A special bond into the future

Performers, India
Image by Jared Thomas

International Conference on Culture, Literature, Arts: Australia-India at the University of Madras

by Jared Thomas

I am very grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the LITERARY COMMONS! initiative and am very thankful to Mridula Nath Chakraborty for facilitating the initiative and being such a wonderful host and advocate of Aboriginal literature.

The LITERARY COMMONS! project is intended to open dialogue and further develop an audience for Aboriginal literature in India and Indian literature, particularly Dalit literature in Australia. As many Aboriginal people read works by Indigenous peoples of other countries, with the intent of learning of experiences of colonisation and decolonisation, I believe that there is potential for Dalit and other Indian people to become a significant audience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work.

This is one of the many reasons that I believe the LITERARY COMMONS! project, and building upon efforts of 2013, 2014 and 2015 are significant to the development of Aboriginal literature in an international context.

As part of LITERARY COMMONS! I was able to travel with Ellen van Neerven and Nicole Watson, which was wonderful as we were able to learn of each other’s work and share news of events in Australia of significance to us. It was also evident that we possess quite different skills and knowledge, which meant that when we co-presented, audience received a deep level of knowledge about Aboriginal experience, writing, publishing and legal and political matters affecting Aboriginal Australia. Apart from the serious stuff, Ellen and Nicole were good fun and good support. While we were always eating great food and had great accommodation, just the sheer size of the country, and the density of the population means that you really need to hang on to your hat when traveling in India, and, inevitably there may be some things that shock.

It was amazing to be able to share the experience of India with Ellen and Nicole and I’m sure it will provide us a special bond into the future.

Meetings with Dalit writers, academics and students were invaluable and I learned so much in formal settings such as lectures and facilitated discussions and informal, discussions such as talking with students over dinner in Chennai after conference proceedings.

It was very difficult for me to accept that people are subjugated in India due to caste and that Dalit people are at the bottom of the caste system, prejudice and discrimination against them impacting upon their access to things like temples, education, food and water. However, it was heartening to learn that there has been a strong Dalit political movement that became particularly prominent in the 1930s. Apart from learning of similarities of Aboriginal and Dalit struggle, it was interesting to learn that there is also lively politics about who can speak about Dalit issues and how to speak about Dalit issues.

Dalit students we met in Goa were impressed that for such a small number of people, and a minority of the Australian population, the noise we make and international attention we gain is impressive.

Dalit academics, writers and students informed that there is little if any writing of fiction by Dalit people with most writing being testimonial, ‘autobiographical’. Dalit writers, academics and students expressed a desire to move into fiction writing. I think there is room for Aboriginal writers to work with Dalit communities in sharing about the ways that we fictionalise experience and presenting workshops on fiction writing. This would be of reciprocal benefit to Aboriginal and Dalit writers and communities.

It was incredible at the International Conference on Culture, Literature, Arts: Australia-India at the University of Madras the regard in which Aboriginal Australian writers are held. A hundred and thirty plus papers were delivered over three days and speakers spoke with such intrigue and regard for the work of some of our earliest writers such as David Unaipon and writers whose work took the world by storm during the late 1980s such as Sally Morgan.

It was evident however that there is a dearth in knowledge of contemporary writing since the 1990s which is mostly due to the difficulty in accessing texts in India rather than the desire to access them.

I travelled to India having heard stories that Peter Carey, one of Australia’s most highly regarded and best-known novelists sells more copies of his work in India than Australia. Being a former British colony like Australia, with a population of 1.2 billion people and a huge interest in Australia, one can see how this is conceivable. For this reason, and many others, I would like to see the LITERARY COMMONS! project continue into the future, at the very least until a consolidated effort has been made to connect with publishers and the outcomes for Aboriginal writers assessed.

Immediate short term goals in building upon exposure of Aboriginal writers to an Indian audience through the LITERARY COMMONS! project include securing publication of works of the visiting Aboriginal authors by appropriate Indian publishers, securing relevant literary agents and supporting marketing and promotion opportunities following publication of works.

To improve upon the investment in LITERARY COMMONS!, I think that it would be good to engage someone with publishing business knowledge to advise/assist writers to negotiate the Indian publishing terrain. It is great, absolutely wonderful that there is so much interest in Aboriginal literature in India but to expand upon this, the Indian market needs to be able to buy works at standard costs rather than importing works at five times the cost of Indian works of equivalent length and production quality.

Two weeks in India presented a great recognizance opportunity to consider how to further connect with publishers and readers. I hope that Aboriginal writers have the opportunity to return to India as part of LITERARY COMMONS! .