People have strong thoughts and feelings about memoir, and how old you need to be to write it. In this new monthly interview series, Bri Lee talks to five memoir writers at different stages of life, discussing their experiences with the craft and with publishing in the controversial genre.
This third interview is with Anita Heiss, who published her first (and only) memoir, Am I Black Enough For You? (Bantam), in her 40s. Anita has won countless prizes and awards, sits on boards, runs marathons, and is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Her new novel, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (Simon & Schuster), has just been shortlisted for the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards’ People’s Choice Award.
Bri Lee: Am I Black Enough For You? came out in 2012, when you were in your forties, after you had already published around 12 titles as well as being included in several significant anthologies. Why there and then for your first memoir?
Anita Heiss: Good question. Years before I got my contract I had already started writing something, in a fictional sense, called Contemporary Koori Woman about being an urban, educated, Black woman. That went on the backburner while I was busy, but I was doing a lot of work in schools, especially up here in Queensland, interestingly. I’d walk into classrooms, I’d ask the kids, ‘Where do you think most Aboriginal people live?’ and they’d say, ‘Ah, in the desert!’ And this was also the teachers! [Laughs.]
And they look at me, and yes, I have foils in my hair and I get my nails done – and that’s about being a girl, not being black or white. What I was seeing was this huge gap in knowledge about who Aboriginal people are today – and it’s worse in some states, I’ll tell you that. I was thinking that there needed to be a resource, quite simply, for teachers to be able to read and use themselves, and for the classroom, for breaking down stereotypes.
So I’d already started penning some work around that, and then of course I wake up on 15 April 2009 to headlines like ‘The New White Face of Black Australia’ and ‘It’s Hip To Be Black’, and I go, ‘oh my god.’ And so as a consequence of all of that, I started to think, ‘maybe if I had this book in the classroom, the fallout from that wouldn’t have been as harsh or as racially violent as it was.’ So I literally knuckled down straight away.
BL: So it started as something else, then while you were drafting it you weren’t really conscious of writing a memoir?
AH: Not really, no. I was highly motivated to finish what I’d started, and I guess I wasn’t thinking of it as a memoir. I teach memoir writing workshops now, and it’s interesting explaining to people that a memoir is about one particular part of your life. It’s not a biography. So for me, the part of my life that this book was about, was my identity. But when I was writing, I didn’t think about it like that so much.
A memoir is about one particular part of your life. It’s not a biography.
I had started talking to my agent, saying ‘I want to do this thing’, and we got an email from a publisher straight away saying they wanted the book, and they wanted to make it their lead book for the following year. But I was already with Random House – they’d published my four chick-lit novels – and I’m very loyal to them.
Obviously with my memoir and the court case, I mean… nobody was prepared for what would happen when that book came out. My entire Amazon page was bombed, it was on the front page of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. I was flying to Far North Queensland that day and I didn’t even know. I was getting text messages from people in Melbourne going, ‘Just saw the front page of the newspaper, I’m praying for you.’ I did an interview on ABC Newcastle, we hardly even talked about the book, right? But it was the same people commenting on the ABC site as other sites. I get a message saying, ‘We’ve shut down the comments, please don’t look at it.’ All of that was really distressing.
BL: And the antithesis of what your book is about.
AH: What we set out to do is at completely the other end of the spectrum, which is to create a book that might bring people together. To build a greater understanding of our own behaviour and how our actions impact other people. And so it was terrible.
Part of my argument with this memoir and with talking about doing the case, was that as writers we have responsibilities. Yes, we have a privilege because we have access to publishing and a voice that other people don’t. How do we use that, do we use it to empower people and make change? Or do we do what [a certain columnist] does, and fire people up with a lot of useless, angry venom?
As writers we have responsibilities [and] a voice that other people don’t. How do we use that [to] empower people and make change?
BL: How do you push through?
AH: I had so many parents message me saying things like, ‘thank you on behalf for my children.’ And that’s why you do it.
BL: Because memoir is about telling a story about life, do you think the age you were when you wrote your memoir effected it, or you?
AH: This is so interesting, because before this I would have thought, ‘ugh, who could write a memoir at 20 or 30?’ but when you understand that a memoir is about a particular part of your life, then of course you could be 20. You could be Malala! You could be 18 and have had something extraordinary happen that is worth documenting. So I guess I’ve shifted my view of the age thing, because it’s about the story. Which is no different to any other piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction. At the end of the day it’s about what the story is, who’s going to read it, and what’s your purpose in telling it?
BL: Why do people sometimes trash memoir as a genre? Do you think it’s an Australian thing?
AH: I’ve done memoir writing workshops all over the place, and I’ve done three in the USA, and it’s interesting because I’ve never had the conversation about it being ‘narrative non-fiction’ so I think quite often it’s not actually the writers getting caught up in the defining of it, it’s everybody else who doesn’t write. And there is a snobby / hierarchy thing, where a sixty-year-old might think ‘why would I read a memoir about someone who’s twenty?’ – but what if they’ve got something to say? I’ve heard young people even criticise other young people who might want to write a memoir. But what if you’re an Olympic champion at 20? There’s a story there. And you learn in this industry that the publishers aren’t going to publish anything they don’t think is going to sell. Nobody goes into those decisions, a business venture like that, if they don’t believe it hasn’t got a market.
BL: Mary Karr says people should wait until they’re 35 to try memoir.
AH: Who’s that? [Laughs.] That’s sort of like saying ‘I own this space.’ The other thing was, when the memoir had come out, they said to me, and this upset me in many ways, ‘you got credibility’ in terms of doing a memoir, because I’d only done ‘women’s novels’ before. That pissed me off. Those women’s novels sell pretty damn well. Not Meeting Mr Right sold more that Am I Black Enough For You?, but that’s not why I did it. The point being the literary hierarchy aren’t necessarily those who write books that people read.
BL: What have you learnt most from teaching memoir?
AH: I say to people when I’m teaching memoir ‘everyone’s got a story, but why does someone need to read yours?’ All you need to be clear about is why you’re writing this book. Is it simply because you want to be published? You need to be able to articulate it for yourself, and that will motivate you to finish it.
People think that if something happened in their lives that they have a right to write about it. It’s never just your story.
I also think that a lot of people need to reconsider if what they’re writing really should be written as a novel, that they haven’t considered the impact the book might have on people’s lives and their family and friends. People think that if something happened in their lives that they have a right to write about that, they say ‘but it’s my story’, but it’s never just your story. And so with Am I Black Enough For You? I sent out 70 permissions. Anybody who was mentioned got a written copy of the lines that referred to them, and the publisher and the dates, and every single one of them signed the form and sent it back to me.
BL: That’s amazing. How else is memoir different to other genres?
AH: Well, it’s nowhere near as much fun. [Laughs.] And it’s much harder. Alexis Wright, years ago, said with Plains of Promise, that she chooses fiction because she can say all the things she wants to in fiction without putting a particular community under the microscope like non-fiction does. In a novel I can talk about black deaths in custody, and the Northern Territory intervention, and Indigenous intellectual property, and all these things I’m interested in, all this social justice, in a story about relationships and shopping and sex, set in Paris or Manhattan. And people are looking at this great story without anyone being analysed or critiqued as a real life human being.
In a novel I can talk about…all these things I’m interested in, all this social justice, in a story about relationships and shopping and sex, set in Paris or Manhattan.
And the events are much more fun. The launch for Manhattan Dreaming here had shirtless waiters with collars and cuffs. And the Paris Dreaming launch had a woman singing a cappella Edith Piaf and all this French food and French martinis.
BL: Is memoir more gruelling?
AH: Absolutely, because it’s personal, it’s real and you are more accountable than when writing fiction. With fiction you’re creating characters and imagining what they thought or felt, with memoir it’s about what you yourself really thought or felt. And the whole time you’re wondering about how people will react to it.
BL: Would you do any more memoir writing in the future?
AH: I have no plans to write any more memoir. It’s been five years. Maybe in another five years if someone asked me if I wanted to do an updated version, I’d say ‘perhaps’. Honestly, in hindsight if I’d known how traumatic the court case and everything was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have gone through it. I had no idea what was going to happen.
I’m so sick of it. It’s different going into a classroom to reach children. I’m tired of doing all those same panels about free speech. And the media only cared about the [court case] stuff. Now, that book is about 90,000 words long, and the court case stuff was about 5,000 of those words. It’s good for people to understand the steps and the context, and that’s fine, but gosh. I’m just done.