Questions & Answers

Kim Scott

Award-winning Australian author, Kim Scott, is proud of his Noongar heritage and draws on the experiences of the region’s aboriginal people – both past and present – in his work. Global caught up with him at the Commonwealth People’s Forum where he told us about the devastation caused by early colonial settlement to the Noongar way of life, as well as all the “legal” ways he likes to relax. 

Global: Where do you draw the inspiration for your writing from?

Kim Scott: From being a descendant of the people that first created human society in this part of the world. My most recent novel [That Deadman Dance] is really inspired by the talent, inclusiveness and cross-cultural skill displayed by Noongar people at the point of first contact. And Noongar language regeneration is inspirational in a range of ways. As someone who didn’t grow up with my ancestral language as my mother tongue, it’s deeply inspirational to have the opportunity to make oneself an instrument for that language. I’m remodelling myself – the way my tongue moves, the way I use my mouth – from the inside out, to be an instrument for the sound and the spirit of this place. 

Aboriginal culture has a very strong oral tradition. How difficult is it to translate stories from the spoken word into written English?

There’s enormous difficulties there, and in response to [your question], I’d like to attempt to wrong foot the assumptions behind it, true as they are. 

There’s quite a strong Noongar literary tradition that I’m part of and there’s also early displays, at the time of first contact, of an enormous propensity to move into literacy. So the fella who founded New Norcia [a Spanish mission town north of Perth], he talks about meeting a group of Noongar kids when he was tramping around the bush out that way. And in conversation with them, writing out his alphabet in the sand, he said [that] within ten minutes, those kids had also written out the Spanish alphabet in the sand and then reproduced it in mirror form! There’s also an account in Albany, in 1833, of a Noongar man who guided an expedition to the east of what’s now Albany and performed an oral recitation of the expedition in which he used many of the structural features of the expedition journal. I think that indicates an ability to move into literary activity very rapidly. 

So, in response to your question, yes it is difficult, but I am inspired by that pre-colonial heritage which, I would argue, makes it less difficult than you would anticipate. 

Your most recent book, That Deadman Dance, centres on the arrival of British colonists and their interaction with the Noongar people. What’s been the effect of colonial settlement on the traditional Noongar way of life?

It’s been devastating, really devastating. The figures – and it’s very hard to get accurate figures – of the so-called Chief Protector of Aborigines indicated that within 50 years of first contact, only 10 percent of the original population was surviving. And then there’s apartheid-like legislation for most of the 20th century, which was designed to educate people to be ashamed of who they are and disconnect them from their community. However, the story is not over yet, and in recent decades, we’ve made, in some areas, enormous recovery – particularly in the area of language and the reconnection to that pre-colonial heritage. 

Are the Noongar people fighting hard to maintain their cultural heritage in the 21st century?

Absolutely. I worry sometimes that we use the word ‘fighting’ for what we are doing. Some of the greatest strengths of early Noongar people have been persistence certainly, and solidarity and strength and pride, but [also] compassion and inclusion and spirituality. If we only talk about ‘fighting’, that can convert, in oppressed communities, to literal violence – it can perpetuate some of those things. 

What did you do yesterday?

I spent most of the day in an office at Curtin University at the Aboriginal Health Education and Research Unit. 

Could you describe your home?

It’s just a little bungalow in what used to be called ‘the state housing suburb’ – even though I’m a middle-class indigenous man. It’s just a single storey, three-bedroom house with different family members moving in and out. Myself and my wife are the centre of the unit, and a dog or two. There’s a lovely park over the road with remnants of so-called native vegetation, which is quite a privilege in an urban area. 

What do you do to relax?

You want legal behaviour? [Laughs] I sing and play guitar, and I try and exercise – that’s enough information! 

Who would you most like to meet and why?

I would most like to meet people a few generations back in my Noongar family line. My father was a Noongar man, he died in his 30s but I knew him. I didn’t know his mother who died in her 30s, I didn’t know her mother who died the year I was born – she lived a good long life. I’d like to have known that woman. I’d liked to have known her mother and those really early colonisation times. I’d love to hear their views of the world. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“You sit here and listen now, Kim!” [Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s it. 

Have you followed that advice?

Yeah – I tried to! 

If you could change anything in the world what would it be?

I’d like to reverse power relationships, temporarily, and then have a talk about how we can rearrange things more permanently and really see what we [Aboriginals] are all about as a community and what we want to do when we’ve got power. I think you could get closer to a good conversation about social justice and an intercultural space.

About the author:

Kim Scott is an Award-winning Australian author


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