Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Larissa Behrendt
This is the fourth in my occasional series of Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, and this time I’m featuring an indigenous author to coincide with Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Indigenous Literature Week.
Larissa Behrendt is the perfect subject for what is also NAIDOC Week, not only because she has a few books under her belt, but also because her new book published earlier this year, Finding Eliza, explores how colonisers have written about indigenous people. Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, and in her interview with Marfording describes herself as a Type A person. Looking at what she has achieved in her less that 50 years I can well believe it. She is currently Professor of Indigenous Research and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has won awards for her fiction, and been on the boards of various arts organisations including the Sydney Writers Festival, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was the National NAIDOC Person of the Year in 2009 and NSW’s Australian of the Year in 2011. As a lawyer, she has served on many boards, review committees and land councils, most of them indigenous-related. The list is impressive.
Marfording’s interview occurred in August 2010. As she does with each of her interviews, Marfording commences with a brief biography of her subject at the time of the interview, and follows the interview with a biography update to the time of publication. It’s nicely done.
I particularly loved this interview not only because Marfording asks, as she does in all the interviews, thoughtful, relevant questions showing her understanding of the subject, but because in this interview she covers some issues of particular interest to me. More on that anon.
Marfording asked Behrendt, as she tends to ask all award-winners, what winning awards means to her. Behrendt admits that it is affirming to win an award but also says that the richest prize is when a reader tells her that a book “touched” them or that it’s “like me and I never see myself in a book”.
Some of the questions Marfording asked relate to the autobiographical nature of her work, as her two novels, Home (2004) and Legacy (2009), both draw strongly on her family, with Home looking particularly at the stolen generation issue and Legacy being more specifically about her father and her relationship with him. She said that although Home was heavily fictionalised, her father found it hard to read. “It was flattering to me as a writer,” she said, “because it meant I’d got it right.”
Marfording also questioned Behrendt about the fact that her two novels also tend to be issue-based. As a fiction reader, I loved Behrendt’s response. She said that, as a lawyer, she has advocated and written factual pieces on many of the same issues, but that
telling a story that actually explains how a policy can impact on somebody’s life so personally, telling that story from a really human point of view, can influence more people than the most eloquent legal argument, especially when you can talk to somebody through the universals that they understand, like the love between siblings, the love between parents, etc.
I love this reference to universals – to the things that bring us all together. She mentions them again later in the interview, but here I want to share her gorgeous language. She said:
I’ve got very strong opinions, and I think it was a real learning process to learn that sometimes it’s through the whisper of a story that you can influence people more than through the louder, shouting style of activism.
There were other questions too, but I want to conclude on two that focused on her as an indigenous writer, one on labelling, and the other on the issue of non-indigenous people writing about indigenous people (which, as you know, I’ve raised here a few times).
Regarding labelling, Behrendt described it as a complex question. While she has no problem being identified as an indigenous writer, she said it can become problematical when writers are pigeonholed. For example, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival she was invited on a panel discussing “fathers”, a panel that recognised the diversity of perspectives, but in many festivals indigenous writers are lumped together on a panel about indigenous writing. She said that:
What we like to say is that within our writing – and I think that’s true of every Aboriginal author – there are universal themes about family, about love, about betrayal, about hurt, about anger and jealousy, and these are the things that actually unite us.
It’s a problem, in other words, when indigenous authors are seen to be writing only about indigenous subjects. Love it. The comment reminded me of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review) in which some of the stories didn’t focus on or clarify race or ethnicity of the characters. They were just about people. For Behrendt, any story – whether the focus is an indigenous issue or not – is, essentially, about universals.
And finally, that issue about non-indigenous writers writing on indigenous people. Again Behrendt is thoughtful rather than dogmatic. She says she’s always interested in how non-indigenous people portray indigenous people – hence, obviously, Finding Eliza – but that it’s difficult for them to do it authentically because they don’t know enough about Aboriginal life and culture. The reverse is a little different because Aboriginal people are “so bombarded with the dominant culture”. She identifies some writers who have not done it well – albeit she respects their hearts – and then names some who have impressed her. Kate Grenville in The secret river is one. Grenville, she says, doesn’t try an Aboriginal point of view. Instead
through using her non-indigenous characters, by showing their ignorance, their violence, their sense of entitlement, their fear, she tells a very strong story about Aboriginal experience. You read her book and you know exactly what it was like for Aboriginal people.
Grenville talks in Searching for The secret river about the issue of presenting the indigenous perspective. It was something she thought carefully about. Nice to see she’s been vindicated, in the eyes of Behrendt anyhow. The other effective portrayal she offers is Liam Davison’s The white woman. (Davison was tragically killed in the MH-17 disaster, and Lisa reviewed The white woman, as well as his other novels, as a tribute to him.) Behrendt says that Davison tells the story of massacres in Gippsland but relates
the story from the perspective of somebody who goes out as part of those hunting parties, and by getting into the psyche of the kind of person that can actually commit the most brutal aspects of a colonisation of a land, he tells a very strong story about Aboriginal people.
So, while she doesn’t see it as a no-go zone for non-indigenous writers, she does believe that the level of ignorance makes it a difficult challenge.
Another great interview with a writer who’s been in my list of must-reads for a long time. I’ll be starting soon with a short story. Watch this space.
Previous Spotlight posts:
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015