Literary Commons! Sharing Australian, Indian stories

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First Nations Australia Writers Network and UWS Writing and Society Research Centre launch cross-border literary platform Last September a group of 12 indigenous writers from Australia travelled to India as part of a project by the University of Western Sydney to bring Australian and Indian indigenous writing to new audiences in both countries. The Literary Commons! focuses on “two of the oldest human civilisations with two of the earliest story-telling traditions, the Indigenous peoples of Australia and India”. In India, the writers from Australia took part in literary festivals and specially convened university engagements. Participating authors included acclaimed writers Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas and Lionel Fogarty. Dr Anita Heiss said the project provided a new platform for Indigenous writers to grow their readership in one of the world’s largest markets, and learn about the process of researching and writing in India. UWS Writing and Society Research Centre’s Dr Mridula Chakraborty says the initiative will open up the Indian literary sphere by allowing Australian Indigenous writers to reach out to the vast majority of Indians who do not read English. Speaking at a Literary Commons! festival in India, Mridula said, “While Indian writing in English has had spectacular success around the world, very little is known abroad about the 22 official languages with their own thriving literary traditions. These regional language or bhasha literatures, deeply influential in their own constituencies, tap into the heart of the ‘real’ India, where forces of globalisation are in lively contestation with older and continuing traditions. It is vital that Australian writing engage with the Indian bhasha literary sphere in order to reach out to the vast majority of Indians who do not read in English, but in their own languages. “Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander writing resonates deeply with regional language and Dalit literature from the Indian subcontinent. The 250 languages and 3,000 dialects that were spoken by the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander custodians of this land, the fight to preserve and nurture the 30 languages that are still spoken everyday in Indigenous communities: our writers have a tongue that is inflected and infused by the lilt and music of these stories and their enduring heritage. Denunded of their very own languages that give voice to the subalterns, First Nations/Indigenous writing in the last three decades has nevertheless seen a remarkable efflorescence: poetry, prose fiction, graphic novels, chick-lit, science fiction, paranormal romance, comedy: you name it,” she said in her speech. “The Dalit literary renaissance has been one of the most significant developments in India in the last three decades, but has surprisingly not gained much exposure outside the country. Considering Australia is looking to engage more with Asia, countries like India can offer us wonderful examples of multiculturalism in literature, and we in turn can take our own successes there,” she said. “Our Indigenous writers have much in common with the adivasis of India. Many of these peoples have faced similar issues of self-representation as the Indigenous peoples of Australia. These groups have now taken on the cultural-political mantle of Dalits to argue for an indigenous reality and alternative worldview. “It is perhaps because of this amazing diversity and shared vision of the universe that Indigenous writers from Australia have found such kinship and familiarity with their Indian counterparts,” Mridula said. Speaking to The Indian Sun, Mridula explained that Indigenous Australian writing and Dalit writing in India had freed literature and art in these societies from their classical traditions, and in the process created exciting new possibilities for writers and the reading public. According to Mridula, in the age of globalisation and free market economics “India’s high-octane energy in the literary scene comes not from any industrialised or instrumentalist view of culture, but from an imaginative and innovative cohort of creative intellectuals and visionaries who want to make a difference. In addition, online and digital publishing has opened up new, hybrid forms for storytellers from otherwise disenfranchised backgrounds, allowing them new modes of experimentation and transmedia expression.” Indigenous people in Australia and in India often live in locations of “development” in the name of progress and modernisation. This progress, says Mridula, comes at a great cost to the people who’ve been living on these lands for generations. “The rich earthly resources of the land become home to mining, logging, large dam projects, all in the name of progress, but in reality it is the inexorable push of capital. “The largest resource of these lands is not that which emerges from the bowels of the earth or the fruits of the trees. It is the enormous creative wealth of our First Peoples, the mind-boggling cultural capital of indigeneity that has survived, for millennia, geographical and climatic catastrophes, environmental and ecological damage: that is our real resource in the world today.” Literary Commons! is inspired by the old idea of the ‘common’ where communities and cultures share in a co-operative space of creativity, as well as building upon much that is common between our worldviews. It aims to be a “deep-impact” project that will bring together writers and foster writing that is of especial relevance to Australia and India. The Australian writer who went to India also included Dylan Coleman, Cathy Craigie, Jeanine Leane, Brenton McKenna, Marie Munkara, Ellen van Neerven, and Nicole Watson.

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