This month’s Spotlight On feature author is Alec O’Halloran, a Sydney-based writer and researcher. Last year, Alec was awarded the Varuna House Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship. He was also a national finalist for the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship in 2015. He recently completed his first book-length manuscript, a biography of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, who passed away in 1998. Our intern, Ren Arcamone, sat down with Alec for a cup of tea and a chat about the unique challenges of biography writing and the best advice to have along the way.
R: You’re currently writing a biography of renowned Papunya Tula artist and Pintupi man, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. Tell us a bit about what first sparked your interest in Aboriginal art, and in this artist in particular.
A: That goes back a long way. I first became interested in Aboriginal art in the mid-nineties, although I had never especially been interested in art generally. It wasn’t like I followed it. You know, I had a few friends who were artists, and you’d go to exhibitions, just as a normal part of life, but it wasn’t something I pursued.
I got interested in Aboriginal art… I think, because I decided that I should know more about Aboriginal art because I’m an Australian citizen. I also didn’t know much about Aboriginal culture. And I didn’t know much about Aboriginal history. You read things, you see things on TV, but … my knowledge was all pretty scattered.
There were a few commercial galleries in Sydney that did Aboriginal art exhibitions. One of those was Utopia Art Sydney, which is the official Sydney representative for the Western Desert art collective, Papunya Tula Artists. From there, I learned about Mick Namarari, who was a founder of Papunya Tula. Despite Namarari’s prominence as an artist, no one had written his life story. I said to myself, I could probably do that. Take a couple of years, work on it part time. Famous last words.
R: So, was there something about Namarari’s artistic style that drew you to him in particular? Or was it something about his personal history, his life story?
A: I saw some of Namarari’s work in galleries, in books. I would have said to you, look, clearly he’s a good artist, but I couldn’t have said that he was significantly better than his contemporaries. But his life story sounded fascinating.
As a child he had no contact with white people, so he was part of that generation that grew up in the desert before colonisation physically reached their boundaries. I mean, that’s not quite true, in the sense that there were explorers and a couple of other crazy white men who used to go out through the desert. But the contact was very sporadic; there was no permanency to it. He was probably about eight or nine, living a life with his family in the desert. And then because of a few things, missionaries, prospectors, even scientists, in fact, going out west of Alice Springs, into those desert regions, that’s when you had that more permanent contact. And then he became engaged in aspects of white society.
So I just thought it was really interesting that someone had had that sort of life as a child, which was then disrupted by colonisation. And he had to adjust into that existence. Which he did, working on cattle stations and things like that. And then, with all of the difficulties of coping with colonisation … he ends up being an artist who wins national awards, and goes to Canberra and meets with the Prime Minister Paul Keating. You know, that’s quite a trajectory for someone to have within our lifetime. He passed away in 1998, but all these things are recent Australian history.
One of the ways to try to understand history is to try to understand it through one person’s lived experience. Which is, I guess, what biographers do.… So many biographies are ‘The Life and Times of’. So, what were the times like? With so much that’s happened in Aboriginal affairs policy, politics generally between white and black Australians, one way to look at it is to say, well, let’s consider just one person. You know, as much as we can. Because obviously, from my point of view, I’m looking towards him, but not actually seeing him, because we never met and he didn’t have any direct engagement with the project; he passed away before my project started. So it’s a particular kind of biography, when you’re doing that.
R: This leads me to another question I wanted to ask you: you wrote a conference paper in 2012 entitled, ‘I’m sorry I never met you: writing Namarari’s biography.’ Could you tell us a bit about the difficulties of telling the story of a man you’ve never met, but who is still in living memory? How do you manage those problems?
A: Yeah. Well, that’s, um… How big is your blog? [laughs] I mean, that is a big question. I guess to start with: if you’re writing the biography of a person who’s alive, who you know, who you have access to, and who wants to be part of the project, then that becomes a very collaborative exercise. Probably the subject is helping the author, or maybe even influencing the author, saying, ‘Look over here, but not over here!’ So at the same time, there can be difficulties if the subject suddenly decides, ‘No, I don’t want you writing the story.’ But potentially that story, where you do have collaboration between author and subject, that should be richer.
The benefit of writing about someone you’ve never met is you don’t necessarily have an opinion about them. You don’t have an emotional attachment to them in any way. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh, they’re such a lovely person, I couldn’t possibly say anything nasty about them’, or, ‘I don’t think they’ve got any sense of humour at all, even if other people think they have a great sense of humour.’ You can have all of those sorts of pre-formed things in your mind, if you knew them. I didn’t know him. So, I like to think that I’m reasonably neutral. Even though I probably started off with a sort of positive attitude towards him.
So you don’t have those sorts of preconceptions, and you don’t have attachments about your feelings towards the person. That then means that you’re open to the influence of all the people who did know him. When I would listen to people describe him, I would think, well, you knew him, you’re probably right. If you say he was pretty patient, I guess he must have been patient. If three people have said he was patient, then he probably was. But you then can’t go back and check with the person: ‘Three people think you’re patient, two don’t think you’re patient, which is it?’ I sometimes see the process as: I’m looking at a reflection of a person, and the mirror is the people I talk to. So they’re telling me about someone they can see, but who I can’t see. I’m seeing a reflected image through their eyes.
I guess another major part of the answer to your question is, if he’s not here, who am I going to talk to? Well, there’s family, relatives, friends, and, if you’re talking about an artist, also dealers and curators. One of the complexities of my project, obviously, was that he was an Aboriginal person and I’m not. So, there’s making contact with his relatives. And the second thing is, he grew up in the Western Desert. I live in Sydney, so it’s pretty far off, and that’s where I have to go to talk to people. That’s just a logistical problem; that costs money and time.
What it also means is that authorisations and permissions become very important. And by that, I mean authorisations from their family members, or in this case, Namarari being an artist, from Papunya Tula. Papunya Tula would help me if I needed a grant by writing a letter of support. If you want to go to another gallery’s archives, they will typically want a letter of authorisation. And so you go back to your source to get your supportive letter.
[In terms of working with Aboriginal subjects] I can’t imagine there’s one rule that fits everyone. But in my case, Namarari’s widow Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra is still alive. She was his second wife. I met her through Papunya Tula, because she’s also an artist. And over a period of time, talking with her, that led to her formally authorising the project. And by formally, I mean on paper, which black Australians call whitefella business; whitefellas always have pieces of paper. [laughs] And then her support meant that I was more able to go to other family members, and say, ‘I’m doing a project to write a book.’ And they’ll say, ‘Who’s it about?’ And I’ll say, ‘Elizabeth’s husband.’ Coz everyone knows everybody, out bush. And if Elizabeth has said it’s okay, well, it sounds like it’s okay. And it also means that if someone has a concern, they can go to Elizabeth and talk about it. That kind of track of authorisation and access is really critical. You know, if the person I was writing about was a white Australian instead of a black Australian, some of those things could be quite similar. But when you’re writing about Aboriginal subjects, especially formally, through institutions, there are written protocols you have to sign up to. They all become part of your methodology. I probably didn’t know that, at the beginning.
R: I was going to ask about that, actually. So as a white man and as an outsider to the Pintupi community, how did you work to do justice to the story and cultural heritage of Namarari and his family in your writing? And how much did you know to expect before you went in? It sounds like it was a bit of a learning curve.
A: I’d say at the beginning I had a bit of an idea, but I wouldn’t have understood the complexities and how much time some things can take. And as I say, if the research had been nearby, I could have just popped down the road, and if they weren’t there I could pop back tomorrow. But in the Western Desert, you get return flights to Alice Springs, and then you book accommodation, and then you hire a four-wheel drive, and that costs a lot of money. And then you go out bush, if the weather’s not rainy and the roads aren’t flooded. And everyone is there who you hope is going to be there, and there’s not a funeral, which could mean the trip gets cancelled. So that can make the research process more unpredictable. Not unmanageable, but it could extend the time. The main communities I did my field trips to were Haasts Bluff, Papunya, Mt Liebig and Kintore.
The other part of your question, about writing about an Aboriginal community and so on: I don’t know that there’s anything hard and fast about that. You know, I think there’s normal ethical considerations. Fairness, honestly, those sort of things. Because I’ve only spent a limited time in those communities, I don’t really know much about them. There are contextual things that come from Namarari or his relatives to describe how aspects of life might have been, but [the project] isn’t really a detailed exposé of a current community or how people are living. Because that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m writing is historical.
R: Last year you were one of the recipients of the Varuna Publisher’s Introduction Program. What was your experience of the week-long residency? What was it like, and what work did it allow you to get done?
A: It was good! I was selected for the Varuna Publisher’s Introduction Program, which meant my manuscript had been chosen by a publisher who thought it had potential. Even at that point I was happy, because I thought, ‘Oh! Someone thinks it’s good!’
As a general rule, I found writing applications for awards or fellowships or grants to be a good idea in itself, because it makes you sit down and think about your project or your book and how to promote it. Possibly in a very limited space and in certain language. Just going through the process … I think it’s a very good thing for writers, at a certain time. I thought I was at the end of my manuscript when I was applying for things like that. And getting selected was a real boost.
They assigned a mentor to me before and after the program, to give me some direction. My mentor read the entire manuscript, and we had a consultation before the residency. He gave me some good direction about refining the manuscript. So my week in Varuna was guided by those suggestions. I had some things I wanted to get done as well [with the manuscript], but I thought, I’ll put that second. [The week itself] is great, because you get up, you have breakfast, you write, you have lunch, you write, you have dinner, you either go to bed or you write.
The next part of the process is finishing what you started at Varuna. That actually took months, for me. I’m not doing this full time, I’m not working but I’m doing other projects as well. [Alec is also writing a catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive, annotated listing for all Namarari’s artworks.] So I went to Varuna in the middle of last year, and had finished working on the manuscript at the end of the year. The next part of the process is the manuscript goes back to the mentor, who then says, ‘So, did this person listen?’ [laughs] The idea with the program is that you’re getting a pretty good manuscript to become a very good manuscript. It then goes back to the publisher who nominated you for the program. I sent it to the publisher in late February.
R: So it’s currently under consideration. Is that nerve-wracking?
A: It is a little bit. The thought that this has taken so long, if it didn’t work out, that I would have to start again at the beginning – it’s almost like, oh, I can’t do that [laughs]. Partly because there would be another six months where nothing happens.
I did my research as a thesis at the Australian National University a few years ago, so I thought after I’d done the thesis, which is a very formal document, I thought it might take a year to revise it to be ready as a book. Then at the end of that year, I thought, I can definitely get this ready within another year. So, two years, absolutely fine. Then at the end of the second year, I thought, right, I’m really confident that at the end of another year, I’ll have this ready [laughter]. So to get it to the publisher, it’s been three years since I finished the thesis. Which is a horrible thought.
R: About that transition, from thesis to biography: Are there challenges in writing a biography for a wider audience, and if so, how has it changed your writing?
A: The typical problem is trying to make it more readable, you know; ‘reader-friendly’ was the word I kept hearing. So making it more reader-friendly, focusing on having an engaging narrative, because that’s what people want to follow through. I’ve tried to put in more anecdotes, more quotes from relatives, more information about the art, which will be interesting to people who collect Aboriginal art.
So there’s a bit more freedom, I guess. But there’s also a requirement to successfully engage people. Because if someone reads it and thinks, it’s kind of an interesting story, and I was going to give it to my friend, but I just don’t think they’ll get through it, well, you don’t want that to happen. You want them to read it and say, ‘I’m going to give this to my friend because they’re going to love it!’ You’ve got to impress your readers.
R: Of course. So how do you go about that? And how do you know when you’re doing it well?
A: By getting people to read it and give you feedback on your writing. You can’t write in a vacuum. One of the good things about university was getting feedback and having people talk critically about your writing. It’s pointless someone saying, ‘It’s really nice and I enjoyed it,’ and that’s all they ever say. Or, ‘It’s horrible.’ Since then, writing and talking to people, my drafts have been read by a few other people. I found out about the Varuna program through the Writers’ Centre, and I also did a course with Linda Nix here, which was called something like, ‘From Manuscript to Publication’, a couple of years ago. And that was really good, because that alerted me to more things about getting a manuscript ready for publication. That helped me a lot.
Another thing I did at the Centre was a short-term mentor program, to help me get my prose a bit more freewheeling, a bit looser. At the end of one of our conversations, I had written an account of one of Namarari’s paintings. And she [my mentor] said, ‘Go away and write something more creative, more poetic, more lyrical. Don’t try to be academic or technical or even correct. Let yourself go.’ So I wrote an imaginative piece in response to her prompt, where I described Namarari painting. I’d never seen him paint, of course. But I had access to some video footage of him painting at an art centre. Then I combined that with some oral history research I’d done with someone who’d worked with him at the time. I combined these two sources to write about Namarari painting in the present tense. I don’t think I would have done that unless someone had said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’
That particular process of writing a description of him, that described, you know, maybe five minutes of real time, and ran across one or two pages, made me think of him in minutes, not in years.
R: Well, the next question I was going to ask you was whether you have any advice for emerging biographers, but you’ve covered a lot already. Is there any other specific advice you’d like to share?
A: Yes: do something else! [laughs]
Well, look, there are whole books written about that. So, yes, one thing is to go and read books about writing a biography. Then of course there are writers’ centres. Read biographies. Notice how they’re written.
So obviously, little things are helpful. Write typical day scenarios, at a given point in their life – a typical day at school, for instance, describing it as though you’re looking at it in real time.
The other general thing that comes to mind is that, early on in this project, I came to this conceptualisation that I wore three hats. The first hat is the researcher, the second hat is the writer, and the third hat is the project manager. The project manager is of course chair of the committee… They have a schedule. And they send the researcher off, down to the archives of Sydney this week, and next week, visit relations in Taree, or wherever it is. And the researcher puts this information on the table and the writer is then drafting the material. In the meantime, the project manager may be thinking, ‘Well, we’ll need money for a trip next year,’ and will start to organise that too.
The thing is, with writing non-fiction, there’s going to be a lot of research. And if it’s bad research, it’s hard to supplement it with good writing. And readers are going to know. Or you can have good research, good original material, but if the writing’s no good, people aren’t going to want to read it. It’s quite difficult.
R: A few final, quick questions. What are you reading at the moment?
A: I’ve just finished reading a book about a man named Moses who was an Aboriginal evangelist in the Western Desert. After that, I’ll be reading about contemporary art, and then after that there’s a book about the Aboriginal land rights movement.
R: In your opinion, what is the most inspiring…
A: 28 degrees, clear sky, light breeze, nice sunset.
R: Time of day?
A: Pink Floyd, 1812. I actually like lots of kinds of music. Classical. The Panics. Irish traditional. The only music I don’t really like is jazz.
A: I’ll have to pick two. The beach and the desert. One’s got the waves and the sunset, the other’s got all that open space and sunrises.
Alec is in the final stages of preparing Namarari’s biography for publication. If you’d like to know more or add your name to the list for the first edition, contact Alec at email@example.com
To learn more about Papunya Tula Artists, click here.