Law and Poetry with Alison Whittaker

By Pauline Clague and Missi Pesa

Alison Whittaker is a new addition to the Jumbunna Research team, we caught up with her to talk about her year at Harvard and her new works Blakwork.

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Podcast with Alison Whittaker

Transcript of Podcast with Alison Whittaker

I’m Alison Whittaker. I’m a Gomeroi woman, and I’m a research fellow at the John Brunner Institute. It’s great to be in a position where I’m not putting out fires. I think, for good reason, a lot of people are drawn to Legal Aid, and the Aboriginal Legal Service, because they want to immediately help people in the front line, and that is worthy work, and that’s work that people need to do. But it also burns them out so quickly.

There’s a reason, I think, people last maybe two or three years in this position. It’s difficult to sustain, and especially when your mob and these issues aren’t abstract, or you can’t just fly into these issues, and then, once you’ve built up a skill in criminal law, fly out of them. They’re with you forever. I guess we have, as legal practitioners and legal scholars, a really complicated relationship with the law. But I’m trying to go into it with the view that the law is a tool, and not an end, and because it’s imperfect, we have to be really strategic, about how we represent ourselves in it.

So, while I was in the US, I did research into effectively kind of trying to answer the question of why Norm was going to prison, for debts in custody, or why there wasn’t, really, seemed to be much justice available for families and loved ones.I had to go over there, with the intention of writing about that, but this time last year, when I was thinking about my topic, September 2017, there was a massive spike in especially atrocious Indigenous death, and it felt devastating, and it seemed necessary to me, to do something about it, or to at least understand the problem that the courts impose upon us a bit more generally.

The issues I kind of looked at were, how do coroner’s courts, which have a compulsory jurisdiction over every death in custody, or death under a police operation, how do they funnel their cases? It turns out, they’re all kind of funnelling them away from liability, and now, funnelling them away from what we see as the arc of justice, and trying to blame the deceased for their own death. They were doing that in ways that there were, I guess, interpersonally racist. They would be more willing, I think, to see an indigenous person as defeated, or inevitably dead, but they were also doing it in a really structural way. There were particular features of the coroner’s court that would make it impossible for us to achieve what we currently want to achieve, using the coroner’s court. That becomes a problem, when it’s the only court of public record that deals with all of these matters. It could actually be inhibiting the justice we want, rather than helping us.

The experience at Harvard was a bit odd, in many ways, I think, for them and me. Harvard was doing a lot of soul searching, especially the law school. The law school was having its two hundredth year anniversary, and there was a very celebratory tone to it, but I think a lot of students, especially students of colour, were trying to point out to the law school were its various failings. One of the biggest ones is, I guess, it’s history, in displacing, local mob, displacing Wampanoag mob, and profiting, actually being based on slave labour. The profits that founded the law school came from a plantation owner, and that’s something that’s never really been addressed. So it was a very tense time to be in the US, learning, especially, about race politics in the US. But I got through it, because everybody over there was so generous. The Native American law student associations were really welcoming, and inclusive, and it was a great chance to learn from one another.

 Cocked angle, warble, I flit to my knee. Shame perched on shoulder. Feel heavy there? It does to me. Turn the eyes out the window, because it’s a comfortable way for us to talk. Get in my car, all swoop around, we shame.

It’s interesting to me how poetry changes every time that you read it. I read something as, recently, Poet in Residence at the Queensland Poetry Festival, and I gave up a reading … it was about 10 minutes long, on the opening night, and I got two very different responses from people about how that reading went. One of them was a written review in Overland, and it said that I was shy, or lacking confidence. I thought that was interesting, because I didn’t feel that, in that moment. But the other one, which is from a friend who’d worked with me a long time, said that he thought I was finally comfortable with silence.  But sometimes, it can be embarrassing to read poetry in public, like, I blush on my chest when I read poetry, so I always try to wear turtlenecks.  I admit, for a lot of the time, I spoke quite quietly, because I wanted them to have to lean in, to listen. Other times, poetry can be big, it can fill the space. I don’t know, they’re both, kind of expressions of power, in a way. When you read, you have unparalleled attention on you. Maybe that’s me being bratty, but it’s nice to have that attention!

Artwork. It’s ancient work. The machine rolls on. A winding program tells her hands, expertly, where the fibres slip from lands, and for the lands, here, land. Her threads all line up, decades long. Continue, defray, and touch, but briefly. Her fingers mottle. The rope is made, by which time, she’s greyed and grisly. It’s ancient work. The machine rolls on. Mob macramé splicing cord, sealing fire, licked, chase its end. A plywood 10-buck boomerang.

I wrote that poem, thinking about hands, thinking about the calluses that you had developed between your forefinger, I guess that’s called, and your thumb, as you were kind of teasing fibres to get them in a weaveable state, and I mean, that the pain that … I guess it’s superficial, in that it’s a worthwhile pain, but the pain that that caused, it felt bigger. It’s difficult in a way, to articulate, I guess, the significance of what hands feel, when they’re doing weaving work, in particular, but there’s something to it. It just feels like, driven by the body itself, and makes me feel really whole. What’s exciting most about having poetry as a medium is that you don’t have to get it all, and you can still get enough.

The Black Work is kind of like, looking 50 years back, into the history of indigenous labour, and that includes labour of indigenous bodies and country, and then, looking forward to where the next 50 years can be. And so, the progression, from art … one of the chapters is called Bad Work, about the bad work we’ve had to do.  Then kind of pivoting, in the later parts of the book, towards new work, and sovereign work, and all of these exciting possibilities for what we can … the work that we can put ourselves to, if we’re going, if we’re committed to the work of decolonization. And that those stories, as well, I think, are really past, present and future-oriented. So the school, and then, kind of looking backwards towards, yeah, the Abo trial work that we, perhaps, have to do, that has a rich history, that has more than sustained us, but we might no longer want to do. And then, the center, which is looking forward to the work we might be doing in future.

I’m so, so glad to be here. It’s what I’d been thinking about the whole time when I was overseas, knowing that I can come back, and do ambitious, accountable work, that’s committed to our modelling. Where else can you do something like that? That’s a real honour.