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October 2011 Issue
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Personal stories win literary praise

 Creative Writing

Growing up in Ceduna, Dylan Coleman was raised by her Kokatha mother, Mercy, to speak out against social injustice and to be proud of her Aboriginal heritage.

"All her life she [Mercy] has been politically active and has fought for Aboriginal rights and equality," said Dylan, who is a lecturer in the Indigenous Health Unit at the University of Adelaide.

The daughter of an Aboriginal mother and white father, Mercy Glastonbury experienced a challenging childhood on the Koonibba Aboriginal Mission on the far west coast of South Australia.

Although embraced by her family, as a child of mixed ancestry she was at times taunted by other children, impacting on her self-esteem and her cultural identity. The experience had a profound effect and marked her for life, but there is an upside.

Last month, Dylan Coleman's manuscript of her mother's childhood - 'Mazin' Grace - took out the $20,000 Arts Queensland David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer.

The judging panel described the manuscript as "heart-rending, provocative and funny" and praised Dylan's work as "a fantastic piece of writing".

The outcome of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, 'Mazin' Grace is told in both Aboriginal English and Kokatha, and from the perspective of a young child in the first person.

Dylan's Masters thesis has not gone unnoticed either. In a completely different style, she tells the story of her father - a Greek fisherman - in an unpublished novel Clear Water White Death: Storm on the Horizon. That manuscript was among the three shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award.

"Writing both manuscripts has been a cathartic healing process for the whole family," Dylan said.

'Mazin' Grace is the story of a young Aboriginal girl's quest to understand her identity and find a place in a community that sometimes rejects her for reasons she does not understand.

Mercy Glastonbury (called Grace in the novel) was not only the product of a mixed race union, but also born out of wedlock - both considered very shameful in the 1940s.

"I wrote this in the first person as my mother wanted readers to understand what it was like for her growing up with this shame of being born illegitimate, in an Aboriginal community which adopted Christian belief systems," Dylan said.

The writing process began with her father's story. Armed with a handful of oral transcripts, Dylan sought a ghost writer in the first instance, but two friends persuaded her to enrol in the postgraduate Creative Writing program at the University.

Dylan moved from Ceduna to Adelaide to take up her studies, working part‑time in the Barr Smith Library, then as a Student Support Officer at Wilto Yerlo, the University's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education unit.

Several months out from completing her PhD, Dylan was offered a job in the School of Population Health and Clinical Practice as a lecturer in Indigenous Health.

Her background includes stints in the Central Land Council working on land rights; helping to establish, and lecturing in, the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation Program at Wilto Yerlo; plus a number of health-related areas, including coordinating a substance misuse strategy for Indigenous people in the Ceduna region.

Her mother, Mercy, has an Honours degree in Anthropology from the University of Adelaide and was Director of Wilto Yerlo in the mid 1990s, so the University ties are strong.

"I have received a lot of support and encouragement from the University environment in juggling work and study, and hopefully I have made an impact in return," Dylan said.

'Mazin' Grace is due to be published by the Queensland University Press within the next year.

Story by Candy Gibson

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Author Dylan Coleman, winner of the Arts Queensland David Unaipon Award
Photo by Jen Dainer

Author Dylan Coleman, winner of the Arts Queensland David Unaipon Award
Photo by Jen Dainer

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