Published:  12:00 AM, 04 March 2017

An interview with Ali Cobby Eckermann

Question: Hello! Please tell us about your childhood.
Ali Cobby Eckermann: My childhood was spent living on a farm with the Eckermann family, my adopted family. I had three siblings who were also adopted, and my older brother was also Aboriginal. Life was happy within the immediate family, and living a rural life. We had a lot of freedom and space as children, and enjoyed helping on the farm. But the hardships began when I encountered racism at school; I did not know how to protect my feelings. Eventually, I ran away at the age of 17.
 
Q: What according to you is Aboriginal Literature?
ACE: I feel that Aboriginal Literature is literature written by Aboriginal people. In Australia it is exciting as many new Aboriginal authors and poets are now being published. Many have won major awards in Australia. I believe that Aboriginal Literature is the way that we can reclaim our past (as individuals) and retell the history of colonization in Australia, which has been so warped in the past. It is also our weapon to promote our culture and identity, and override the slanderous labels that have been bestowed on us as a people.
 
Q: How do you look at your identity as an Aboriginal poet?
ACE: Still today I am very humbled to be called an Aboriginal poet. But I am encouraged by my family, who also celebrate my successes. Mostly my family are my voice; I write to tell our truths. And since a young age I have loved reading and poetry, so I do enjoy the artform of writing. My favorite times are sitting around the kitchen table, when we make up 'family' poems. There is always so much laughter!
 
Q: How do you revisit your stories in your writing?
ACE: My grandmothers, kami tjuta, tried to teach me patience when I found my original family in my 30's. Previously I did not know this skill. So I try to be patient with my writing, and trust the words will come when the time is right. There has been a lot of healing in my life (since finding my family) and I have learnt to honor past pains to move forward in life. I guess the process of healing dictates my writing.
 
Q: Who are the major authors who have influenced your writing?
ACE: I remember reading Sally Morgans'My Place when I was a teenager. This memoir had a big impact on me, as I could relate my life to her family story. And as a teenager I was an avid reader, enjoying real life dramas, stories of children affected by war, and stories of people who overcame great hardship. In more recent times the Aboriginal writers who have impressed me most, and influenced my early writings were Terry Whitebeach, Kim Scott and Alexis Wright. They were my mentors during the year I studied Creative Writing at Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education in Alice Springs in central Australia. All these mentors / peers are award winning writers, and I do enjoy when our paths cross.
Q: What are the major themes of your works?
ACE: Always my theme is 'healing'. So much damage and hurt has been inflicted on Aboriginal people since colonization, and mainstream Australia seems to be moving away from reconciliation and reparations. Australia is a country that holds much denial, both historically and today. But it is also vital to me that my literature journey remains joyous to me. So I do enjoy challenging other themes, such as massacre. I am working on a sequel to Ruby Moonlight, to write about the fringe camps, the absent parents of half-caste children and the impact of Christianity. Some of this passion is influenced by the experiences I have shared during my overseas travels.
 
Q: Are you aware of the critical reception of your work?
ACE: I do read most reviews of my work, and am a fan of constructive criticism. Why would I let a relative stranger hurt my feelings, after surviving so much? I feel that any criticism can only furnace my writing, and it is always interesting to know the views of the mainstream literary scene. Sharing my literary life with my family certainly keeps me grounded, and gives the required perspective that I need. But mostly comments of my work have been very complimentary, and I am grateful for that.
 
Q: Do you connect with other Indigeous artists at the gatherings? How?
ACE: Certainly catch up time with other Aboriginal writers and artists are great moments. I can only learn from my peers, although we may not agree on everything. But that is okay; we all live different experiences that mould us. Mostly we connect at festivals. Mostly this is by invitation. But I am pleased to say I had many wonderful visits from writers and friends at my Aboriginal Writers Retreat, in my home at Koolunga South Australia. I particularly enjoy the moments of privacy, to debrief and listen with people I trust. And I regularly travel back to the desert, to stay close with my traditional family and peers. This is where I learn and grow the most.
Q: How do you look at the translation of your works?
ACE:  It is an honor to have my works translated, now in many languages. It allows an entire new audience to read my works. And I do enjoy the feedback from overseas that filters through to me. My week long experience at Jadavpur University in Kolkata was so rewarding; in the translation process, the students taught me much about my own work. It is rare to be within a group of people who are so dedicated to the task, and so respectful to my life and culture. And the published book Broken By Neglect, that resulted from the translation workshop is beautiful. The book credits all the student translators, and we live together in the heart between the pages forever.

Q: Mention some of your major works which you would like to revisit?
ACE: Many people encourage me to rework sections of my memoir Too Afraid to Cry. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. There are still some painful memories that I have yet to fully recover from, before I can write deeper on these issues. It will depend on my healing process. Certainly, the influence of my 3 months at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa USA is poetry. Poetry, poetry, poetry. There were many poets in the group of 29 writers from 29 countries, and the comradery encouraged much exchange.
 
Q: How do you associate the idea of land with Aboriginal spirituality?
 ACE: It is our belief that we belong to the land, the land does not belong to us. And that forms the basis of our spiritual beliefs, including animism. I believe my traditional lands are my 'garden of eden', and it certainly feels like that when I am there. I think most Aboriginal people would say the same about their patch. Certainly when I am on my traditional country it is my happiest times. Stories of creation are embedded everywhere in the landscape, there is generational teaching at every opportunity, and it is where I feel surrounded by love.
 
ACE: How did my land treat you?
ACE: Our time at Santinketan and Jaipur went too fast. We were so grateful to be taken out to the villages, and the experience of that will live in my heart forever. Always in the more rural regions we were offered sincerity, smiles and stories. Sometimes I feel this is the basis of existence. It will be a wonderful day if we get the chance to reciprocate the hospitality one day, on our country.
 
Q: Would you like to come back again?
ACE: Of course I would return to India. It is such a rich and rewarding country, despite the extreme poverty that I find so hard to witness. Certainly, time spent at JU and Santiniketan is precious. It is special to be invited so warmly into peoples' homes and hearts, within such a short time of meeting. There is much trust bestowed to me by my friends in India, and I am so grateful for that. And the train ride between is never dull.
 
Q: May be a line for our students?
ACE: It may be a cliché but never give up on your dreams. Enjoy the journey! Life may not be as you planned but if you keep close to your truth, the rewards may be outstanding.

The interview was published in Tinpahar, an India Based Magazine

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