An interview with Sam Watson

Elizabeth Dean spoke to Sam Watson, aboriginal writer and political activist, at the 1995 Salamanca Writers’ Festival, Hobart. Sam’s book The Kadaitcha Sung is published by Penguin.

ED: I’d like to ask you about becoming a writer Sam.

SW: Aboriginal people have always excelled in the humanities - subjects such as english, communication, drama, geography have had wide appeal. Maths and science are abstract and quite alien to aboriginal thought. Aboriginal people don’t have straight lines in their culture - science and maths are very linear and aboriginal culture is very much a circular culture. This is evident with the Bora Ring, the primary basis of aboriginal male initiation and the earth circles as the basis of aboriginal art. So as an aboriginal, english and communication are my strong points and I always imagined I’d end up as either a journalist or a writer. At the University of Queensland when I was doing an Arts degree, I chose english and journalism as my majors.

My tutors encouraged me to write a novel as they thought I had a book there - this was about 1978-79 - and I thought I wouldn’t mind writing a book. I wasted a lot of time, looking in bookshops for a book about how to write a novel but that is a mistake. There is no easy road; you apply the seats of your pants to the seat of a chair and just write. A book isn’t born in the first draft, maybe not even the tenth or the twentieth but somewhere between the fiftieth and sixtieth before it can be worthy of a publisher. That’s the way it worked with lots of rewrites till I thought I had something that could attract a sale and I sent it off to Penguin who wrote back with a few suggestions which I incorporated into the next draft. Then boom - I had a contract.

ED: So Penguin was the first publisher, the only publisher, you approached?

SW: Yes. Then I was given an editor and started the long, hard process of getting it produced in book form. I remember the exciting work with the galley proofs and finally receiving the first copy of the book which was sent by special messenger from Melbourne. Very exciting moment. Then of course, the national tour arranged by Penguin. Very good value. I’d never been treated as a writer before.

ED: I find your remarks on the aboriginal non linear way of thinking very interesting. The other thing I find fascinating is the feeling I have that writing is just one of many things you could do. I mean, a lot of white writers think they were born to be writers whereas I get the impression with you that you could just as easily have done something else.

SW: I came to writing later in my life. Previously I’d concentrated on being a successful member of my family unit and of my community, a good husband and father. I felt comfortable with the way I’d accomplished these things by the time I came to the computer to put down the first manuscript. This was in the last part of the eighties and early nineties. I’d already turned my hand to a large range of jobs, I’d been involved with black community organisations, community aid programs, that sort of thing. I became a truck driver, a fork life operator, a fencing contractor. I thought I’d find that nebulous character, the true Australian. I didn’t find him in the pubs and pool halls or on the job sites. I found him in the computer when I started to write.

ED: A lot of writers see themselves as observers of life but you haven’t been just an observer. You’ve been a great activist in everything you’ve done.

SW: I’ve been fortunate in that I was born into a politically active family especially in aboriginal community politics. As well, my parents were leaders in the broader community and took up causes. Of course, the fifties and sixties were exciting times to be growing up. When I was a child we went through the tail end of ban the bomb debate, the era of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the time of the Kennedys, a lot of exciting things, the hippies - make love not war. All that sort of thing. A very vibrant time where people concentrated on getting along with each other - all very good value.

ED: One of the things I’m struck with in talking with you Sam and I’ve noticed this with other aboriginal people, is your tremendous tolerance of other people’s life styles and points of view. I don’t think the average white person is well known for this. Is this an aboriginal characteristic or is it just you? Could you comment on this?

SW: It is very much an aboriginal philosophy and I put it down to genetics, the Murri psyche. On mainland Australia we have five hundred separate tribes who were functional autonomous societies able to co-exist and live side by side without major warfare. Right through the songs, stories and legends of aboriginal Australia, there is very little about war or major conflict. The boundaries are always absolutely fixed at one time. Even in my country where you had a massive amount of land occupied by the Bunjalung people, a very powerful and warlike people, probably fifteen to eighteen thousand people who lived side by side with the Mallinjarli, my mother’s tribe who were a much smaller group, only about fifteen hundred to two thousand people at one time but they lived in peace with the Bunjalung who never made any move to take over their tribe or to capture their women or any men either. They respected the boundaries. That’s been passed down through the race, to us today. I’ve always found aboriginal people are very tolerant of neighbours and friends.

ED: I don’t think this is very well understood. In political debates such as Mabo and other land claims, many whites are critical and suspect aboriginal people of having ulterior motives when they appear tolerant.

SW: From a child to the time of grey hair, our learning process is that we are treated as children and learn to listen and not to talk. That’s the way I learned my politics through the sixties and seventies. I was expected to sit back and listen which I did. I enjoyed that and I learned from some very powerful, very major characters who had been through such an enormous amount more than we can ever envisage, of aboriginal people who fought in world war two and the Korean war but couldn’t go into a pub and have a drink with their mates who were the same mates they’d fought alongside. There was enormous racism throughout Australia in the fifties and sixties and this impacted very heavily on aboriginal people but because of the great strength of character of the older people they were able to absorb that and keep focused and survive.

The great theme of 1988 was that we, as a people have survived. The theme of the nineties is that we will come back - we have absorbed the terror, we had our holocaust but now we are re-numbering, we are re-populating our communities, we are making a strong and energetic come-back.

ED: I think it is difficult for white people to understand this lack of bitterness. Revenge is so much part of our civilisation, our culture.

SW: It’s often misconstrued as weakness. Aboriginal people do portray this flavour of tolerance. But genetically it’s not unique. Asian philosophies and religions such as Buddhism are very karmic, very fatalistic. We can’t attach direct blame to white people who are walking the streets of Australia today for what happened back in 1788 but we do expect the people who share in the prosperity and the wealth of the land that has been generated by the events of colonisation to shoulder their part of the responsibility as well. It is a two way street. We don’t feel bitterness, we don’t feel we are owed anything particularly by individuals but the people who dominate the capitalist economy and share in the wealth creating area should at least share the responsibility of ensuring that aboriginal people are compensated.

ED: Can we get back to writing? I’d like to look at black writing in Australia. I don’t know a lot about black writers. Years ago, I remember the stir caused when Colin Johnston as he was then, published Wild Cat Falling. When I think of black writers in Africa or America, I’m thinking of some very powerful writing. How does it compare here in Australia?

SW: It’s still very much in an infant state. There just isn’t the number of black writers; very few black novelists but there are torch bearers who have established a beach head - Mudrooroo, Roberta Sykes, Jack Davis and of course uncle Kevin Gilbert, aunty Kath Walker - so there have been a number of people who have come to the written word and have gotten into the mainstream publishing world. They’ve stood on their own feet and done good things by creating an awareness in white Australia and in an overseas readership to accept the legitimacy of black writing and that is very important. Younger writers need to have publishers receptive to black writing as there are few black publishing houses; there is one in W.A. and one starting up in Queensland I think. Publishing is very expensive so when a publisher takes on a black writer, they have to be good, have to be able to compete in a dynamic market and to be able to do it with the minimum of fuss. At the present time, black writers are writing for a white readership but as literacy standards improve then black writers will have the luxury of writing for a black readership.

ED: Are you saying that The Kadaitcha Sung was written for white readers?

SW: Yes - I had a very clear idea of who I was writing for. In much the same way that Jimmy Cook and his minions invaded the land of the Murri tribes, I wanted to get out there into those brick houses, those living rooms and explode into people’s minds. I wanted to put a black boy into a white neighbourhood and point a black finger of accusation. I wanted to say this is what has happened in Australia and this is who is responsible. So be aware of it because somewhere down the track, answers will have to be given.

ED: It’s quite a shocking book in many ways although one of the things which struck me when I first read it was the energy. It’s like a blow between the eyes in places. Are you saying that is deliberate?

SW: Yes. It was written with a very short time span - an energy charged four days. It was meant to reflect the black life style where aboriginal people have shorter lives than white people. Because of this, black people feel an incredible urgency and threat at growing further and further removed from their land and culture. Our memories are dimming and we are losing songs, stories, language. We have very much a verbal tradition and we lose our historians every day of the week when our old people die which creates greater urgency for black people to record the knowledge and wisdom that is left. That sense of urgency is portrayed by the central character Tommy who does have a mission to perform and time is running out. This is what I am saying to both black and white Australia, we are crashing headlong to the point beyond which there will be no return. Whether aboriginal people will survive into the twenty-first century. The year 2000 will be the beginning of a new age, a new epoch - just how viable will it be for the aboriginal to survive?

ED: The sense of urgency is quite frightening when put like that. However, I can’t help thinking that aboriginal people are natural story tellers so isn’t it almost inevitable that they should become writers?

SW: Aboriginal people will have to develop a broader sense of audience. It’s very easy for us to sit around and swap yarns. Instead of trading, we’ve always told stories. Our tradition is verbal. But we must become more comfortable with the use of standard english. Aboriginal people don’t use standard english and aren’t generally comfortable with it. Nor does it seem likely that mainstream publishers will accept anything but standard english.

ED: Could you explain what you mean - are you speaking of creole, pidgin? Do you mean aboriginal people must speak like white people?

SW: They will have to become more adept at english to get into print. The basic language of aboriginal people is still non standard english which is a mixture of a great number of different tribal languages. Of course, we excel at using body language and silence as a means of communication and thought. Though how one gets into print through silence... Silence is of course a very powerful tool.

ED: I have long been fascinated by the way aboriginal people communicate. When I lived in the Northern Territory they always knew when someone was coming to visit although they were without telephones or any visible means of communication with each other. This happened over distances of hundred of miles. Is this the sort of silence you are talking about?

SW: This is the fourth dimension of aboriginal people - the hidden spiritual dimension we take for granted. You can have two people who need to meet. They may be separated by a continent and regardless of what events take place, they will come together. It’s happened to me on numerous occasions. We accept this. There have been times when I should have been dead - I’ve been shot at by police. I should have been run over by a police car in 1973 but things happen and we live. Our old people are with us every moment of the day and we accept it.

ED: I think when such things happen to white people we seek explanations. We talk about coincidence and seek reasons. Probably this is a facility white people haven’t been able to accept or perhaps value.

SW: It’s part of being aboriginal. Other races such as the Celts, the Irish have this ability. Irish Celts have not allowed themselves to be stripped of their spiritual dimension. You can take aboriginal people out of the land but you can’t take the land out of aboriginal people. So regardless of where we live and what we do, we always have that relation to our spiritual side.

ED: I think that any oppressed people influence their conquerors and I tend to think this has been apparent in Australia, especially in the arts such as painting. Do you think this could happen with writing?

SW: It could well be. The basis of the Green movement is very similar to aboriginal thought and could well be a direct reflection. Aboriginal people feel uncomfortable working with big conglomerates such as the ALP, the Liberals and the National Party and feel far more comfortable with the smaller, minority groups. The Greens and Democrats are espousing aboriginal philosophy by trying to stop wood chipping for example.

ED: So aboriginal thought may have acted in an unconscious way on the whole nation?

SW: Yes - now they are being recognised as being gifted and responsible managers of the environment. Our firestick methods are now being seen for what they are, a revolutionary method of farming control. The land and the environment was in a pristine condition when the white man came here and after two hundred and seven years of white settlement is an absolute wasteland. The tragic contrast has opened the minds of the younger people in the community and made them appreciate just how precious the environment is and how necessary it is that our children will be able to benefit from it. Some of the sense of urgency from the aboriginal community has been imparted to the white community.

ED: There has been a huge shift in consciousness, in thinking. It is a very interesting thought that aboriginal philosophy has permeated our culture.

SW: I don’t know if we can talk of an aboriginal philosophy per se; perhaps a land based and land sensitive culture of thought, based on the aboriginal way of life.

ED: Well maybe. A couple of years ago I was in W.A. and couldn’t help noticing how local white painters and potters were influenced by aboriginal artists although they appeared indignant when I commented on it. Maybe political thought works the same way.

SW: Yes - I think it also is working with the food chain and with natural medicines. White nutritionists are studying our methods and natural medicine, like a cure for the common cold which has been known for generations to our people and is expected to be on the market within a couple of years.

ED: You haven’t been doing much writing in the last couple of years?

SW: That’s right. I’ve been very busy with the legal service. The Kadaitcha Sung was published in 1990 and here I am five years down the track still labouring through the second book. The original proposition was that I should write of three families of aboriginal magic, there is the Kadaitcha stream in book one; book two is to be the death spirit which only comes into the mortal world to take the spirit of a dead person. Book three is the women’s business one.

ED: How will you be able to write of women’s magic?

SW: It will be a difficult one but I really want to have a go at it. There are certain areas of women’s business that I can visit with all due respect to aunties and mothers and sisters. The most enduring asset of aboriginal people since white settlement has been the strength of the black woman. This has been our strongest spear and our greatest shield in the black community. It has been the strength, vision and courage of black women that have carried us through. This fact unfortunately, has not been recognised fully by black men. I think it will take a black man to write of it.

ED: So it will be a tribute to the women?

SW: Yes. In book two some of the characters will carry through from book one and there’ll be new characters as well. It is written over a longer time frame and won’t have the same sense of urgency and that probably shows my development as a novelist. I’m more comfortable in the genre now and more assured of the structure and of the language of the novel. I’m going to have fun with it.

ED: You like writing?

SW: Yes. It’s a very lonely experience but I get a tremendous amount of support from my family. My mentor is my wife Catherine who reads and re-reads everything I do. I’ve got two children who do their bit and give me different insights. So my family and a small group of people who support me give me lots of different perceptions.

ED: You’ve been doing a few reviews?

SW: Yes, as well I wrote a piece for the Melbourne Age called 'Turning Point'. I wrote it the night of 7th November, 1993, the night Daniel Yock died in the custody of Brisbane police. I felt very good about doing that and felt I’d accomplished something. The last couple of weeks I’ve reviewed aunty Kathy Walker’s latest tribute and felt very comfortable doing it.

ED: It almost sound as if you’re being a bit of a role model for younger aboriginal people. A senior writerly figure.

SW: Aboriginal people place great importance on their dancers, footballers, artists, boxers, much more so than their writers but that will come. It will be a while before they say ‘uncle Sam is a novelist’; now they say ‘uncle Sam is the big boss bilong the legal service.’ But it will come.

ED: So the legal service is more important than the writing?

SW: Yes, the writing has been secondary to my primary work at the legal service. It has been a question of giving aboriginal people security and a sense of power and a sense of place within the legal system. The legal service is the only means of doing that. We don’t have any economic power or political muscle to give aboriginal people real power within a courtroom. Aboriginal people are still the most over-arrested and over-incarcerated people in the community. That is why I cannot sit back while aboriginal people are still nervous walking the streets. This is fundamental to who and what I am. However, when this is accomplished if it is, I’ll be able to write full time.

SW: There is more awareness in the public mind now surely?

SW: Yes but the alarming fact is that aboriginal deaths in custody have increased.

ED: None of the Deaths in Custody Report Recommendations have been acted upon and it seems the will to do anything about it is not there.

SW: Although legally, aboriginal people are more able to walk about the streets there is still a huge black hole of racism that politicians are able to tap into within the white community such as the Hindmarsh Bridge affair. The forces of darkness led by the conservatives who must have believed they would be able to score expedient political points by holding up and stripping away the spirituality from that small group of aboriginal women. They did that with impunity and showed no remorse until they were caught out. I believe they thought they could flog this issue for as much as it was worth and translate it into votes at the poll. The Labor Party didn’t come out of it very well either. What it does say is that there is a deep well of racism within the community that the politicians are able to tap into.

ED: Is it that the politicians have learned the language? I mean, there is now a far more sophisticated type of racism than saying you can’t come into a pub because you’re the wrong colour.

SW: Racism is endemic within Australian society and it will not just fade away. It must be confronted and it must be exposed and those things will not happen naturally. We have found in Brisbane that white Australians will not walk unassisted to the Treaty table, we have to drag and force them to acknowledge us as equals. I would encourage aboriginal people from every community to become more forceful and more active. We must achieve real change now.

ED: There is a continuing debate but lately, the aboriginal issues have fallen behind the gay debate. The Tasmanian government makes such good, by that I mean atrocious, headlines with their uninformed statements that other issues tend to take second place or be unnoticed.

SW: There is a real danger that other issues will seem more important.

ED: One of the big issues in Tasmania has been that of the environment. It is a very drawn out argument.

SW: As I said earlier, it is a very aboriginal debate and is really about survival. Aboriginal people aren’t against development and this is particularly evident in the Northern Territory where the developers have finally and belatedly displayed an awareness of aboriginal sensitivity. We must take certain things from the land but in a sustainable way. Tribal land owners in the north have made quite lucrative deals with the developers and the aboriginal communities have benefited from the deals. It can happen.

(Interview first appeared in Famous Reporter 11, June 1995).