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A taco shop, Peter Carey, and the first Indigenous Fulbright scholar

Sitting in a midtown taco joint in New York City, watching Peter Carey edit his manuscript, Queensland writer Graham Akhurst realised his life was about to change for good.

Now named the first Indigenous Australian recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship, Akhurst is preparing to spend two years in New York studying a master of fine arts and writing his second book.

Graham Akhurst will move to the US for two years to study a master of fine arts in creative writing.

Graham Akhurst will move to the US for two years to study a master of fine arts in creative writing.

Akhurst, a University of Queensland master of philosophy student and creative arts lecturer, found out in October he would receive not only the Fulbright W.G. Walker scholarship but the Nomad Two Worlds Indigenous Arts Scholarship through the American-Australian Association.

The Fulbright W. G. Walker scholarship is awarded annually to the highest-ranked postgraduate applicant, with Akhurst its first Indigenous recipient.

Akhurst, from the Kokomini people of northern Queensland, said he was ecstatic when he received the acceptance letter.

“I would have been happy with anything, but to get that award and to be breaking ground when it comes to Indigenous representation for those elite awards was huge,” he said.

Stepping into some of the world’s most prestigious literary landscapes, Akhurst said he had been fortunate in the mentorship he received from celebrated Australian author Peter Carey and Téa Obreht, the award-winning Bosnian-American author of The Tiger’s Wife.

Akhurst visited the US in June last year to present at the Native American and Indigenous Studies conference in Los Angeles, then went to New York where he met with Carey.

“He sat me down in his favourite taco joint midtown and he looked at my manuscript which is going to be released with Hachette … and he gave me a huge amount of feedback on my first chapter,” Akhurst said.

“He basically rewrote it and said, ‘This is what we can do in America for you as a writer where you are now.’

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime and sitting with him in that taco joint I realised, as we were meeting, that this was something that would change my life.”

Akhurst said he hoped his two-year Fulbright scholarship would place him at the prestigious Hunter College to write his second manuscript. The college accepts six new students a year.

Between Carey referencing Akhurst’s scholarship applications and Obreht’s encouragement, Akhurst said he had been given unprecedented access to New York’s finest literary experts.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and having spent 10 months in hospital, Akhurst said he became increasingly aware during undergraduate studies that creative writing was the path he wanted to pursue.

He said the need for Australian authors and researchers to validate their creativity often created pressure that did not exist in the US.

“The way that we structure our postgraduate writing studies in Australia is through ... PhDs, you’re essentially writing a manuscript but also … you need to validate why you’ve gone into this program to write a book, what research output beside the novel you’re going to create,” he said.

“In America they see the art of crafting a manuscript as the end goal.

“You are there to learn how to become a master of writing, not do that and then validate why.”

As the first Indigenous recipient of the W.G. Walker scholarship, Akhurst said he was aware of the pressure of being a representative of his history and culture.

“I do feel a sense of pressure and I think one of my lifelong goals is to reach an international audience for Indigenous literature, which we have struggled to do in the past.”

While small academic presses such as the University of Queensland are strong advocates for Indigenous literature in Australia, Akhurst said he hoped having his work published by Hachette and read internationally would help break through more barriers.

“The identity issues that play out heavily in Australia, I won’t find that sense of burden of always trying to validate my existence within program because of my Indigenous heritage,” Akhurst said.

“I will be there on merit as another scholar.”

Akhurst said he believed more Indigenous scholars would reach similarly lofty heights.

“There will continue to be an Indigenous first in things and I think it’s important to recognise those achievements, but a more important goal in this burgeoning middle class in Australia is to normalise this level of excellence,” he said.

“Very shortly after my success there will be another Indigenous scholar.”

Lucy is the urban affairs reporter for the Brisbane Times, with a special interest in Brisbane City Council.

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