The place was bursting with stories

Goa Arts and Literature Festival outdoor event, people seated looking towards stage
Images by Jared Thomas


by Ellen van Neerven

I had a fantastic time in India and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.

The Goa Literature and Arts Festival was a vibrant gathering of talented international artists; the place was bursting with stories. I bought many books from writers I’d met including poetry collections from Joshua Ip and Arundhathi Subramaniam and short story anthologies set in India. I appreciated how well we were treated and the efforts the festival went to showing the guests around Goa. We had a poetry reading at the Governor’s house, many evenings of music and food and dancing, and the days were jam-packed with discussions on interesting aspects of Indian life and literature. There was an intense energy around the events with the Australian writers, Jared Thomas, Nicole Watson and me. Our experiences as colonised people were understood. The level of deep cultural discussion in India is rare to come by in Australia.

We were interviewed and photographed for local newspapers, and filmed for student media. I was surprised that these students had read my book and that there would be such a big interest in us.

The highlight of Goa was a closed session with Dalit university students and their professor. These young women were quite extraordinary and it was hard not to see them as the future writers, editors and leaders of their communities. We spent hours talking about what we shared and what we didn’t have in common. We let them know of the expanse of contemporary Indigenous writing happening in Australia today.

In landscape, India is very different from Australia. I was very inspired and wrote about the birds I saw on walks and on a guided tour, and walked along the beach pondering the ancient geographical links the countries have. The graceful bodies and possessed expressions of the street dogs echo in our dingos. I also wrote a few more poems in my expanding project called ‘Comfort Food’, where I explore the links of food, relationships, landscape and culture. The tastes of India and the shared act of eating together and rituals around food (I never ate alone in the nine days I was in India) unlocked my poet’s brain.

We moved to Chennai where I felt less at home because it is a big busy city. But just like Goa, the people were the main attraction. I had so many fascinating discussions, particularly about Dalit issues.

At the beautiful University of Madras I spoke about editing work by Indigenous writers and the importance of honouring their voice. This seemed to resonate with the academics and students and the editor of an anthology of Dalit writing spoke to me afterwards. While I was in India I had rigorous discussions with Jared as he worked to complete his manuscript. I was Jared’s editor for his latest book and will be editing his next. As a writer and an editor I could see how beneficial this cultural exchange was, and how we all emerged with so much more understanding about the world and knowledge within. I thank Mridula Chakraborty, Jared Thomas and Nicole Watson for their company.