What inspired you to return to school at 30 years of age?
I'm also inspired by the desire to change the way Australian literature for children is so Eurocentric and urban - many Australian books are set in the Australian outback or bushland. But these all tend to present the bush as a dangerous place, full of dangerous people, a wilderness, a place that is 'other' - the kind of place urban (normal) people go to find themselves, or to deal with a personal challenge.
I want to present the outback, as we who live here see it - as normal, comfortable, home - a place where our culture is immersed in the land, where our families are strengthened by our living layer upon layer, generation upon generation on the same country - a place where we rejoice in the changes of the seasons and the spirits that are the land.
Once a story gets hold of me I spend all my time inspired by it - I think about it when I'm cooking, gardening - when I go out to dinner I think about my story and add really weird things into a conversation that make everyone raise their eyebrows because my mind is playing with the kids in my story rather than thinking about the latest American bombing or the price of fuel.
I have a lovely little building I built myself out of rock and corrugated iron. It has huge windows that look out on my garden and the chook pens and the veggies - it is a great place to write because when I need to think and not write I just step outside - do a bit of weeding and then as soon as the problem is solved back to the computer again. But I think I have worked out I can write anywhere - we traveled for a year and a half and I wrote in national parks, caravan parks - workman's head phones are great I wear them all the time when I'm on the building site helping my husband build our new house. I get so engrossed in my story sometimes he has to come and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.
As a culture, we believe that literature is able to affirm children’s identities, give them good role models and help them see themselves as resilient. We believe that good stories are important for children’s upward mobility, high educational achievement and success within society.
In Australia we have deliberately created Australian literature for Australian Children. So that nowadays at least children of European extraction, are able to find role models and their aspirations in Australian Literature. It is not so for Aboriginal children living on remote communities. Most of the time they hear about, or see their people, or people like themselves in the media or in stories, the images are fearful, disheartening and traumatic, with very few happy endings.
There are very few stories in which modern day black Aboriginal people from remote communities are the heroes, the sort of people who go through trauma and problems, are resilient and survive.Yet we all know that if we want children in remote communities to understand themselves as potentially successful, they need stories in which people like them, are successful. Shories that affirm remote Indigenous identity and culture; stories that value family relationships and commitment; stories about success and resilience; stories that show success, upward mobility, happiness and therefore in a child's mind, make success possible.
The danger that non-indigenous people face is that because many of them in Australia don't know Indigenous people personally, they don't understand the difference and the sameness we have with each other. Therefore their characters can end up being one dimensional, and the real scary thing is that most readers also don't know Indigenous people personally so don't have any way in which to judge whether the character is accurate or not. These readers are often meeting Indigenous people for the first time through these books so the way they are presented in important.
Indigenous people end up in my stories because they are in my life and the lives of most people who live in outback north Australia, They are essential characters. You need to have Indigenous family or a good friend that will discuss you story lines, read and comment on your story to make sure it is accurate. The only challenge is that for the people I work with, English is a foreign language. So when I go back to read the stories to the old people it is a long and painful experience for them.
Getting shortlisted for the CBC awards is fantastic - It shines a spotlight on your work that nothing else does in such an instant and effective way - it means your books get into most libraries and schools around Australia and that is a huge bonus - more teacher see the story and hopefully more kids and teachers will read it.
Is this how you measure success in writing, or are there other achievements that mean more to you?
I am very proud that my stories – stories which are from the far north - stories about kids that are not mainstream Australian - have been shortlisted for mainstream awards. Yes it is a real honour.
But the times I feel really successful as a writer are when I go into a classroom in a remote community and all the kids yell out Leonie Norrington! - because they know the Barrumbi kids series and love the characters. I love it when you hear kids talking about Dale and Tomias as if they are real people - especially when boys take on Tomias, who is academically successful in both English education and Traditional education, as their role model. This is something that they don't do with other books.