Award winning Black Australian poet, Yvette Holt talks to Lesley Woodburn about her life and love of words.
[Photo: Yvette Holt – 2008.© Lesley Woodburn]
Yvette Holt is a descendant of the Bidjara and Wakaman Nations of Queensland the youngest of four, Yvette says she “is more of the twisted branch on the family tree. Always one in the family, I am the radical in a lovingly conservative family”. Yvette still lives in the Brisbane suburb of Inala 4077.
Describing Inala, Yvette says “Growing up in Inala in the 80’s I saw a very monocultural society, black and white. Inala is an inter-generational community, very few people moved out of the area and there certainly was not much of a high turnover of people .So for better or worse people got on or didn’t.”
Schooling was Yvette’s first introduction to racism. Yvette is disparaging of her schooling. “All the teachers were white Australians with very little experience of working within Aboriginal communities”.
She recollects an English assignment on great Australian writers where she wrote at some length on the writer Oodgeroo Noonuccal , also known as Kath Walker . Asked why she had written about an author the teacher had no knowledge of, young Yvette was handed back her work to start over.
At 18, Yvette headed for the public service; Australia Post. It was during her time at Oz Post that Yvette took the obligatory and humiliating confirmation of Australian Aboriginal citizenship oath. This is a Balander (non-Indigenous Australian) legal requirement that she was compelled to take to gain employment.
10 years at Oz Post Yvette soon felt the need to travel and see the international destinations she had till then read about and ensured delivery of post to. The urge to travel encouraged her to save up then take off. Whilst traveling Yvette experienced a multiculturalism so different to the monoculturalism she flew away from. This multiculturalism first acknowledged her as Mexican then African American, Native American after which Yvette was compelled to confirm her Aboriginal identity to black and white.
“I can recall being asked many times in the Memphis, if I were from Central or South America, to which I would reply ‘no’…I’m an Aboriginal woman from Australia. I was saddened to think that many Americans had not known that Australia had a Black race of people, an Indigenous group of First Nation people “.
” The reality of how Australia was so harshly colonised by and large was through the extermination of ‘Aborigines’. History is still being written from white-Anglo Saxon perspectives, but thankfully our own Indigenous voices are starting to emerge throughout the corridors of patriarchalism. Aboriginal Australians are not only ‘Black people’ we are also Indigenous to this land, a double jeopardy in societies eyes. It almost feels at times that the outside world view of Aboriginal Australia is exclusively ‘traditional’ but we are that and more. Of course we are tribal, urban, academic, philosophers, lawyers, writers, politicians, entertainers, sporting people and community practitioners to name a few.”
Yvette’s only child, daughter Cheyenne now 13, was conceived whilst Yvette traveled the States. ” I was broke arse and cleaning rooms and toilets in a Los Angeles youth hostel. I rang my parents up and they said just come back home”.
In 2001, Cheyenne was now attending school. Yvette now felt the need to get her own and further her education
2004, Yvette, enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) studying Adult Education and majoring in Business. Yvette graduated in 2007. Throughout her life Yvette has enjoyed poetry.
Reading some of Yvette’s poetry, close friend Estelle Castro, encouraged Yvette to enter her work into the David Unaipon Award, which is Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer. Attending the 10th International World Women’s Health and Well Being Conference in New Delhi Yvette received news of winning the Unaipon.
“I was planning a hike up the Himalayas when I read an email that I had won and was absolutely delighted. All of a sudden I was on a plane back to Brisbane “.
The Unaipon Winner is awarded guarantee of publication through the University of Queensland Press and a $15,000 cash prize.
Yvette points to the growing up process involved in the selection of her poetry for the Unaipon:
“It was all new to me, of the 106 poems I entered, 47 were selected. I feel as though it was a safe bet to publish the poems that represented me as a woman/mother/social commentator…but definitely not as a black lesbian woman. Far too complicated and messy, unlike the reality of most people’s lives. That is why I intend to write more and offer more”.
Yvette’s has worked as a counsellor for Indigenous female prisoner’s rights organisation, Sisters Inside.
“it’s a painful reminder that for every six Aboriginal women only one will live beyond their 65th birthday, can you imagine how that harrowing statistic impacts on my life and the life of my people?
Anonymous Premonitions, A Line in the Sand is dedicated to Indigenous women prisoners and was inspired by a discussion Yvette had with an Aboriginal elder who recounted the experience of a female relative in prison. That elder gave Yvette permission to publish the poem based on that account.
Asked about the creative process involved in her poetry Yvette concedes that she has always enjoyed writing and has always kept a journal.
“I enjoy a great diversity throughout life and poetry is no exception, some of the poets who have inspired me may have zilch in common with each other but it is this subliminal thread for the written word that excites me. I want to feel the pleasure and pain of life from within their souls”.
Yvette’s poetry is infused with activism..
“I think social justice is an absolute springboard. I can’t write about being a man because I have not experienced that so I write a lot about womanhood, intimacy, and social justice. I then put them away for six months then revisit them. Some of my favorite poems have been delivered by this due process. Sure I can write as fast and furious as some, but there is almost a melodious form to leaving some words to settle and rest in the bottom drawers of my desk before I commit them to public consumption. “.
On where she gets her inspiration …..
”I receive my inspirations from life…from everyday interactions with people, strangers, friends, experiences, desires and observations. I know that may sound quite bizarre but for me it’s the reality of writing my style of poetry”.
Premier Rudd’s televised apology to the Indigenous nations of Australia on 13 February 2008 saw Yvette quietly reflect this seminal moment marking Australia’s public acknowledgment of the Stolen Generations of Indigenous first nation Australians. Preferring the company of family and friends that day…
“I don’t know if Premier Rudd is the real deal but I am very appreciative of the apology. The apology means a lot to me. It was a momentous occasion and it meant so much to the first nations people of this country where. I think as a nation we are starting to lose a little bit of our hunch and its making me feel good”
Now heading up University of Queensland new Aboriginal Women’s Studies Department Yvette’s teaching method does not place an assumption of all round knowledge of Indigene and women on her students….
“Just as I would not expect students to know everything about the constitution or western democracy. This immediately relaxes everyone. What my students learn on this course they may not learn at any other university which is an infusion of academia and community leadership”.
Yvette is working on her next poetic manuscript, Always My Lover. This is dedicated to the celebration of women of colour and same sex attraction and interracial relationships.
Yvette is also a researcher for AusLit: the Australian Literature Resource in the Black Words: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers subset…..”
When I started in September 2006 we had 600 indigenous writers now I am very pleased to say today we now have close to 2400. We still have a long way to go to catch up with the 90,000 [White Australian] authors currently published”.
Yvette plans a Masters Degree. Her thesis will focus on Indigenous Australian same sex attraction and leadership…
“it is motivated by our [Indigenous] invisibility not only in mainstream society but also here in the Australian LGBT community”.
This interview took place in June 2007 at the Festival of the Dreaming in Queensland
Anonymous Premonitions is published by the University of Queensland Press (UQP)
© Lesley Woodburn, 2008