Paul Collis is the winner of the David Unaipon Award for a previously unpublished Indigenous writer. He is a Barkindji man from Bourke in New South Wales, Australia. Paul Collis has taught in juvenile detention centres to Indigenous inmates. He has a BA and doctorate in Communications. He’s a very serious man and he can be quite scary because he is so, so, passionate about Aboriginal rights.
Dancing Home is a powerful road crime novel. It is ‘Koori noir’. It is a whole new genre in crime writing. Blackie is just out of jail and looking for revenge on the cop who set him up. He’s in a car with Carlos and Rips and they’re driving through the Blue Mountains, Wiradjuri Country, high on speed. Blackie talks to himself a lot, trying to work out his life and the decisions that brought him to where he is.
At the beginning of Dancing Home, you invite the reader to be a player, to be ‘active’. Think about poverty, power, privilege, suicide, and Aboriginal deaths in custody.
So, I’m going to ask some general questions about my own experiences with Aboriginal people and some queries I have. Apologies because they are a bit long winded.
- In 1985 I worked at Yulara in Central Australia. At the time when I worked there it was still called Ayers Rock. On a shift-break I walked home to my accommodation and an Aboriginal guy yelled out to me from the bottom of a set of stairs that led to the car park. I went down and he asked me to buy him a carton of beer and gave me the money. I agreed and bought the beer and brought it back to him and he was friendly and thanked me. Back at work I told my workmates what happened at they had two reactions. They were 1. You can get sacked for doing that. And 2. You should have charged him $20 or $30 to get the beer. What’s your reaction to that. Has anything changed since 1985?
Not much, if anything ‘real’ has changed in certain circles around the race (ism) game. There seems a deep and almost complete hatred for Aboriginals by some white people. There are many people still want to rob Blackfullas; make jokes of us…exclude us…They still refuse to acknowledge that they in fact do walk upon Aboriginal ground. Bruce Pascoe speaks of this in “Convincing Grounds”. Yeah, sometimes, seems to me, that ‘The Apology’ given by the Prime Minister- Kevin Rudd, just served to be a rallying point for the racists. I was called a black bastard the other day by a guy in a passing car…Arsehole!
But, …no, things have and do change…we aren’t standing still as a nation, I take back some of what I just said. There have been changes regarding race issues in Australia towards Aboriginal and Torres Straite peoples, but there is a very ‘active’ Right wing political movement also on the rise. The Right would like to believe that everyone is born and is equal…What shit.
- The flipside to that first question is that the Warumpi Band played a small concert at the Amphitheatre in Yulara and I was amazed to see Aboriginal kids anywhere between 3-4 and 15 dancing around like crazy, their hair died blond by the sun, having the time of their lives. And their mother’s and a few Aboriginal blokes all enjoying it side by side with staff members and tourists. Everyone together. The power of music and books and films to bring people together. It was a great night and I never forgot those kids. Again, your reaction to that?
Art – music in particular, is world loved- Maybe its got something to do with that rhythm in us – that ticking, or boom that comes from the big drum – our heart…so dance and music as an obvious in bringing people together. On that ‘Stomping Ground’ we can, and does, that ‘shake’, that ‘move’, that ‘connection to the beating of our heart’ – to our mother earth – to/with each other. Its natural as natural can ever be. Everyone feels the rhythm…the beat. Art is a performance act that all can enjoy…Film, books, dance, poetry….all these things describe and can touch that deep within each of us. Its an emotional understanding, hey. Art’s very powerful tool.
- One other thing before we get to the book. A publisher of a literary magazine told me they would publish my short story about a young couple on a road trip through the outback. The caveat was that I change a scene where I described some Aboriginal guys getting wild and drinking outside a café. I didn’t change the scene because I could have described a bunch of Greek guys or white suburban yobbos doing the same thing and nobody would have blinked. Dancing Home doesn’t shy away from the fact there are good and bad people on all sides of society and the law. What’d you think?
I write as I see it. Be bold and resolute, Shakespeare tells us. It a publisher finds it too hot to handle let ‘em write their own book, Sean, that’s what I say. Truth shouldn’t be compromised for sales. That’s what I think anyway mate.
To the book…and other things
- Where does your main character, Blackie come from?
Blackie is an amalgam of men I know. He a bit of me, some of my brother, a little of friends I know… and a bit made-up. But mostly he comes from me, I guess.
- Blackie talks to himself all the time. Is he trying to figure how he got to where he is?
Yes, often he’s trying to work-out what to do. And he speaks with the spirits – the spirits of the land and, with the dead. Its not unusual for an Aboriginal to speak to the spirits of his/her ancestors…especially immediately after the death of a loved one. Their spirit may be near by you, making sure that you’re ok…Often when an Aboriginal person is seen –observed doing this, the behaviour is mistaken for mental ill-health…it’s not. It’s a way of us dealing with our grief…it’s a way of ‘knowing’ to my people.
- Blackie and the others are driving from the city to the bush. Do you think that there are two distinct groups, urban and outback Aboriginals? Are they very different to each other?
Yes, I believe there are differences between urban and rural/remote Aboriginal peoples. But you gotta remember, there were about 250 or more full and distinct language groups in the country at the time of arrival by white people. These language groups are what white people called ‘Tribes’…So there’s always been differences between Aboriginal peoples, we were never ‘One People’.
- You have taught young Aboriginal people in Juvenile detention centres. What exactly do you teach them?
I try to listen to people in custody…to hear about their life, their family and community. I’ve taught Aboriginal cultural studies to prisoners, sometimes it would be via film studies… other times, it would be through storytelling and literature…I’ve taught traditional carving – we made didgeridoos and clap-sticks and boomerangs…I’ve taught writing.
- Do you find hope in these Juvenile detention centres?
No. I find hopelessness mostly in those places. And there needs to be better programming and teaching in Detention Centres…and there ought to be follow-up and better programmes on the outside for these young people to continue their studies /art. But, sadly, mostly there isn’t. A young person is released from custody into a community that is ill-prepared to accommodate his needs or that can support his studies of skills. Most of these young people end up re-offending and return to custody time after time again. . .
- The fight scene between Blackie and the bully outside the pub is a ripper. Have you seen fights like this?
I’ve been in fights like this, brother. I’ve seen too many fights like that in the novel – black on black. The violence is outrageous and we need to stop this…mostly the fights are over ‘capital’, over partners, money, jealousy and frustrations associated with being bone-arse poor. Poverty drives a lot of this stuff Sean. Poverty, and overcrowding and lack of self-control of community love. Often of communities are too heavily policed…and that drives rage too. This ‘big-brother’ stand-over is a pain in the arse man. We hate it. We react. We suffer. Yeah, it’s shit, man.
- The killer scene for me is Blackie dancing on the side of the road oblivious to his two companions, free of everything for a short time. Home. Was it difficult to write?
Na. This was the easiest scene of the lot to write. The words flew to me and my fingers could hardly keep up when writing it. It was a ‘straight-up 1 draft go at it’ and, the dance scene is as I wrote it without any editing or changes. It’s as if it’s been waiting in me to write for ever. It was so good to get it out on paper…and ‘see’ Blackie dance his heart out – even if it was in imagination. My foot was tapping out, real fast when I wrote the scene…Thinking of it again now has me shuffling in my seat and my feet are stomping the floor.
You know what, you can really feel that in the writing. You nailed it.
- In the end (without trying to give the end away) I thought Blackie committed a kind of suicide to help his friend? Is that right?
Yes man…a real sacrifice – a ‘Jesus act’, one may say.
- Blackie went to boarding school but felt isolated, sport helped him. Is sport a way out of the poverty you mention at the start of the book?
Sports can play a part in a person’s life…but not many people are going to make a worthwhile living out of it. Very few of us become elite sportspeople – professionals. I spent about 20 years in and around the boxing game…my brother Glenn was a State champion, Welterweight…great fighter/boxer. He had it all, man. Could move, hit ya hard whilst moving away from you…not many men can do that bro, only the real good ones can do that. Yeah, I seen Glenn and many black guys turn pro and end up fucken broke and mostly broken. We cannot rely on sports alone to save us from poverty or deliver us equality, mate.
- Have you seen kids like Blackie who are good at sport at school and then go home and get into trouble by hanging out with the ‘wrong people’?
Most of us mate. Most of us end up like that…or variations of that … a stint at sports, then the slide when the body is broken, when the game is over…and we end up mostly ‘has-beens’, broke, looking for another chance…often crime is there, waiting and the encouragement from others is a powerful pull for a person whose on his arse without a cent. Many turn to crime…many end up in jail…some died in the process. Poverty fucks us up man.
Last few questions…
- Who are your favourite writers?
Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Camus, Sam Wagon Watson, theorists like Franz Fanon, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy and Judith Butler, others too, that I can’t remember right now. . .
- What are you working on at the moment?
Working on a collection of poems. I want to follow my novel up with a collection of poems written from the perspective of what I’d say is from the ‘minor narrative’ – from a position of what Fanon calls ‘the Other’. I’ve got about a dozen or so, I want about 40 for the Collection. Am hoping to have it together by July this year.
- Aboriginal person who has influenced you the most?
My family, I guess – my grandmothers , Ruby and Thelma…my grandfather Arch…my mum and dad…uncles John, Crow and Boy. Charlie Perkins, John Heath and Bob Morgan – Community people mostly have been my hero’s – the ‘un-known’…the non-famous are my heroes
Thanks Paul, hope it wasn’t too arduous and good luck with your writing.
Sean O’Leary is an Australian author who has published two short story collections and an award-winning novella, Drifting. Available now here: https://www.busybird.com.au/books/our-books/drifting/