When I arrived in central Australia in 1999, I fell in love with the place I’d entered – a world that seemed to both exist in the country we call Australia, as well as spin on its own axis. From sleeping outside around backyard fires to an ephemeral river that called the community to its banks when it flowed, I embraced everything about life as it was lived in this desert town.
My first jobs ranged from ferrying Aboriginal people to and from the APY Lands from Alice Springs or taking supplies out to Aboriginal communities to facilitating creative writing sessions with a mix of Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri and English-speaking young people in town. These roles brought so many insights into other ways of thinking and being. As a writer, I felt compelled to write about these, perhaps as a way to understand my new world. But the writing I did in those first years – poetry, short stories, diaries – were ostensibly ‘travellers’ tales’, born of encounters with place and people who, by their unfamiliarity or otherness, sharpened my curiosity as well as my critique of my own cultural predispositions. I felt, however, weary of this form, and wary of the position of the white writer whose writing is based on, and risks benefiting from, writing about the ‘other’. Aboriginal people are rightfully tired of being studied, discussed, exoticized, and I didn’t want to participate in this legacy. I neither wanted to represent nor misrepresent. I didn’t want Aboriginal people to be the subject of my writing.
For these reasons, for a long time, I kept these writings to myself. It wasn’t until I undertook my first residency in Varuna the Writers’ House, more than 10 years ago, that I finally committed to trailing through all the notes and partly developed stories I had amassed. Over the next few years, a number of short stories and poems were published but still, I had a sense of there being a meta narrative to these pieces. This narrative, when I realised what it was – the death of my brother – was key, not only as it seemed to be latent in everything I had written during those early years, but because it enabled me to see that the subject of this body of work was myself.
But it wasn’t only a personal story; it was a cultural story I wanted to tell, a story about grief. Though historically grief had been expressed more openly, more raw-ly, more publicly, in my own (western) culture, in more recent times, it seemed mourning practices were waning, often leaving people to grieve alone. I wanted to interrogate my own culture – its legacies as well as its limitations, particularly (but not only) in relation to grief and mourning.
It was through living alongside another culture, in central Australia, that I could see my own culture more clearly. So, writing about my encounters with Country, as well as my relationships and experiences with desert people was integral to telling this story.
The resulting, semi-autobiographical novel, Return to Dust, is in many ways a love letter to this country, or a letter of gratitude:
And each time it flows, the landscape is transformed. Each time it flows, the waterholes and soaks are flushed out, the riverbed sculptured anew. It is something Amber has always loved about this country. Its propensity for recalibration. But she had never thought how this might pertain to herself.
However, describing only the impact of the ‘landscape’ aspect of Country on me seemed neither honest nor ethical. My understanding of Country had profoundly changed through my relationships with Aboriginal people, who expressed grief quite differently from me. Wouldn’t writing ‘the Country’ without them (for fear of misrepresentation or misappropriation) constitute yet another form of terra nullius, of erasure?
I talked to many Indigenous friends and colleagues about this. Each time I was met with a kind of delight – you’re going to write about us?! It was clear that my inclusion of the Aboriginal people with whom I had lived alongside all those years felt like an acknowledgement, not only of their continued presence in this country, but of their influence and impact on all of us who have settled here. Still, I feared criticism. From whom exactly, I didn’t know. Somebody would surely show up my ignorance, my blind spots and failings. But in the end this fear was overridden by another fear – of not writing about the people who had had such an impact on me. So, Return to Dust is also a letter of gratitude to them.
With self as subject, I resolved, at first, to write memoir. But very soon I found memoir stifling. I needed to bend time and place a little to bring out these themes of grief and mourning, as well as to create greater momentum in the narrative. I also wished to avoid writing directly about people I knew. It wasn’t a story about my brother, or his life story. It was more the story of the experience of loss that I wished to tell. I also wished to fictionalise the Aboriginal communities where some of the narrative takes place, to protect residents and avoid having anyone feel they were being written about. If I did base any characters on real people, I let them know.
One of the most contentious issues in this area is whether or not a white writer can or should write from the perspective of an Aboriginal person. For me, this is not something I would attempt. As much as I might be able to empathise, I do not think I could ever know what it is to be an Aboriginal person in this country. While I have written both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters, I chose to tell Return to Dust from the perspective of a ‘whitefella’, and to examine this perspective.
Is she taking it in? How much detail will be lost on this whitefella as her remembering skims the surface, gleaning only the shiny things on the road? Gleaning, straining, gathering and, even then, interpreting. Trying to fit it into a framework she already holds. Despite how long she’s lived in this country, she is still the traveller, with a traveller’s myopic lens.
Consultation is common practice for me in all my work but, prior to my novel, the pathways have been clear. Who to consult if the ‘community’ I construct is an amalgam of communities in an area, the characters merged from people I have known, events that happened are relocated in place and time? I started the process by talking with (Aboriginal) people I knew who advised who best to talk with about anything particular, for example, the use of language, places, and any reference to anything cultural, from food to songs to stories. I explained my dilemmas about fiction to people I could speak with more deeply and felt heartened by each of these conversations about what I was doing.
The reward for me of writing this novel has been to hear of its resonance with readers, especially in terms of the exploration of grief, as well as the particular experience of living in the central desert, between cultures. How, as settlers, we have been (and continue to be) influenced not only by this country but by its people. It is complex terrain and has sometimes been difficult to navigate, but the book’s reception has reminded me that literature has two lives. Writing may be a solitary act, but it is through its readership that it becomes relational, and from here it begins another life. I hope that, above all, Return to Dust, celebrates the relationships that have not only supported me in my grief, but continue to shape me as a person as well as writer.
Dani Powell is a writer and performance-maker, who grew up in Brisbane and has lived in Mparntwe/Alice Springs since 1999. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Island, Australian Poetry and several anthologies. Dani won the Poetry Prize in the NT Literary Awards in 2009. Her performance Under Today – traces of Eastside, Mparntwe/Alice Springs was developed for ABC Radio National in 2015. Return to Dust (UWA Publishing, 2020), is Dani’s first full-length work of fiction. https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/return-to-dust Dani has directed the NT Writers’ Festival in Mparntwe/Alice Springs since 2015 and is currently working on her second novel.