Interview with Nicole Watson

By Erin Handley in conversation with Nicole Watson | 22 Jun 12
Nicole Watson
Right Now spoke to Nicole Watson, author of The Boundary.

[Right Now] Congratulations of the success of your crime novel – The Boundary. Would you mind giving us a brief outline of the story, and what inspired you to write such a novel?

[Nicole Watson] The story begins with a native title claim, over a fictitious park in Brisbane that is based on Musgrave Park. The native title claim is unsuccessful, for reasons that were very similar in the Yorta Yorta people’s case – the traditional owners did not maintain their connection to their land and waters, for reasons beyond their control – they were forcibly removed. Soon after the claim is unsuccessful in the Federal Court, the judge is murdered, and then lawyers associated with the claim are also murdered. There are no clues, except red feathers at each crime scene. The police believe that the suspect is a member of the Brisbane Aboriginal community, but some within the Aboriginal community believe it is a deceased assassin.

…the crime novel is just perfect for social commentary.

The Boundary won the David Unaipon award for unpublished Indigenous writers, in 2009. All Queensland literary awards, including the David Unaipon award, were scrapped by Campbell Newman earlier this year on the premise that this would save taxpayers money. In your opinion, what will be the consequences of this change for Indigenous writers?

Well the University of Queensland Press is still maintaining the award, but obviously it’s without the benefit of having the recognition of being part of the Queensland Premier’s Literary awards. Being acknowledged alongside established writers gave people kudos. It’s very unfortunate. In the great scheme of things, I don’t think that scrapping the awards has gone any way towards fixing Queensland’s budget deficit.

I think that grassroots political struggles are much more effective for Aboriginal people – they bring about this sense of empowerment and unity that the legal processes do not.

You’ve worked extensively within the mainstream legal system, and especially on native title claims. In many cases, the legal process can be lengthy, expensive and riddled with bureaucracy. Do you think the current legal system is an effective way for Indigenous people to access their rights?

No. That’s not to deny that there are very noble individuals within the legal profession who often endure personal sacrifice in order to bring justice into the law. But the law does seem to exacerbate rather than ameliorate existing disadvantage. If you look at the criminal justice system, for example, the statistics are absolutely shocking.

And as for native title, it’s really only accessible to a very tiny minority of people who can prove that they have maintained a continuous connection to their lands and waters. They carry huge burdens of proving who they are. It puts immense pressure on communities. In his recent native title report, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner devoted a considerable part to discussing the issue of lateral violence that is brought about by the native title recognition process. I think that grassroots political struggles are much more effective for Aboriginal people – they bring about this sense of empowerment and unity that the legal processes do not.

What’s your opinion on Aboriginal customary law and it’s relationship with the mainstream legal system?

It’s a complex question. What I will say however, is that there have been extensive reports on this issue in the past two decades. Most importantly, the Australian Law Reform Commission delivered its report on the recognition of customary law in 1986. Most recently the Western Australia Law Reform Commission brought out an extensive report, which contained recommendations for recognition of customary law. I cringe when I’m asked questions like that because we have these reports, but they’re just gathering dust. It’s not a point of asking Aboriginal people what we think of customary law, because we’ve already told you. It’s a question of asking our politicians. Where is the political will to implement these recommendations?

At the Past Matters Indigenous Writers’ Festival, you mentioned that you thought the crime novel was an effective vehicle for expressing political ideas. Could you expand on that?

It’s always been a great vehicle but it’s difficult to explain why that is.  You tend to have flawed protagonists, you have a really quick pace, you always have something at stake, and because of all of that you can weave social commentary into your writing. Crime writers tend to reflect the big questions of the day in a very entertaining way. For example, whenever I think of a Sherlock Holmes novel, I think of those dark streets during a very difficult time in England’s history. I think of the poverty of those times, and Holmes himself was quite a complex character – he lived alone, he didn’t trust women, he was partial to cocaine. I think yes, for a lot of those reasons the crime novel is just perfect for social commentary.

You used to write a column for the National Indigenous Times, and you now write for Tracker Magazine. Do you feel that the mainstream media misrepresents or fails to represent a range of voices of Indigenous Australians?

Yes, but I think that once again, it’s very complex and there a number of reasons why the diversity of Aboriginal voices is not represented in the mainstream press. The vast majority of Indigenous people, for example, are opposed to something like the Northern Territory Intervention, but they do not get represented in the mainstream press. I think there are a number of reasons for that. Certainly we do not have enough Indigenous people working in the mainstream press. I’m always shocked when I get a request for an interview from a journalist at just how little research they’ve done on what is a really complex issue and it’s probably not because of laziness, it’s probably more to do with the dynamics I think, and the way that the modern-day media works; there seems to be less emphasis on in-depth coverage.

…people have to have a sense of control over their lives.

Our politicians from the major parties rarely have a genuine debate about Indigenous affairs.. The policies are actually very similar, especially on something like the Northern Territory Intervention. But it’s not working. All the evidence suggests that programs and policies that are actually developed with Aboriginal people and owned by Aboriginal people at the grassroots level are the most effective; people have to have a sense of control over their lives.

Historically, Boundary Road was a literal boundary that Aboriginal people could not cross after curfew. Although many things have improved for Indigenous people, in a sense this “boundary” still exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In your opinion, what needs to be done to remove this boundary?

It’s taken two centuries to get to where we are. Dispossession has put a huge scar on this entire country. Until non-Indigenous people actually realise that this has hurt them as well, and this has distorted the way that they see Aboriginal people in this country – until that happens, then we’re not exactly going to be engaging in a meaningful dialogue. So I don’t really have an answer, and the answer is not just for Aboriginal people to give; we’re all in this together.

Nicole Watson is a member of the Birri-Gubba People and the Yugambeh language group. Nicole was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland in 1999 and has worked for Legal Aid Queensland, the National Native Title Tribunal, the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency and as a columnist for the National Indigenous Times. Nicole currently writes for Tracker Magazine and is a senior research fellow at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney. Her first book, The Boundary, won the 2009 David Unaipon Award, and she is currently working on her second novel.