Kieran Finnane is a writer based in Central Australia, and a founding journalist at the Alice Springs News, an independent weekly published since 1994. In this interview, she speaks about journalism, the particular circumstances of writing from a Central Australian perspective, and her piece 'Warlpiri versus the Queen,' an account of AFL footballer Liam Jurrah's trial for a violent attack in the Warlpiri town camp Little Sisters in 2012.
You grew up in and around Sydney and then, later, lived in Europe. What brought you to live in Alice Springs in the first place?
I first came in 1986. I was working for a television production company, doing a documentary series on unusual sports, and it took me all over outback Australia. After living in France for five years, travelling into the outback was very exciting. It was a part of Australia I didn't know at all. There was the huge spaciousness of it, and a sense of history very closely present. And then there was the very obvious Aboriginal presence that is so different to the east coast, where you tend to have to go looking for it. I didn't feel any desire to return to Sydney to live. I was ready for a change, and I was very taken with Alice Springs.
Clearly there was something about Alice Springs that kept you staying there.
The town itself, and the landscape, are absolutely compelling. It's a very different kind of Australia. There was a personal dimension as well, because I met Erwin Chlanda, my future husband here. When I returned we started to work together. In 1994 we decided to set up the Alice Springs News. Until then most of our work was going out of town. We felt that the local audience wasn't particularly well served by media, although there's good reporting of news from the ABC. But not much that is investigative or in-depth. For me, at the time, my focus was very much on the arts. There was certainly no critical arts culture in the public domain in Alice Springs then, no reviewing at all. In our first edition I wrote a detailed review of an exhibition and, locally, that had simply never happened before. For seventeen years it was a weekly print edition, and in early 2011 we decided to go exclusively online.
Do you think it was positive a step to move the Alice Springs News to an exclusively online format?
Very much so. The interactivity, in terms of immediate comments and the response to stories, has been very enriching for the way that information gets out, and for the way issues are debated in the community. So yes, we welcome it. Although, commercial viability is still a work in progress.
In your work there is often a sense of somebody sitting back. How important is an outsider's perspective in journalism?
I think there are two things at work for me. There's the longevity of my involvement and commitment to the community, which I hope comes across in the writing. And there's also commitment to a detailed narrative of whatever the situation is that I'm writing about. A commitment to put something out there that offers understanding. I think inevitably, as a journalist, you are always sitting back a bit. But I think that's the kind of journalist I am. I'm always an observer, and sometimes a commentator. But it's all a matter of degree. My approach is always from my own cultural position, my own social position.
In your piece Walpiri versus the Queen, you write about a Warlpiri woman, Freda Jurrah, giving evidence that she had never tasted alcohol in her life, and you comment that you felt like cheering. Was it a conscious decision to insert your own voice at that particular point?
Yes, I didn't want to have too much of myself but I definitely wanted myself in there. I find the courtroom a very interesting forum to be in. It gives you very unusual access to stories that it would be hard to get otherwise, and yet the structuring and formality of it makes it a strange kind of theatre. But it is very potent and can be very emotionally involving. In the Jurrah trial, you heard the evidence about the level of drinking. It is a major, preoccupying issue in Alice Springs, and has been for the entire time that I've been here. The town is trying to grapple with it at a community-wide level. You see the devastation it can cause. To hear somebody say that they don't drink at all was tremendous.
Do you think that courtroom reporting, and this trial in particular, can promote a broader discussion about difficult issues?
I don't like to generalise too much. It's almost a mantra when people talk about anything to do with Aboriginal people, to use words like 'poverty' and 'dispossession'. I'm beginning to think that these words actually block insight, block going forward, and I think what I tried to do in the piece is speak in actual detail and make observations about what is happening right now in Central Australia, particularly with Warlpiri people and particularly young Warlpiri men.
One of the things your piece insists on is the importance of exploring the nuances of the Warlpiri's lives and the events that lead up to the arrest of Liam Jurrah. It seems that the language that we are using to talk about it is inadequate to really understanding the complexity of everyday life in the Warlpiri community and central Australia in general.
Yes. I do think a lot of writing done about this region is done within a predetermined framework, which looks for the evidence of disadvantage, dispossession, racism and so on. My commitment is to try and get out a narrative of evidence that is drawn by detail, and with a more detailed understanding of what is going on in this place. I'm sorry in a way that it's this particular story, rather than some other story, that's in the Griffith REVIEW anniversary edition because I'm concerned by how negative stories dominate in terms of the region and the Aboriginal population. They're certainly not the only stories. Just last month I wrote a piece for Art Monthly on a very interesting forum on experimental art, and the keynote speaker was a Warlpiri man, Wanta Steve Patrick Jampijinpa. He's doing really interesting work. If only in one piece you could have the whole lot! I think the trial does tell an interesting story about a particular way of life amongst Warlpiri at the moment. But it's certainly not the only story.
There did seem to be a disjuncture in the trial between traditional culture and the White Australian population, both in the courtroom and in Alice Springs in general.
I think the point about the piece is that this is not a homogenous society. There's a section in the piece on the challenge to ordinariness, and ordinariness is something the courts would like to think could be measured but I think it's very hard to measure it here. I don't think the piece suggests that this is a situation that we can just leave alone. I'm not trying to 'justify', if you like, the kind of behaviour you hear about in the trial, or suggest that we should have a 'hands-off' attitude towards it. The impact of alcohol-fuelled violence represents a major challenge. Primarily for the Warlpiri, but also for the broader community and for the whole justice system. I think it's something we're grappling with every day, and I think it's quite hard to see a way through it. It's Aboriginal people themselves who are getting shockingly injured or killed. The piece is describing that in a lot of detail and trying to give some sense of who the victims are. It's complicated, and it warrants discussion, and it's not an easy discussion to have. It's a luxury to sit down and have 10, 000 words to wrestle with it and try to make it clear. But in real life it's very messy.
Because these are such difficult questions to muddle though, do you think writing, and journalism in particular, can have an impact on framing the discussion?
Yes, I think it's absolutely essential. Journalism can have a real impact, and reportage is something I'm committed to. Because there's an awful lot of commentary. We need to know more about the facts and we need to stop generalising as much as we do about Aboriginal people. I think a space has to open up to stop 'solutionising' on behalf of people, and a space has to open up for reflection. I think much of the future for Aboriginal people in this region depends on them, and I want my work to respect that. I'm not shy of speaking about the people I live alongside in this region but I want to respect a space for them to think about their own futures.
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