An interview with Edie Wright of Magabala Books

As Australian students and teachers return to school, one of the remotest publishing houses in the world, Magabala Books in Broome (WA) is gearing up to bring new Aboriginal perspectives to primary school classrooms all over the country.

With a grant of $33,550 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, Magabala Books will soon deliver specially created teaching resources for 15 Indigenous stories, via the agency’s Reading Australia website.

Here we chat with Edie Wright, Chairperson of Magabala Books, about the project.

How did you go about selecting the titles to be used in the project? Were there other titles that you wished you could have also included?

We selected the books in partnership with the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. The books were chosen for their educational and literary value and appropriateness for different primary year levels. In the second half of 2017, resources for a further 7 Magabala titles will be uploaded onto the Reading Australia website, which is an initiative of the Copyright Agency.

We would love to see Magabala Books’ titles included as recommended reading for secondary levels too. Reading Australia resources are being developed for Brenton McKenna’s graphic novel Ubbys Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon. We have some excellent YA fiction by authors such as Jared Thomas (Calypso Summer and Songs that Sound like Blood) and Jane Harrison (Becoming Kirrali Lewis, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Awards in 2016). The NSW Premier’s Literary Award winning Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Eckermann, and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe deserve to feature strongly in the Australian Curriculum.

What are you seeking to achieve with this project?

We want to make it easy for teachers to access and use books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers. While many of Magabala Books’ titles are already well used in schools, Reading Australia is a wonderful free resource for teachers of English and literacy, and specifically promotes Australian writing.

Some of Australia’s finest authors and illustrators are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and we are seeking to ensure that their work is included in national and state curriculum reading lists from foundation/kindergarten to year 12. We hope this partnership will help us progress towards this goal. We are grateful for the support of the Copyright Agency who gave us a grant of $33,550 through their Cultural Fund, and for ALEA’s support.

Of course the project is also wonderful promotion for the work of our authors and illustrators, who dream of having their books in the hands of school children throughout Australia.

Magabala is Australia’s oldest independent Indigenous publishing house. Can you tell us a little bit about the organisation’s history and culture?

Magabala Books is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. In the mid ‘80s, during a landmark bush meeting of Aboriginal elders from all over the Kimberley, it was decided to establish the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and Magabala Books. What an audacious move that was, to establish their own publishing house in one of the most remote areas in the world, and at a time when the nation was only just beginning to reveal its interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories! Notwithstanding our remote location, we started receiving manuscripts from all over Australia and became a national publishing house.

In a space where so much has been written about Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people, Magabala Books gave people the opportunity to tell their own stories, to ensure that cultural protocols were observed and the benefits flowed back to the right people. That original mission is just as important today as it was then, but fortunately Australians are much more interested in Aboriginal perspectives today, and Magabala Books has played a pivotal role in fostering that interest.

We have also worked hard to counter common perceptions that Aboriginal stories are all about ‘culture’ or ‘difficult’ subject matter. Our titles are diverse in theme and content, and our authors and illustrators are from all walks of life and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. Yes, we are an Indigenous owned publishing house, publishing the work of Indigenous authors, but we try to eschew the restrictive notion of ‘Indigenous literature’.

Magabala’s titles are entertaining, moving and gripping stories, full of wit, courage and universal wisdom. Magabala Books’ titles have won or been recognised by numerous literary awards and rightly take their place amongst the greats in the ‘canon of Australian literature’.

We also make a huge investment the development of new and emerging literary talent and are fortunate to have the support of our donors, the Australia Council for the Arts, and Department of Culture and the Arts WA, to continue to do so.

We’re excited about the project, and we know that lots of teachers are too! What advice do you have for teachers looking to incorporate more Indigenous content into their lesson planning?

In late March, and then again in July, search ‘Magabala’ on the Copyright Agency’s Reading Australia website. You can also search the term ‘Indigenous’ for a list of excellent works with Indigenous themes. While incorporating a range of perspectives is always important, we specifically encourage teachers to use texts authored by Indigenous people.

Learn more about Magabala Books and to access some tips on using Indigenous content in the classroom, visit our website

Subscribe to our newsletter on our website to find out about our new titles.

Read widely to provide yourself with a greater understanding of the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories. Read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe – it will turn what most of us were taught at school about Australian history on its head, and it will spark your curiosity. Ask for recommendations from your bookshop. Independent bookshops like Readings are our friends and champions.

Encourage other teachers!

Finally, what is a book you’ve read recently and loved?

Marie Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (Penguin, 2016). It’s extraordinarily moving. I was particularly taken by the way she reflected on her life through humour, notwithstanding that her story has all the elements of a tragedy, including her removal from her family as a child and the challenges of reconnecting as an adult. It also gives context to her very funny and incisive works of fiction A Most Peculiar Act (Magabala Books, 2014) and Every Secret Thing (UQP, 2009). Both books celebrate Aboriginal peoples’ resilience and sense of humour in the face of the absurdity and oppression of the Aboriginal Protection Acts, and aspects of mission life.

Edie Wright is Chairperson of Magabala Books. A former teacher and school principal, she is currently the Kimberley Regional Consultant for Aboriginal Education at the WA Department of Education, and author of Full Circle (Fremantle Press, 2001). She is working on the manuscript for her second work of non-fiction, when she finds time between family and work commitments.