Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali poet, author and editor.
For many within Australian literature, she is a sibling, mentor, friend, platformer and tastemaker. Ellen is at the forefront of an Indigenous literary renaissance, and builds for others to follow. Her work, on the page and off, echoes across the very architecture of writing in Australia today and will echo long into the future.
To bring all this resonance into the public eye in the most authentic and sincere way we know, we asked this lot to tell you about Ellen in their own words, as the person and as the creative force.
(Note: the usual contributor fee for an online piece has been donated to the Indigenous Literary Foundation, and TLB has also donated the same amount of money to the ILF, because that organisation is so terrific.)
When I first encountered Ellen van Neerven's work in 2014, I knew immediately I was in lyrical and capable hands. Ellen's short fiction collection Heat and Light was released around the same time as my book Foreign Soil. I'll always be grateful to have had Ellen on the writing trail with me that year, and I feel privileged to have launched Heat and Light in Melbourne. One of my most cherished memories is being named a 'Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist' that year with Ellen, alongside Omar Musa, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, and Alice Pung: writers from diverse backgrounds working powerfully and successfully across multiple genres. Ellen's prose is at once poetic and incisive; both raw and restrained. Ellen's poetry is soulful; unpretentious; complicatedly lean. Ellen's non-fiction is sharp, deeply meditated, and disarming. Of all the talented young writers in Australia, for me it is Ellen who best represents all that Australian literature was, is, and will surely be, in the decades to come.
–Maxine Beneba Clarke
(Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and slam poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2013 Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Award, the 2015 Indie Award for Debut Fiction, and the 2016 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction. Her latest poetry collection Carrying The World (Hachette) was released in May 2016, and her memoir The Hate Race (Hachette) was published in August 2016. She writes for the Saturday Paper.)
I stand with Ellen van Neerven, my friend and colleague. As a writer and poet she has contributed to the beauty and value of Australian literature. As an editor she has aided and empowered others in the further development of their work. Further, as an Indigenous woman she has shown grace and strength in the face of the racism inherent in the culture of this country and the daily sexism all women must face.
–Claire G. Coleman
(Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar author. Her debut novel Terra Nullius was edited with the assistance of the black&write! project editing team and project senior editor Ellen van Neerven.)
When I opened up Comfort Food I drifted into a variety of worlds. From Coffee in Toronto to West End bars, Ellen has a way with words that is both beguiling and real. But there is one thing that sets her apart from so many other writers and that’s her uncanny ability to see through our flawed country with scary accuracy. In Chips she proclaimed ‘what is happening with the dialogue of this country’ a statement which requires urgent attention in light of recent events.
(Timmah Ball is an emerging Ballardong Noongar writer whose work is influenced by Ellen van Neerven. She has been published in Meanjin, Island, Westerly and The Lifted Brow. Ellen has played an integral role in her development offering her advice, support, opportunities and most importantly friendship.)
Before I read Heat and Light, I first heard Ellen in conversation with Tony Birch at Deakin Edge, and was intrigued by this young, quiet woman with the monumental writing voice.
Reading Ellen was a revelation, here were stories laid bare and vulnerable; they stirred so much emotion in me that I was shook. Ellen has a way that solicits confidence in my own voice and story telling. I had the pleasure of being in one of her masterclasses at the Blak & Bright festival and felt nurtured, safe and encouraged. Then I got to enjoy the launch of Comfort Food at Readings Carlton, listen to Tony and Ellen in conversation again and couldn’t wait to sit down with it.
Tony read one of her poems; and it prompted me to keep striving for my own storied and writing dreams, to one day read at Readings myself. Because of Ellen commissioning me to write for The Lifted Brow in 2016, this November I will get to read from one of these stories that Ellen edited ever so kindly and gently, and I get to be where she showed me was possible.
Thanks Sister girl.
(A Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, Paola Balla is an artist, curator and writer who lectures at Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Centre, VU where she is a PhD candidate researching Aboriginal women’s art and resistance, and is the inaugural Lisa Bellear Indigenous Research Scholar. Ellen van Neerven is an early supporter of Paola’s work and commissioned a vignette of stories for The Lifted Brow from her which has exposed her work to a broad audience and has led to numerous publication and speaking opportunities. Paola’s work also appears in Etchings Indigenous, Peril Magazine, Weather Stations for Tony Birch and the Victorian Writer.
In 2015, Paola curated Executed in Franklin Street at City Gallery, and in 2016 co-curated Sovereignty at ACCA with Director Max Delany.)
I remember Ellen van Neerven reading aloud her poem, Chips, the one that begins, “white people really bore me sometimes” and I felt anxious and I felt scared and I felt wounded and I also remember thinking, It’s good that I’m feeling anxious and scared and wounded, it’s good that I am feeling not safe, so while the largely senseless and ignorant voices of those young people attacking her on social media have made me furious, I’m also glad that her work has made those students feel pissed off and not safe, art can be many things and do many things and one of the many things that it must keep doing is to disturb us and Ellen writes words that make me breathless at their beauty and she also writes words that make me scared. The white noise on Facebook will disappear back into the vacuum it was shat out of, but please, keep writing the words that make me breathless, keep writing the words that make me scared. Please, keep making us feel unsafe.
(Christos Tsiolkas is an Australian writer who has learnt about poetry and tennis from Ellen.)
Being lucky enough to be a recipient of the Black & Write program in Brisbane, Ellen started as my teacher and ended up being a wonderful friend. Ellen inspired me to write, to edit, to be greater than I can be, and I’ve seen her gentle-natured way of guiding others to do the same.
Her tender temperament and sharp mind are found in all that she writes, and I particularly found traces of her cerebral Ellen-ness quietly dabbed throughout Heat and Light, giving each lucky reader such a unique and significant insight into a mind so great. Because Ellen is magic, and no one else I’ve ever read or met comes close to this, and it’s such a valuable gift to be her friend and just talk to her about the world, because her presence in it makes us remember that there is still magic out there.
(Carissa Lee is a young Wemba-Wemba writer and actor based in Narrm (Melbourne). An active member of the First Nations Australia Writing Network (FNAWN), her writing has appeared in Uni Junkee, The Melbourne Writers Festival, The Conversation, Lip Mag, and Book Riot. When she’s not writing or acting, Carissa is also a research assistant at the University of Melbourne, while completing her Master’s Degree in Indigenous Performing Arts.)
I remember the first time I read Ellen van Neerven’s book, Heat and Light, and I was struck by the freshness and the strength of her writing. It was immediately apparent that she was a fearless new Indigenous voice. She has the gift of every great writer – the ability to get to the truth – the authenticity – of the world she writes about. Her following work, Comfort Food, was a further revelation. Her eye for detail, her ability to capture the essence of a moment or the heart of a deeply complex situation are evidence the deftness of her craft. She is so accomplished it is easy to forget that she is so young. I also admire the way her genuine love of her culture permeates throughout her work. Over the last two years I have worked with and interviewed Ellen on several occasions and I have always been struck by her gentleness, generosity and wisdom. She is a beautiful, wise soul.
(Larissa Behrendt is Chair of Indigenous Research at the University of Technology Sydney. She is a writer and filmmaker and the host of Speaking Out on ABC Radio.)
I’ll keep it short and sweet: Ellen is the brightest star in my generation of authors. She’s a brilliant writer and poet who has that rarest combination of talent, dedication, and kindness. She is unfailingly generous with her time and her knowledge, the former of which is limited and the latter expansive. I’m truly grateful to have her as a peer and a friend.
(Omar Sakr is an Arab Australian poet who met Ellen nearly three years ago through the Sweatshop collective at a writers’ dinner in Bankstown. They watched a soccer match after and have been friends ever since.)
Comfort Food and Heat and Light are extraordinary collections, a reflection of an extraordinary writer & poet. Ellen’s gentle and caring personality belies a fierce intellect – a gifted & powerful poet, writer, editor & thinker. Someone who deeply cares and builds platforms for others. Someone whose belief in one’s work, caries it over from the shadow into sunlight. Someone whose gentle words can soothe that nagging writer self-doubt. I’ve just finished working with her on a story for The Brow’s “The Feeder’s Digest”. I was so honoured with her invitation, it was an opportunity to deepen a friendship, an opportunity to know my writing better – a mirror that only an editor with incredible skill is able to gift a writer.
While words can hurt, words can also heal, and I hope that this amazing tribute sends powerful ripples that shines a light on how extraordinary Ellen van Neerven is.
(Lian Low writes across performance text and creative non-fiction. From 2009-2016, Lian undertook various editorial and board member roles with Asian Australian arts and culture online magazine Peril.)
Ellen and I were together in the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange program (WrICE) in the Philippines and then in Australia, along with ten other writers from around Asia and the Pacific. I had the privilege of listening to her speak not only of her creative process and of writing issues, but also of social issues that matter to her as an advocate, as a citizen. I was struck by how she interweaves these concerns seamlessly, and can see how this interweaving manifests artfully in her writing, in the way she interacts with the other writers. At this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, during the On Revolution panel, I was deeply moved when, instead of reading her own piece, she chose to use her allotted time instead to read from my essay on living with trauma (as a writer in a country like the Philippines), where it is not so easy at the moment to assert political beliefs and expressions of dissent, while remaining sharp and relevant aesthetically. Her generosity, her profound understanding of the issues that we all share, across borders, has been an inspiration to me.
(Journalist, fictionist, and mango lover, from the Philippines).
Ellen’s work speaks for itself. Wherever I go, it’s checked out of libraries and the last copy in the bookstore has the oiliness of a well-thumbed favourite. I have conversations about contemporary Australian writing sometimes; people tend to find their way to ‘Have you read Heat and Light? Phwoar! Wow, you’ve just. You’ve got to read it. The latest is Comfort Food, and you’ve just gotta. You’ll never read anything like it –'. They’re right, and who can ever tire of talking about it?
Ellen would be excused if this genius made a monster of her, but it never has. Her generosity is unbounded and very humbling. When I talk with poets and writers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, it’s hard to avoid discussing how much Ellen has directly influenced our work – offering encouragement, abatement, advice, making space and ever urging us on. Ellen is already so much bigger than her works, which are themselves such looming figures on the shelves. She is in the work of others in a way that is never going to be properly unknotted. I have no idea what contemporary Australian literature would look like without Ellen. I suspect it would be hellish, invulnerable and boring.
(Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and law scholar. She worked with Ellen van Neerven as a black&write! fellow. They first met on a humid night in Brisbane, where they walked around to find pizza and to talk poetry – managing only to do one.)