Re-Imagining Indigenous Australia through the Short Story: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven


In 1998 Michelle Grossman’s overview of Indigenous women’s writing explored the significant contribution that life writing had made to the country’s literatures and pondered where younger authors might take Indigenous writing in the twenty-first century. This essay examines the work of one such writer, Ellen van Neerven, whose award-winning collection of stories, Heat and Light (2014), is a work of fiction that draws in part on personal and family stories to offer heterogeneous representations of individuals and families, lovers and friends. Part short story cycle, part long story, part story collection, the text resists easy categorisation. Within its tripartite structure, the sixteen stories are narrated in radically different ways to draw on themes explored before in Australian Aboriginal literature, such as the importance of extended family and belonging, in sometimes new ways, such as through a futuristic vision of Australia. Through a close reading of the text, and discussion that incorporates comments made by Neerven herself, this article suggests that through its varied structures, genres and styles, Heat and Light re-imagines and celebrates the fluid and diverse nature of contemporary Indigeneity.

Michelle Grossman’s 1998 overview of Australian Indigenous women’s writing identified significant contributions to the country’s literatures, particularly through women’s life writing. This form Grossman claimed

sits most comfortably in the hands and on the pages of a certain generation of Indigenous women writers, those old enough and experienced enough to have the capacity and resources to reflect upon, structure and narrativise rich and complex personal/collective histories. (176)

For some of these writers, political imperatives to create spaces for alternative versions of history to those promulgated by the white dominant culture called for the kind of truth-telling that comes from ‘telling it how it is’. Ruby Langford Ginibi, for instance, remarked that ‘I’m not interested in fiction … because I’m too busy writing the truth about my people’ (Little 109). But Grossman also cites feminist critique warning against a simplified reading of women’s life writing that overlooks the ways in which…

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Published 2 November 2018 in Volume 33 No. 3. Subjects: Australian short stories, Indigenous literature & writers, Sexuality & sexual identity, Ellen van Neerven.

Cite as: Kadmos, Helena. ‘Re-Imagining Indigenous Australia through the Short Story: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2018, doi: 10.20314/als.ef818cfc89.