What inspired you to return to school at 30 years of age?
I got sick of working out in the sun. I'd been working for years in nurseries and gardens and picking fruit - all those outside jobs and I thought I might like to try something that I could do inside - out of the sun. That might have stayed a good idea except my eldest son was in year six and started asking me lots of questions that I couldn't answer - like how do you spell 'because' - so I decided to go and do a remedial English course so I could help him with his homework - when I finished I realised loved writing and reading - so I went back to the local high school to do my year 12 - my kids said 'no way Mum! You'd better not fail - If you're still there when I have to go to high school I'm leaving home and going to live with Granny!' I took English literature and loved it - Year 12 made be fall in love with education and books and learning so I went to uni and did a journalism degree - thinking I might be able to earn some money writing.
When do you feel most inspired? Do you have a favourite place to write?
I'm totally inspired by children. In fact I scare children sometimes because I will sit and watch them for hours - not so bad when it is your auntie but scary when it is just some old lady sitting on a swing in the playground watching. I love the way kids look at the world. It is so fresh and real. They have no trouble believing in alternative realities they are not coloured by theories or opinions, they just are.
I'm also inspired by the desire to change the way Australian literature for children is so Eurocentric and urban - many Australian books are set in the Australian outback or bushland. But these all tend to present the bush as a dangerous place, full of dangerous people, a wilderness, a place that is 'other' - the kind of place urban (normal) people go to find themselves, or to deal with a personal challenge.
I want to present the outback, as we who live here see it - as normal, comfortable, home - a place where our culture is immersed in the land, where our families are strengthened by our living layer upon layer, generation upon generation on the same country - a place where we rejoice in the changes of the seasons and the spirits that are the land.
Both Indigenous people and outback people are also often presented in literature as 'other' we are the strange ones, the exotic. I am inspired to write stories from our point of view so that our voices are the centre of the universe (so that the literary point of view is ours).
Once a story gets hold of me I spend all my time inspired by it - I think about it when I'm cooking, gardening - when I go out to dinner I think about my story and add really weird things into a conversation that make everyone raise their eyebrows because my mind is playing with the kids in my story rather than thinking about the latest American bombing or the price of fuel.
I have a lovely little building I built myself out of rock and corrugated iron. It has huge windows that look out on my garden and the chook pens and the veggies - it is a great place to write because when I need to think and not write I just step outside - do a bit of weeding and then as soon as the problem is solved back to the computer again. But I think I have worked out I can write anywhere - we traveled for a year and a half and I wrote in national parks, caravan parks - workman's head phones are great I wear them all the time when I'm on the building site helping my husband build our new house. I get so engrossed in my story sometimes he has to come and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.
In your experience, how important are indigenous stories for children?
I believe that as humans, we understand ourselves, our society, and our place in the world through story. That it is through personal experience (the stories we live), the stories we hear, read, and see, throughout our lives that we learn to understand the world and our community.
This is why so much money is put into children's literature. Why the Australia Council promotes Australian literature for children, why we have a Children's Book Council and why numerous awards exist for Australian children's books.
As a culture, we believe that literature is able to affirm children’s identities, give them good role models and help them see themselves as resilient. We believe that good stories are important for children’s upward mobility, high educational achievement and success within society.
In Australia we have deliberately created Australian literature for Australian Children. So that nowadays at least children of European extraction, are able to find role models and their aspirations in Australian Literature. It is not so for Aboriginal children living on remote communities. Most of the time they hear about, or see their people, or people like themselves in the media or in stories, the images are fearful, disheartening and traumatic, with very few happy endings.
There are very few stories in which modern day black Aboriginal people from remote communities are the heroes, the sort of people who go through trauma and problems, are resilient and survive.Yet we all know that if we want children in remote communities to understand themselves as potentially successful, they need stories in which people like them, are successful. Shories that affirm remote Indigenous identity and culture; stories that value family relationships and commitment; stories about success and resilience; stories that show success, upward mobility, happiness and therefore in a child's mind, make success possible.
Are there certain things non-indigenous writers need to be aware of when writing indigenous stories?
I cannot talk about Indigenous people in the rest of Australia. I know very few Indigenous people who live south of Katherine in the Northern Territory. There are ASA protocols. I can only talk about the people I know. Most of the people I know or meet, who live in remote communities in north Australia, don’t want people like them or their culture to be presented in stories told by people they don’t know and trust. These people know the power of story and respect it. Story is held in such high esteem, that even their most important laws are learnt through story, For these people writers are journalists - looking for a 'story.'
The danger that non-indigenous people face is that because many of them in Australia don't know Indigenous people personally, they don't understand the difference and the sameness we have with each other. Therefore their characters can end up being one dimensional, and the real scary thing is that most readers also don't know Indigenous people personally so don't have any way in which to judge whether the character is accurate or not. These readers are often meeting Indigenous people for the first time through these books so the way they are presented in important.
As writers we normally investigate the world, tease out the complications between relationships. To do this we untangle ourselves and our friends - we start from within - we understand the cultural nuances between our personal relationships and this allows us to explore the tiny crevices within our society, we are able to use metaphor because we all speak the same language. If we don't know Indigenous people and live within their society we can't do this with any accuracy or sympathy when we include Indigenous people in our work.
Does the subject matter present specific challenges?
Literature is the great historian. It does effect people perceptions of reality especially of minority groups. For the last couple of hundred years Indigenous people have suffered as a direct result of people interpreting their way of being through Eurocentric eyes. Their own stories hold the generations of the damage that this has done to them, the laws, the policies, the everyday negative reactions from other Australians they have never even met. And they know it is because of the way they are presented stories and articles. Because of the Eurocentric way their lives have been presented to the rest of the world.
Indigenous people end up in my stories because they are in my life and the lives of most people who live in outback north Australia, They are essential characters. You need to have Indigenous family or a good friend that will discuss you story lines, read and comment on your story to make sure it is accurate. The only challenge is that for the people I work with, English is a foreign language. So when I go back to read the stories to the old people it is a long and painful experience for them.
How is your work received by indigenous communities?
I work extensively in the communities of Northern Australia and my books are loved up here by adults and children alike. I think that is because for them it is the first time they have seen the reality of their lives presented in books for their children in a positive and life affirming way. My books have also given courage to many of the Indigenous teachers and parents I meet to write themselves. I think that is a real plus.
What does such recognition mean to you?
Getting shortlisted for the CBC awards is fantastic - It shines a spotlight on your work that nothing else does in such an instant and effective way - it means your books get into most libraries and schools around Australia and that is a huge bonus - more teacher see the story and hopefully more kids and teachers will read it.
Is this how you measure success in writing, or are there other achievements that mean more to you?
I am very proud that my stories – stories which are from the far north - stories about kids that are not mainstream Australian - have been shortlisted for mainstream awards. Yes it is a real honour.
But the times I feel really successful as a writer are when I go into a classroom in a remote community and all the kids yell out Leonie Norrington! - because they know the Barrumbi kids series and love the characters. I love it when you hear kids talking about Dale and Tomias as if they are real people - especially when boys take on Tomias, who is academically successful in both English education and Traditional education, as their role model. This is something that they don't do with other books.
What's next for you as a writer?
It's a very fickle business so who knows. But if life goes well, I have a new series coming out this year about a little girl who has a little debil-bebil (kind of Australian fairy) in her hair. In conjunction with my community I'm writing a baby book for remote Indigenous children - no publisher yet.
I'm also writing a couple of novels set in ancient north Australia. The research for that is wonderful - I'm hoping I can get out of the research long enough to write the books.