It was a wonderfully dynamic, interactive, educational and personal guest presentation by Gregg Dreise, an award winning illustrator and writer of books like Silly Birds and Mad Magpie, at the recent Book Links AGM at the State Library of Queensland.
Gregg is a descendant of the Kamilaroi tribe, from south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. You can find out more about him on the Speakers Ink site.
Gregg began by honouring the Indigenous people of the local area we were meeting in, and then gave the audience a sample of what he does when goes on his various visits into the community, but especially into schools.This gave us a chance to learn some of his language and sing it, and do the accompanying actions just as the students would.
Then he used a number of images to structure his talk around the memories of his upbringing, including one of his mum as a little girl, which he gave a a thought provoking back story to. I’m not going to fully detail that here, as I think that will be something Gregg may one day do himself if he ever writes a memoir or maybe if he is busy one of his family might do this. If you attend one of his presentations you will hear it directly from him as well.
Gregg gave some critique of the notion of ‘blackness’ and Indigenous identity as well how little diversity appears in Australian children’s books, in libraries, publishing and schools.
This observation was used to spring board into suggestions of how illustrators might consider including more diverse characters in their picture books.
However, it was suggested not to do this in a tokenistic way, or with stereotyping, but in a naturally inclusive way.
Later on this point was discussed further by the authors in attendance of the AGM. As authors shared with Gregg that they have little control over the work of illustrators if they are not author/illustrators. He suggested that authors could at least make a note about wanting diversity in the illustrations of their book.
Gregg said, non-Indigenous could still include Indigenous characters, but should ensure they do their research and be accurate in those portrayals. If there is an opportunity to include, do it! But just do the research.
He said often, however, there are picture book stories that require very little change of the writing to embrace an inclusive society, rather a subtle change in illustration where the main character could be Indigenous instead of Anglo Australian, or in a wheelchair instead of walking is what makes the difference. He gave us a specific example, which he had gained permission from the author to do so, to show how simple the task of inclusivity can be.
He did not advocate however taking on traditional stories, and explained that authors who truly want to support Indigenous people should instead empower an Indigenous person to tell and illustrate that story.
At times it might be relevant to consult Elders when undertaking a project, but the writer should be open to the answer being no, or yes and not try to railroad communities into assisting them with their research or books.
Mentoring is a rewarding experience, and can not only be taken on board as best practice when wanting to support Indigenous people, but can and should be acknowledged. This is also work he himself does for regional and remote students especially. Equally if writers receive assistance in research or from Elders they should acknowledge it.
On a positive note Gregg observed that in film and television there are great advances in diversity and the positive deconstruction of ‘blackness’ with films like Black Panther and also Star Wars.
He shared that Indigenous authors and illustrators should avoid stereotyping their own communities, and showed us an illustration where he represented the different skin shades of Indigenous Australia today. Sometimes ‘blackness’ is taken as a sign of Indigenous authenticity, when it is not the major indication in contemporary society.
Another very heartening aspect of Gregg’s presentation was sharing the story of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and his work mentoring young Indigenous writers and illustrators.
“So far we have gifted more than 260,000 new books to over 250 remote Indigenous communities where books are scarce.
Working with more than 30 generous publishers, we gift culturally relevant books to schools, libraries, playgroups, women’s centres, youth centres and other service organisations.
We have books available for babies through to adults, 40 per cent created by Indigenous authors and illustrators, with a new catalogue released each year.
He is hosting a group of talented Indigenous creatives in Sydney soon and taking them to Google and Hachette so they can aspire to become writers, illustrators and more. It’s all about the doors that writing and books can open and broadening the horizons for Australia’s Indigenous people. This work is made possible through a bequest from Pamela Lofts.
He showed us an example of a beautiful book co-produced with a school, which exemplified the kind of work possible.
I was very blessed to have a fantastic earlier discussion session with Dimity Powell and Gregg where we discussed the potential of picture books and poetry to contribute to social justice and unity in diversity in the Australian literary community and how we might advance that happening.
It was a highly uplifting and inspiring conversation for all three of us, and we will be continuing our conversations as like minded, but very diverse background humans.
There were of course many more things shared during the presentation and this day, so this blog is only highlights that particularly struck me.
Book Links will be sharing a blog of the day with several comments from participants in the AGM. I will add the link to this post when it goes up.
All the best,