Black Books in the Time of COVID – Karen Wyld


The creative industries have undoubtedly been hit hard in 2020/2021. People working in film, stage, music, literature and mixed media have lost contract after contract. Businesses and individuals in the entertainment and arts industries, who rely heavily on freelance and casual labor, have also missed many government support programs.

I have been a freelance writer for about seven years. It’s precarious at the best of times. I was fortunate enough to undertake a master’s degree with a scholarship when COVID-19 hit. Realizing that support ends in hard times, I aligned the freelance work. I momentarily had too much potential work, so I passed on opportunities to other First Nations freelancers and writers. And then Delta appeared. Lockdowns, closed borders and social distancing quickly returned. What contracts I had disappeared.

One of the biggest disappointments was the postponement of the First Nations Australia Writers Network’s national workshop. Not just because it was a waste of my job. Like other FNAWN members, I was looking forward to a three-day in-person event, at a time when the restrictions finally seemed to be lifted.

Personally, the past 18 months have been a roller coaster of ups and downs. Like many, in addition to financial worries, I had increased responsibilities to others. One positive element during COVID-19 is an increased sense of community and a willingness to help each other. A personal highlight for me was winning the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in February 2020, which included the publication of Where the fruits fall. However, as I traveled to Perth to accept this award, I knew something was brewing. By the time the novel was published in late October 2020, the world had changed dramatically for everyone.

It may seem selfish to focus on books during a pandemic, but in Australia thousands of people depend financially on the production and sale of books: writers, illustrators, publishers, publishers, booksellers and others. Rather than providing statistics and facts, I decided to reach out to people working in the industry to find out how they are doing in these uncertain times.

I asked editor Rachel Bin Salleh about the impact of the pandemic on Magabala Books. Rachel responded that “sales during the pandemic, for many booksellers and publishers, have increased fairly steadily. When our realities changed, many people involved in publishing thought it was going to be disastrous. It was such a nice surprise when it wasn’t.

Based in Broome, Magabala Books tirelessly supports First Nations storytellers. And the community is at the heart of everything they do. Rachel noticed a strong element of the community in action during the pandemic: “It was encouraging to see the community (local, national and international) supporting grassroots organizations and buying local. Coupled with the BLM campaign, there was a strong interest in accessing all types of information and stories as well as the need to make changes for many communities.

I also suggested that he recommend a few books. Rachel said “All of them. Of all the publishing houses that invest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling.

While I agree with her and more Australia-based publishers are supporting First Nations writers and illustrators, I will encourage readers to check out Magabala Books online. They released some exciting books in 2020/2021, as the winner of several awards Bindi by Kirli Saunders and illustrated by Dub Leffler. For younger readers there is The River by Sally Morgan, and illustrated by Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr. If you are interested in music then Kalyakoorl, ngalak warangka by Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Forever We Sing) might be interesting. And i recommend The Return of Elfie Shiosaki, a collection of poetry, prose and non-fiction.

Although book sales increased last year, it remains difficult for people who rely solely on their creative practice. Claire G Coleman is one of the few First Nations writers who does not have a main job or side activities outside of writing. Claire’s third book, Lies, Damned Lies: A Personal Exploration of the Impact of Colonization, was released while in Alice Springs. Unable to return to Melbourne due to border closures and then major car problems, she had to be more resourceful in promoting the book.

When I asked her if the launch of this book was different, Claire replied, “Lies, damn lies appears when things are already uncertain. The first opportunity I had to promote Lies, damn lies, Melbourne Writers Fest, has been canceled and the future of book tours is totally uncertain. There is no way to know, or even imagine, how COVID19 will affect the promotion of books developed and published this year, or even next year. In my opinion, online promotion can only go up to a point.

When I asked Claire about her experiences as a professional writer during COVID-19, she replied, “Earning 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 for interesting things to read during this nightmare time, I have had more short work orders than ever before. However, like many other writers, I get some of my income from public appearances and speaking engagements, and it has dried up.

I also suffered a loss of income due to canceled events as I now have two pandemic era books. Nine months after my novel came out, I had a children’s non-fiction book published; Heroes, Rebels and Innovators: Inspiring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from History.

I already knew what to expect, but wondered what illustrator expectations Jaelyn Biumaiwai had, since this is his first book. When asked, she replied, “Overall the experience has been so positive! I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a very supportive community.

Jaelyn had optimistically planned a small launch at the Numinbah Valley Environmental Education Center in Queensland, which thankfully took place after a small lockdown. Surrounded by her family and community, Jaelyn was able to enjoy her moment in the spotlight.

I also asked Jaelyn what impact the pandemic had had on her work as a freelance artist. She said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been at the level of being self-employed to be honest. It really is a side business, but saying this makes it feel like I’ve really thrived. I was fortunate not to have been seriously affected by the pandemic.

I appreciate Jaelyn’s sense of optimism and must continue to remind myself of the reasons for feeling gratitude. I am grateful to IndigenousX for the offer to write about the impact of COVID-19 on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. And I wanted to speak with many other writers, illustrators, and storytellers about creation, promotion, and financial survival during the pandemic. And most importantly, how we support each other, our families and our communities, during these difficult times.

These are undoubtedly difficult times for everyone. I think reading has been a little relief from stress and worry for many. Book sales indicate this to be true. And while supporting local businesses is good, reading doesn’t require money. Local libraries ensure that communities always have access to books. And whenever a printed book is borrowed, payments are made to authors and illustrators through the Lending rights regimes.

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


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