide and customs manual”. How would you describe your book to someone picking it up for the first time?
We Come with this Place is the book that almost wrote itself. It developed and evolved as part of a formal study program, so I was concerned with following those protocols rather than focussing on the production of a narrative for publication. I would describe my book as a mapping exercise in the events that have shaped my family and our connection with our Country. And it presents our experience of living there, with some of the traumas and the profound joy and privilege of living and growing. It is also about acknowledging the contribution our Country, in nurturing my mob, that our living was not achieved on our own. And it is a celebration of the strength and tenacity of my family in maintaining life of ourselves and our place. Those bush knowledges and customs are the ordinary things of how we live with our place.
What were some of the inspirations and ambitions behind your book?
The inspiration behind this book is wholly about the worth and breadth of family – human kin, non-human kin, and Country. As a child, I was raised in often remote and isolated places and while my parents couldn’t give us a lot of the wants, my sisters and I had more than our fair share of the needs. My family made the act of living a simple and honed back life seem to be the greatest privilege which it is, and I remain inspired by and in awe of my parents’ bloody-minded determination to live and keep family close. Producing this narrative allowed me to be in the presence of my memories of their example.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process? How do you write, where, when, and on what?
My writing style has typically been within formal academic writing so absolutely nonfiction processes, and the development of this narrative was within the bounds of a PhD study. I think because I didn’t have any notion of writing a ‘book’, I had a certain level of artistic freedom that may not be present when one is consciously writing a book.
I think, my writing style, will continue to be, because I find I need to write some more, typical of the episodic form I used in We Come With this Place. Episodes give me the ability to include movement and fluidity with the presence of other authorial voices who contribute to our narrative. My writing is more life experience and historical recount about my context which is remote Aboriginal Australian space and place. My community lives and tells stories in a nonlinear fashion, interweaving extended kin and events, and those nonlinear times and voices in Aboriginal narrative is what has shaped my growing.
I sit at a computer to write almost the final draft, the stories having lived and journeyed throughout my head and my conversations for some time. By the time I sit to write, which could be on Country, in the back booth of a coffee shop or in my office, I am just wanting to spill the words across the page and give them their freedom to say what they will.
What’s on your reading pile at the moment?
I am breaking out of academic reading, so really celebrating… I have a stack of titles by Tea Cooper, Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the Colony and Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow. I also have a few books about the Stoics which kind of feeds my interest in philosophy and the ever-evolving human condition.
Find out more about Debra Dank’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, We Come With This Place.