Alumna in Focus: Adele Dumont (BA, 2013)

Adele Dumont, BA

Adele Dumont (BA, 2013) is the author of No Man is An Island, which documents her experiences teaching English in Christmas Island detention centre and later Curtin detention centre. Adele majored in Australian Literature but relished the opportunity to learn from different disciplines.

1.What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?
I’d have to say the best part of my degree was my very first year. I grew up in Sydney’s outer western suburbs, and I still remember the day a bunch of us from Penrith High came to some kind of open day here. We were so impressed by the architecture alone – it felt like we’d stepped into Hogwarts. I’m the first person in my family to attend uni, and I made my decision to apply for Sydney Uni on the basis of that one open day.

In my first year, everything had a newness about it – I remember exploring the upper levels of Fisher Stack, and all the different nooks and crannies of the Quadrangle. Attending massive lectures, and getting to study things like philosophy and linguistics also felt exciting.

2.Tell us more about yourself, your background, and how you came to write No Man is an Island.
While I was at uni, I was extremely concentrated on my studies, and didn’t give much thought at all to my career path. After graduating - like a lot of young people - I wanted to see the world, and so as a means to that end I thought I could maybe teach English. I started off teaching in Sydney, and actually surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it. Being a teacher was not something I’d ever considered I would be suited to, and no-one had ever once suggested I become a teacher (sadly enough, I suspect this was because it would have seemed a ‘waste’ of my marks).
One day I came across an ad looking for volunteers to teach English on Christmas Island, in the detention centre there. So off I flew, and even though it might sound strange, I very quickly fell in love with my role within the centre. A lot of my students had never been to school before, and this made them all the more eager to learn. It was daunting, but deeply rewarding work, and so when I was offered a contract to work in Curtin (in the Kimberley) I jumped at the chance. I ended up there for two years. My life in Curtin had an incredible intensity and purpose about it, which I’m not sure it will ever recover. I kept detailed journals the whole time I was there, and then eventually decided to create a book out of this material… a couple of years later ‘No Man is an Island’ was finally released into the world.

3.What’s your proudest achievement?
Writing ‘No Man’ was a mammoth task, and to be honest I was kind of working in a void, as I didn’t know whether anyone would actually end up reading what I was writing. I struggled a lot with knowing how to write the story, how to get the tone right. Since so few stories are told from within the detention system, and because asylum seekers’ voices are suppressed, I was very wary about speaking on behalf of anyone else. I was worried that because the story I told wasn’t all doom and gloom, it would get misinterpreted as a defence of the detention system. I finally sent my manuscript to list of publishing houses, and a few months later I got a call from a woman at Hachette to say they wanted to publish my book. Getting that phone-call would definitely have to be the proudest moment of my life so far.

4. Who inspires you?
That’s a tricky question – there are, say, a lot of writers whose work I admire, but I’m not sure I’d call the writers themselves inspirational … I think that often, enormously successful people – like prize-winners, Olympians, spokespeople – get raised up as ‘inspirational’. But who I truly find inspirational are those people who don’t get all the accolades or the spotlight. When it comes to the writing world, for example, for every published writer there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of other writers out there who aren’t lucky enough to ever get published or find a readership. That’s not necessarily because their work is no good – it may just not be ‘marketable’ for instance. I’ve read a lot of interviews with now-‘successful’ writers who went through decades of getting rejected, but who just kept on writing, not giving up. I find that kind of dogged determination, and faith in self, and sheer grit quite inspirational (for want of a better word). Of course those qualities don’t only apply to writers – plenty of people out there go about their days doing work that goes largely unrecognised by wider society.

5.What drives you, what are you passionate about?
As a primary school teacher and as an English teacher, literacy is one thing I am very passionate about. I find it hard to imagine my own life without books; they’ve been a constant companion. Reading really does open up whole worlds… not just in an escapist kind of way, but it offers you places where you can belong. Reading introduces you to people in whom you can recognise all the most vulnerable and fearful and even shameful parts of yourself – all the messy parts that you can’t reveal or don’t know how to express in your everyday life.

That the literacy rates among Australian indigenous people are so much lower than among non-indigenous people is obviously shocking in terms of people being able to survive and function in mainstream Australian society – I mean in terms of seeking employment or pursuing higher education or even just being able to fill in a form. But I also think it’s deeply sad that there are Australian kids out there who might be denied access to all those other worlds which I had access to as a kid.

6.How do you think the University of Sydney can help support this passion?
Sydney Uni has such a concentration of people with such incredibly specialised knowledge in so many diverse fields. It’s a place of immense cultural capital. I think there’s a risk though that an institution like this gets preoccupied with itself; with its own ‘brand’ – I mean with its own rankings, with attracting the best and brightest students, and doing the most cutting-edge research and building the fanciest lecture theatres imaginable…. and that in this process neglects its obligations to wider society. Not that any of this is unique to Sydney Uni – education everywhere seems to be increasingly commodified, and viewed as something that can provide a positional advantage to individuals rather than something that can benefit society as a whole. Programs such as AIME are a brilliant initiative, in terms of building relationships between privileged uni students and relatively less privileged local high schoolers… hopefully encouraging them in their studies and building their confidence and paving the way for people to come to Sydney Uni who mightn’t otherwise have that opportunity.

7.What advice would you give to students graduating from Sydney University?
It’s always hard to give blanket advice, but I guess I’d say this: remember that you are young. For me personally - and I think it’s the same for a lot of people – even before you begin uni, during the HSC, you feel this enormous urgent need to decide on the exact right degree, and then at uni to choose the exact right combination of subjects, and to get the best marks you possibly can, thinking that all this will determine the shape of the rest of your life… I mean it’s great if a young person knows exactly what they want to do in life and can work towards that goal, but when you’re 19 or 20 you don’t really know yourself very deeply, you haven’t experienced so much of the world outside educational institutions, so it can be very hard to map out a path in a field that you have had no contact with. So don’t worry too much if you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your life; don’t panic that you’ve missed the boat, or that you haven’t landed your ‘dream job’. Don’t be too fussy – just try working different jobs, in different places, and you’ll eventually work out what feels most right for you.