Melbourne Writers Festival 2014: Tiddas — Anita Heiss in conversation

by Nalini Haynes

Anita Heiss‘Tiddas’ was Anita Heiss in conversation, a Melbourne Writers Festival event, held on 23 August 2014 at ACMI Studio 1. The photo (left) is from the MWF website. 

Jo Case, author, senior writer and editor at the Wheeler Centre, introduced Anita Heiss. So entranced was Jo with Anita’s credentials — author of 5 published novels, social justice activist, academic, Aborigine and athlete — that Jo forgot to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Land.

Anita picked up the dropped ball while also thanking everyone for coming; Anita said there were other events on at the same time that she would have loved to attend.

After asking if there were any men in the audience, Anita said, if she was a man looking for a date, she’d come to a women’s literary event. The entirely female audience laughed whole-heartedly; thus we boarded the bus for an extraordinary journey.

When in her 30s, Anita wrote novels about women in their 30s, their issues and their conversations. Now Anita is 46, she’s discovered the conversations she has are very different; Tiddas is a novel about these different conversations and concerns.

Each of the 5 central characters, the 5 Tiddas (sisters in the Koori language), has different issues and different baggage although they have a shared history, coming from the same small community. Some of the questions the 5 ask are:
Anita Heiss - Tiddas

  • Have I forgotten to have a baby?
  • Do I want this baby I’m having?
  • Will I ever get married?
  • Do I have a drinking problem?
  • As Tiddas, we’re supposed to be non-judgemental and supportive. How do we do this?

Anita said, ‘What makes us different is [pinching her fingers] this much, what makes us the same is [encompassing arms] this much.’ Thus Anita believes many relate to these women’s conversations.

Tiddas is structured around a monthly book club where the women discuss issues-based books by women. I’ve read one of these books — Tall Man by Chloe Hooper — and I suspect the other Tiddas book club books will appear on my TBR list.

Discussing her process, Anita said she’s a plotter who writes a synopsis, researches, develops characters and builds a strong framework before beginning any novel. Thus she doesn’t have difficulty with writer’s block because the framework is established before she faces that empty page or blinking cursor.

Someone once told Anita that it’s more creative to let writing be organic, to which Anita responds, ‘I’m artistic and creative; I’m just organised’. Anita’s work cycle goes: research, writing, book launch, demonstrating the efficacy of organisation.

However, Anita has some flexibility when writing. Initially Tiddas had 5 Aborigine characters. When challenged on the diversity of her own friendship groups, challenged to include more diversity in her characters, Anita decided the alcoholic and the confidence issues could belong to white women. White women have these issues too, but you don’t see it in the news.

TV messages include stereotypes and justification for the Intervention (Australian defense forces were deployed to ‘work with’ Aborigines although my understanding is that this is not constitutional). Anita is currently working on an anthology about the anti-intervention. She’s about to attend a workshop where she’ll see the impact of the Intervention first hand.

We must celebrate & acknowledge the good things in our lives or everything spirals downward; without this acknowledgement, people can collapse under the pressure.

Anita’s recent birthday — 46 — and her belief in the institution of marriage seem to be playing on her mind. The parallels between Anita’s life, those of her friends and the characters in Tiddas brought both realism and humour to the conversation.

For example, some of Anita’s dates have been more educational than fun, with Anita doing the educating. Anita said, ‘If I’m going to talk about Indigenous stuff all night I’m going to invoice you in the morning’. Anita just wants to ‘have a nice meal and talk about the theatre and have sex maybe once a decade’, like most women.

Genuine laughter rolled around the room, inspired by Anita’s candour, her humour and her relevance to other women’s lives. Anita’s conversation was down-to-earth, entertaining, interesting, challenging — all I could ask for.

Tiddas has been optioned for a 6-part TV series. Although Anita has seen other authors’ disappointment when their books have been converted to the screen, Anita has every confidence in the people who have optioned her novel. A 20 year friendship with the producer who has experience presenting Indigenous content for the screen has inspired Anita’s confidence in the company’s abilities and integrity.

While I wait for the TV series, I’ll read the book I purchased today. 

3 Comments

  1. Hi Nalini – Great recap. Yes, I was mortified that I had, as you point out, omitted to thank the traditional owners of the land. On the plus side (?), I’ll never make that omission again, and made sure I did thank them in my next session (and will in the session I chair tonight, and at future events). Anita was VERY gracious in not pointing this out, even post-event, but simply doing it herself. Just wanted you to know that it’s not that I was too clueless to care or realise, though I was clueless (and careless) enough to make the mistake in the first place. For that, I do sincerely apologise.

    1. No need to apologise to me (says the whiter-than-average woman). I thought it was a great save on Anita’s part.

      I totally understood your position — you’re facilitating this event, your mind had jumped to the next thing on your list — and I’m sure, if I didn’t have the necessary words written in front of me, I would have made the same mistake. It’s nice — amusing, even — to see the human-ness, the imperfections, in the illustrious representatives of the literati.

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