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Northern Territory Literature: 1980s to 1990s

Connie Gregory

This essay is part of our ‘Blast from the Past’ series, where we republish Northern Territory writing from the archives. This article originally appeared in literary journal OzMuse in 1991, republished here with permission. 

I’M OFTEN ACCUSED OF BEING ONE-EYED about Darwin because I don’t have the usual love-hate relationship that writers and artists talk about, and not only do I love the cosmopolitan city of Darwin, I love the whole Northern Territory.  So this is a totally biased report on what is happening in the world of writing in the Top End of Australia. But I do recognise the paucity of support for writers that existed up until this decade. 

When I first became a Territorian nine years ago, Northern Perspective, the liberal arts journal published by the Northern Territory University, was a slim magazine mainly concerned with features on the Northern Territory, The Fellowship of Australian Writers had an extremely small membership, there were no members of the Australian Society of Authors, and there was very little else.  Writing was in the doldrums. 

‘Seven years ago when I first came up here I would rather have thrown a bag of black snakes into the classroom, than a book of poetry, now students feel “it’s okay to read and listen to poetry, and maybe okay to write it",’ says Darwin high school teacher, Margaret Tyler.   

The talent is here and the stories and 
poems are also here waiting
to be written.  

Having just finished judging the NT Schools Literary competition, it is more than just ‘okay’ to write poetry, I am astounded at the quality of some of the poetry coming out of schools.  The winning entry in the
 year 11/12 poetry section was a creative response to Australian poetry, where the land becomes the enemy and those who fight it turn to ghosts. I don’t know the winner’s name yet, but here is a  excerpt: 


This place is nature’s revenge. 

Death’s constant threat lingers, 

with the other ghosts 

that stare from the picture frames. 

The callous faces reek futility 

but defy failure. 

Strangled by thirst, 

the parched corpses of cattle rot 

and skeleton trees, 

whose fingers, 

as black as the magic of this country, 

claw at the burning heat. 


I watch suspiciously 

As they sit with their trees 

with their shadows, 

jabbering about their Dream Time. 


I watch suspiciously, 

for they are the friends of the enemy. 


I envy my enemy 

I am jealous of my children’s love for it 


Poets workshopping in Northern Territory schools over the last few years is starting to have an effect. 

The talent is here and the stories and poems are also here waiting to be written.  

 I sometimes think that because we are surrounded with such rich material, and our newspapers are full of story ideas every day, that we simply didn’t until recently, begin to write again. 

The last decade has seen great changes in the literary scene, and much of that change can be attributed to the interest shown in the Northern Territory by writers from other states who have come up here as writers-in-residence, or for special writing workshops.  The support from the Australia Council and other agencies, particularly the Northern Territory University, Brown’s Mart Community Centre, and the NT Office of the Arts has also fostered writers. 


IN 1984 A GROUP OF US at the NT University (then the Darwin Community College, and later the Darwin Institute of Technology), worked very hard to get writing moving along again.  Amongst the group was David Headon, whose magnificent collection of Northern Territory writing – North of the Ten Commandments  –   from white occupation in the NT through to contemporary times, was recently published; Tony Scanlon; historian David Carment;  and Lyn Riddett, current editor of Northern Perspective.  The Northern Territory Government was approached by David Headon  and the Northern Territory Literary Awards received financial support. Northern Perspective took a new format and a new direction, publishing more stories and poems, and writers-in-residence and visiting writers were encouraged to come up north to foster writing. 

The first Awards produced outstanding talent with local author Graham Calley winning the open section followed up the next year with a win in the NT section with a piece called “Mango Juice", which appears in North of the Ten Commandments, and is sure to turn up in other anthologies. 

Other local writers who have gone on from those short story awards include Kate Veitch (who co-edited a book on parenting during her time in the NT), Mickey Dewar, Peggie Kerr, Kathleen Reardon, Margo Towie, Graeme Parsons, Jan Kapetas, and Wolfgang Wirf to name a few. 

The poetry section continues to produce rich talent, with Lee Cataldi winning in 1985 and several young poets making an appearance. 

So the writers were indeed there all the time! 

Much of the current writing in the Territory can be traced back to particular workshops, and it is in women’s writing that this is particularly evident. 

In 1986 a workshop organised by the predecessor of the Northern Territory University Press, and funded by the Office of the Status of Woman, catered for 150 women from around the Northern Territory, with more on a waiting list.  Workshoppers were Beverley Farmer, Susan Hampton, Barbara Hanrahan, Nancy Keesing and playwright Lissa Benyon.  A tape of this highly successful forum is available. 

Other visitors to the Territory who have given impetus to writing include Roland Robinson, Fay Zwicky, Les Murray, Elizabeth Jolly, Mark O’Connor (a regular visitor), Komninos, Elizabeth Mansutti, Billy Marshall-Stoneking, Nadia Wheatley, and Geoff Goodfellow, to name a few. 

Elizabeth Mansutti has been here twice over the past few months to run workshops and she sees an urgent need for help to continue to be available to help the stories to be told.  

The NT Writers Publishing Group grew out of a series of workshops at Brown’s Mart, and the group has published two anthologies.  The first  Life Beyond the Louvres  immediately sold its print run of 1000 copies, and the second Bugs and Bliss  with a bigger print run is I think just about sold out too.  The group sought submissions for the anthologies and were staggered by the response.  Stories, poems, and diary entries flooded in from all corners of the Northern Territory, mainly from previously unpublished writers.  It is a pity that these anthologies may not be reprinted and therefore will not have the wide readership they deserve. 

It is true you can pick up poems and stories virtually off the streets. 

The editing experience gained by the group has seen the publication of another Northern Territory anthology, In Silence I  Hear edited by  group members Linden Salter and Wolfgang Wirf  for the Deafness Association of the Northern Territory.  That should sell out soon too. 

Graeme Parsons whose first published piece was in Northern Perspective, following a commendation in the NT Literary Awards,  received a grant a few years ago from the Literature Board will have his first published book for children this year, and he also has a publisher for his first novel.  Another person to receive a Literature Board grant is Jan Kapetas who will travel around the Territory to talk and work with women and write fictions based on the theories of place, space and time.  Kapetas, who coordinated the NT Feminist Book fortnight in September, said that a Susan Hampton workshop organised by the University two years ago strengthened her determination to write.  Her story won the NT Section of the NT Literary Awards last year.   

Local poets move around a bit too, and are regularly featured at the Mixtures at the Mart series, and the Palm City Poets led by up and coming poet Steve Holliday, hold regular readings, along with any visiting poets, at a restaurant called, of all things, The Mississippi Queen.   Grafitti poets also get space at the 24 Hour Art Centre. 

An interesting phenomenon about the Northern Territory is the work of writers who visit briefly and take away a little essence to distil.  Banjo Patterson wrote some remarkable essays about the Territory that still touch Territorians, and more recently visitors such as Keesing, Zwicky, Farmer and Murray have written poems about the Territory.   

Billy Marshall-Stoneking spent nine years at Papunya and his book of poems Singing the Snake is also deservedly well-known outside of the Northern Territory.  Mark O’Connor’s book of poems about the Territory is, I think, nearing completion.   Tony Scanlon’s book of poems Rain at Gunn Point came out of several years in the Territory. 

It is true that you can pick up poems and stories virtually off the streets.  Elizabeth Mansutti picked up a letter to the editor of the NT News from a tourist who was complaining that Darwin was decadent and had stolen her husband.  Elizabeth followed it up, and what a story that will turn out to be!  That story was right under our noses and I go back to my earlier statement that because we are surrounded by stories and poetry ‘on the hoof’ that we have been disinclined to write about the obvious. 

ALL THAT IS CHANGING and the last ten years has seen a gradual rise in local writing.  I pay tribute to Dame Mary Durack and Xavier Herbert, who always believed in the literary future of the Northern Territory.  It was through their encouragement that the Journal Northern Perspective was set up in 1977.  Dame Mary as a founding member of the board is even better at promoting the journal than I am.  The journal, published in the Wet and Dry seasons  has now grown to about 130 pages.  

Because I have concentrated on movement in the last decade, do not think that there is not a rich tradition of writing in the Northern Territory.  David Headon’s search for North of the Ten Commandments brought to light writings about the Northern Territory, whether stories, poems, essays, yarns, letters and diary notes, that weave a rich tapestry of life in the north. 

This year the NT Literary Awards offered for the first time an award for an Aboriginal writer.  I am hoping that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will write about the north as they are given more opportunities to hone writing skills. 

Lightning Times  published quarterly by Brown’s Mart keeps us up to date with what is happening in the arts scene, and the emergence this year of a monthly arts and lifestyle newspaper The Daily Plan It  has seen more emphasis placed on local writers.   

Playwrights too have had their success.  Lloyd Browne’s God’s Own Country, toured Australia, Suzanne Spunner’s Dragged Screaming to Paradise  was followed up with The Ingkata’s Wife,  and other plays, and the Corrugated Iron Youth Theatre continually devises plays, the latest of which is Spilt Milk,  a play about AIDS which is touring schools.  Monte Dwyer, better known as the television weatherman, during his stint in the Northern Territory also wrote and performed plays and of particular note is his play Little Boy Blue.   Several plays produced at the Northern Territory University Theatre, have been published.  Graham Pitt’s controversial play Death at Balibo was also produced in Darwin with the input of local ethnic communities. 

One thing that has puzzled me about Darwin is the lack of literary material concerning Cyclone Tracy.  When I first came to Darwin I saw a moving  documentary film called ‘When will the birds return?’  Nothing about that dreadful cyclone I have seen or read has come anywhere near that documentary for understanding and feeling.  You will find feature articles, news stories, maybe a few interviews, but no stories or poems.  Maybe they are still coming, much as it took a long time before writings appeared about the “half-caste" children who were taken from their parents.  Take This Child – from Retta Dixon to the Kahlin Compound,  written by Barbara Cummins who grew up in the Retta Dixon Children’s Home under the dormitory system which separated part Aboriginal children from their families, is part of the movement by Aboriginal people to reclaim their own history.   

Barunga Literature Production Centre, about 100k from Katherine, one of several bilingual production centres in the Territory, is producing bilingual works for Aboriginal communities and with Aboriginal communities.  There is also writing in languages other than English, and local FM radio station 8TOPFM at the NT University campus, which broadcasts in several languages, also fosters creative work. 

Perhaps I should also pay tribute to Paul Hogan who awakened in very many Australians an interest in Australia’s Northern Territory, although the quality of life in cosmopolitan Darwin with virtually no pollution is still one of Australia’s best kept secrets.  Luckily the writing that is emerging from the north is starting to be heard in other parts. 

Connie Gregory is a freelance writer/editor with a background in public relations, marketing and project management. In the Northern Territory from 1983-95, she promoted writers and literature for the Australian Society of Authors, judged several literary awards and was a board member and occasional editor for the journal Northern Perspective. Her main role was media and public relations officer for Northern Territory University (now CDU). Her short stories, articles and poetry have appeared in various literary publications and she served a three-year term on the Literature Board of the Australia Council, and the Australia Council’s Multicultural Advisory Committee. Connie lives in Melbourne.