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A termite mound in Cape Range National Park: WA’s geography has helped shape its writers. Susanna Dunkerley/AAP

From Tim Winton to Gail Jones: why writing matters in WA

Being isolated spatially and culturally – us from the city, Perth from Australia and Australia from the world – arms one with an Atlas-strong sense of identity. Both actively and passively, originality seems to flourish in Perth’s artistic community.

– Nick Allbrook, Griffith Review, 119.

The Western Australian writing and publishing sector is currently the subject of a review, a project of the state’s Department of Culture and the Arts, being conducted by independent consultants. It is a welcome development, particularly given the recent cutting of the WA Premier’s Book Awards from an annual to two-yearly format and the removal of multi-year funding support to the sector’s peak body, writingWA.

The consulting firm, Positive Solutions, operates out of Queensland. Its involvement represents a laudable “arms-length” approach to the review. But speaking broadly, funding cuts nationally to the Australia Council and locally to writingWA suggest that arts organisations positioned at the same arms-length distance from government bodies are not being supported or recognised in the same way.

Tim Winton. Hank Kordas

WA represents a unique environment for writing, and supports a dynamic writing and publishing sector. Writers like Randolph Stow (Miles Franklin winner), Sally Morgan (Prime Minister’s Award winner), Tim Winton (four-time Miles Franklin winner), Kim Scott (two-time Miles Franklin winner), Gail Jones (ALS Gold Medal winner) – naming only a few – all emerged from the WA scene.

Musician Nick Allbrook’s essay in the Griffith Review’s issue Looking West articulates two key aspects of life in WA as culturally productive – rebellion against boredom and the compression of isolation. He notes the vibrancy of counter-culture to which Perth as a city gives rise.

Tim Winton, asked in the same volume if he considers himself a Western Australian writer, answers:

I’m very conscious of the specifics of geography and the way it shapes us, whether we recognise this or not. And it used to take a certain doggedness to be a WA writer, defiance even, given the prevailing cultural headwind. Everything was harder. There was a weird logic to contend with, a kind of continental cringe that made A.A. Phillips’ cultural cringe look pretty tame.

He continues to note “a historical grievance at work, about being forgotten or forsaken by the rest of the Federation. But also a hardiness and inventiveness that’s worth some credit.” Isolation, then, but also inventiveness…

A Western Australian landscape from the book The Wild Frontier. AAP Image/Panographs Publishing, Ken Duncan

The geographic scale of the state, the isolation of its multiple cultural centres, the variety of its spaces, the complexity of its many peoples, all represent something unique. Much is made of facing a different sea, but the distance across land is just as significant. WA comprises a third of Australia’s landmass, and approximately 11% of the national population.

Emus walk single file past the thousands of limestone pillars in the Pinnacles Desert, 245 km north of Perth. EPA/Barbara Walton

This isolation, the uniqueness of WA as a space, inherently shapes the nature of its writing and publishing sector. This isn’t necessarily negative. The sector is highly engaged and active. Writing has been taken up as a social force, protesting the Roe8 development and the destruction of Beeliar Wetlands, as Tony Hughes-d’Aeth has described.

The local writing community is also close-knit, wonderfully welcoming and supportive. An example is the formation of WAWU – Western Australian Writers United – a collaboration of writing organisations sharing member benefits across their network and working to cultivate audiences. Isolation inspires collegiality, energy and enthusiasm to pull together. Isolation and inventiveness.

Kim Scott. AAP Image/Burson Marstellar

Writing thus has the power in WA to create community and contribute to society. This power is reflected in the existence of writingWA, a peak representative body supporting the interests of its member organisations, including publishing houses, festivals, writers’ centres and arts groups. It is not a service organisation but a facilitator, investing in projects that connect writers to each other and the local community. It supports individual writers through scholarships, and through promoting the development of the professional ecology in which those writers work.

Given the unique nature of the challenges faced by the sector – logistic concerns about the publication, shipping and distribution of books, the increased cost and effort required to maintain relationships across distance, the danger of being “out of (national) sight” and the need for representation and marketing to counteract this – the existence of a peak body is vital.

But it is easy to feel that literature has not been a priority in arts funding in the state. In the latest round of the WA government’s multi-year funding, only 6.2% of it went to literature. Only two literary organisations received funding, both worthy, but also both publishers. And in this process, three previously-funded organisations, including writingWA, lost multi-year funding.

Sixty Lights: winner of the ALS gold medal.

This reduction in funding came the year after the Department announced that the Premier’s Book Awards would be awarded only every two years. No suggestion has been made that this prize will be restored in the future, nor that writingWA will receive long-term support. Instead, Director-General Duncan Ord has suggested that writingWA could potentially be positioned under the remit of the State Library.

This would represent a conflict of interest in several of the organisation’s functions, reducing its agility to respond to the sector’s needs and ability to represent the sector to the Department. Through a new campaign, #writingmatters, writingWA has put forward an impassioned case for independence on these grounds.

This conflict points to a wider discussion about the need for independent representation within the arts. It would be great to see, through the review, a commitment to the principle of arms-length and independent representation, and a map for funding, committing to meaningful investment based on the consultation undertaken.

The dynamism of literature as an art-form in WA, the vibrancy of the writing and publishing community, and the rich legacy of writing here, surely all demonstrate the merit of such investment and support.

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