In this Spotlight On, the feature where we explore the creative practice of members and celebrate milestones in their writing career, we celebrate the work of Lenora Thaker.
Lenora was the first Torres Strait Islander to win the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship in 2021. Since then, Text Publishing have acquired the manuscript and her book will be published in 2024. Our Administration and Digital Services Officer Isaac Wilcox spoke to Lenora about this exciting time.
Congratulations on having your work acquisitioned by Text Publishing! Can you tell us a bit about the book (without giving away too much of course)?
Thank you! The story is about Pearl, a young Torres Strait Islander woman whose family have escaped oppressive government Acts to live in a thriving shantytown for ‘coloureds’ on the fringe of a northern sugarcane town. She seeks opportunity, but must overcome prejudice, deceit and the entanglement of a forbidden love. When World War II brings hundreds of segregated African American servicemen, her life and that of the little shantytown will be forever changed.
The book, a work of historical fiction, is a love letter to my grandmother, a proud Erub Island woman, and a tribute to the power of family and community.
Your writing delves into the past, what are your top tips when approaching historical themes?
Tread lightly. The past is often as painful as it is joyous so being respectful, sensitive and using proper protocols when working on stories with your Elders is a must.
Question the records. When examining archives, ask who recorded that history and why? What’s missing? What does it say about the times in which it was recorded?
Be curious. Ask yourself how you would iron clothes or store milk a hundred-plus years ago.
Use old photographs. A picture tells its own story and several can be crafted from the warm sepia tones of a single image.
You’re not just a writer, but a researcher, filmmaker, and facilitator as well, how have these influenced your writing?
Having a background in research helps me apply methods for gathering and assessing information necessary to ground my work and colour my stories with fascinating historical details. Filmmaking has added another dimension to the way I visualise a story and facilitating, which involves connecting people with each other as well as ideas, makes me want to create writing that connects powerfully with readers.
Like many things in the publishing industry the bit between writing and being published is shrouded in mystery. How does an acquisition work, and what does it feel like to be at that stage?
It’s still a mystery to me! My path to publishing is a bit extraordinary. Winning the Boundless Mentorship gave Text Publishing the first right to consider my draft manuscript, however, an acquisition wasn’t guaranteed. Fortunately, a few months after submitting in April 2022, I was thrilled to receive a beautiful letter of offer. Then after another few months of negotiation and many years working on my secret writing passion, I signed off on a publishing deal. That was a profound moment for me.
You were the winner of the Boundless Mentorship in 2021, what was it like working with a mentor like Julie Janson?
Intimidating at first. Julie is such an accomplished author, poet and playwright with a string of awards. But as another First Nations woman, she understood very early what I was trying to write about, and the journey or demons we face as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, when getting things out of our head and onto the page. She shared tips and insights that I couldn’t learn in any mainstream writing course and made me want to write exceptionally well.
What advice would you give to someone starting a manuscript?
Begin it! Doesn’t matter where you start. Then keep going until you’re finished. Along the way enrol in writing courses – nothing will upskill you faster in the art and craft of writing. If you live regionally or interstate like me, Writing NSW and The Writers’ Studio in Sydney have some of the best online courses in my opinion, and are worth the investment. Enter writing competitions to keep those writing skills sharpened – you never know what may come of it. Join writing groups or organisations. For First Nations Mob, I also recommend The First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN) for cultural support and professional development opportunities.
What’s your guilty reading pleasure?
I have none. All my reading pleasures are guilt-free. Which means I love reading anything that has some sort of take-away for my own writing, whether it’s a great beginning, beautiful prose, Indigenous languages, clever dialogue or intriguing characters and content. Some of my faves include books by Alexis Wright, Cynthia Bond, Julie Janson, Anita Heiss, Jillian Bowie, Tony Birch and Ken Follett. Right now I’m reading The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey and it’s absolutely compelling for all of the above reasons.
Lenora Thaker is a proud Torres Strait Islander woman (home Islands: Erub and Mabuiag), born and living on Yidinji country in far north Queensland. She is a descendant of the Torres Strait Islanders of Cairns Malaytown (a makeshift village cobbled around swampland, late 1800s to early 1950s), who are the inspiration for her first novel. Her entrepreneurship and community advocacy, plus research and writing skills, lead her into VET sector writing and course development as well as facilitating for various private, public and community organisations.
But Lenora’s secret passion was to write creatively and become a published historical fiction writer, believing in the words of Toni Morrison: If you cannot find the book you want to read, you must write it.
Applications for the 2023 Boundless Mentorship close Monday 12 December. Find out more about the program and apply here.
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