Antithesis Journal editor Siana Einfeld interviews Tyson Yunkaporta ahead of this year’s Journal release.
You have a book coming out with Text in September – Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. We’re really excited to read it. For readers who are unfamiliar, can you give us a little context for the book?
It is basically a reversal of the usual business of explaining Aboriginal culture to a global audience – instead, I'm examining global systems from an Aboriginal perspective. The goal is to start out-of-the-box conversations with everyday people and see what falls out of diverse dialogues that might resolve some of the complex sustainability issues facing the world. I try to impart a sense of the pattern of creation and how we might begin to live within that pattern again. To sustain my oral culture point of view I play around with language and the very nature of print - each chapter is based on real-life yarns and then carved into traditional objects, with the knowledge then partially translated into text for the book. I also write in the dual first-person – an Aboriginal language pronoun that doesn't exist in English but which I translate as ‘us-two’, which serves to bring myself into relation with the reader, forming a kinship pair.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process for Sand Talk, and how long it took you to write?
Well the yarns took two decades, the carvings took two years, and the book itself took two weeks. I wrote the first half in a week staying at Varuna on a writer's retreat, then I had to snatch a dozen half-days over the next month while juggling two babies and full-time work. Our traditional knowledge transmission and production is very complex and takes a lot of time. It is very difficult. Print-based knowledge transmission is far less complex and requires a lot less discipline and thought, so that part was fast and easy.
Many readers of the blog are aspiring or established editors. Can you tell us a little about the editing process that you underwent with Sand Talk?
My editors at Text Publishing were geniuses who had never worked cross-culturally before, but they very quickly mastered the oral culture process and collaborated with me perfectly on this. I began the process by making a massive boomerang covered in symbols that represented all the key knowledge in the book that I wanted to keep, and gave it to them to keep nearby while they went through and made suggestions. I was not married to any of the wordings in the book, as I don't really feel that print represents knowledge in any way, so I was happy to cut pretty much anything and rewrite with a better picture of the audience in mind. Those words on the page aren't my babies, so I'm happy enough to kill them. The images are far more important and those can't be altered. There was one chapter on gender I hated completely and rewrote from scratch to represent the knowledge better. I was stuck on that until I realised I couldn't write about women as a man alone, so I got a woman to co-write it with me. Then it worked. Most editing is protocol, I think. Get the protocols right and it all works out.
You have a talk with Bruce Pascoe on 6 September for the Melbourne Writers Festival. Do you feel that his work has carved a path for the discourse that you are opening up with Sand Talk?
Our work stands on the shoulders of warriors like Bruce who have gone ahead and cleared space for us. Dark Emu means I don't have to explain and justify the basic facts of our existence – those fights have already been fought, so now we get to build on that and ask ‘Hey! What comes next?’ We have to honor the work of people like Bruce Pascoe, Marcia Langton, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Jackie Huggins and many others, by taking things now to the next level. They built the ground for us to stand on and paid for it in blood, so we can't just stand on that ground and recycle tired narratives. We need to innovate, increase, extrapolate.
Sand Talk is a work of non-fiction. The piece you are publishing with the Antithesis journal is a work of fiction – Bones in the Sky. As a reader, I was so taken with how you create character. In Bones in the Sky the characters feel very real for me. How do you write them? How do you create them?
It's always a battle of ego for me. Every character I create just seems to want to say all the things I never thought to say in traumatic moments of lost dignity. So it's always this strident, Trump-like voice that comes out of me when I try to write non-fiction. I've written heaps of novels and they've all been terrible, unreadable, because of this. I'm just wrestling round with my demons right now writing these stories. My publisher tells me my short stories suck and I need to find the characters by making them talk first. So I'm working on dialogue for a bit now to get that Trumpy whining out of me. I find it hard to write female characters, because they always end up just being fantasies of what I'd be like if I had a womb. I have no idea of the inner experience of women and it's an impediment. Female writers have an advantage because most of the media they have to consume is from a male point of view, which isn't that hard to figure out anyway. I'm working on an Aboriginal Viking saga at the moment. I'm imagining what would have happened if a blackfella showed up in Norway back in Beowulf's era, and how he would cope with that. I'm struggling like hell, because of course my main character Raedwulf is complaining a lot ...
Do you have a first reader? Do you have a desired readership in mind as you write?
My flawed relationship with women mixes this up for me too. I try to write for everybody, but mostly I'm writing for women in a kind of ‘is this okay – am I on the right track? kind of way. Seriously, I got issues with seeking approval from females. I'd like to say I'm working on it, but I have absolutely no idea where to begin. Most men have little enclaves where they decide what to share and what not to share with women, but I'm not invited to those because I hate sport and porn and gambling, so I'm pretty much just making it up as I go along. Things are a lot clearer in my own community, but if you're writing for the marketplace you have to write for audiences beyond our community, and I am quite confused about gender relations in that world.
You have moved from Far North Queensland to Melbourne. Do you return to where you grew up? And how have you found the transition? Has it impacted on your writing?
I had to go back up home last year for a couple of months, just for my own survival. Seriously, how the hell do people live in cities? Apparently this one is the most livable one on the planet, and it is absolute hell on earth so I can't imagine what the other cities must be like. People must be constantly screaming on the inside. Airfares back home are expensive so I'm kind of trapped here at the moment. As soon as I sell a few books I'll be on the first plane back. I'm trying to set up an extended family business for the book sales to go into – like a communal capital model to take care of everyone's needs, but I'm finding it hard to get an accountant who knows what I'm talking about and can figure out how to make the tax work. Once I get that sorted out I'll be able to get home regularly again.
What were you like as a child? Were you always a storyteller?
I was deaf until I was eight – otitis media is a pretty common condition for us. Post-op I could hear what everyone was saying but found I didn't like it much. I was a weird, introspective kid as a result. I still am. I read Jane Eyre when I was ten and it made me start writing stories. I was at this crappy little barefoot bush school at that stage, filled mostly with kids from construction camps, back in the day when you got the cane every day (especially if you were a brown kid). They did these IQ tests and I got 180 so that might explain the weird introspection as well. For the kids, that behaviour could only be translated as ‘poofter’ so I got knocked around some. I went to a lot of remote schools like that. Then I hit puberty and my IQ dropped along with my balls and I woke up here. It's all a bit of a blur.
Do you have other writing projects that you are currently working on?
I have to do a lot of academic publications to keep my job, so I'm mostly writing that stuff, but referencing bores the hell out of me. Ethics applications drive me nuts, especially when I'm trying to justify my use of message sticks for data collection. My book only counts as one publication point and I have to hit seven, so I'm flat out with that. I have two babies so there's not much time to write what I want to write, especially when I work by carving everything first then translating it. It's hard to find space in the city to carve wood with a tomahawk and knife without people calling the cops – and I live in a flat the size of a shot glass so I don't have a backyard to use. But somewhere in all that I'm working on my Viking novel. It's a bit of a parody of the Peer Gynt myth, which for me captures the essence of the Anglo soul. That's a soul that needs some unpacking, under the Aboriginal gaze. I think that work is long overdue and I do love turning lenses around.
Aside from researching, writing and working as a senior lecturer at Deakin University, you also create traditional tools and weapons. Who taught you this skill? What does creating these items connect you to?
I've only been doing it since the nineties, so I'm not a master carver yet but I'm on my way. I've learned a lot back up home with family, making things for sale and also for ceremonies. But I've learned from old fellas all over, from NSW to WA. Us carvers just seem to find each other, although we're quite a rare breed now. There's plenty of people pumping out ‘artifacts’ with power tools but only a few of us still doing it by hand. A lot of my research has been on haptic cognition from the point of view of a wood carver. Haptic cognition describes neural processes that happen beyond the brain and even the body. For example, when a tool or object becomes an extension of your mind. It is a real, measurable phenomenon and I think it is the key to understanding consciousness and the way humans make meaning and memory. My methodology is called ‘Umpan’, which means carving and cutting, but has also been adopted as the word for writing. So of course, understanding the psychology of traditional carving would be my pathway to making meaning through print.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World is published by Text Publishing and is available to purchase from Text’s website.
Tyson will be in conversation with author Bruce Pascoe and Readings bookseller Marie Matteson at the Melbourne Writers Festival at 10am on 6 September 2019. Tickets are available from MWF.