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Another Day in the Colony author Chelsea Watego reflects on the true power of black literature

Rachel Stringfellow -

From the outset Professor Chelsea Watego cuts a formidable figure â€" a global scholar foregrounding Indigenous intellectual sovereignty, a founding board member of Inala Wangarra, a director of the Institute for Collaborative Race Research, and former co-host of the Wild Black Women radio and podcast show.

Ms Watego is also a proud mum to five children radiating warmth, candour and the type of quick wit that makes it easy to see why her book won People's Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award at the 2022 QLD Literary Awards.

One year from release, and a recent book tour under her belt that saw her travel up to Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait), Barambah (Cherbourg) and Gimuy (Cairns) communities, Ms Watego said the most powerful moments have come from "just sitting in conversation with mob".

Ms Watego points to the framing of her book not being recognised as an academic text.

"If I as a black professor can't write a book that's considered an academic text that includes academic journal articles... then what does that tell us about how we imagine the intellectual capabilities of black people and if it's excluded from that category," she said.

But this is the art of her literary craft, one that centre's blackfulla's excellence, the raw and real of it all.

"If we want to think about what black literature is, it hits different and it is shaped differently," Ms Watego said.

"When we write for the black reader in mind, which I think is the harshest critic and I mean most vocal supporters... then you've got work that's of a high standard.

"So, the black reader is a marker of black excellence."

The nuance Ms Watego explains is that "black literature is not just text written by black people".

"For me when I think about black literature... its texts written by black people for black people," she said.

"And it's not to say you can't be a black writer and write for a broader audience.

"There's all kinds of stuff that I do that has a broader audience."

The difference however, is positioning from which blackness is centred.

Ms Watego contends her book is, "not a misery memoir", rather a script with a whole lot of joy to be found.

"I think we have to think about that, that writing to a black audience is not like some niche thing that sub-standard version of your work," she said.

"It's the mark of excellence.

"Of course, it's an academic text. It's a scholarly text. The fact that the black reader is the audience doesn't make it less scholarly."

Ms Watego is proud to be part of a literary tradition which spans well before her time.

It is a tradition Ms Watego says speaks explicitly to the souls of blackfullas, and one which these days sees bookshelves full of Indigenous literature which can be carried "like a shield".

"I think that is the coolest part, that mob are reading and getting something from it and thinking about what they're doing with their own lives and their own story," she said.

"And seeing what it had done, you know it was exciting to see the kind of the effect that it's had on people â€" feeling strong telling their own stories, in all of its messiness and vulnerability and strength.

"It's given permission for people to walk away from violent places, for them and realise that they're deserving better.

"So, I love that it's been useful in that sense, for more beyond just telling my story."

Outside of her literary feats it has been a tough year for Ms Watego, who brought and lost a race discrimination case against the State of Queensland and two police officers

But when asked if there had been a blue sky moment amid the challenges, Ms Watego was pragmatic.

"It was a confirmation like in terms of thinking about the book you know, a year on and having told that story and that was in the still in the process at the time, that our power is not measured by white verdicts and white validation," she said.

"I got to enact it through that process... that was a blue sky moment."

Watch this space however, there's a vigour when Chelsea says she is excited for the books that follow.

Story by Rachel Stringfellow


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