Interview: Evelyn Araluen

Stella chats with the winner of the 2022 Stella Prize – Evelyn Araluen

Dropbear - Evelyn Araluen

Congratulations on being named the winner of the 2022 Stella Prize. What does the news mean to you?

Thank you! It’s an incredible honour – although the prize is relatively new in the literary world, I’ve followed it my whole career. Australian literature has such a problematic history of sexism and I’m glad to see initiatives working to redress that injustice. I’d always hoped that one day I’d write a novel that would win the Stella, so it was so exciting to find out that the prize was extended to include poetry in the year I released Dropbear.

The Stella has always advocated for books that deserve social and political recognition, and has celebrated books that don’t easily fit within traditional AusLit conventions, and I think the longlist and shortlist reflect that continued commitment in a diversity of form, style and subject. It’s an incredible honour that my weird little work of colonial critique has a place in the Stella list. Truly, I never dreamed it would be recognised in this way.

Dropbear has been described by Jeanine Leane as “a radical affront to setter-colonial Australia’s cultural and literary history”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of the collection, and how long did it take you to write from concept to completion?

I wrote Dropbear alongside my PhD thesis into contemporary Aboriginal literature by women and non-binary writers, for which I spent years researching and exploring literary relationships between Aboriginal stories and the settler colony. At first, I tried to push Australia out of it: to carve out a space that was for Aboriginal writers and readers alone. I wanted to centre the incredible work of Blak storytellers and creatives, but found I had this ever-expanding list of grievances about Australian literature and the legacies it continues to bear on our cultural landscape. The list got too long and needed somewhere to go. I began writing poems responding to those histories, to those aesthetics that have been revived by contemporary Australian literature and the arts, and began recalling how I myself had been raised into them, to whatever extent.

The book took about three years, I’d say, from concept to completion. It’s the product of many influences and many forms of mentorship and curation: I wrote a lot of it while undertaking a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship with Tony Birch; the final manuscript was edited by Ellen van Neerven, and I think I must have rewritten it every time I revisited the works of incredible Blak poets such as Alison Whittaker, Jeanine Leane and Natalie Harkin. Some of the last poems to make it in the collection talked about the Black Summer bushfires and the first wave of lockdowns in Victoria in 2020. It has an almost scrapbook effect on me now, returning to it. The poems are snapshots of my thoughts and feelings throughout some really strange years. It moves from settler-colonial critique to love to grief to decolonial possibilities and dystopian futures. All the while I was thinking about Australia and what it has done to us all.

What is it that draws you to the poetic form?

Honestly I never wrote poetry until I started learning my grandfather’s language about six years ago. Something in my brain clicked and suddenly the grammatical and linguistic possibilities of the written word were completely blown open. I also fell in love with a poet, and I think that does something to you.

Can you tell us a bit about how you write (where, when, on what)?

I’m not the kind of person who feels a constant burning desire to write. I barely wrote anything for a good year after finishing the final manuscript of Dropbear. I felt I’d said everything I needed to say and had to build up more energy to write again. I write in tiny scraps until I have enough scraps to make up a page and I take whatever page I can get to document that: the notes app of my phone, post-it notes, or notebooks I’m notorious for losing. I find I’m most likely to write in that immediate afterglow of reading someone else’s work, so it’s good for me to read as often and widely as I can. The problem is that I’m a slow but precise person with terrible time management, so a lot of things get written in a chaotic procrastination haze. Working three part-time jobs while studying isn’t the most conducive for a writing career, but here we are.

Is there a particular book you’ve discovered through the Stella Prize that has had an influence on your own work, or moved you in some way?

I read Tracker very soon after its release, and was so excited to see that it won the Stella. It’s a remarkable feat of storytelling and I was so pleased to see its achievements acknowledged. I definitely discovered Michelle de Kretser through the Stella, and I really love her writing. She’s another ridiculously talented woman with an eye for description that defies my understanding completely. Her writing feels channelled from some other world. This year the list encouraged me to pick up some books I hadn’t had time to start on yet, like SJ Norman’s Permafrost, which is just as good as everyone is saying.

“It moves from settler-colonial critique to love to grief to decolonial possibilities and dystopian futures. All the while I was thinking about Australia and what it has done to us all.”

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

That novel I always wanted to write so I could be eligible for the Stella! After finishing my thesis I’ve been interested in continuing a study of sexism and racism in Australian literary studies. As a young academic I’ve already seen some things that truly disturb me. Through the year I’ve been researching the history of women and writers of colour in the AusLit industry, and I’ll be starting up with a series of interviews talking to writers, academics and publishers about their experiences. It’s disturbing stuff, and I’m honestly not sure what I’ll do with all of this research – I’m hoping it can start some dialogues about how we can do better, and bring to the forefront some of those writers left behind by historic injustice. Writing a novel that touches on these issues is a daunting task, and I’m doing my best to work with sensitivity and reverence. I want to get it right.

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