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Blak books in the time of COVID

Creative industries have undoubtedly taken big hits during 2020/2021. People working in film, stage, music, literature and mixed media have lost contract after contract. Businesses and people in the entertainment and arts sectors, that rely heavily on freelance and casual workforce, also missed out on many of the government support packages.

I’ve been a freelancer for about seven years. It’s precarious at the best of times. I was fortunate to be undertaking a Masters on a scholarship when COVID-19 hit. Aware that support was ending in difficult times, I lined up freelance work. I momentarily had too much potential work, so passed opportunities on to other First Nations freelancers and writers. And then Delta appeared. Lockdowns, closed borders and social distancing rapidly returned. What contracts I had disappeared. 

One of the biggest disappointments was the postponement of the First Nations Australia Writers Network national workshop. Not just because it was loss of work for me. Like other FNAWN members, I was looking forward to an in-person three-day event, at a time when restrictions appeared to be finally lifting.

Personally, the past 18 months have been a roller coaster of highs and lows. Like many, in addition to financial worries, I had increased responsibilities to others. A positive during COVID-19 is the enhanced sense of community and willingness to help each other. A personal high for me was winning the Dorothy Hewett Award for a Unpublished Manuscript in February 2020, which included publication of Where the Fruit Falls. However, travelling to Perth to accept that award, I knew something was brewing. By the time the novel was published in late October 2020, the world had dramatically changed for everyone. 

It might appear selfish to be focusing on books during a pandemic, but in Australia thousands of people financially rely on the production and sales of books: writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, booksellers and others. Rather than provide stats and facts, I decided to contact people working in the sector, to find out how they’re doing in these uncertain times.

I asked publisher Rachel Bin Salleh about the impact of the pandemic on Magabala Books. Rachel replied that “Sales during the pandemic, for many booksellers and publishers, rose quite steadily. When our realities changed, many people involved in publishing thought that it was going to be dire. It was such a lovely surprise when it wasn’t.”

Based in Broome, Magabala Books are tireless supporters of First Nations storytellers. And community is at the heart of everything they do. Rachel has noticed a strong element of community in action during the pandemic: “It was heartening to see the community (local, national & international) support grassroots organisations and buy local. Coupled with the BLM campaign, there was broad interest in accessing all types of information and storytelling as well as the need to affect change for many communities.”

I also suggested she recommend a few books. Rachel said “All of them. From every publishing company investing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling.” 

While I agree with her, and am glad more Australian-based publishers are supporting First Nations writers and illustrators, I’ll encourage readers to check out Magabala Books online. They’ve released a few exciting books in 2020/2021, such as the multi-award winning Bindi by Kirli Saunders and illustrated by Dub Leffler. For younger readers there’s The River by Sally Morgan, and illustrated by Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr. If you’re interested in music, then Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse’s Kalyakoorl, ngalak warangka (Forever, we sing) might be of interest. And I recommend Elfie Shiosaki’s Homecoming, a collection of poetry, prose and non fiction.

While book sales did increase last financial year, it has still been difficult for people who rely solely on their creative practice. Claire G Coleman is one of a few First Nations writers that has no main job or side hustle outside of writing. Claire’s third book, Lies, Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation, was released when she was in Alice Springs. Unable to get back to Melbourne because of border closures and then major car problems, she had to be more ingenious in promoting the book.

When I asked if launching this book felt different, Claire said: “Lies, Damned Lies is appearing when things are already uncertain. The first opportunity I had to promote Lies, Damned Lies, Melbourne Writers Fest, was cancelled and the future of book touring is entirely uncertain. There is no way to know, or even imagine, how COVID19 will effect the promotion of books developed and released this year, or even next. In my opinion online promotion can only go so far.”

When I asked Claire about her experiences as a professional writer during COVID-19, she replied: “Making a living has become both harder and easier for me during the pandemic. Easier because, with the lack of events and travel and with the desperate desire we all feel to have interesting things to read during this nightmare time, I have had more short work commissions than ever before. However, like many other writers, I make a proportion of my income from public appearances and speaking, and that has dried up”

I’ve also experienced loss of income because of cancelled events, as I’ve now got two pandemic-era books. Nine months after the release of my novel, I had a children’s non fiction book published; Heroes, Rebels and Innovators: Inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from history

I already knew what to expect, but I wondered what expectations illustrator Jaelyn Biumaiwai had, given it’s her first book. When asked, she replied “It has overall been such a positive experience! I’m very blessed to be surrounded by a very supportive community.”

Jaelyn had optimistically planned a small launch at Numinbah Valley Environmental Education Centre in Queensland, which luckily went ahead after a small lockdown. Surrounded by family and community, Jaelyn got to enjoy her moment in the spotlight. 

I also asked Jaelyn what impact the pandemic had on her work as a freelance artist. She said “I wouldn’t say I was ever at the level of being self-employed to be honest. It is very much a side hustle, but in saying that, I feel like I really thrived. I’ve been lucky to have not been severely affected by the pandemic.”

I appreciate Jaelyn’s sense of optimism, and need to keep reminding myself of reasons to feel gratitude. I’m grateful to IndigenousX for the offer to write about the impact of COVID-19 on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. And wanted to speak with many other writers, illustrators and storytellers about creating, promoting and financially-surviving during the pandemic. And more importantly, how we’re supporting each other, and our families and communities, in these difficult times. 

These are undoubtedly challenging times for everyone. I think reading has been a small respite from stress and worry for many. Book sales indicate this is true. And while supporting local businesses is good, reading doesn’t require money. Local libraries have been ensuring communities still have access to books. And every time a print book is borrowed, payments are made to authors and illustrators through the Lending Rights Schemes.

Stay safe, keep your family and community safe, get vaccinated – and read books by First Nations storytellers.

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