This week, a poem from acclaimed writer Ellen van Neerven’s collection, Comfort Food (UQP 2016) appeared on the NSW HSC English exam. Ms van Neerven is a valued member of First Nations Australia Writers Network (FNAWN), and one of our youngest. As a member-based network we support First Nations poets, writers, and storytellers, and we collaborate with writing, publishing, and education sectors to promote First Nations literature.
FNAWN commends NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for the inclusion of First Nations literature in the 2017 NSW Higher School Certificate English Paper 1. Embedding the works of writers and storytellers who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander within school curriculum promotes Australian literature, and provides students with an opportunity to develop a greater awareness of First Nations histories, cultures, and stories.
In this instance, we are aware that some 2017 NSW HSC students read the inclusion of Ms van Neerven’s poem as a red flag to target, troll, and abuse her online. FNAWN strongly condemns this online abuse, and recognises those students who attempted to combat this abuse from their peers.
The Daily Mail UK reports that “After the exam finished many students descended on the author with vile taunts”. FNAWN knows that NSW HSC students sent messages, many of which were of an abusive nature, to the author via Facebook personal messaging, Twitter direct messages, E-mails, and other forms of personal communication. Students also maliciously altered Ms van Neerven’s Wikipedia page, centring themselves into the content.
Some students also attacked other Australian writers and supporters who felt compelled to reject the online abuse. Hundreds of accounts engaged in this online abuse towards Ms van Neerven, abuse came from apparently fake profiles, and some abusers hastily deleted their disgraceful content. We know that at least one young writer who stood up against the trolling was subjected to abuse that contained sexual harassment.
At a time when students are finishing their high school education, ready to venture out to achieve their aspirations, this online abuse sours a milestone for many. FNAWN acknowledges that not all the students commenting on the poem were aware of the extent and nature of the online bullying. We also think it’s possible that not all of the account-holders who abused Ms van Neerven and supporters were NSW HSC students.
Ms van Neerven is an acclaimed young writer, she generously mentors other young writers, and is widely invited to speak at mainstream Australian writers festivals. According to the NESA, exam questions for Ms van Neerven’s poem from her collection, Comfort Food (UQP 2016), were set by experienced English teachers.
FNAWN is committed to supporting writers who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, and to promoting their works to trade and education markets. This shocking online abuse of one of our youngest members deeply hurts our membership and our community. We open our door to NSW and other educational jurisdictions who seek to understand and to mitigate against such vile response to First Nations literature finding its rightful home in our curricula.
First Nations Australia Writers Network