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Interview with Gaele Sobott

10/05/2013 - Feature

Gaele Sobott with interviewer Claude Williams at Koori Radio

Gaele Sobott Ph.D has published essays, numerous children's books for the African market, and short stories, including a collection called Colour Me Blue. She has taught literature, English language, gender studies and creative writing at university, TAFE and in community organisations. Her most recent publication is My Longest Round: the Life Story of Wally Carr.

What or whom influenced you to become an artist?

I have always loved stories. My German grandmother would tell me stories from Max und Moritz and Der Struwelpeter. I was constantly searching the local library for fairy tales, myths and legends. My father was a trade union man and a member of the Eureka Youth League. He plied me with short stories by Gorky and John Steinbeck. He gave me Grapes of Wrath, Frank Hardy's Power without Glory, Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and a little book about Paul Robeson in Peeksville. These works and my father's world views definitely influenced me. I grew up wanting to express the pain of oppression, the search for justice and the gritty reality of everyday lives through story telling.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee were books that had a significant impact on me as a nineteen year old. It was around then I started to experience some of the discrimination and frustrations faced by women in society. I was determined to write about women's lives and struggles. For a long while I read only women writers, especially Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara. I read the journals of Anais Nin and I loved the writing of Anna Kavan. I also immersed myself in feminist and gender theory.

I was twenty-two when I went to Botswana to live. I met and married the father of my two daughters and became a Botswana citizen. I absorbed the oral traditions that were part of everyday life. I was influenced by the immediacy of the spoken word, the musicality of language, the colloquialisms, the swear words, the idioms, proverbs and myths, praise poetry. I was a white woman married to a black man during the Apartheid era so there were many rewarding and challenging personal experiences. I reacted to the injustices going on around me by writing short stories. 'Hide Them Under the Bed' was published in Staffrider in South Africa. It was based on my experience of the Apartheid military commando attack on Gaborone in 1985 which killed twelve people. Some of these stories were later included in a collection called Colour Me Blue published by Heinneman.

I discovered African writers including Bessie Head and Sol Plaatje, Achebe,Soyinka, Ngugi, Emecheta, Ousmane. I had some wonderful lecturers at the University of Botswana who taught the importance of people writing their own stories, especially within contexts of colonial and race oppression. They taught literary analysis and the craft of writing. They encouraged me to write. They encouraged me to delve into the workings of power and the complexities of human relationships.

Where do you practice and how much time to do you spend on your work?

I write at home. How much time I spend on my writing depends on whether I am working on a particular project or not. It also depends on income – I have to go to work to survive. Ideally I would spend six hours a day writing.

How do you develop your ideas and receive feedback on your work?

I write and then I rework the writing a few times. It could become a never-ending process. My ideas usually develop while I'm going about my daily activities. There's a constant undercurrent of thought going on around the characters, style and structure. I am fortunate to have friends here and overseas who help me with feedback. I am also lucky to have met other writers in Western Sydney, who assist me in editing and proofreading. Many of these writers were the original Westside Writers. They've now moved on to establish Sweatshop literacy movement. I value their input enormously.

What did you do to build skills and confidence as an artist early in your career?

I think publishing my short stories in Staffrider in South Africa in the 1980s lifted my confidence as a writer. I really respected that magazine. It had a non-racial, non-elitist publishing policy. Writers who weren't getting the chance to publish because of Apartheid were finally published. It was the kind of writing I loved. My first children's story was published by Baobab Press in Zimbabwe and won a Zimbabwe literature award. That was also a great boost to my confidence. I began to meet other writers in Botswana and southern Africa through participating in workshops and conferences. This helped build my skills.

How do you go about getting your work out there?

Well I suppose it is often who you know. Sending work out to be reviewed. Getting to know other writers and writing groups is important for me. Reading work in public, participating in workshops, publishing in literary magazines. Creating a profile. The Amplify Your Arts Grant is fantastic in assisting artists in this way and I find Accessible Arts is valuable in providing resources and helping artists with promotional activities.

What are the challenges in your practice and how do you work to address them?

Surviving is a big one. I try to balance part-time work with writing but it is difficult financially. I want to continually improve my writing, experiment, write in different genres, so finding writers, editors, readers I trust who will critique my work is one way I address this. It is not always easy to find a mainstream publisher willing to publish books that represent groups who do not have a public voice. In this case I think a writer/editor must be ready to find their own funding or seek organisations that will assist them in publishing the books, and be willing to take on distribution and publicity themselves. In terms of disability, I have FSH muscular dystrophy, so my main barriers are to do with physical movement - access to buildings, lifting and carrying objects, walking distance. I try to sort this kind of stuff out before I go to an event.

What advice do you have for someone starting out as an artist with disability?

I would emphasise the importance of joining up with like-minded artists and groups. I am really spurred on to create when I meet and talk to other artists (with and without disability), throw ideas around, experience their art, learn from them, discuss any barriers we face and how to overcome them, and work on collective projects. Disability is intrinsically complex and is often trivialised by dominant culture. I think it is really important to express our experiences of life, speak for ourselves, make demands, organise. I hope to see more artists with disability in decision making positions, receiving fair rates of pay, secure employment, putting an end to practices like cripping-up, rejecting notions of 'tolerance' ever appearing again in cultural policy. I hope to see artists with disability celebrated for the valuable contributions we make to Australia's art and cultural life. Artists with disability have the power to make changes to the inequalities we face and I believe we will make those changes.