Dorothy Hewett: Great Australian writer
by Joan Williams Poet, playwright and novelist Dorothy Hewett died at 79 on August 25, leaving behind a great legacy of poems, plays and other outstanding contributions to Australian literature. She was a member of the Communist Party of Australia for more than 20 years from the early 1940s. She joined me in Perth on The Workers Star in 1946. We knew immediately that here was no ordinary talent. In fact, her first articles were of such size and passion that they could have filled our small weekly several times over. Soon word came through of the beginning of the decade-long Aboriginal station workers' strike in the remote north-west of the State, with its demand for "35 bob1 and keep" per week. The mainstream press sought to ignore the whole issue, but Dorothy was determined to cover the strike first-hand and flew to Port Hedland with her then husband Lloyd Davies to meet the white man Don McLeod and Aboriginal leaders Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin, who had been released from the town jail by a march of angry strikers. Racial tensions were so high that McLeod feared for his life. From this trip came Dorothy's enduring ballad: Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod Walked by the wurlies when the wind was loud, And their voice was new as the fresh sap running And we keep on fighting and we keep on coming... Dorothy became editor of the WA University journal Black Swan, soon nicknamed "Red" Swan. I remember debating with her the wisdom or not of a 'go for it' approach. Her enthusiasm was such that she kept the journal politically pure by writing most of the contents herself under various noms de plume. One result was that the authorities banned it from distribution to any other Australian university. Dorothy loved those sort of rows and would lead with her chin and take no prisoners. The person she was most merciless about was herself, and her autobiography Wild Card created new benchmarks for self-disclosure. Among her targets were unliberated attitudes among what was at the time the male-dominated Left. She was spurred to write her first novel Bobbin Up in 1959 for the Mary Gilmore Novel Competition, about women in the Alexandria Spinning Mill where she had worked a decade earlier until getting sacked for being too pregnant. While there she had campaigned for equal pay for women textile workers, a cause welcomed neither by the employers nor by the textile union at that time. In the novel, the courageous women stage a stay-in strike at the mill, and Dorothy's identification with the women workers gave the prose a new impact in literature of the working class. Among the symbolism used in the novel was the Sputnik, then circling the skies, watched by supporters of the Soviet Union with awe and pride Dorothy also incorporated authentic dialogue although the 'f' word was not then printable. The first edition sold out in six weeks. Publishers declined to do a second print run but East Berlin publisher Seven Seas did the job and it was re- printed in four languages in the Socialist bloc. It was then ignored in the West until taken up by Virago Press in London in 1985. Dorothy was a founding member of the Union of Australian Women, mobilising the women's side of the Left-wing movement to become politically aware and active, making her, as she put it, "highly popular with their husbands". Brought up in the isolated WA wheatbelt town of Wickepin, she created her own mythic country personalities in her writings, and was steadily recognised with honours and awards (her first was a national poetry prize at the age of 22). By her life's end, she had published more than eight poetry collections, 12 plays, two novels and her autobiography Wild Card. Dorothy was her own woman, someone who cannot be fitted into any neat category or label. He life and relationships were rambunctious and always pushed the outer limits, part of the unforgettable impacts she made on those around her. I will remember particularly her generosity of spirit and enthusiasm in helping and inspiring a new generation of young writers.
* * *1A bob was one shilling in imperial currency, later to be replaced by 10 cents when decimal currency was introduced.