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Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Marilyn of Me, You and Books

October 15, 2012

I first “met” Marilyn earlier this year when she decided to take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. There aren’t many non-Australians who have signed up for this challenge so Texas-resident Marilyn stood out. She is a retired professor of a small liberal arts school in the USA, where she taught women’s history, black history, US social history, and women’s studies. We started “talking” about the similarities and differences in our respective settler nations, and discovered that we share some interests in the intersection between literature and history. She seemed a perfect person to ask to do a Guest Post for Monday Musings. Luckily for me she said yes … thanks Marilyn! Here is her post:

Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen

I never set out to become a critic of Australian writers. When I started blogging last January, I joined the Australian Women Writers challenge because I wanted to read more globally. Then I read Anita Heiss’s guest post on Australian Indigenous Women Writers and started reading books by and about Indigenous women. I was hooked.

In the past, as a white scholar, I have researched and taught about African American, Native American, and Hispanic peoples in US history. In Women’s Studies, I also have explored the differences between the stories that women and men typically tell about women. With an African American colleague I researched and wrote about Black Women’s Clubs in Kansas. In my own mind, I have played with questions of how those from the dominant culture can write with authenticity about those our culture has defined as Other. Reading books by and about Australian Aboriginals put me back into those issues.

Kate Grenville and Inga Clendinnen have both written about the original encounter between British settlers and Australian Aboriginals. Both have strong views about how to approach the subject. In 2006, after the publication of Grenville’s The Secret River and in the context of the Australian “History Wars,” the two publicly debated their different viewpoints. Having recently read several books by each, I see their debate as crystallizing the issues for all of us who seek to read and write those who are different from us in essential ways.

Grenville writes as a novelist and Clendinnen as an historian, making some of the differences between their writing predictable. As an historian, I may be biased in favor of Clendinnen. But their initial perspectives on Indigenous people are even more divergent and more critical. Clendinnen speculates equally about the British and the people they found in Australia. Grenville explicitly immerses herself in the characters based on her ancestors and views the Indigenous people as “too different” to attempt to understand.

As many of you know, Grenville is a superb writer, in part because she literally puts herself into the landscapes and characters of her stories. For her Thornhill books, she sailed along the rough Australian coast and stepped into the wilderness just off the path to try and discover how her ancestors would have experienced those places. And she is able to convey what she has experienced to her readers. In part, her method works because people, past and present, share basic human thoughts and feelings. Clendinnen points out, however, that the British whose experiences Grenville seeks to know and describe are really not like those of us who read her novels today. Grenville is able to make people from the past seem real, but she can not know them more accurately than historians, as she may have claimed to do. She later retracted comments which implied that fiction was superior in telling what really happened. It may indeed be better at conveying the feelings, but it cannot prove their reality.

Clendinnen is very aware of the rules that historians agree to follow in their writing. She sometimes chaffs at those rules, describing herself as Gulliver held down by all the little ropes of the Lilliputians. Historians are limited by the “evidence.” They don’t write oral dialogue into their books, and they state the sources of their information, for example. In the end, Clendinnen accepts her identity as an historian. But her discipline is changing as historians, like others, face the implications of shifting understandings of “memory” and “truth.” With some assistance from anthropology, Clendinnen seeks to squeeze out clues to the larger cultural significance of human actions, and she is more willing to speculate than historians have traditionally been willing to do. Looking very carefully at the accounts written by British officials about their first contact with the Australian Aboriginals, she analyzes both groups and the values held by each, revealing both the cultural misunderstandings and the confusion on both sides. She points out how initially both groups were hopeful, even willing to “dance with the strangers.” Gradually, however, each side misread the other and tension between them grew. The British could not conceive of the rituals the Australians were enacting, and the Australians could not grasp why the British lashed and hung members of their own community.

What is unusual here, and in sharp contrast to Grenville’s first and third Thornhill novels, is that Clendinnen explicitly gives the Australian Aboriginals and the British equal treatment. Deeply aware that societies define “truth” differently, she sees both groups as equally human. She explicitly rejects any assumptions that the British accounts are objective rather than filled with their own value judgments. In contrast, Grenville stops at the surface of the Indigenous people, portraying them as if they were objects, not as she treats her fully developed Anglo characters. In doing so, she does recreate her own ancestors’ probable perception of them. However, this approach encourages her readers to go on thinking of Aboriginals as silent and thus less than human.

In The Lieutenant, the second of the Thornhill books, Grenville is able to write with an authenticity and feeling about the Indigenous people not present in the other books. Grenville does a fine job of using history as a starting point for this novel. She uses some of the same source material that Clendinnen used in her historical work, Dancing with Strangers, but she goes in a difference direction. First, she creates the character, Daniel Rooke, the fictional version of William Dawes, who kept the notebooks which Grenville used in researching the novel. She envisions him as a boy and young man with a prodigious mathematical ability but no social skills. When Rooke comes to Australia as the astronomer for the First Fleet, one of task he sets himself is that of learning the language of the people already living there. He realizes that learning individual words, as others are doing, is not enough. He wants to grasp the structure and feel of the language. A bright, young Indigenous girl agrees to help him learn in exchange for his teaching her English. Grenville says she is ten or twelve years old, the age that Rooke remembers his dearly loved sister as being. A delightful exchange develops between the two, not romance but the shared excitement of discovery and learning which Grenville describes wonderfully. In the process, Rooke becomes sharply aware of the native peoples’ humanity and, with joy and pain, of his own. As events unfold, he is forced to realize that these human bonds conflict with his duties as a military officer.

Despite their previous disagreements, Grenville follows Clendinnen’s approach to conceptualizing Indigenous people in The Lieutenant. Her major character is British and his changing thoughts and feelings are the focus of the book. When he gets to Australia and begins to work with the people there to learn their language, however, he is increasingly aware of them as real people, not as the silent shadow figures that appear in her other books. Native and British are equals; in fact he realizes that at times the girl is quicker than he is to figure things out. Perhaps Grenville is capable of doing this in this particular book because she stayed so closely to the actual words written in Lawson’s notebooks. She notes, in something approaching a footnote, that the conversations between Rooke and he young girl were not imagined but taken directly from the notebook. She only creates the feelings and thoughts that might have accompanied those words. Clendinnen and any other historians would be impressed. As I read, I didn’t care whether or not Grenville’s descriptions had actually happened because she stayed so close to what we can know in her imagining.

Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant that an author need not be Indigenous to write authentically about them. Using the notebooks left by William Dawes seems to have helped her achieve this. Sadly, she was not able to do the same thing in her next novel where the documents she used were written by those who did not honor and listen to those unlike themselves. Perhaps listening is the key; listening to documents, listening to voices that are unfamiliar. It is hard work, however, for an author to understand and write from the perspective of the Other. But it can be done, as Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant.

I agree that is easy to expect too much of novelists who write historical fiction. But I believe that the most basic requirement of the genre is that authors not treat any group of characters in their books as empty stereotypes. For years male authors treated women in this way until, finally, women began to introduce women characters that were as fully human as their male ones. Now we seeing fuller and more authentic women in men’s writings as well as women’s. We need to make the same change in how we write about other groups which have been subordinated in the past. That is what it means to move beyond colonization and assumptions of white superiority.

Relevant writings. Links to my reviews and online articles.

Grenville, Kate. The Secret River (2006), The Lieutenant (2008), Sarah Thornhill (2012) and “Unsettling the Settlers.” I tried to obtain her Searching for the Secret River, but no libraries in the US have a copy to loan.

Clendinnen, Inga. Tiger’s Eye (2001), Dancing with Strangers (2005), and her online essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past” (2006).

And now Marilyn and I would love to hear your thoughts on the books and/or issues she raises here.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2012 00:16

    Great post ! Thank you very much. I’m reading the The secret river now and really enjoy it. It gives me new perspective on the book.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 16, 2012 08:12

      Thanks and welcome anggel. Glad you are liking the book and enjoyed Marilyn’s perspective.

  2. October 16, 2012 05:10

    What a wonderful essay with lots of things to mull over! Do you think there is an equivalent situation in the US with white writers crafting Native American characters?

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 16, 2012 08:22

      Good question Stefanie … I hope Marilyn answers! My mind is blank at present.

  3. October 16, 2012 13:45

    Thanks. Yes, that is why I have picked up on the issues in Australian books. But the problem gets more complicated here with a larger variety of non-white groups; not only Native Americans, but Blacks and Hispanics as well. Some white authors do it better than others, the ones who have listened most carefully to those from the group they are writing about. The situation is improving as more information about all of us is available, but last year there was a huge uproar over a prize-winning book and movie, The Help, written by a southern white woman who did a marvelous job on her white characters but an awful one on the black women. She assumed she knew about them from living around them, but never researched enough to see what they were saying when outside their white kitchens. Enough black women have professional positions that allowed them to point out the problems.

    • October 17, 2012 10:28

      Thanks Marilyn … I haven’t read The Help but recollect the mixed reactions to it, from a range of angles. As you say the USA’s situation has some added complexity. I think people out of the US tend to focus more on Black Americans and almost forget you have indigenous people too. And, of course, we both have strong immigrant communities as well.

      • October 21, 2012 01:32

        Yes. We have other immigrants,too. Right now the most anger is toward those from Muslim countries, but the African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics are the ones who have shaped our attitudes and practices for centuries. In some ways they share and divide how Australians have treated Indigenous people. Native Americans were hated and killed but Africans were the ones who WORKED for the Anglos.

        • October 21, 2012 08:30

          Yes, yours is a far more complex history. And Hispanics weren’t slaves but have tended to be in that servant-master relationship in many cases haven’t they? We’ve had prejudice against immigrants, and class difference, but less of that specific power difference. (Though power has been imbalanced it’s more systemic I guess than one person over another)

  4. Jonathan Shaw permalink
    October 17, 2012 08:51

    Thanks for this very fine essay. Another book you might be interested to read is Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World, which comes at the notebooks of William Dawes (not Dawson or Lawson, by the way) from a number of different angles. I’m about halfway through it.

    • October 17, 2012 10:23

      Oh thanks Jonathan for that correction … I have fixed the text in both places. I should have picked that up myself but was focused on the content not the detail! Is this Ross Gibson who also makes films? I hadn’t heard of it but will add it to the list.

      • October 17, 2012 10:40

        Yep, the same Ross Gibson, though I haven’t seen any of his films. I did read his ‘Seven Versions of an Australian Badland’, which is just wonderful.

        • October 17, 2012 11:29

          Oh good … I did see his Camera Natura many years ago … interesting man and clearly worth my catching up on.

    • October 21, 2012 01:35

      I apologize for my error about Dawes. Thanks, Sue for correcting it.
      And thanks, Jonathan for telling me about the Gibson book.

  5. Ian permalink
    October 18, 2012 16:19

    You dragged me out again, Sue, with this excellent and perceptive survey of the Clendinnen/Grenville debate. I think Marilyn nailed it with her observation that Clendinnen goes to great lengths to try and look at the colonial situation from both black and white perspectives in her wonderful Dancing With Strangers, whereas Grenville failed to do this in The Secret River. But then, of course, I am an historian who finds that anthropological approach to history espoused in Australia by Inga Clendinnen and Greg Dening very fruitful and revealing. I also agree that Grenville was more successful with the coloniser/indigenous relationship in The Lieutenant.

    • October 18, 2012 16:38

      Oh, good on Marilyn for drawing you out again, Ian. Thanks for commenting. Of course, Kate Grenville purposefully decided not to look at the indigenous perspective … and in a way I think we should respect that decision? However, having been put off The lieutenant by a few who read it at the time, I am becoming more and more convinced I should read it.

      • October 21, 2012 01:40

        Thanks, Ian. As an historian, I too am attracted to the ethnographic history that Clendinnen and Dening use. One of the first books I read in grad school was Rhys Issac’s on Virginia, which I recommend to everyone, whether or not they know or care about Virginia.

        • October 21, 2012 08:33

          Ah, I am interested in Virginia having lived in Northern Va for two years. Shoud try to read this.

  6. October 18, 2012 19:01

    I have to chip in again, and say that I was very put off by Kate Grenville saying on the Guardian podcast recently that the disagreement was all about historians not wanting to face up to the ugliness of our colonial past, which is either dishonest or obtuse.

    • October 18, 2012 23:11

      Oh did she? I think I’ll need to listen to that … BTW You are always welcome to chip in again, Jonathan.

      • October 18, 2012 23:51

        Ah, Jonathan … I’ve just listened to a podcast from February this year. I guess that’s the one you’re talking about. She says something like a couple of historians saw it as an opportunity to divert the debate into “something more comfortable” i.e. the issue of history versus fiction. As I recollect it, the main debate *was* about the historical fiction issue (and what I believe to be the historians misreading some things Grenville said) but, clearly like you, I don’t think Clendinnen (in particular) got involved to divert the discussion away from uncomfortable “truths”. However, her novel did come out around the time of the History Wars and maybe some historians did take advantage of the disagreement to push their case? (I’d need to go back and research that more). I don’t see Grenville as a dishonest person, but this podcast certainly comes across as rather misleading in terms of my understanding of the main issue.

        • October 19, 2012 08:25

          Yes, there may have been other historians who attacked the book on Windschuttle-esque grounds, but certainly the way she talks on the Guardian, perhaps unintentionally, she’s conflating them with Inga Clendinnen. It sounds to me as if she was still smarting from the encounter, experiencing it as an attack, and kind of forgetting the substance of it. Which is what I suppose I meant by ‘obtuse’.

        • October 19, 2012 09:37

          Yes … that’s exactly how I read her comment too, that she was conflating the two and that it could mislead. I think perhaps that’s the word I might use for her comments – “misleading”. This may or may not be conscious because, as you say, it sounds like it’s still quite emotional for her, which can cloud one’s reason!

    • October 21, 2012 01:46

      Thanks for bringing up this more recent comment. However unconscious Grenville might have been, to conflate Clendinnen with those who want a prettier history is not fair. She comes out strongly for the value of history as being something other than pure imagination.

      • October 21, 2012 08:35

        I agree … What I don’t totally agree with is the higher moral ground Clendinnen seems to take for history.

  7. October 24, 2012 01:01

    Yes, but as an historian I tend to agree. Or at least I am unwilling to agree that fiction is superior to historical findings as Grenville seems to imply at times. Everything gets so complicated when a person makes conflicting remarks.

    • October 24, 2012 08:11

      I don’t think that one is superior to the other. I do think Grenville was misread … She was speaking metaphorically. I’m not sure Clendinnen is when she claims a greater moral purpose for history. Both can be moral I reckon … But haven’t these two provided us with a great debate!

      • October 27, 2012 01:53

        Thanks for having me as a guest blogger. It was fun. Sorry my health slowed down my keeping up with the comments.

        • October 27, 2012 09:41

          It was a pleasure … Thank YOU … The conversation will continue! It’s such an engrossing one (to some of us anyhow).

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