While becoming a published author in recent years has been a thrill, the highlight of my career has been my involvement in the publication of someone else’s book. This probably needs some clarification. The ‘someone else’ I refer to is not one person but fourteen young Indigenous students from remote communities all around Queensland and the Torres Strait.

I work at a co-educational boarding school in Toowoomba. Overlaps between my roles of librarian, archivist and author often enrich each other, but never in a more rewarding way than they did in 2017. My contact with our Indigenous boarders from remote communities has given me great respect for their resilience. Imagine leaving your family and North Queensland home at the age of twelve to live in frosty Toowoomba, where your routine is dictated by a bell, your feet are forced into school shoes every day, and you might be the only Indigenous kid in the class. Add to this language problems and homesickness. It’s not always plain sailing (and no wonder), but I marvel at how these kids cope at all.

So…being a bookish type, I suggested to the kids that they write a book about their experiences to show how they’ve learned to navigate their two worlds. I hoped the book would help to prepare other Indigenous kids for boarding school, that it would foster understanding and respect between cultures, and, just maybe, it would help our non-readers view books more favourably.

‘Yes, Miss,’ they said, obligingly, to humour me (I now realise). I don’t think they knew what they were getting into; I certainly didn’t.

And then I saw a copy of Nginingawila Ngirramini – Our Story, a book written by nine Tiwi Island girls during a community project run by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. A light went on; I realised: this is exactly what we could do!

So I wrote to the ILF and they loved the idea. I think the kids were as shocked as I when we learned this thing was actually going to happen. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the ILF selected two wonderful writers to conduct a workshop: author Claire Scobie and indigenous poet Kristine Ellis. They and the ILF’s hard-working Kathy Mossop joined us for an intense three days. Our indigenous teacher aide, Kerry Stouse, provided fantastic support. The kids were engaged and generous with their stories – even the ones who didn’t like reading.

Claire came up with a brilliant idea, inspired by a short story that one of our students had written – a winning story in the ABC’s 2016 ‘Heywire’ competition. Claire suggested that instead of asking students to write their individual real-life stories, they’d write a fictional story together as an amalgam of their experiences. I was doubtful at first, I’ll admit. Now I realise it was a stroke of genius. It overcame the problem of their different literacy levels. And fiction allowed the kids so much more freedom; they could avoid telling personal things that they might not be comfortable sharing, couching them in make-believe.

After three exhausting days of writing, role-playing, painting, arguing (is the protagonist a girl or a boy? Where is her home? How old is she?) we had a first draft. Some students wrote long passages; others didn’t write a word but contributed insightful ideas. Kathy and Claire had the gruelling job of cobbling together the separate strands and editing the story. They sent a draft and I gathered the kids together (one of many challenges – getting everyone together in a room at the same time. Nigh on impossible!) for a reading. Was the dialogue authentic? Were the characters believable?

The finished product is a fine piece of writing. It’s fresh and funny, with a charming plot and a touching ending. The cover was created from a painting done by a group of girls during the workshop. Our title was inspired by Rai Rai’s Heywire-winning piece: Two ways strong.

The book was launched by Dame Quentin Bryce on Indigenous Literacy Day at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Most of the kids and several staff attended – and what a day it was! Media interviews and free lunches. Book signings and photographs. They were feted like celebrities – and rightly so. Three students read extracts aloud (beautifully!) and got laughs in all the right places. While we were there, we took the opportunity to attend some author events. James Moloney inspired one of our students to write a short story…and, bingo! We have another ‘Heywire’ winner on our hands!

I couldn’t be prouder of our students. And their pride in themselves is a joy to see. I’m deeply grateful to Claire, Kathy and Kris, and the ILF, whose worthy aim it is to improve literacy in Indigenous communities. These kids know what goes into making a book. Now we’ve just got to keep them reading.

 

Two Ways Strong: Jaz’s Story can be purchased through the Indigenous Literacy Foundation indigenousliteracyfoundation.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/two-ways-strong-pre-order and other online bookshops.

 

Jane Smith is a librarian and author with a particular interest in Australian history. Her publications include the non-fiction Australian bushrangers series and the Tommy Bell: bushranger boy historical fiction series for children, as well as the adults’ biography Captain Starlight: the strange but true story of a bushranger, impostor and murderer. Jane’s Captain Thunderbolt was shortlisted for an ABIA in 2015, and Shoot-out at the rock was included in the CBCA’s list of ‘notable’ books in 2017. 

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