Interview with Dr Terry Whitebeach

 Terry Whitebeach

Terry Whitebeach

Dr Terry Whitebeach has published work in a variety of genres, including poetry, young adult novels, radio plays, children’s picture books and biography. She has taught creative writing all over Australia, edited several collections of writing, and helped establish the Indigenous Creative Writing programme at Batchelor Institute, Alice Springs. She has a BA in English Literature and Philosophy, a MA in English Literature and Creative Writing and PhD in History.

Dr Terry Whitebeach has published work in a variety of genres, including poetry, young adult novels, radio plays, children’s picture books and biography. She has taught creative writing all over Australia, edited several collections of writing, and helped establish the Indigenous Creative Writing programme at Batchelor Institute, Alice Springs. She has a BA in English Literature and Philosophy, a MA in English Literature and Creative Writing and PhD in History.

Her most recent book is Trouble Tomorrow (2018), co-authored with Sarafino Enadio and published by Allen and Unwin (2017). Based on Sarafino’s life story, this compelling novel tells an incredible tale of courage, resilience and hope, about a Sudanese boy who survives civil war, a treacherous journey and many years in a refugee camp before finding peace.

WHY DO YOU FEEL INSPIRED TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE?

I remember very well the time of emerging young adulthood – the feeling of having a foot in two worlds, still constrained by the rules and regulations imposed by adults, but reaching eagerly towards selfhood and control of my own destiny even while chafing under older adults’ authority; having my own hopes and a dreams and possessing a rich inner life that I felt adults around me could barely guess at. I hoped all things, dreamed all things, and was waiting to burst out into my own individual, marvellous life. At the same time I was full of trepidation, riven with conflict because my inner and outer realities did not match. It was a fascinating period of self-discovery, a bid towards autonomy and self-definition, which came with hefty challenges, deep despairs and fears and equally piercing delights.

So it is this period of life that is the chief setting and concern of my novels and collection of poetry for young adults. Each protagonist faces strong physical, emotional and ethical challenges, and the novels trace the journey towards emerging self-actualisation and accountability for choices made. As a writer I feel a strong responsibility not to add to the sum of despair or cynicism in the world, instead, to encourage hope and a sense of possibility and autonomy in young people. Gritty realism and heart-stopping choices there are a-plenty, in the novels and poems, no bland, sentimental or saccharine plots, but encouragement to stay with the trouble; and not succumb to the superficial, nihilistic or doom-ridden credos that are promulgated so pervasively. But above all, I love story and am intrigued to find out what happens to the characters I invent, what they will do next and how they will make their way.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR COLLABORATIONS WITH SARAFINO ENADIO AND THE SUDANESE COMMUNITY

Sarafino and I have collaborated on four books, his memoir, A Little Peace, two bilingual picture books, and a YA novel, Trouble Tomorrow. We met as professional colleagues and our many discussions led to our first collaboration. As an oral historian I have always enjoyed listening to other people’s stories, but Sarafino’s accounts of the civil war in Sudan, his ten years in refugee camps in Kenya, where he had trained as a UN Peace educator, and his subsequent migration to Tasmania were like none I had ever heard. I felt they should be part of our national story.

The stories he told about guarding the family’s crops from marauding birds and animals delighted me so I suggested we also create a picture book showing a way of life that had been swept away by war. Many Sudanese children were born in refugee camps or in Australia and have little knowledge of their homeland, so we thought this might be a good opportunity of showing them a little of their cultural heritage – and introducing Australian born students to Ma’di (Sudanese) language, experience and culture.

The first book, When I was a Boy in Sudan, was based on Sarafino’s life, and we then created a companion volume, When I was a Girl in Sudan, with Sarafino’s mother-in-law, Paskalino Eiyo, about her life as a girl in Loa, South Sudan. Tasmania writers Anne Morgan and Julie Hunt collaborated with us, and Gay McKinnon illustrated the books.

The final book in our collaboration is the YA novel, Trouble Tomorrow, which is loosely based on Sarafino’s experiences. It was prompted by Sarafino’s admission that the children of Ma’di refugees knew little of their parents’; experiences. The war was not something discussed in Sudanese households. It felt important to me that both Madi and non-Madi people in Australia learn about this history.

YOU HAVE BEEN AN ADVOCATE FOR THE RIGHTS OF AUTHORS FOR MANY YEARS, THROUGH THE ASA AND PEN. WHY?

I have strong feelings about injustice. Have been an activist for freedom, human rights, preservation of the planet and non-violent solutions to conflicts for most of my life. This has led me down some interesting and challenging byways.I am on the PEN writers in prison committee, joining with other writers in sending greetings of solidarity to writers and journalists who are political prisoners and lobbying governments on their behalf. And the ASA I think of as the writers’ union, who lobby for just usage of our cultural property, and for decent return for our work, and who help safeguard our rights as writers, illustrators and creators.

I have only one life, and my main talent is writing – so writing has been one of ways I may address some of the issues that really matter to me. But it is difficult balancing the collaborative work of advocacy and support for social change with the solitary work of the writer.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST WRITING CHALLENGE?

TIME. Taking the time to write. Snatching, it; that’s what it often feels like. And feeling illegitimate about wanting or taking that time. Like many women, I have been socialised to take care of the needs of others first. I have an uneasy relationship with the balance between acceding to, or denying, many of the multiple calls on my time. And I am not so good with self care. Recently I have suffered serious illnesses and these have further diminished the time and energy available for writing. I don’t expect ever to solve this dilemma, but there still exists in me a naive belief I will be able to fit in everything I wish to do – despite the daily proof that this is not the case. And I guess learning to live with paradoxes and the tension of irreconcilable opposites is just part of the fabric of life.

HOW AND WHERE DO YOU LIKE TO WRITE?

I write in my ‘office’, which is a caravan up in the paddock on the edge of the bush that backs onto our block. That way I leave the house and go off to work. I look out the window and watch the chooks rootling around, the occasional echidna swaggering past, birds swooping, the wind ruffling the trees. Time just disappears and I exist in a wonderful, eternal ‘now’; until I suddenly realise my back is aching, I’ve been sitting at the computer for hours and I’m dying for a cup of tea.