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Award-winning First Nations poet Evelyn Araluen on writing to create change

January 1 | 5 minute read

Evelyn Araluen Hero 16x9

Words by Christie Sinclair

Originally published on | June 5

Here at MECCA, advancing equality is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-Power.

In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.

Poet, writer and researcher Evelyn Araluen is her best self when at home with her family in Dharug Country, where she was born and raised. “Beautiful tea tree-stained water from the Dyarubbin River in my hair, sun on my skin,” explains Araluen, recalling the beauty of her homeland in the captivatingly playful and lyrical style that’s redolent of her award-winning work, adding, “When I get to go back I soak it all up like a sponge. It keeps me going until the next time.”

Naarm/Melbourne-based Araluen is part of a growing number of First Nations writers using their talents to ensure their work and cultures are represented in a landscape that has traditionally restricted access for creatives from working-class and marginalised backgrounds – and her voice is indeed being heard.

At just 29, Araluen has already won a raft of literary awards for her poetry and prose, including the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship and the Melbourne Prize 2021 Professional Development Award.

Most recently, and perhaps most notably, her debut collection of poetry, Dropbear, earnt her the acclaimed Stella Prize in 2022 – an award established to recognise the work of Australian women and non-binary writers in publishing and to address the underrepresentation of women and non-binary people as winners of literary prizes.

“The Stella Prize is an extraordinary honour,” Araluen shared. “I’ve been following the prize and their work towards gender equity in Australian literature for years. I’m so proud to win a prize with an emphasis on social equity, especially one which now includes gender-diverse authors.”

Araluen’s widely celebrated collection of verses may have begun as “snarky and silly little poems”, but it’s opened up a world of opportunity for the writer who, during the pandemic and prior to winning the Stella Prize, admits to burning through savings – signing up for whatever work she could find and cutting back every indulgence she possibly could, just to get by.

“I remember getting an invoice paid for a project in the middle of winter 2020 that meant I could finally buy slippers and a dressing gown to deal with the Melbourne cold,” she confesses.

Here, Araluen shares more about her own journey; on becoming a poet, the makings of Dropbear, and how she’s fighting for equity of representation through her immensely powerful – and often provocative – words.

At the heart of so much of my frustration and anger was grief.
Evelyn Araluen

The story of dropbear

Araluen began working on Dropbear while writing her PhD thesis on contemporary Aboriginal women’s publishing, within and beyond the settler-colonial Australian literary canon. She found herself reflecting on the books she grew up with (“Kitschy, weird little dramas of the Australian bush”).

“I was struck by all these bizarre nationalistic re-imaginings of Australian history, which were being ironised and nostalgically restaged in a lot of contemporary Aussie poetry. I couldn’t help but see the erasures, the implicit violence, the clichés of a wild and savage land – yet it felt like the descendants of these traditions didn’t know or didn’t care that many of these texts were and are still offensive,” she explains.

In response, Araluen started writing poems as a side project until the Wheeler Centre Next Chapter Fellowship allowed her to commit to the practice fully. “I was mentored by another First Nations poet, Tony Birch, and the final project came out weirder but also a bit sadder than I’d expected. At the heart of so much of my frustration and anger was grief. It’s the only home I’ve got, and I want it respected and honoured properly,” she shares.

Something about learning my ancestral language shifted my whole brain.
Evelyn Araluen

But it wasn’t always poetry

For Araluen, a Koori/Goorie woman born and raised in Boorooberongal Dharug Country to the west of Sydney, storytelling has always been central to her life, both through culture (passed down through her Elders, family and community) and literature. Despite growing up surrounded by books and her schoolteacher parents’ encouragement and enthusiasm, Araluen confesses: “I actually struggled a lot in school in terms of my behaviour: I was loud and very stubborn, and constantly created trouble for my teachers. If I didn’t have a deep and abiding love of literature, I doubt I would have made it through.”

Despite her literary achievements, amazingly, poetry wasn’t always a passion for Araluen. “I never thought I’d write poetry, to be honest! I didn’t understand it much, growing up,” she shares. But there were two coinciding events in her early twenties that led her to the craft: she fell in love with a poet, and started learning her great-grandfather’s language, Bundjalung.

“Something about learning my ancestral language shifted my whole brain: the grammar revealed a series of new possibilities for experimentation and play with words, with sounds. The first poem I’d ever written in my life was for my Bundjalung Language Certificate I assessment, and it was about the experience of learning my language while on someone else’s Country. I’m still proud of it to this day.”

On equality in the arts

“I do firmly believe that equity of representation can only be brought about through equity of access,” says Araluen, adding, “Then we have the inequality of resources and support structures in regional and marginalised communities, as well as prohibitively expensive educational opportunities for prospective artists to learn about craft and industry.”

In her opinion, the answer lies in a social welfare system that ensures “dignified and humane living conditions for everyone” – before we see any real and sustained change.

Outside of writing, Araluen reveals she’s been focusing on professional development opportunities; a path she encourages all women and gender-diverse arts workers to follow. She is currently completing an Australia Council for the Arts Leadership Fellowship, learning skills to enable her to be a better advocate for other arts workers.

“While I love writing and would love to always have a bit of time and space to write no matter what I end up doing, my dream would really be to find that balance of creating art and creating change,” she says.

We can’t become ancestors if we don’t first understand our responsibilities as descendants.
Evelyn Araluen

Family – a constant source of inspiration

Of all the success that has come from her now-prolific collection of poetry, Araluen reveals that, in fact, her favourite part of the process was “writing in honour of all those who I’ve loved in the acknowledgements of Dropbear.”

“We can’t become ancestors if we don’t first understand our responsibilities as descendants, and I’m so lucky to be led by First Nations women in cultural, political and literary spaces,” shares Araluen. “My family is always a constant source of inspiration, and as we get older, we grow into broader and more diverse families.”

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