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Melissa Lucashenko, author of Too Much Lip
Photo by Josef Ruckli
Posted 24.01.2020

Melissa Lucashenko: 'I write towards a better Australia'

Too Much Lip author Melissa Lucashenko shares her Miles Franklin acceptance speech.

Thanks to the people of the Eora nation for permission to be on your beautiful country. Thanks to Perpetual, and of course to Stella Miles Franklin - who my mate from Tumut tells me got Wiradjuri people to carry a piano across their snowy mountain country on her behalf.

In 2016 I was the gobsmacked recipient of a Fellowship from CAL for the writing of this book. Now I find myself gobsmnacked for a second time…bugalwan – my sincere thanks for your belief in this book and for your practical support.

Thanks to UQP who in 1998 called me in to their office and told me they would publish any book I wanted to write. I promptly told them I had a book in mind called The Amazing Adventures of Supergin; they paled, and told me they weren’t sure anyone was ready for that!

I’d like to mention the pioneering work of Sue Abbey and Craig Munro who began the David Unaipon award in 1988 when Australian publishing was even more glaringly white than it is today. I’d like to thank Griffith Reviewfor giving opportunities to be published and to refine my practice in Australia’s finest journal of ideas.

To the Brisbane mob, to my Bundjalung family and friends – you know who you are. You know what this book took, and yeah. This is about all of you as much as me. I particularly want to recognise the vision and leadership of the late Ysola Best of the Yugambeh museum and language project.

People have been asking me what this award means, to which I can only answer that books are sometimes a mystery to their writers and that goes for awards too. I wrote TML because it struck me as necessary to talk about class and underclass violence especially; I wanted to wrest the narrative back off those who use it for their own purposes with no regard for the suffering of poor and Blak men, women and kids. I was 40,000 words in when it became clear just how very close to family history I was treading.

Malcolm Fraser famously said that life wasn’t meant to be easy. Fraser spoke as a patrician with a sense of noblesse oblige, and as an inheritor of the European tradition. I stand here with a Russian face but an Aboriginal heart; the inheritor and beneficiary of a very different tradition. My community Elders and mentors taught me another way. In 1998 Kombumerri Elder Aunty Mary Graham sat me down and said to me that the worst thing the British brought was not the fact of murderous colonialism or the theft of land. It wasn’t even the forced removal of our children. The worst thing, she taught me, would be if the invaders convinced us that life was about survival, about no more than struggling to scrape a living from each other and the earth.

The people who carried Stella Miles Franklin’s piano over the mountains were doing so perhaps by coercion. Or perhaps they did so in the spirit of yindyamarra, the effort to live respectfully in a world worth living in. Yindyamarra is a Wiradjuri word for the ethic which informs all classical Aboriginal cultures of this continent; we had over 100,000 years to learn how to be human here. And so in my writing I attempt to pose alternatives to the violence the savages brought here on their convict boats.

I write towards a better Australia. Life is meant to be beautiful, the Old People taught – and Kevin Henry is locked tonight in a cage in Queensland for a murder he could not possibly have committed. The Aboriginal woman who was horrifically murdered in Rockhampton has had no true justice for while Kevin Henry rots in jail, her killers have never been brought to account. Live is meant to be beautiful – and Naomi Williams, six months pregnant, was sent home from Tumut hospital unseen because as a Wiradjuri woman living on the land Stella Miles Franklin called home, Naomi was not considered worthy of lifesaving medical care. Antibiotics would have saved her.

Life is meant to be beautiful – and yet Ms Dhu, Tanya Day, Elijah Doughty and countless others have died in circumstances very far from beautiful because their black lives have not mattered to the penal colony we call Australia.

Life is meant to be beautiful – and yet tonight two Australian-born children of Sri Lankan descent are not free in Melbourne. Their freedom has been sacrificed on the altar of Australian racism despite the community of Biloela wanting to bring them home.

Although the savagery of the penal colony is everywhere to be found, still we rise. Our Indigenous civilisations can be found persisting around campfires and kitchen tables from Byron Bay to Broome. Our civilisations remain – in song and story and in our Aboriginal Law, they remain embedded in country, and in the flickering memories of elders.

They remain in words like those of Uncle Kev Carmody’s grandmother, who taught him that we must be ‘as gentle as the moonlight on your skin.’

Too Much Lip is a funny book that takes seriously our pain, and our striving to regain the practice of yindyamarrawhich reigned here for so very long. I almost called this book The Glad Tomorrow, drawing on the foresight of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who wrote:

To our father’s fathers, the pain, the sorrow.

To our children’s children, the glad tomorrow.

Oodgeroo’s dear old friend Judith Wright also referred to our ancient civilisation. She wrote that:

there is, there was a country which spoke in the language of leaves.

May the convict lash be laid down. May we speak in the language of leaves again. Bugalwan. Thank you.