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When I left Sydney, in 1987 and as a not-so-fresh-faced 18-year-old, I was determined to find my own way in the world.

I needed to find a new way of being. I needed to be myself.

Without a doubt there had been joy in my childhood. Summers were spent either at the beach or up in the Blue Mountains, and most weekends I was able to explore the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, which bordered the suburb where my family and I lived. But the suburb was as affluent as they come: the roads were clogged with cars made by Audi, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes, and most streets were adorned with at least one mansion.

It was also monocultural. A ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal seat, as they say. Conservative to the core. If you weren’t a Christian you were marked as different, and different was never good.

It’s true that, in my formative years, I was aware of that situation – the privilege, but also the stifling (read: dangerous) world view. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to get out of there as soon as I was able, to be in a place where I could choose the people with whom I wanted to associate.

And that’s what happened.

I found my tribe.

But I had no idea that in the ACT region I’d find something else.

While most folk know Canberra as the place where the federal parliament sits, where most government departments have their offices, where, on most nights of the week, the restaurants and bars are packed with political staffers and public servants talking strategy and gossip (that may have been true in the past but these days a majority of Canberrans are actually involved in the private sector; besides, the ongoing wars between ‘public service’ and ‘private enterprise’ are ridiculously reductive), I have come to know Canberra as one of the the most cultural and creatively sustaining places on the planet.

This small city has a wide range of arts organisations covering all the major art forms. There are also the national cultural institutions, including the National Library, the National Archives, the National Museum, and the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The original parliament house has been turned into a museum of democracy.

There are brilliant universities and terrific bookshops. Libraries are dotted throughout the suburbs.

It probably should not be surprising that the ACT is one of the most progressive jurisdictions in Australia: in 1999 it was one of the only states or territories that voted for Australia to become a republic, and in 2017 it had one of the highest yes votes in the marriage-equality plebiscite.

Then there are the mountains on the edge of the city, the coast is a two-hour drive (which, in Australian terms, is not much more than ‘just up the street’), Sydney at the northern end of the freeway.

While, now I’m thinking about it, I first put pen to paper as a writer while briefly living in Perth in my early twenties, it was when I returned to Canberra that I decided to pursue my literary vocation with vigour. I met other writers, some of whom have gone on to shape the culture of the country. My own progress has been slow, a gradual coming out. (My other coming out was a little more dramatic.)

I should also make it clear that since 2010 I have lived on the other side of the border, in the regional New South Wales town of Goulburn. These days I like to say that Goulburn is my hometown, Canberra is my home city, and the ACT region is the place of my creative community

So, it was lovely – surprising, invigorating, and just a little overwhelming – to be named the ACT Artist of the Year at the 2022 ACT Arts Awards, which were held on Tuesday evening at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING also picked up a Canberra Critics Circle Award, which is my fifth.

Thank you to the Canberra Critics Circle, who, for 32 years, have been celebrating this region’s artists. Gratitude also to the City News, which so generously sponsors the Artist of the Year Award.

Years ago, a prominent Australian writer and academic shared with me some advice that I’ve never forgotten: ‘When something good happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to celebrate – drink champagne, go out for dinner, soak it all up, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to commiserate – drink whiskey, kick the furniture, howl at the moon, whatever you need to do, but then you have to keep going.’

So I applied that approach to this news; I enjoyed a wonderful Wednesday. And then, to be frank, because sometimes there is life in contradiction and inconsistency, I kept enjoying myself.

But on Monday morning, I’ll be back at the desk.

I’ll keep going.

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Image credit: author photograph courtesy of the Canberra Times.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders.

They’ll be the end of us.

I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.

There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.

People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.

Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.

But I’m not suffering political persecution.

Or religious discrimination.

Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.

Or because I’m a woman.

I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.

Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.

Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.

But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.

*

(First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.)

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The past