Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 2005
Defender of legends: Terri Janke tells Brigid Delaney how her passion for indigenous art and storytelling inspired her career and her writing.
By Terri Janke
Penguin, 348pp, $22.95
From a bedroom, a wailing child calls to her mother. The words are flying from the mother's pen as she writes at the kitchen table, but the child's cries are more urgent. The mother puts down the pen and tends to the child. The words, like smoke, disappear.
There is the common, but romanticised, image of writers. They work in solitude. They enjoy hours of silence to contemplate, write and rewrite. They can be introverted, antisocial and distant. But what about the writers with young children, full-time jobs, spouses and a busy social life? Terri Janke, 37, has two small children and works full-time as a lawyer. Her first novel, Butterfly Song, is a story of a young Aboriginal law student who returns to her family's home of Thursday Island to fight a legal battle for ownership of a butterfly pendant.
Copyright lawyer and author Terri Janke. Photo: Marco Del Grande
The book is a series of short chapters that were written at night, around the needs of Janke's children and in places of transit: hotel rooms on business trips, planes and airport lounges, in the back seat of taxis. You can see the influence of children and busy lives in the work of other writers. Raymond Carver had two children by the time he turned 20 and said the demands of working two jobs and looking after the children meant that he only had time to write poems and short stories. Nikki Gemmell said the choppy, spare style of The Bride Stripped Bare occurred because her writing time was frequently interrupted by feeding, bathing and caring for two young children. The tempo of life becomes the tempo of writing.
Janke says: "I would write at night in short bursts. I used my personal journals as a structure as I was free to go back and forth in time. Linear is limiting. I wanted it to be revealed over time. As when you are growing up, that is how family, your history and bits of information are given to you - in little bits of history."
Janke was born in Cairns in 1966. Her heritage - part Filipina, Malay, Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander - influences her work. Her heroine, Tarena, finishing law school in Sydney and returning north, faces many of the same challenges that Janke faced - both as a black student in the stuffy world of a Sydney law school, and as practitioner in a system that until 12 years ago did not recognise that Aborigines had ownership of the land before the white man arrived. Janke, a bright student, left school and her mother in Canberra to move to Sydney to be with her sister, who was also studying law at UNSW.
"I was very quiet, very, very shy and not knowing anyone ... It [law] was a course that really favours people that engage. Everyone already knew each other, and people already had contacts in the legal profession, which amazed me because nobody I knew was in the legal culture, and they were all sons and daughters of judges and barristers. There was a whole lot of form-filling and it was expensive. Mum always paid for the textbooks, but they were hundreds of dollars."
Janke sought kinship at the UNSW Aboriginal Students' Centre, but still found the city vast and anonymous. She dropped out after two years of university - disillusioned and a bit aimless. And so she drifted. But luckily in the right way. A stint at the Aboriginal Arts Council politicised her and gave her a new focus for her studies. She returned to UNSW with clear career goals - protecting the copyright and intellectual property of indigenous artists - and all of a sudden found herself succeeding at exams.
When she graduated, she jumped straight into the field, advising indigenous artists on copyright, contracts and protecting their cultural interests - an area she has worked in now for 12 years. Her work has taken her from western NSW to Broome, from Tasmania to Uluru, from boardrooms to Aboriginal settlements. Recently she acted for an Aboriginal artist during negotiations with Qantas to use the artist's work on the side of an aircraft. She says Aboriginal artists and their stories are particularly vulnerable to copyright infringement. "Copyright protects the written story, but in the past a lot of indigenous people have good stories, but they were verbal. Non-indigenous people have written them down and published them, or turned them into movies, but families and communities still have a cultural interest in the stories."
The legal battle in Butterfly Song over the pearl butterfly brooch is also a metaphor for native title claims over land - that some objects have a special significance and need to be returned to their original owners. "The importance of objects is what they symbolise and who they connect with," Janke says. "For me, if I connect with something it tells me about where I came from. My family never had much - they never had a piece of land or a house to pass on, but we had stories and that's when stories become important to hand on. It connects the generations. It connects Tarena to her grandparents and the part of the country that she comes from."
Janke remembers how, while she was a law student in 1992, the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court recognising the land rights of indigenous people. "All the other students had tears in their eyes on that day," she says. "We certainly hadn't read the judgement, but it was just nice to say indigenous people do matter. At the time, not knowing the intricacies, we just felt 'This is great, this is incredible for us.' It made us hold our heads high."