Books, reading her passion; literacy her mission: Heiss

Anita Heiss is an Aboriginal author and improving Indigenous literacy is her mission.

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Books are her passion and reading her obsession.

“It’s my most intimate relationship at this point in time, let’s say that. The power there is for our people in terms of self-determination – we need to be able to read and write in the English language.”

She’s firmly in touch with her Indigenous heritage but also connects with her European background.

“So I’m a Wiradjuri woman, I’m a Williams from Brungal mission, Griffith, Tumut and Canberra, but I was born and raised in Gadigal country. My dad was Austrian, Heiss means hot, I’m never changing my surname.”

Anita Heiss is a celebrated author with many awards to her name.

She’s not the only star in the family.

Her younger brother, Mark Heiss, is a highly respected educator.

“I’m very proud of Anita. She’s been a great role model for me, she’s been the type of person that I want to be, and I look up to her, yeah she’s an inspiration to me. I’m an educator myself and she’s very big on educating our young people, in particular around literacy needs and language, and also around the *18C debate. That was something Anita was drawn into through no fault of her own but then decided to make a stand in a class action when injustice was being done for our people.”

Her hero is one of Australia’s most important Aboriginal literary voices.

“I always go back to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was formerly Kath Walker and changed her name in 1988 as a protest against the bicentenary. I have an original hard cover (edition) of “We Are Going”, which was the first book of Aboriginal poetry published, and the charter of Aboriginal rights, which is still relevant today.”

Just like her inspiration Anita Heiss is not afraid to speak out, which saw her take part in a landmark case involving freedom of speech and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, over an article published by commentator Andrew Bolt.

“I would say as a blackfella the most important thing I’ve done was take Andrew Bolt to court with a group of other Indigenous people because winning that case was really about representing all those people who are persecuted in the media every day but have no comeback at all.”

The battle for equality is one she’s fought since childhood.

“I was socialised as a child by white people saying you’re an abo, boong, coon, chocolate drop, coco pop, telling me who I was, but in the next breath taking it away saying, ‘you’re only half-caste’. I grew up in a time where Australians believed they had the right to give you your identity but also take half of it away.”

Anita Heiss was born a year after the 1967 referendum.

She wants Constitutional recognition, but for her it’s not the final goal.

“As a writer I see this is where it starts, we write ourselves into the Constitution. That is the stepping stone to the treaty, that we all want.”

A parallel to her ambition as an author mirrors her ambition for the constitution.

“I want to write the great Australian novel! I would say that’s most Australian writers’ dream and the reality is the great Australian novel won’t be written if it doesn’t include Aboriginal people and place… if it doesn’t include our people and our place, it can’t be the great Australian novel. You can’t exclude us from that landscape.”