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Supporting Storytellers

Daily challenges occur for all writers, but even in solitary pursuits, there’s a large, supportive community if you know where to look. For Ellen van Neerven, the sum of her experiences has amounted to two published books - one capturing the lives of Murri girls and their families; the other drawing on her cultural experience of food in India - and a desire to support other writers.

Ellen van Neerven has overcome these daily writing challenges in her own creative practice, and uses her expertise to support fellow Indigenous writers with their creative projects. In both her own work and her commitment to helping other writers, van Neerven draws inspiration from a range of sources, including her own experiences, culture and the environment.

Stephen Chinnery caught up with van Neerven in the peaceful talking circle outside the State Library of Queensland for a chat about writing and life.

black&write! – Stories and support

For van Neerven, writing is more than just a solitary pursuit. She is a writer of fiction and poetry, and manager of the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! program, which allows her to support Indigenous writers within the industry.

Since the project’s inception six years ago, van Neerven has been dedicated to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, editors and publishers. black&write! is designed to promote the talents and imaginations of the Indigenous writing landscape in Australia.

Van Neerven believes that across the arts there are a number of successful Indigenous creative practitioners, however fewer opportunities exist in key development roles within the larger industry. Therefore, black&write! supports writers, but also aims to develop opportunities for Indigenous editors.

“It’s just a really fun time… to see more of our stories [going] out into the world.”

– Ellen van Neerven

The black&write! program runs a competition for Indigenous writers and editors. Each year, they support editors with their practical development, allowing them the opportunity to collaborate with the writers to produce a manuscript that will eventually be published.

The competition has recently launched a publishing partnership with Hachette Australia, with 2016’s winners of the writing fellowships announced recently at the time of writing.

The path to publication

Having graduated in 2010 from creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology, van Neerven is well-acquainted with the potential pitfalls of the writer’s solitary journey.

“I’d been writing a lot but not really having any confidence or a sense of where I might go with my writing,” says van Neerven.

Van Neerven attributes her own experiences and interactions with people as inspiration for her creative process. Her successes were built not only from her university education, but from her education meeting “all these wonderful people along the way”. She also says her cultural education played a key role.

“I’m really interested in what we’re doing to the planet, what’s happening, when we’re going to give control back to Aboriginal people in every way, how we can kind of move forward,” she explains.

H&L Final

Van Neerven’s first novel was the product of learning gained inside and outside the classroom

Her first novel, the award-winning Heat and Light, largely grew out of embracing these experiences. It is very much a collection of past, present and future, with a big part of van Neerven’s work being autobiographical, drawing on the stories from her family and those of Mununjali country.

“I attempted an earlier project and followed the rules, whereas this one [Heat and Light] I didn’t at all… I decided just to see what was coming at me. [I was] trying to capture these female Murri characters and their families,” she says.

Writing Black – The digital collection

Even when the deadlines of her own work come calling, van Neerven’s commitment to supporting other writers through their own journeys remains clear. Aside from black&write!, she is also the editor of the digital collection, Writing Black.

Drawing on some of the writing they were seeing in the competition, Writing Black sought to make these pieces accessible to a global audience. Van Neerven stresses it was important to ensure they used the digital format in an effective way.

“It’s not just about transferring the content over,” van Neerven says, “but what we can do with [it] that’s really different. We really looked at the writers we approached to lead the way with their ideas.”

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The Writing Black digital collection can be downloaded from iTunes, making it more accessible to a wider audience.

The anthology captures the works of an eclectic mix of writers and poets, including video and textual works by Lionel Fogarty, Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Steven Oliver, along with the innovative twitter-fiction of Siv Parker and photography by Jo-Anne Driessens.

“It just looks absolutely spectacular [and] it’s a way for some emerging writers to get their first publication and their first taste of working with an editor,” says van Neerven.

The project’s use of a digital format has fostered a growing overseas audience. Van Neerven commented how on her travels to the United States, Canada and India she has encountered people “hungry” for Indigenous writing. However, according to van Neerven, the Indigenous works available to overseas readers are many years behind.

Fortunately, Writing Black is accessible to the global audience as it’s available as a free download on iTunes.

The writer’s environment – Exploring inside and outside

It was travelling throughout India that inspired van Neerven’s latest creative work, Comfort Food, a book of poetry released in May, 2016. In particular, she spoke of the culture surrounding food.

“That celebration of food unlocked something in me, and I started writing all these poems,” she says. “I wasn’t just writing about food, I was writing about all the associations… writing about traditional foods, the rituals of foods, the celebration of food”.

Comfort Food

Van Neerven with a copy of her newest work, Comfort Food, which was released in late May, 2016

While she speaks glowingly of India providing an environment conducive to writing, Brisbane is not without its own beauty. When she’s not working from home, van Neerven loves the peaceful gardens on the waterfront outside the State Library of Queensland.

“Sometimes I sit at the café, or by the water. It’s a really good spot to do some power work. The thing that remains the same is the passion for writing [and] always just having a lot of fun.”

When van Neerven is not abroad or working, she usually writes at home, but says finding balance is important.

“I think as writers we’re always looking for that perfect work-life-writing balance. You know how athletes have a whole team behind them, with their diet and exercise routine? That doesn’t exist for writers. Creativity cannot be explained.”

While creativity itself may be unexplainable, for van Neerven the writing itself is more than just an artistic outlet.

“I think creativity is the only way I really figure things out. We can’t talk about the environment on its own, separate from culture, from family, from everything. Story is just something that seems to be able to travel, seems to be able to stick. We’re constantly creating mini-narratives when we talk to friends, or when we talk to family, or when we try to explain our own identity. This is what I’m constantly attracted to,” she says.

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The grounds of the State Library lie alongside the Brisbane River, providing a beautiful environment for work and creativity

So maybe that’s the truth of fiction. It exists as a collection of experiences all tied together in a creative way, a lens that writers look through. Van Neerven certainly agrees.

“I don’t know where I learnt it from, I don’t know where these ideas came from, but even if I never wrote anything else, it would be the way I see the world.”

To read more about van Neerven’s work, pay a visit to her website.

For more information about black&write! and other SLQ initiatives for Indigenous practitioners, check out the State Library’s webpage.

Writing Black can be downloaded here.

Finally, van Neerven will be taking part in a Memory Makes Us event on June 18, 2016, as part of the State Library’s Day of Belonging. Memory Makes Us is one of many initiatives by the creative minds of if:Book Australia. To read more about the event, click this link. Ellen is also speaking at Cindy Sherman Up Late, an event at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, on June 24. Tickets and info here.