A "whole new style of Aboriginal writing" is on the rise along with a growing Aboriginal readership, says Mallacoota local Bruce Pascoe, whose ground-breaking history of pre-colonial agriculture, Dark Emu, was named book of the year in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards on Monday night.
Pascoe, 68, also shared the new biennial $30,000 Indigenous Writer's Prize with Ellen van Neerven, 25, for Heat and Light – "a work of fiction by a born novelist," said the judges.
"It's fantastic," Pascoe says, looking at the six shortlisted books of fiction, poetry, memoir and history. "We couldn't have had a shortlist like that 15 years ago. It's part of the evolution of the community; there are more people with a good education.
"Aboriginal people have always been storytellers, so it's a natural thing to do," he says of the decision to separate Indigenous writing from the Multicultural NSW Award, which went to Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami.
In their praise of his book, the judges said: "Dark Emu reveals enormous Aboriginal achievement in governance and agriculture, and restores these to their rightful place at the epicentre of Australian history ... a voice at once catalysing and unifying, Bruce Pascoe is without peer in his field."
Pascoe, whose great-grandmother was Aboriginal, found references in diaries by Sir Thomas Mitchell and other explorers around the continent to vast cultivated fields of yams and grain fields, which were soon destroyed by settlers' sheep and cattle.
"They were so focused on creating a little England that anything Aboriginal was anathema," he says. "But the yam is 10 times as nutritious as the potato."
A former teacher who works to preserve Indigenous languages and stories, Pascoe grows grain and makes bread from indigenous grasses at his home near Mallacoota in remote north-east Victoria. He believes they can become commercially viable.
Evidence from one grinding dish shows, "Aboriginal people were producing bread 34,000 years ago – that's 15,000 years before anyone else", he says.
His next books are a young-adult story about a horse, Mrs Whitlam, and a novel that suggests land war may not be natural to humans, based on Aboriginal culture.
Pascoe and his wife also run a B&B, and he says, "I make more money from cleaning toilets and vacuuming floors than writing".