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We write to belong – Anita Heiss, Melissa Lucashenko and Tony Birch

This panel’s topic should be familiar to writers and their fans: ‘We Write to Belong’ is really just an answer to the question ‘Why write?’

This is an old question and it has been written on extensively, but a few more ideas were added to the discussion since Orwell’s incomparable cover-all essay at this early session at the 2013 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.

This panel was essentially a response to that question, but with the addendum “and what does it have to with black people?”

For Anita Heiss, it’s very much about power and responsibility. Throughout her life, Heiss has been exposed to the Catch-22 mentality created by the Australian population’s adherence to stereotyping aboriginal peoples.

The idea is that black people live in the dessert and are poor. Should these black people, as Anita says, “straddle two worlds” and rise above poverty in the suburbs, then they’re not really black people.

“No. I’ve got one world and it encompasses a whole lot of things.”

For Heiss, it seems that the power afforded her by her writing comes with the spider-man like responsibility to represent her compatriots on a human level.

Why does Anita Heiss write? One suspects she wants to save the world.

Melissa Lucashenko writes because she wants power. In this instance, it’s the kind that runs appliances rather than hearts and minds.

“I write so that when I turn the switch at home, the power comes through.”

She paraphrases Stephen King’s summation of how to measure a writer’s success with “Did someone give you a cheque for that, and did you put it in the bank, and did it bounce?”

Of course, Lucashenko is a deeply socially conscious writer. She laments the loss of ancient traditions, particularly the attention to the care and protection of children that, Lucashenko believes, no doubt contributed to the 100,000 years of her culture’s survival.

Lucashenko has done unquantifiable work for aboriginal communities in a hands-on sense, her Sister Inside program to say the least, so it’s very easy forgive her decision to write for herself.

Tony Birch has no choice but to write, he says. He is plagued by ideas and the ones he can’t shake free find their way onto the page.

He sticks to the age-old, and slightly schizophrenic, notion that characters write themselves.

What this really means is that he’s a man with tremendous empathy; he discusses the history of aboriginal peoples in a way that feels real and talks about his characters as though they are real people.

Apparently, they often are.

“If you hang around me long enough, you will find your way into one of my books, and possibly not in a favourable way.”

I suspect the panellists for this session do not write to belong.

One can’t help but feel they know exactly where they belong, and would do so even if they’d never put pen to paper.

Lucashenko, Heiss and Birch seem to be in the middle of figuring a lot of this stuff out themselves (Heiss less so, she’s sure enough to be busy saving the world after all), but we can all be thankful that they’re representing those that need it most in the process.

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