Lorna Munro is a Wiradjuri/ Gamilaroi poet from Redfern, Sydney. She is an active member of the Black Power Movement, and a prominent activist within the Redfern community and beyond. We caught up with Lorna and her son Yujali to discuss her experiences, her poetry, motherhood and where she finds inspiration.
What inspires you in your writing?
I can be inspired by a really small detail to huge, broad, historical stuff. I guess what inspires me is always trying to think of the best way to give people a gateway into my mind and the way I see the world. And it’s about understanding the world as well. We spoke a little before about having an Aboriginal world view instead of a foreign world view that’s been adopted and that Aboriginal people have just been assimilated into. So I guess it’s always being an artist, and being a mum now, and being an educator and stuff – I guess that’s what inspires me. It’s the way to tell a story. How’s the best way to tell a story, but not just the story but how to make other people feel what I’m feeling, and see what I’m seeing, the smallest details of something. An example would be the way the wind hits the trees and stuff like that but I wouldn’t describe it like that. In that poem I was talking about with the sun, I was trying to mention and reference how everything within the body is replicated in the natural world, and it’s also replicated within the sky and it’s also as much a part of Aboriginal spirituality and belief. Everything has a place and it’s all interconnected.
Who inspires you in writing?
I’m inspired by Black female writers, African-American writers, a lot of the intersectional feminist writers. People that are just doing their own thing really inspires me to keep doing mine. There are heaps of writers and there’s heaps of mad literature at the moment. Poetry has become kind of cool again, so there are a lot more other poets out there doing their own style than when I first started out. So you take inspiration where you can get it.
How do you use poetry to explore the confronting reality of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians?
What I have found in poetry is that it is probably the most effective educational tool. For example, I can spend years creating and refining a program to run or I can find the proper essence of it and turn it into a two-minute poem. And that’s very much following on the marriage of Black Politics and Black art. There was a quote by Gary Foley where he talks about touching and connecting with more people within Black theatre than what he could ever have done marching on the streets and talking and having that face-to-face stuff. I guess that’s what’s so powerful about controlling the narrative and putting my perspective out there.
Because statistically, we make up almost three percent of the national population. There are so many messed up things that people talk and say. You’re treated like a curiosity all the time. It’s very rare that you’re not treated like a curiosity.
I remember when I first went to London and I caught up with a friend who is a pretty famous rapper. But he had turned away from his profile that he built up over years and went underground and decided to study and learn how to speak Arabic. He was like, “can you come and talk to these kids that I’m working with. I’m working at our community center and I would love to be able to talk about the connections between Palestine and Australia and a lot of other occupied spaces at the moment.” So I agreed to go along and one of the other youth workers made a comment that really… I have never heard something so ignorant or so dumb before. And I’m sorry to say it like that but it really just took me off guard. When this person found out that I was Aboriginal from Australia he literally said, “Aren’t you dead?” Well obviously not if I’m standing right here in front of you! You need to be reminded that I’m alive with a slap in the face.
I guess if you want to put a label on my poetry that’s what it started out being. It was that punch in the face that a lot of people needed. It was that metaphorical punch in the gut. Wake up, you know. We’re wasting way too much time with all of this tokenistic sort of stuff without actually addressing the real issues. And the real issues are that we get blamed for being the victims in this country whereas colonialism doesn’t get blamed. Misogynistic patriarchy doesn’t get blamed. Old white men don’t get blamed.
How did the community that you grew up in shape your experiences and your activism?
I’ve carried a lot of trauma growing up. Growing up as somebody whose parents were heavily involved in the Black Power movement, growing up in one of the most famous Aboriginal communities in Australia, let alone urban Aboriginal community. The first Aboriginal land in an urban setting to be handed back officially by the government which is currently under gentrification.
So there’s a lot of stuff that I carry and my perspective isn’t such a widespread sort of perspective. My perspective is very specific. To my bloodlines and the place that I’ve grown up in and the experiences that I’ve been privileged to have and other deadly people, the enormous amount of people that I’ve been exposed to. A lot of Indigenous writers and performers from around the world and again those strong Black women.
I’ve literally had Black politics and history served up like breakfast lunch and dinner at the table. I’ve sat around my table and listened to Uncle Archie and Auntie Ruby play acoustic sets at 1 o’clock in the night after performing and then coming and having a feed at my mum’s house. I’ve watched people like Sekai Holland sit at my mother’s table. People like Angela Davis being referenced all the time and being able to meet these people. And have that kind of, little sort of notes and things like that by these really famous, powerful, strong voices, that have just been challenging every and any institution where they are.
Earlier, you described your work as a ‘punch in the face,’ could you please explain this term further?
I like to use that “punch in the face” thing because, in Australia, there is so much complacency here. Australian society will not change unless they’re shamed from the outside. And that’s kind of the only ever time when Aboriginal issues and voices have been centered is when Australia’s been shamed by other countries.
At the moment they’re trying to get onto the U.N stuff and they’re being pulled back because of what they’ve done and what they continue to do to Indigenous people. But apparently there’s some deal that’s being made and they’re being considered. So there’s all these sorts of things that happen, and keep happening and won’t stop happening. And this is what colonialism is. It’s a toxic cycle that we can’t get out of.
Do you find that your identity as a female Indigenous Australian hinders your access to creating and publishing your work?
A lot of the visual arts stuff that I started doing was from discarded rubbish in the street and stuff like that. Tabletops, whatever I could find. Pull it apart, paint a base coat and then sell it. Try to have money to buy canvases.
I don’t have access to a lot of the camera stuff. I don’t have access to recording equipment. So I might be working and writing and meeting different challenges that I’ve set for myself but I don’t actually get the chance to share a lot of my work. And I think that’s been a bit more of a conscious decision because I have issues with the publishing world and copyright and stuff like that. Whereas being a spoken word poet, it actually forces people to sit and listen so that they then can’t take your work out of context and use that. They have to actually have a conversation or be within your energy. They get to see all the subtext stuff, all the stuff that’s not written.
So I guess sometimes it’s a bit hard being someone that is an Aboriginal writer that’s just so against…using even the English language. Which is why I’ve been learning and immersing myself in trying to teach myself language, which is also very hard. How can you learn a language when you don’t hear it?
There’s a lot of these weird sort of places that I feel that I sit. Within poetry as well, it’s often really hard for people to hear an Aboriginal person speak about the issues that affect them. But someone that’s ethnically ambiguous will get up and say the exact same thing and they will win every competition. Everybody loves them and they’re so woke and they’re so cool and the social capital just keeps building, building, building. Whereas an actual Aboriginal person talking about it, it’s like, well she’s too aggressive, stay away from her. They’ll tell other people, “she too hard to work with.” So it’s actually created a bit of a stigma, and more issues, more barriers, more closed doors than anything else. Again, which has made it very hard to get my work out there and even develop. I’m 30 years old and I’ve never actually had much proper professional development. I’ve never had someone to watch my back and I only have my interests at heart.
How is access to the internet a problem within remote communities and for Indigenous artists?
Even in the city, I have no internet access. The same issues that are very much felt out in remote communities are to some extent the same in every Aboriginal community. That’s why Redfern is always a focal point because whatever happens in places like Redfern, is going to be felt everywhere else. Because this has been the first stand in history and in recent history. So if this place goes then pretty much it’s just like, say goodbye to everything. And that’s what’s been happening.
Could you discuss your experiences of being exploited as a female Indigenous artist?
People are always doing things because they get something out of it. And I guess that’s why this is so good for you guys and why I said yes to doing this because it’s mutually beneficial. You guys are creating a platform and using that platform to center Aboriginal voices and giving people the chance to talk about their artistry. I think that’s great. But then again when I first met you, I had more questions than anything else. You know I had to ask you, “so why are you doing this? What are you getting out of this?”
I have learned that the hard way, to say that straight away. Rather than get caught in a project and then realize, hey you know, I’m not really being looked after here. Or that I’m disposable. And I guess that’s reflective again in the way that Black bodies are used within colonial societies.
It reinforces that whole disposable thing. I know that we’re disposable. I come from people that experienced massacres and things like that. My family line actually descends from two survivors of the Myall Creek Massacre, the first time that white people were ever prosecuted for murdering Aboriginal people. All of these kinds of issues and that they’re so loaded for me within my experience as well as my family’s experience and my ancestor’s story because when we walk and talk, we carry our old people with us as well. The whole word ‘disposable,’ it’s triggering, you know.
A lot of these words are really triggering, and I guess that’s why I play with them. I have the ability to be able to play with them and to elicit a certain emotional response. And then go home and think about what kind of response that was or why people reacted like that.
A lot of the time, older white women come up to me after I’ve done poetry and they want me to sit and talk to them and comfort them. It just feels like again, am I not here? Did you not feel something for my pain and they still want me to make you feel better about it? It doesn’t work like that. You go and educate yourself. You go and find some change that you can make within your own families and relationships and stop reinforcing colonialism. Stop reinforcing this stuff. Create a space where Aboriginal people can control the narrative. Because that’s what it was all about. Otherwise, you’re just further dispossessing and pushing the whole colonialist capitalist mentality. It’s old, it’s outdated, it’s antiquated. It’s so boring too.
You always have to offer an alternative. And it’s like, you guys were the alternative. But there was no choice. So then again it’s a slap in the face to be the alternative when we are the real voice of this country.The fact that we’re still surviving genocide and colonialism is even more of an important issue to get our voices out there. I don’t even want to think about what kind of world my son is going to inherit.