Rachel Bin Salleh is a Nimunburr and Yawuru woman from Broome, Western Australia. Now a Publisher at Magabala Books, Rachel began her career journey as an editor at the age of 19. Rachel said her love for reading ‘placed her in good stead’ for the editing and publishing industry. I chatted with Rachel about all things Magabala from what they look for in an author, to funding and how they fulfil their mission in supporting Indigenous writers.
Interview by Gladys Serugga, 2020 Associate Producer
Gladys Serugga: Why is professional development important to Magabala Books?
Rachel Bin Salleh: I think the most important thing for us, because I myself have also come through the industry from the grass roots up, is for any person from a minority or diverse background to get a chance to be on par with their peers in the industry that they choose to be in. Also, we want to give creators support where the creators think they need support. Rather than us telling the creator where we think they should be going; it should be the other way around. We want to know what their interest is and what their passions are, and then ensuring we can facilitate a pathway for all creators where possible.
GS: So, it’s really author/creator focused?
RBS: Yeah, especially making sure that we remain true to cultural protocol, and that we can support who we want to support. We want creators to know that they are not set up to fail and that no question is too silly.
Making sure that whatever we do, that there is an outcome at the end of it. And that the outcome is not what the industry considers successful but what the individual considers successful by their standards, or by their community, family, or cultural standards. So making sure that for whatever endeavour they have in the future, they have confidence to be able to move forward.
GS: If an author has a manuscript that they want to submit to you, what do you look for?
RBS: The most important thing is storytelling, authenticity of voice and making sure that there is connection with the audience. At Magabala, we don’t assume that any creator is literate or that English is their first language. So we try facilitate what we can in a space that allows them to express their voice and message, with pride and not shame. We often have conversations, and manuscripts will come to us in different shapes or forms. We will then work with a creator to be able to see that through to the end. If we feel that their voice is strong enough, and that there is cultural content or that the storytelling is fantastic, we will be able to work with them.
It’s also important to note that Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, or people in minority groups don’t have to write to trauma. They do not need to write to sexuality or colour to be able to write. People are more than just the trends that are happening at the moment. And the space is big enough for those particular voices too.
It is also about not buying into the stereotypes that the broader society thinks that people of colour or minority voices are. For example, how somebody reacts to a certain situation or reacts in general to broad trauma is not necessarily how an individual from a certain community will react. An individual is allowed to own their own authenticity and their truth within that, without having to apologise for it.
Take for example, we have a young boy writing about an Ape called Steve in the Rio de Janeiro Zoo, because he just loved that. He is allowed to talk about that because that’s what his passion was at that time. Even though that doesn’t fit within all the stereotypes of ‘that’s not quite Aboriginal enough’, well—it is. In the sense that, that is what he loves. He’s a storyteller first and foremost, without all the constructs that we placed on individuals and people because of the community that they are in.
Also at Magabala, we realized to a certain extent, especially with minority groups and diverse voices, we are trauma publishers. And in every journey through each story, people bring to the table their own experiences and what they have been through. And we are mindful of the process behind the storytelling as well. We want to make sure that it is a safe space for people to be able to move through trauma and the various experiences within communities.
GS: How did Magabala begin?
RBS: Magabala’s genesis was in the theft of traditional stories around 40 years ago. One of the traditional stories was taken from an Indigenous storyteller and reproduced without her knowledge or community consultation. This was stolen by a non-Indigenous lady and the story later became a children’s picture book and is still sold today.
In 1984, after some time advocating against this injustice; the Indigenous storyteller went with three other Elders to the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Festival that was held at Fitzroy Crossing. Together, they stood up in the Fitzroy riverbed and said, ‘We need to take control of our own destiny, own copyright and our own intellectual property. These stories must remain with these storytellers and these stories must remain with the communities’. So Magabala was born out of the need to protect stories, storytelling, and story tellers. And to be able to protect intellectual property and copyright where it rightfully belongs.
So Magabala was born out of the need to protect stories, storytelling, and story tellers. And to be able to protect intellectual property and copyright where it rightfully belongs. Since then, Magabala has been on a journey for over 30 years, and the stories that we told in 1990 were actually 30 years before their time. Now, we are finding that western society is playing catchup to storytelling that’s land based and culture based.
GS: And as a not-for-profit, where does your funding come from?
RBS: Magabala books generates 60% of its income, and for the other 40% we rely on funding from the Australian Council and also from the Department of Local Governments, Sport and Culture Industries in Western Australia. Just recently, we became a not-for-profit and with our philanthropic arm, we also raise money towards our Indigenous Scholarship funds which provides professional development for Indigenous Creators in and around literature.
We have a cultural fund as well which allows us to raise money to keep the books that are culturally important in print. These are books that might not necessarily sell extraordinarily well, but we recognise their cultural importance to the future of voices and diverse voices in Australia and internationally as well.
Another philanthropic initiative we have is Small Seeds, which raises money for children in at-risks areas like women’s shelters, not-for-profit centres, mothers groups and foster care that need access to Aboriginal storytelling and Aboriginal stories. At Magabala, we also believe that every non-Indigenous kid in Australia should have an Aboriginal title in their library. Because the only way we can move forward, is if we all do it together.
GS: How has becoming a member of the Small Press Network assisted Magabala in fulfilling its mission in investing in Indigenous creative and economic futures?
RBS: I think the Small Press Network in general does a fantastic job in advocating for grassroots presses, publishers and individuals that might be starting out in the area for self-publication. It is very important to have a broad range of voices, in a broad range of areas in all classes and religions and all colours, because multiculturalism is so important regarding stories and storytelling. For me, personally I think the more grass roots something is, the more in line it is with ethics and values of the individuals involved and the more you honour your storytellers in that way.
I think SPN does a fantastic job to staying true to its core function. The individuals that have joined and the individuals on the board as well, are passionate about small presses and making the place as diverse as possible. People that work in small presses are much more intuitive and are allowed to make decisions not necessarily based on a commercial value, but on a cultural value that aligns with their commercial values.
GS: The power of representation is so important. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of books I read with people that looked like me in them, so I think it’s phenomenal that we have indigenous writers and writers of colour sharing their own stories so that kids in primary school can read books and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this—this looks like me!’ It connects more people to the story.
RBS: It does—and if you are not represented in a national narrative then you are not part of the narrative. I grew up in Broome, my mum is from Northern Ireland—she grew up in the Catholic Estates. So I went back with her to Northern Ireland and people over there kept saying, ‘Oh you Aussies!’ And I was like, ‘I’m not Australian!’ because I’m Aboriginal, Malaysian and Irish. I grew up in a Muslim, Catholic household. My Dad was a black man up here so I was like, ‘I’m not Australian, because I’m not represented’. And I say ‘I’m not Australian’, not because it’s an anti-political statement, but because at a grassroots level—if you’re not represented, you’re not part of the narrative. It’s like different strokes for different folks, and you leave it to the storyteller to write the narrative.
People of colour should not be educating people for the rest of their lives, like every time you open your mouth it’s like you will speak on behalf of all your people, all the time. Then the cultural pressure on you, from here until eternity will remain with you, so there’s also a cultural burnout. When I have an author or creator come to me and they want to write a biography about a white, English poet—why can’t they write about it? And why can’t I publish it?
If that inspires them, then that is part of their narrative and we should also represent their narrative that feeds into identity. Because identity is also a complex thing. Identity is never what we think it is, especially with individuals, because you are the sum of your parts and some parts are always more prominent than others.
So representation should always be left to the individual.
GS: What advice can you give to a first-time author who wants to partner with Magabala?
RBS: Write to your passion, write to your own truth. Because when someone reads your work, it doesn’t matter what you are writing about—ultimately you are writing for connection. And the reader needs to make their own judgement about the connection you are making with them.
Life is about relationships. We think it’s about money and what we own, but it’s not. Everything we do from here on and from the minute we are born, is about connections and relationships and books are another way to reflect connections. If you write to whatever truth you are going to write to and if you write to your passion, then that’s what you should do. You might need to go through a lot of different drafts and if you get rejected, don’t take it personally. You just have to keep at it, because writing is a craft fundamentally. And where your strength is in that craft, you will find that out for yourself.
The best advice I can give to any First Nations kid, or any child belonging to a minority group is that when you are little, you grow up thinking you are a freak. Then when you get older, all those traits that made you think you were a freak, become your superpower. Because it is what you grow into, and it is what you own and what sets you apart from everyone else. And it is so important to speak to that.
Rachel Bin Salleh will be convening a panel on Women of Colour in publishing in the 2020 Independent Publishing Conference. Find out more at smallpressnetwork.com.au/independent-publishing-conference/