12th November, 2021

The Small Press Network Interviews: Anita Heiss

As she finalises her keynote address for the 2021 SPN Independent Publishing Conference, Dr Anita Heiss talks to Emma Kellaway about learning language, challenges within the publishing industry and having confronting conversations. 

A multi award-winning author of nonfiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction, children’s novels and poetry, Heiss is currently a Professor of Communications at the University of Queensland. She is a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation and was born in Gadigal Country. 

Aside from her impressive catalogue of titles, Heiss has immersed herself in the publishing industry from the beginning of her career. With a PhD in publishing, Heiss currently sits on the board of the University of Queensland Press, Circa and the National Justice Project. She is also a Lifetime Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. 

Our shared history 

Heiss’ latest book Bila Yarrudhanggulangdhuray (S&S 2021) is a historical novel telling the story of the Great Flood of Gundagai. The book made Australian publishing history by being the first commercial work of fiction with the front cover presenting a title in Indigenous language. 

Heiss said writing historical fiction is a way for her to engage with as big an audience as possible on the topics, themes, issues and events she thinks all Australians should know. 

‘The reality is, most people I know aren’t gonna pick up a non-fiction book but they will read a novel. It’s possible to transport readers through historical fiction to those important moments in time: Whether it’s the Great Flood of Gundagai and our Wiradjuri heroes; the 1938 day of mourning, protest, and conference on stolen generations; or Cathy Freeman winning gold in 2000. 

‘Writing historical fiction is a really accessible way for readers of all cultural backgrounds and interests to engage with our shared history,’ Heiss said.  

Simon and Schuster have since acquired the rights to two new books from Heiss, a children’s book adaptation of Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray and another historical novel telling the story of the 1824 Battle of Bathurst, to be titled Dirrayawadha and published in 2024.     

Language reclamation and nation building

Since 2018 Heiss has been learning the language of her country, Wiradjuri country, at Charles Sturt University, looking over the Murrumbidgee river in NSW. She said the experience so far has been challenging, inspiring and most of all empowering. 

Heiss said it feels like an act of sovereignty every time she speaks her language and a reminder to her audiences that there is a first language of Australia and it’s not English. 

‘My mum lived on a mission under the act of protection and policy of assimilation and my grandmother was removed and put in Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home and they weren’t allowed to speak language. So it makes me sad that I’m sitting here at a university learning something that should have been my right by birth.

‘The fact that we can do that now though (thinking glass half-full) for me as an author, is to try and contribute a little bit to that maintenance of that language, which is why I wove as much as I could into Bila Yarrudhanggulangdhuray,’ she said. 

Challenges in the publishing industry

Reflecting on the past, Heiss said one of the main challenges throughout her career has been publishers setting the criteria for what First Nations literature should look like. 

‘Back in the old days when I was first trying to publish, I got knocked back from every single publishing house in the country that I applied to. 

‘There was this prescription of what First Nations Aboriginal literature was and you had to fit the profile. It had to be about land rights, Native Title, Aboriginal health, and it certainly couldn’t be about surfing or shopping (god forbid), anything that made us the same as non-Indigenous people.

‘I found it challenging trying to convince publishers who wanted to have a black list that they couldn’t write the prescription or the criteria of the black list, and they shouldn’t be telling black authors that their work isn’t black enough,’ she said. 

Industry day keynote 

Heiss said in her keynote address at Industry Day, the second day of the Independent Publishing Conference, she is looking forward to highlighting success in the industry to date while discussing ideas and methods on how the publishing industry can improve. 

‘Knowing what sovereignty means to me in terms of publishing as a First Nations author, I hope to give publishers and delegates some ideas of what it should look like in their own spaces. Whether it’s acquisitions, editorial, commissioning and so forth, what ideally the industry should be working towards while learning from the mistakes of the past,’ she said. 

One of the challenges Hiess hopes to address is non-Indigenous people in the industry acting as gatekeepers and determining what is marketable, publishable, and culturally appropriate work by First Nations authors, when it is not their role to do so.  

‘It will be challenging and confronting I think for some delegates, because everybody (well, most people) work from a position of goodwill, but goodwill doesn’t always equal good outcomes or good methodology. I think we need to marry goodwill with good practice,’ she said. 

Extensive knowledge paired with personal experience in the publishing industry provides an exciting foreground for her keynote address. Tickets are now on sale through trybooking.com

Read more here about what else is in store across the three day conference being held online from Thurs 25–Sat27 November.

You can buy a copies of a number of Anita’s books, all the BOTY-shortlisted books and many other books written or published by IPC2021 speakers at the special SPN bookstall powered by Readings.

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