Way back when, I read Sara Dowse’s debut 1983-published novel West Block. It ticked all the boxes – it was by a woman, by a feminist, was set in Canberra (a rare thing), and was about the Public Service within which I also worked. I enjoyed it immensely and have often wanted to re-read it. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it was being re-published – and with a new introduction by Dowse.
The launch …
The launch comprised a conversation between Dowse and Michele Seminara who is a poet and managing editor at the Canberra-founded creative arts journal Verity La.
Seminara commenced by describing Dowse as a “legend of Australian literature”. She was also one of the Canberra Seven, about whom I have written before. The conversation, though, focused mostly on the book’s subject matter …
West Block, for the non-Canberrans here, is one of the original buildings in our Parliamentary Triangle. Built in 1926 it, and East Block, flanked what is now known as Old Parliament House. These buildings were the home of the public service.
So, Dowse’s novel, West Block, is about the bureaucracy. From 1974-1977, Dowse was the inaugural head of the women’s affairs section established to support PM Gough Whitlam’s first women’s adviser, Elizabeth Reid. Dowse became, she believed, the first femocrat.
Dowse spoke about her intentions for the novel which she started writing a couple of years after the 1975 Dismissal. She wanted to tell the story of what happened and how public servants coped in the aftermath. She wanted it not to be “just” a women’s story but a story about what women saw, about how women perceived government. “I wanted to nail them”, Dowse said, meaning she wanted to write about the male world from a feminist perspective.
The conversation, not surprisingly, also covered the politics then and now, particularly in terms of what was achieved and what has lasted. Dowse, describing the times as “unbelievably exciting”, talked about their focus being issues like child care. She said many reforms were introduced. Some were “tweaked” by the Hawke government, but they’ve been gradually whittled away since the Coalition returned to power.
She talked about the Australian federal public service, and of admiring its commitment to serving the people. She saw this public-good oriented value as being distinctively Australian, including amongst conservatives. (She couldn’t understand the antipathy with which Australians would speak of Canberra, their national capital.) However, she said, much of this value has been lost since PM John Howard turned governing into a business-style, economic rationalist, model. She talked about how private sector inflated salaries are being given as a reason why you can’t get good people into the public service, but her belief is that good people who know that the measure of their worth is not purely monetary will still work in the public service. (They’re not poor, in any event, she said.)
Dowse also told us that the main character, Cassie, is based on her, though Cassie is Australian – and unlike her, has red hair and green eyes! The joy of being a writer is that you can create characters you’d like to be! Cassie, like Dowse was, is also a single Mum juggling work and parenthood.
Seminara asked Dowse about her book’s structure with its five chapters focusing on different individuals. Dowse said she was influenced by two John Dos Passos works, Manhattan transfer and the USA trilogy. She was inspired by his telling a big story through overlapping individual stories, though he also married fiction with nonfiction which she didn’t do.
A point that came up a few times through the conversation related to the publishing and literary environment in Australia at the time she was publishing this book. For example, a fiction-nonfiction blend would not have been accepted then (though it would now.) She was also inspired by Dos Passos’ experimental writing, but that too she had to tone down for Penguin to publish the work. Upon the book’s release, one of the common questions posed about it was “is it a novel or is it stories?” This question is still with us, I believe, though writers are increasingly playing with this form (such as, most recently on my blog, Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations, my review.)
Seminara commented that she loves Dowse’s characters, with their commitment to public interest. They are, she said, “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” She also spoke of how Dowse had managed to make art out of traditionally boring subject matter. More art is now being made of such subjects, but Dowse, she said, was one of the first here to put humanity and drama into it.
Dowse briefly talked about this new edition, which was suggested by publisher Jen McDonald. Dowse said that this was her apprentice novel, and wondered how she would face having it out in the world again. However, she did not want a word changed. It had, she said, to live on its record. I am greatly looking forward to reading it again – and I fully expect it to appeal to me all over again, albeit with older eyes and understanding of how the world works.
Dowse also read from the book, and answered a couple of emailed-in questions:
- John Dos Passos’ influence. Dos Passos, she said, wanted to deal with the coming of mass society, and he did it by oscillating within a group of characters to build up a picture of society. This encompassed both the personal and the political, which, she reminded us, had been the feminists’ mantra: the personal is the political.
- Susan Ryan‘s recent death and what has been left unfulfilled by it. Dowse expressed great sadness at Ryan’s death, as they had worked closely together. She said young girls now have the right to big dreams but there are still barriers. She believes the feminist voice has been rekindled through awareness of these barriers, injustices, domestic violence, and the ongoing childcare issue. While many things that were started under Whitlam have been truncated, whittled down, Ryan had achieved much, she said, including getting the ALP to accept Affirmative Action.
This was an excellent launch, and I’m glad it was on at a time that I could make. Do consider reading the book. It has much to offer.
Launch of West Block new edition
Online Zoom event by Barbie Robinson of Living Arts Canberra
25 October 2020