Feature Articles / Brenda Saunders on writing about, for and within communities

The words writing and community are inseparable in my creative practice. I write about and for my Aboriginal Community and also within the broader community of writers and the reading public.

I began writing stories aged nine, using the back of old receipts or scrap paper. I grew up in a house with no books, as reading was not a high priority in our struggling family. The only reading material was the Daily Mirror, passed on to us by the man next door. One day at school, I was amazed to find a stack of Word Cards in a cupboard, which explained their meaning, their derivation and grammar. I was allowed to take them home to read, and that was the beginning of my fascination with the use and sense of language. This has stayed with me and is a great asset for a writer, especially a poet.

Word cards are still a useful tool today, as I try to learn and incorporate Aboriginal languages into my work. This year begins UNESCO’s Decade of Indigenous Languages, and there is an urgent desire to revive many languages lost during the early days of colonisation. When we lived on Aboriginal Reserves and Missions, speaking ‘in language’ was forbidden, as expressed in my poem ‘Walpiri’:

             Without our language/we will have nothing to say/

             Have to close our mouths/No song, no story/

             when the words/want to come…


“We need to come together — a place to commiserate, share our knowledge and ideas, to enjoy and celebrate our world of words, wrote Adele Moy, founding coordinator of the NSW Writers’ Centre shortly after it was established.

While I applaud the notion of establishing this public space for writers to come together, I don’t quite agree with everything Moy says. In the article, published in the February 1992 edition of Newswrite, she considers ideas of the ‘lonely writer hammering away on a typewriter’ to be a cliché. It still seems an essential part of the process to me. I remember Anita Heiss having to take a room in her local library, so she could work quietly on her novels, uninterrupted. And many writers have been known to use rooms in Garry Owen House for this purpose. What drives us to sit down alone, struggling with words, hour after hour, is another question. Perhaps it is one way to order our lives and focus our thoughts, driven by a need to speak out and be heard. A number of organisations such as Writing NSW and the Copyright Agency continue to support us to do that, together with a diminishing handful of literary publishers.

The words writing and community are inseparable in my creative practice. I write about and for my Aboriginal Community and also within the broader community of writers and the reading public.


Writing about community

It seems I have been writing about my community all my adult life, firstly as a teacher working with children in schools and community art centres and, more recently, as a visual artist and poet. Most of my writing springs from my great interest in and concern for our past stories. Our cultural history has survived dispossession: ties to Country continue to sustain Aboriginal people today and, as a poet, I feel impelled to write to this power.

I have travelled extensively within Australia over many years. As an arts worker in the 1980s, I visited Wiradjuri and Muruwari towns and set up Aboriginal school holiday workshops, which usually included young people of all ages from the Community. In Brewarrina, for example, the children created stories of the Rainbow Serpent in the Darling River, which developed into large painted murals. These visits brought me a deeper understanding of the connection to Country and were the source of many of my poems, such as ‘Pay Back ’78’:

An aluminium space fills with children’s voices/ writing

the Rainbow Serpents story/young men, bros and cuz

come in from Dodge/take control of our ‘Arts in Schools’.

Paint/ their Murawari Dreaming in an air conditioned hall

When Link-up was established, I began to research my own Aboriginal family history, tracing lost links to other Wiradjuri communities. During my studies for a Master of Creative Arts Degree at Wollongong University, I wrote a series of poems on the Stolen Generation and its effect on my family. ‘Innargang’ (Girl), is one dedicated to my great grandmother:

          Now she lives a squatters life/on pastures fencing tribal country/

          Her days stretched ‘in service’/ … At the station trays wait for ‘smoko’/

          her black boots inside the door.

These were later published in my poetry collection Looking for Bullin Bullin, winner of the 2014 Scanlon Book Prize for Poetry.

Around this time, I coordinated the publication of a popular anthology, Steppin’ Out Speakin’ Up, a collection of mostly unknown Aboriginal women’s voices; our survival stories gathered as a social history record. (Older Women’s Network 2003)


Writing for community

I began using my language skills for my community, when I became an activist for Aboriginal Land Rights. In 1993, I was an inaugural member and secretary of the NAHHC, (National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council), formed during the heady days of political change and Native Title claims. Ours was a grass roots association, run with the help of volunteers from Aboriginal support groups. Our brief was to work with communities, demanding the protection and conservation of Aboriginal sites.  One memorable commercial proposal we fought against was for the appropriation of part of North Head on Sydney Harbour for tourist ventures, which would have endangered the many Aboriginal heritage sites and artefacts there.

The Sydney region has always been a subject for my poetry, particularly the harbour and coastal rivers. I have recently begun writing about the Eora People and local cultural heritage: the lost traces lying beneath the sprawling city. I speak to this unrecognized heritage in ‘Garramari: the Great Steal’:

           I dig up songs under the sand, hear music/ in names for headlands,

islands, fishing  bays/ walla-mulla, matta-wunga, yarong, karajeen/

tunnel through hardened rock, catch echoes of the Gadigal, Kamergal,

Bidigal, Warigal /laughter under shell middens at Were-Were

When compiling submissions and press releases for the NAHHC, I had to research Aboriginal claims. These became both an historical and direct source for much of my future writing. I travelled to many threatened sacred sites, gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges facing Aboriginal language groups. This became the driving force behind many of my poems on caring for Country, collected in my recent book, Inland Sea. One series of poems, ’Dead Centre’ is concerned with the effects of mining, logging and other commercial ventures on the unique Australian environment and the Aboriginal communities living there. One poem, Poor Fella’ Country’ sums up the years of alienation and distress:

   I see sorrow in our people sitting on Country/Wasted in spirit

   they suffer, hold a sickness/inside, as mining grinds their stories away

   …buried under scrubby ground/danger lies out of sight/

   an unseen cloud on future horizons


Maintaining traditional Aboriginal lore and culture features in ‘Quondongs La Pa’, (La Perouse) one of my Bush tucker poems:

   We go out with the Aunties/to look for quondongs/…ready to drop/

   The old women laugh as they sort/pat hot-pink fruit laced/

   with wild honey/… a sweet-sour hit

   ─ an aftertaste/ perfumed/ with blossom


Writing within communities

After the NSW Writers’ Centre was established in 1991, I took part in many productive workshops and courses there. As part of the community of writers, I grew more confident, sending my work to publications and competitions. One of my poems won a prize in the Centre’s annual poetry competition and I was given a life membership of the organisation now known as Writing NSW. So began a long and rewarding association!

As Writing NSW celebrates 30 years, I look back on its continued association with the Sydney poetry community. Over the early years, it was pivotal to the work of the Poets Union, an energetic, national community of poets and lovers of poetry. I remember the crowds of writers attending the exciting poetry festivals and book launches we held there. We produced a fortnightly journal of members’ poetry as well as reviews and essays. In 2010, due to lack of funding, the Poets Union was incorporated into the Melbourne-based organisation, Australian Poetry.  

 As a member of two well established professional poetry groups meeting in the historic Garry Owen House, I look forward to returning once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed. Round Table Poets is one of Sydney’s oldest continuing poetry groups, first established in 1976. As coordinator now, I have worked well with Writing NSW staff since we began meeting there in 2014. Young Street Poets, another workshop group, has also met in the building for many years. I enjoy the professional expertise and support of this association and have contributed to several of their edited anthologies, readings and book launches supported by Writing NSW.

Another community I value is the First Nations Writers Network, FNAWN, a vital resource for information, opportunities and general support. We come together at biannual conferences in different states, to meet up and share our Indigenous stories. The network publishes journals and organizes public events to promote Indigenous writing.

Public readings and interviews help us to connect with the community and are a necessary part of our work as writers. Poetry, like music, is usually better appreciated when read aloud. I am often invited to read at both the Sydney and Brisbane Writer’s Festivals and recently featured in the 2021 Sydney Writers Festival event, Requiem, held in recognition of the environmental devastation of the recent bush fires. In 2018, Writing NSW chose to feature the Aboriginal writer Oodgeroo Noonuccal in their Honouring Australian Writers series at the State Library and I was pleased to read the great poet’s words to the audience at an event dedicated to her work.

Writing within community has been very rewarding, as I recall stories and memories of growing up in inner Sydney. These have gained public interest through recordings I made for Spineless Wonders, a publisher of micro-fiction and prose poetry posted as StoryPhones at Green Square in 2018. These micro-fiction pieces have also been selected as scripts for short films and animation by students at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Many writers are taking the opportunity to explore multimedia; making connections, collaborating with musicians and visual artists to record for video or film. Some post work on YouTube and social media, sending it on their mobile phones. I have found working with a composer gives my poetry a new dimension, creating a richer sonic experience.  ‘Taxi!’ recounts a real life meeting in the city: the rhythm well suited for percussive invention!

             I met her at the lights with her weekly shop/ bought at Big W with a

             Salvos card/ She’s making for the taxi rank on Pitt and Park/ Black

             and proud, she’s been here before / has a way with cabs/ Never

             mentions Redfern/ high-rise or/ The Block.

The technology may have changed, but writers will continue to find ways to link up and to seek new avenues for their work to be seen and heard. Online platforms and journals keep springing up, to bring new challenges and opportunities to poets and writers generally. We write, listen, store our words on tiny microchips: on new devices and in new ways unheard of ten years ago. Communication is at our fingertips.

Yet the human voice, reading a story, speaking as if to you alone, still holds power. This is evident in a recent venture, Voices of Women, a collaboration between writers, musicians and a film director. Aboriginal women’s stories about their community were recorded and given new life in film. This was a joint project with First Nations writers in the USA and will be presented for public screening later this year. My piece ‘Our Mob’, relates the story of a woman, seeking to make connection with her family, her Aboriginal community.  I’ll give her the last word:       

            You could always rely on someone who had met someone,

            who knew something, thanks to the Aboriginal ‘message stick’,

            the word of mouth system from our old tribal days…We are

            still making connection, bringing those loose threads of the clan

             together. Wherever I go, in any town, someone will ask me

            about my mob and where I’m from. Look for connection as

             we share the uneasy stories of the past.

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