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2020 Chief Minister’s Book Awards: Q&A with Monica Tan

DARWIN-BASED WRITER Monica Tan recently took out the Best Non-Fiction Book for Stranger Country in the 2020 Chief Minister’s Book Awards. OTL caught up with her for a chat.

Congrats on your win! What does this award mean to you?

Writing that book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. One thinks of writing as a purely cerebral activity but I have cursed memories of how physically I experienced that difficulty – screaming at myself to keep writing, feeling nauseous at the hundredth re-read, a night where I was so gripped by cold, cold dread I had written a truly dreadful book that it kept me awake until I watched the morning peep through my window. This award is a sweet and temporary painkiller to the awful disease that is choosing to write.

Tell us about your book Stranger Country.

It's my story of the six months I drove and camped on my own through some of Australia’s most beautiful and remote landscapes.

I shared meals, beers and conversations with miners, grey nomads, artists, farmers, community workers and small business owners from across the nation – some Aboriginal, some white, some Asian, and even a few who managed to be all three. This was my quest to understand the country of my birth and my place in it as a first generation, non-Indigenous Australian.

What was the inspiration behind it?

It began with one compelling question, I suppose. What does “connection to country” mean for someone like me? Can I ever truly belong to a land that has been the spiritual domain of Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years?

Are you currently working on any more books? Tell us more!

I am but the idea keeps shifting so I don’t dare share it. But it will probably have pirates, gutsy teenagers, crocodiles, chase scenes, ancient myths and modern tech magic.

If we were to take a look on your bookshelf, what kinds of books would we find there?

Have you read any of Phil O’Brien’s books? It's reading a “primary source” diary of the mythological Territorian – gloriously raw outsider art. I am also reading Capricornia by Xavier Herbert and recently finished A Sunburnt Childhood by Toni Tapp Coutts.

Any Territory writers you’re enjoying at the moment?

I’m on a bit of a Territorian binge, re-reading We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn and the Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia by Ludwig Leichhardt. Marking what has changed and what hasn’t in nearly 200 years of colonial Top End literature is always fascinating.


Photo: Freya Fullwood

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