What would a child care worker, a filmmaker, a public servant, a passionate blogger and a singer/ songwriter have in common? Not much, you would think. But when five very diverse individuals — Janite Barker, Kodie Bedford, Nardi Simpson, Siv Parker and Robyn Ridgeway — came together for a Mentorship Program for Emerging Indigenous writers in 2014, there was a shared desire to write and tell stories.
When applications were first submitted, these five stood out. It was not just about the writing, but also the stories and the enthusiasm they showed in their applications, that made the selection panel choose them.
Supported by Arts NSW, the program was a first for the NSW Writers’ Centre and matched successful applicants with experienced Aboriginal writers. Mentors included Larissa Behrendt, Nicole Watson, Gayle Kennedy, Bruce Pascoe and myself.
Over 12 months, writers and mentors worked together through face to face meetings, emails and phone calls.
A lot of coffee was consumed, and probably a few alcoholic beverages through the difficult times, but in the end we came out with five new writers starting their careers and some great writing.And the stories were as diverse as the writers themselves: a beautiful story of family loss and memories; a trilogy of Werewolves living Downunder; a very funny coming of age story; a hairy man; an emu called Earnest; and ‘twitter fiction’ all emerged during the mentorship.
At the beginning, there were varying degrees of skill and experience. A number of writers had very clear visions while others needed to develop their stories and writing more. For some, the writing came easy. Writer Kodie Bedford wrote 30,000 words in two months and said:
I’ve found the mentorship to be vital for my writing development. Not only has it given me contact with an established writer, but given me energy and enthusiasm to create my work. There have been a lot of ups and downs (writer’s block included) where she (Nicole Watson) has given me advice to get through. She has also been available to meet anytime over coffee to discuss my direction and go over edits.
In the past there have been mentorship projects but they were usually one-on- one experiences. The group project gives emerging writers the opportunity to work with a known writer and to connect with other people on the same journey. They also get to meet people from the industry. Sometimes the hardest part for Aboriginal writers is to get a foot in the door. For many Indigenous people, the isolation of writing is not just geographical but also about access. Through the program, the NSWWC has been able to give emerging writers a chance to work with established writers, access resources and gain knowledge of the literary industry. The writers have even made public appearances at the NSWWC Emerging Writers’ Festival, and the Corroborree Festival. The mentorship has inspired them to continue writing and to get serious about their craft.
Writer Robyn Ridgeway said at the end of the mentorship: If asked if I would apply for this program again, my answer would be yes. I believe it’s important to have this kind of mentorship program available for emerging writers, I’ve gained more confidence in my writing and now feel I have a right to say out loud, ‘I am a writer.’
NSWWC are certainly leading the way in creating platforms for Indigenous emerging writers. This program unearthed very exciting writing and enabled some ‘closet’ writers to take the next step. It’s refreshing to know that Aboriginal writing in New South Wales has a bright future.
Cathy Craigie is a Gamilaroi and Anaiwon woman from Northern NSW. She has worked in Aboriginal Affairs for over thirty years. One of the original founders of Koori Radio and former Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council, Craigie was also Deputy Director-General of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She has written several plays and essays and has worked part time as an Aboriginal arts consultant.