When Associate Professor Anthony Hopkins arrived in Alice Springs in 1997 as a law student intern at the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (now the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency), it set in motion a journey of listening to Indigenous perspectives that would shape his career as a legal practitioner, educator and researcher. Dr Hopkins returned to work with and for Aboriginal peoples in Central Australia in 2001 as a criminal defence lawyer, witnessing and participating in a system that far too often fails to deliver equal justice.
Today, as Director of Clinical and Internships Courses and a practising criminal defence barrister, he remains committed to tackling inequality in the criminal justice system and listening to voices of those caught in the system. It’s a mission that has now taken on a literary form through Belonging – A Novel, a semibiographical story that interweaves Dr Hopkins’ personal and professional experiences with a powerful message for readers: justice and listening go hand in hand.
The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law will host the book launch of Belonging – A Novel on 8 December 2020. Speakers include Professor Sally Wheeler OBE, MRIA, FAcSS, FAAL (Dean, ANU College of Law; Pro-Vice Chancellor, ANU), Professor Asmi Wood (ANU College of Law; Director (interim), National Centre for Indigenous Studies), and Patrick O’Leary (Executive Director, Country Needs People).
All profits made from the sale of the book will be donated to Country Needs People, an Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission-registered charity and non-profit supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sustainable management of land and sea.
In this Q&A, Dr Hopkins discusses the inspiration behind his novel and steps we can take – both as law students and a nation – to advance justice claims for Indigenous Australians.
1. When were you first inspired to write this novel?
The first draft of Belonging was written during a period when my wife and I were living on the north coast of New South Wales, raising our children. We had moved there from Mparntwe/Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where I had been working as a criminal defence lawyer at the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service. It was intended to be a one-year sea change – a break from the relentless pace of working at the coalface of the criminal justice system, to focus on sharing the joys and challenges of parenting. One year turned into two, and then three. Space opened for the many extraordinary, mind-blowing and heartbreaking experiences I had had as a young, white lawyer working in Desert Country, with and for its people, to rise for reflection. With this rising came the realisation that, for all my efforts on behalf of my clients, it was I that had been given a gift. That gift was a glimpse of something vast, and a seed of understanding.
2. How did your own personal experiences – both as a legal professional and researcher – shape the novel?
My personal experiences as a lawyer working within the criminal justice system at the intersection of laws, worlds and worldviews are very much the foundation for the novel. At this meeting point, there is breathtaking injustice – individual, intergenerational and systemic – but there is also breathtaking strength, humanity and love. The legal cases, characters and stories that interweave Belonging are real and imagined. But it is not simply my experience as a lawyer that shapes the novel, it is my experience as a newcomer to Country, coming to grips with my place as an inheritor of colonial privilege and power in the story of Country and its peoples. This journey is deeply personal and relational. The novel owes its life to the world of Country, connection, culture and art opened to me by my Warumungu and Luritja wife.
The first draft of the novel was written before I had come to understand myself as a researcher. This was before my time as an academic. From an academic vantage point, I can now see this time of life, submerged in lived experience, as ‘action research’ in which the line between observed and observer becomes indistinct, shifting from view. Its power to shape thinking manifests in those moments when this shifting reveals a mirror and, in it, an image of self, changed by experience. Ultimately, though, without my subsequent work as a researcher in the fields of criminal justice, equality and compassion, this novel may have remained only an unpublished manuscript.
3. Were there any challenges in transitioning between scholarly and creative writing?
There is a freedom in creative writing that, for me, is difficult to experience in more standard scholarly forms of written communication. In Belonging, accuracy and honesty remain paramount, just as they are in my scholarly writing. These characteristics are essential for there to be a relationship of trust with the reader. However, in scholarly writing, there is generally a need to claim objectivity. This limits the extent to which subjective experience and emotion can be foregrounded. It also limits the extent to which storytelling and imagination can be engaged to invite readers to understand lives and worlds beyond their own. In Belonging, the world is largely seen through the eyes of its main character, Ben Fulton, a young, white lawyer working, living and learning to love at the collision of worlds. The reader is invited to explore this collision, from Ben’s subjective, emotion-bound and constructed perspective. There is no hiding from the autobiographical alignment. My perspective as the author, with its limitations and vulnerabilities, is on show. Owning this has definitely been a challenge, but it has also been the source of freedom.
4. Who kept you motivated throughout your writing?
My wife and children were my primary motivation during the writing process, both in the initial drafting stage and then over the last painstaking years of getting Belonging ready for publication. Family and friends read drafts and provided support and constructive feedback. Students have also been an ongoing source of motivation. I am regularly approached by students who have a strong desire to work with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all parts of Australia. They are keen to hear about what it is like to work at the intersection of worlds and how they can begin to think about their own place and responsibility in the story of Country and its peoples. It is my hope that Belonging will be a challenging, engaging and hopeful resource on their journey.
5. What has been the most rewarding aspect, now it has been published?
It is funny thing, but it was incredibly rewarding to finally hold the published book in my hands. On the cover is a beautiful artwork by my wife’s late uncle, Robert Ambrose Cole, a Luritja and Warumungu artist. I was particularly concerned to make sure that the cover and the whole book honoured my wife, her uncle, their family and ancestors. I hope that I have succeeded. Beyond the physical presence of the book, without doubt the most welcome and rewarding aspect of getting Belonging published has been the positive feedback I have received from readers so far. At the heart of the novel is the experience of connection. It is therefore a great joy to find that readers are connecting with the story it contains.
6. What do you hope readers, in particular aspiring lawyers, will take from your novel?
I hope that non-Indigenous readers, and particularly non-Indigenous lawyers or aspiring lawyers, will find in Belonging the motivation to turn towards the injustice faced by First Nations peoples in Australia, to listen deeply to their voices, strength and wisdom. This listening is a foundation for understanding and working with First Nations people, to truly reckon with colonialism. For those of us who are non-Indigenous, this reckoning is with our place in the story of Country and its peoples. If we take the hand that has been extended to us with humility and openness, I have no doubt that we can walk into a future whose possibilities are much vaster than our imagination. And, maybe, that way lies true belonging.
For First Nations readers, and particularly First Nations lawyers or aspiring lawyers, I would not presume that there is anything to learn from an author whose life, privilege and position are built on the original and enduring injustice of invasion. I hope that I have done justice to the Aboriginal characters in the novel. In Belonging, as in real life, justice cannot be understood, let alone realised, without First Nations leadership. I hope that my First Nations children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren will take their place as justice leaders, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.
7. What advice would you give to law students eager to contribute to positive justice outcomes for Indigenous Australians?
This eagerness arises from something that is very real and very important. It speaks of a motivation to use their legal learning to advance the justice claims of First Nations peoples, in the face of gross and continuing injustice. But for this motivation to be put into action requires a recognition that justice cannot be achieved for First Nations peoples; it can only be achieved with First Nations peoples. First Nations voices are strong and getting stronger. Search these voices out – in law, in political and artistic expression and in life – and then listen as best you can with openness and humility. If you are a First Nations law student yourself, then you are one amongst this growing number of strong voices. You have allies.
8. What influenced your decision to donate all profits of Belonging – A Novel to the charity Country Needs People?
The story of Belonging arises from experience on and with Country and its people – people whose lives are inseparably connected to Country, no matter what violence has been done to that connection. These stories are not my own, though they are told by me. In honouring those who have shared their experience and wisdom with me, I hope to make a small financial contribution to Country and its peoples, which is why I chose Country Needs People.
Country Needs People is a not-for-profit organisation that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sustainable management of land and sea. The Country Needs People campaign is a growing group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians calling on decision-makers to: double funding for Indigenous Rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas; commit to making this funding long term; and reach a national target of 5000 Indigenous land and sea management jobs. The campaign recognises that ‘Indigenous land and sea management programs are a contemporary expression of the unbroken and ancient connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to this continent’. In this age of climate change and potential climate catastrophe, the wisdom of connection and caring for Country is something that all of us must learn and whole-heartedly embrace.
Proceeds will go via Country Needs People to support the work of the Muru-warinyi Ankkul Rangers, who work on and with Warumungu Country in and around Tennant Creek. This is the Country to which my wife and children belong, which is the setting for much of Belonging.
Pre-order your copy of the e-book of Belonging – A Novel by Associate Professor Anthony Hopkins here. Print copies of the book will be available from Harry Hartog Booksellers at ANU from 9 December 2020.