It took 10 years for author Jacqui Wright to finish her award-winning novel.
Working from her caravan on a bush block in Broome, blasted by an industrial fan and serenaded by a chorus of frogs, she tinkered with the draft repeatedly.
Her efforts eventually paid off – in 2011, the first-time novelist was awarded the 2010 T.A.G. Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA author.
But for a time, she feared Red Dirt Talking might stay that way – unpublished.
“I was forced to put it away because of work and earning money, house building and all those boring things,” she said.
“But I think those forced breaks, in hindsight, were really great … when you pick it up again and work with it, you get this whole fresh perspective.
“The first journey is to actually write the book and finish it – and the second journey is to get published. That’s a whole journey in itself.”
The bones of Red Dirt Talking began forming more than two decades ago, just after Wright finished a job as a teacher-linguist in Mijijimaya, a remote Pilbara community in the Great Sandy Desert.
Working there, she was cut off from the rest of the world. The community was hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, there were no telephones and English was not the first language.
Red Dirt Talking’s protagonist, Annie, is similarly isolated. Her tale is told in the third person and by Maggot, a garbo in the fictional Ransom community, who watches the young anthropology graduate struggle to fit in with people intent on ignoring her.
Drawn into the complicated relationships of those she’s observing, Annie becomes embroiled in a tumultuous relationship with the inscrutable Mick as she obsesses over the fate of Kuj, an eight-year-old girl who goes missing.
Wright is not interested in binary tales, preferring to build layers of complexities from multiple viewpoints, mirroring the human experience.
“You’ve heard of the expression ‘there are two sides to every story’, well in Red Dirt Talking, there are more than two sides to every story,” she said.
“It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell each other – and it’s also about the stories this nation tells its people.”
Part-way through writing her novel, Wright won a bursary to complete a PhD at Curtin University, which would result in both her book and a mini thesis about the ethics of representation in works of fiction about indigenous people by non-indigenous people.
“As a linguist, I’d seen a lot of researchers come through communities doing research and taking stories away … I was really concerned about that,” she said.
“It’s probably time non-indigenous people took a step back and started listening and stopped talking for and about indigenous people … that’s where I concentrated all my energy.”
Hoping to generate a conversation about her work for her exegesis, Wright presented her manuscript to Aboriginal political activist and writer Melissa Lukashenko and Rose Murray, of the Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, for assessment.
“It wasn’t about getting a rubber stamp of approval … for me, it was about having that conversation, talking through these issues,” she said. They wrote back to tell her they loved it.
“It was fantastic, but not great for my exegesis because half of it was going to be about that conversation,” Wright said.
Her finished product rings with authenticity; Wright drew on her own studies and detailed journals from the Great Sandy Desert to mould her characters.
“She needed to get a certain amount of research done on a certain topic at a set time, none of which she accomplished … she got more out of doing the research than anything else,” she said.
Having just finished two months as writer-in-residence at Curtin, Wright is already planning her next novel: a fictionalised account of the trials of Connie Petrillo, a former Edith Cowan University student arrested after taking nude photographs of her own children for an art project.In the meantime, Wright is genuinely excited to have won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and about how her first novel is being received by critics.
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