Yuwaalaraay storyteller Nardi Simpson has made the longlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The talented creative is an author, playwright and one half of the iconic musical duo, the Stiff Gins. Simpson published her debut novel last September after winning the 2018 black&write! Fellowship.

Song of the Crocodile has received immense praise, being long-listed for the Miles Franklin, the Stella Prize and the Australian Book of the Year Award for Literary Fiction Book of the Year.

It was also shortlisted for the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in Indigenous Writing, the MUD Literary Prize, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for New Writing and the Indie Book Awards for Debut Fiction.

A self-described “newbie” to the literary scene, Simpson says the praise has felt “surreal”.

“First of all, I’m very grateful. But when I think about the book, I think about all the relationships with the people that I had (when) making the story,” she said.

“I think of Grace (Lucas-Pennington) at black&write! and the beautiful time that I had learning, sharing and just dreaming up (the) story with her. Before that I had a really wonderful mentor in Emily Maguire, who helped me.”

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile. Photo supplied.

Simpson says while readers may be seeing just the story, she sees all those who have walked the creative journey alongside her.

“I’m looking at the people that walk alongside me and when I think of how deadly they are with those people adding into the spirit of it, of course, people are going to like it because they are so deadly! I only strung some words together, it was those relationships that really created the story,” she said.

Whilst creating music and plays are familiar to the creative, Simpson had to step into a new part of herself in writing Song of the Crocodile.

“It was a really important process for me to go through because, in singing … it’s spoken and physical, stories cannot be disconnected from a physicality. When I wrote the play, (it) was writing physicality for somebody else,” she explained.

“I then moved to writing the novel, for me it wasn’t just words. Because I’d mucked around with play-writing and because I know how to tell a story in part with my body, I was able to bring those things to the page.”

“For Blackfullas if you only have a one-dimensional story experience, you’re not getting our thing.”

Song of the Crocodile weaves together English and Yuwaalaraay, a process of immense learning for Simpson.

“Language, it’s always teaching you. If you’re speaking it, it’s teaching you one way, if you’re writing it, it’s teaching you another way. It’s always showing you depth, and always inferring a relationship,” she said.

“For me when I brought Yuwaalaraay language on the page, it had to be connected to people in a place because that’s the context for those things. It was teaching me that if I was going to use a story with those words, I had to have things present to support it.

“It’s never just a word, it always had this whole series of connections built into it.”

Simpson notes the learning of language is also the celebration of survival and the connection to those who passed it on.

“In NSW, people said that we’d lost their language. But, even in the middle of Sydney, there are still those deep kinships, relationships and understanding of people in place, in what we have,” she said.

“In one word there is this whole genealogy of people caring for it so that we have it.”

“There’s the actual meaning in the context of that word but there’s all the effort that people you don’t even know had to put in to making sure it gets to you, which is another whole beautiful journey.”

In 2020, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, which weaves together English and Wiradjuri language, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Tony Birch’s novel The White Girl was short-listed. In making the long-list, Song of the Crocodile joins a movement of Blak excellence in the literary scene.

“There’s a story about how strong our people are and how we are a reflection of that, we’re a combination of everybody else’s excellence … There are millions of deadly Blackfullas doing their thing all the time,” said Simpson.

“Then there’s also an interesting yarn and about where mainstream is looking. Why are they looking and why are they noticing now?”

Simpson notes that mainstream is acknowledging the presence of language, place and culture that sits within modern identity today.

“This is something (they) can’t get anywhere else and it is sort of a part of them that we take care of. They don’t own it, we own that part of them and we are connected,” she said.

“I think thoughtful, deep thinking Australians want to engage with that, not to own it but experience it. And let us look after it.

“Always was always will be deadly people, and these awards … are a reflection of all these deadly fellas doing things.”

By Rachael Knowles