Winnie Dunn becomes the first Tongan Australian to publish a novel with her debut, Dirt Poor Islanders

Winnie Dunn becomes the first Tongan Australian to publish a novel with her debut, Dirt Poor Islanders
  • PublishedMay 14, 2024

At just 28, Winnie Dunn has accrued an impressive list of firsts to her name.

Not only was Dunn the first person in her family to achieve an ATAR in the HSC or go to university, but she’s also written the first Tongan Australian novel to be published in this country.

“I always had this love of reading and writing,” Dunn tells ABC RN’s The Book Show.

“I don’t know where it came from because my parents and none of my siblings like reading or studying; they’re focused on other things.”

Dunn’s debut novel Dirt Poor Islanders centres on the young Meadow Reed, who is grappling with her dual Tongan Australian identity.

The book is set in Western Sydney, where Dunn — one of eight siblings — grew up in a large Tongan Australian family.

It’s a part of Sydney that is not often depicted in literature.

“Writing a novel about Western Sydney was so important to me because it’s about demystifying a place that has been demonised,” Dunn says.

Home of Fe’ofa’aki, the house of love

During the week, Meadow lives with her father, his wife and their large blended family in Plumpton in Sydney’s west.

She spends the weekends at her grandmother’s house in nearby Mount Druitt — a red and cream two-storey “castle” called the Home of Fe’ofa’aki, which means “to love one another” in Tongan.

Meadow’s birth mother Mummy Le’o died when she was four, and she shares a close bond with her father’s eldest sister and her namesake, who she calls Lahi.

“Pacific Islanders, we love to live intergenerationally, just on top of one another,” says Dunn, who drew heavily from her own life to write her debut novel.

Like Meadow, Dunn spent her childhood shifting between her grandmother’s home — also called Fe’ofa’aki — and a “one-storey brick house” where she lived with her parents and seven brothers and sisters (one more sibling than Meadow’s family).

“In Tongan culture, there’s no word for aunty or grandmother or uncle or cousin; everybody in my culture is just my mum or my dad or my sibling,” Dunn says.

“It was like I was being raised by my dad and my stepmum but simultaneously also being raised by my grandmother and my aunts … I got to have many parents who raised me.”

Dunn — who also lost her birth mother when she was young — was given a box of her late mother’s things when she moved out of home.

Inside, she found a red pleather diary from 1995, the year she was born.

Reading the daily entries recording her mother’s pregnancy, Dunn’s birth and infancy was the first time Dunn had ever seen her mother’s handwriting.

She quickly realised her mother was a writer, too — a discovery she found reassuring.

“I was so conflicted about writing Dirt Poor Islanders because even though it’s fiction, it is so autobiographical,” she says.

“To have my birth mother talk to me from beyond the grave really gave me that security to know that I was doing what she was meant to do if she got the chance, which was to be a writer and to tell our stories.”

A book cover showing an illustration of an  empty aluminium can wrapped in a flowering vine
“The phrase fe’ofa’aki … were the last words that my own great grandmother said before she passed away,” Dunn says.(Supplied: Hachette Australia)

Power through storytelling

Dirt Poor Islanders’ opening scene neatly illustrates the cultural clash Meadow navigates as an Australian-born Tongan living in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The young Meadow and her nana are painting their family’s ngatu — a large mat made from mulberry bark — with traditional designs passed down the generations.

Meadow describes the process: “The backs of my hands held the weight of Nana’s melon palms as she helped me outline the ancient markings of our ancestors. Together, we traced back to a time when Tonga was nothing but earth.”

Their Mount Druitt neighbour Shazza is unimpressed by the activity, however culturally significant.

“Pack your hula-hula crap and shove it!” she yells from her concrete driveway.

While Nana is unperturbed by the verbal assault, Meadow is shaken by the experience, which presages her fraught relationship with her Tongan heritage — and she never paints ngatu with her grandmother again.

Dunn felt similarly ambivalent about Tongan culture as a teenager.

While Dunn attended a public primary school in western Sydney where “every second kid was Samoan or Tongan or Fijian”, her experience at her independent religious high school was very different.

“It was very much monocultural — I was probably one of three Tongans in the whole school,” Dunn says.

“It was quite a culture shock for me, and it was unfortunately in that space where I learned to be ashamed of my culture and to hate myself.”

Winnie Dunn
Dunn benefited from 10 extra ATAR points as a Western Sydney resident. “That kind of equity for young people like me is the only way we’re able to overcome a lot of barriers.”(Supplied)

Dunn enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at university and set about reading her way through the English canon. She particularly loved Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which radically transformed her thinking about love and mothers.

At a writing workshop, she met Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who founded the Sweatshop Literacy Movement in 2012 and has since published several award-winning novels.

It was a fateful meeting on many levels.

“That’s where I encountered Western Sydney literature written by people from Western Sydney for the very first time,” Dunn says.

“It opened the floodgates for me to start thinking about own voices narratives and empowering myself through storytelling.”

Today, Dunn is the general manager of Sweatshop, which has emerged as a formidable force in Australian publishing, having a stable of writers including Shankari Chandran, who won the 2023 Miles Franklin Award for her novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and Shirley Le, who published her debut novel, Funny Ethics, last year.

Critic and 2024 Stella Prize chair Beejay Silcox describes Sweatshop as one of Australia’s best literary incubators.

“They’re doing some of the most vibrant and electric writing in the country,” Silcox told ABC RN’s The Bookshelf.

Addressing misrepresentation

Dirt Poor Islanders is unapologetically — and some would say fearlessly — autobiographical.

“If you’re not writing from a place of vulnerability, I would ask that person why they’re writing because I think it takes a great writer to be vulnerable, to write like they’re dead, and not be afraid of the consequences that come out of it,” Dunn says.

Telling her story took on extra significance for Dunn as a member of a community that is often misunderstood and misrepresented.

“I felt a great sense of duty and responsibility to be able to talk about a fictional version of my own lived experience as a Tongan Australian because there are no fiction books written by Tongans in this country,” she says.

“The only representation we do have is Chris Lilley, who we all know put on a wig, put on brown face paint and enacted these really traumatising, hyper-sexual, hyper-violent, illiterate stereotypes of Tongan Australians and specifically Tongan children [in his series Summer Heights High and Jonah from Tonga].

“I felt duty bound to be able to provide a more nuanced, complex and beautiful representation of the Tongan Australian community on the page for the first time in Australian history.”

While Dunn’s childhood is clearly the inspiration for Dirt Poor Islanders, the author believes all writing is autobiographical, even work that seems like an act of pure fantasy. She offers the much-loved Harry Potter series as an example.

“[JK Rowling] has stated in multiple interviews that she made the Dementor characters as a metaphor to express the grief that she felt after her own mother died while she was writing The Prisoner of Azkaban,” she says.

“You can see just how much of her own lived experience permeates the world of Harry Potter, which is set in England; most of the characters are Anglo-Saxon, and that’s her lived experience coming through to this magical world.”

Dunn believes our imagination — however fanciful — is always filtered through the lens of our individual perspective.

“I think it creates much better writing and great literature if we’re open about that and we’re committed to using our original lived experiences to inform what we put down on the page,” she says.

So far, Dunn’s aunt is her only family member who’s read Dirt Poor Islanders. The book is dedicated to her.

Dunn says her aunt read it in a day. “She called me crying and said how beautiful it was, how she thought the language danced on the page. She felt quite confronted but also closer to me because she got to see my experience of life through my eyes.”

She was also very proud of her niece.

“She saw me at a very young age writing terrible fan fiction about Harry Potter and wanting to read and write and not having as much access to it as I wanted to, so she knew this was always a possibility for me,” Dunn says.

“She’s just really excited.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *