Lip Service: A meeting with Melissa Lucashenko
The first time I saw Melissa Lucashenko in the flesh was when she sat in front of me at a panel discussion at the 2019 Byron Writers Festival. She had recently been announced as the winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, for her most recent novel, Too Much Lip.
Her work was familiar to me through my university studies, but seeing her that day, she seemed refreshingly down to earth and respectful of her colleagues on the panel - who did their level best to avoid gushing when she stood to ask a question. The same week she was announced as the inaugural winner of the Barry Conyngham Creative Arts Fellowship at Southern Cross University. As part of this fellowship, Melissa spent four weeks on and around the Lismore campus, yarning with students and academics at the School of Arts and Social Sciences and Gnibi Wandarahn (SCU’s College of Indigenous Studies). She participated in an ‘in conversation event’ with Vice Chancellor Adam Shoemaker, generously conducted a workshop for students in the creative writing program, and was also unfortunate enough to be embroiled in a lockdown saga which, while traumatic for all involved, was later revealed as a hoax. I was fortunate to catch up with her at SCU a few days later for this interview.
First off, where are you from Melissa?
I am a mixed heritage Goori woman from the Bundjalung nation, born and raised in Logan, just south of Brisbane. I am planning a move down to this area soon but am fairly nomadic in the meantime. I’m heading down to Canberra for a couple of months (for the H.C. Coombes Indigenous Fellowship in the school of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at ANU), and also spend a lot of time in Brisbane.
Have you always been a creative person?
I’ve been writing since my mid-20’s, initially doing academic writing. I was writing a PhD thesis in public policy but was finding it difficult and boring. I was encouraged by a mentor at Griffith University to write some fiction. At that time there were not many Aboriginal writers being published and I felt called to write the kinds of lives I wasn’t seeing in Australian literature. As you can imagine, I was full of piss and vinegar as a twenty-five-year old and thought, obviously, the world needs to hear what I’ve got to say. So, I wrote a book.
Did you have a sense back then that what you were writing would be published and read?
Well, obviously, I hoped my writing would reach an audience, but this is also a fantasy in the beginning. When you’re starting out, you don’t know what it means to have an audience. You don’t know about reviews, people reacting to the writing. You don’t realise that as a beginning writer. Never having had a response to my fictional work gave me great psychological freedom to write what I wanted.
You’re a fairly prolific writer. How many books have you written, Melissa?
I’ve written six novels and countless essays and articles. I’ve had the Saturday Paper get in touch recently, asking me to write about the lockdown at SCU the other day. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll do that (Note: she didn’t). I’ve also assisted two elders to write memoirs. I am often asked to help people with their memoirs, and I encourage them to write fiction, because there is a market for these stories of memoir packaged as fiction.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
It really depends. Mullumbimby took five years, but there was also a lot of life upheaval at that time, which wouldn’t have helped. Too Much Lip took two-and-a-half. I won a writing fellowship for that one. That made it much easier to just focus on the writing. It really depends on the book I suppose.
Do you think storytelling is in your lineage?
Yes and no. Dad could tell a good yarn, and my first boyfriend was a good storyteller – very confident and attention grabbing. Storytelling is not really the same as writing, though; they are different beasts. While Dad could tell a great funny story, writing humour is the hardest. I’ve had feedback that Too Much Lip is funny, and I’m really pleased to hear that. An early reviewer described the book as both high brow and low brow, which also pleased me. The book can be read as just an adventurous yarn but reading it from a literary perspective reveals the subtext; reading it as a blackfella reveals a whole other set of subtexts. I aim to write books that any reasonably literate person can read and enjoy, and at the same time I am trying to write literary fiction.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I am currently working on my PhD thesis, which is a historical novel of colonial Brisbane. I’ve been wanting to write this book for twenty years. That’s how long I’ve been taking notes for it.
Has it changed or evolved much over that time?
Oh yes, dramatically! In fact, I had a spiritual dream recently (I don’t often have those) which made me realise I had to go in a certain direction, and it almost gave me a structure for the book, too. I’ll be spending the next three years on that project. Thankfully I got a PhD scholarship to write this one.
What does your creative practice look like?
Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life! I have a rule for myself, that I want my Aboriginal characters to have four things – humour, beauty, power and land. Since writing Mullumbimby, I have consciously added love to that list.
Are your characters based on people you know?
No. All my characters are imaginary people, with elements drawn from lots of different people.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Sometimes. Not a lot. I’m a fairly experienced writer, so I have lots in my tool kit. If I do get stuck, it’s usually a sign that I’m trying to write the wrong thing. Then I tend to switch forms or genres and that usually gets things moving. It is also important to check in that I am telling the truth. Deadlines help too!
Why do you create? What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t write?
(Laughter) I’d be extremely happy! I could do something else! Sometimes I dream of being a taxi driver.
Rebecca Ryall is studying a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Creative Writing