The Windham Campbell Literature Prizewinners: Noëlle Janaczewska

NoëlleJanaczewska_WebNoëlle Janaczewska, whose work has been described as “risky” and “dangerous,” is not afraid to confront complex and controversial political themes such as environmental history, colonialism and its legacies, the philosophy of science, migration, and language(s). Her “preoccupation with society’s outsiders, mavericks, and things generally regarded as feral” developed in part from her own experience as a migrant from the United Kingdom. As Janaczewska says, “Migration gave me a new life—in writing. It may even have been a necessary prerequisite. My theatre writing grew out of a nomadic outlook and my reality as an immigrant in a nation of immigrants. It thrived on journeys between different cultures and geographies. And the sorrowful and comic baggage that accompanies the soul on these crossings.”

An adjunct professor at The University of Queensland, Janaczewska is the author of numerous award-winning stage plays, essays, poems, monologues, and radio scripts. She has won five Australian Writer’s Guild (AWGIE) awards, the 2006 Griffon Playwriting Award, the Playbox-Asialink Playwriting Competition, and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. She has been a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and a runner-up for the 2009 Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize. The Sydney-based writer also maintains strong connections to the theatre, and has worked with companies in Australia, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. In addition, she served as Artistic Director of The Performance Space for two years, and is a member of the 7-ON playwrights group.

Noëlle Janaczewska is a 2014 Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize winner in drama.


SAGE: Your work has garnered many awards. What was your reaction to winning a Windham Campbell Prize?

Noëlle Janaczewska: Initially—disbelief. I’d assumed the email requesting my phone number was spam or fundraising American-style, and ignored it.

After the phone call—shock, amazement, and still disbelief. Sam Holcroft says in her response on the website that she felt slightly unhinged by the news. I felt the same. I’ve had six months to come down to earth, but sometimes I still don’t quite believe it. I’ve fielded endless questions about what I’ll write as a result of the prize. Research trips to Greenland and Bangladesh are on my radar—not for the same project—but who knows how things will play out.

Now I feel immense gratitude. What an extraordinarily generous award it is, not only financially, but also in spirit and understanding.

SAGE: Your work spans many genres, from plays and poetry to libretti and monologues. How do you characterize your work, and do you think of your work as inherently performative?

NJ: I’m a performance writer whether I’m writing plays, poetry or essays. So yes, there’s a performative sensibility that underscores all my work. I’m always looking to collaborate with composers and musicians. And I’d like to collaborate with scientists too—botanists, entomologists, geologists, meteorologists.

SAGE: How do you conceive of your audience while writing, and does it change depending on the genre?

NJ: Unless it’s a commission, when I embark on a new piece, be it a play, a monologue, a suite of poems or a performance essay, I often don’t know exactly where it will end up, the context, the venue, etcetera. Sometimes that becomes clearer as the work evolves.

SAGE: Your work explores many themes, from natural history to the legacies of colonialism. How do you decide what to write about, and do certain topics lend themselves to a particular form or genre?

NJ: I’m interested in ideas and language and it’s curiosity that drives me. I’m not terribly interested in plot or character, although I am very interested in voice, and in creating polyphonic or polyvocal texts.

I’ve done work in environmental history and a fair amount of my writing deals with history’s gaps and silences, focusing on the people, plants, creatures and events which have been overlooked or marginalized in official records.

SAGE: You have developed a genre that you call the “performance essay.” What do you mean by this term, and how is a performance essay different from other public pieces, such as monologues or plays?

NJ: The essay is a protean and accommodating form, albeit one somewhat under-explored in Australia where it’s too often the province of journalism or academia. I’m particularly interested in the lyric essay and the—for want of a better word—experimental essay.

Beginning with Pyongyang Affair about a trip I made to North Korea, I started doing essay-performance hybrids for ABC Radio National. I’ve done a number of these, and they got great listener responses. The live performance essays grew out of these. I did my first one in Jakarta in 2006.

I’m interested in a whole range of performance forms and genres besides narrative drama.

Performance essays is a term I coined to describe a hybrid which draws not only on the essay and the monologue, but also on field reports, the memoir, the mash-up, spoken word, stand-up, cultural criticism, the blog, reportage and that whole tradition of the illustrated lecture.

SAGE: Your recent performance essay, Blasted Island, presented at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, examines Nauru’s complex socio-ecological history, while other works explore such seemingly common entities as thistles and gravel. How do you conduct your research? Do you have an idea for a project and then research it, or does the form or genre emerge from the research itself?

NJ: I like research, especially delving into archival sources, and when I’m researching for one project I’ll often come across a phrase or snippet that sparks another idea.

But sometimes too, ideas come from more random sources: suddenly realising that the ‘customer consultant’ I’m online-chatting with is a robot not a real person; an overheard—or maybe misheard—conversation on the 443 bus; places that fall off the map; the vernacular poetry of weeds; moths, lists, hard to translate words.

If the work is commissioned, then certain things are already in place. If it’s a self-generated idea, as most of mine are, I like to spend a fair bit of time loose-thinking about it, letting my thoughts meander, creating a dreaming space, before turning my attention to things like genre, structure, style, voice, etcetera.

Right now I’m working on a short play for a six-playwright project called Offshore. The six of us come from Queensland, Northern Territory, New South Wales, and Singapore, and we’ve each been commissioned to create a short piece about a particular Australian island. I’ve got Macquarie Island, which is a subantarctic island, and my desk is a mess of articles, images, jottings, sketches, information about dogs trained to catch feral rabbits, and I’m listening to Anouar Brahem and thinking about aircraft that vanish. And somehow I hope I’m going to be able to compose a 10-15 minute work from all that disparate material.

SAGE: Your work tends to be quite provocative and has even called it “dangerous.” In your opinion, what is the role of the writer in today’s rapidly changing world?

NJ: To ask difficult questions. And to keep on asking them.

SAGE: As a professor and award-winning author, what advice do you have for students interested in environmental writing?

NJ: I tend to shy away from offering advice. Too often it comes across as platitudes or something ripped from the pages of a self-help book. I suppose if pressed, I’d say: write what only you can write. Be curious. Be adventurous. Dare to be unfashionable. That applies not only to environmental writing, but to all kinds of writing.

And find some like-minded colleagues, because over the course of a career, you’re going to need their wisdom and support. I’m part of a group called 7-ON Playwrights (with Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning and Catherine Zimdahl) and I can’t over-stress how valuable and sustaining that is.

Timothy Brown

Timothy is Editor in Chief at SAGE Magazine. A former high school environmental science teacher, Timothy now studies environmental anthropology and writing at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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  1. Pingback: Writing the Environment | Noëlle Janaczewska

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