Monday musings on Australian literature: Thinking about historiography

Last week I wrote a post on Cindy Solonec’s hybrid biography-memoir, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez. This book, as I explained in my post, is a rewriting of her 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s.” Immediately, perhaps, you can see what inspired this post.

It has been accepted for some time now that social history, particularly that involving the stories of ordinary people, is a valid and important part of history, of the historical record. But, ordinary people’s lives aren’t well documented, history normally being, as we know, the province of the victors.

Solonec did have significant documentary sources to draw on, as the Kimberley has fascinated people for a long time. She also had her Spanish-born father’s diaries, which were not particularly detailed but they did provide the book’s “chronological framework”. Diaries are a common source for historians, so there’s nothing new about that. But, what about the First Nations side of her family? For that she had to rely on the stories her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately,

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

This comment reminded me of an essay “On listening to new national storytellers” in The Conversation. Written five years ago by academic Anna Clark, it considers Australian historiography and the historical record, and covers some issues that are discussed in longer tomes like Tom Griffiths’ The art of time travel. But her focus is specific.

Clark refers briefly to the “history wars” before moving on to say that

Debates over Australian history aren’t simply ideological, but also disciplinary, and reflect the historical challenges wrought by changing approaches to the past. 

She makes the point that history isn’t a simple matter of what happened and why, but is affected by “persuasions, politics and prejudices” of the historians writing it. So, a history of the “first settlement” written in, say, the 1930s, is very different to one written today, though the actual events are the same.

Clark goes on to say that Australia’s history has been viewed, at least until the 1960s, in terms of “progress” or advancement. It “privileged the written record” which is “located in archives, libraries and universities (themselves imperial institutions)”. Where did that leave the story of First Nations’ people? Clark writes that:

Dispossessed from their country, Indigenous people were in turn dispossessed from Australian historiography. It was, in the words of the anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, our “Great Australian Silence”, and his phrase has come to characterise the nation’s own historiographical “dark ages”.

Gradually, historians, inspired by the likes of Henry Reynolds, started to write histories that looked through lenses different to the “simple story of progress and advancement”. To do this, they used “Indigenous testimony and oral history sources”. This challenged traditional “historical research methods, which depended on written primary sources”.

Contributing to this shift have been Indigenous historians – such as Steve Kinnane, Noel Pearson and Larissa Behrendt – who have promoted “the inclusion of new historical lenses to read between the lines of colonial sources”.

Other storytellers?

That’s a good thing, but Clark has more questions, such as: while historians were “erasing the impact of settler-colonial society on Indigenous people in Australia”, were other “national storytellers” doing the same? And here is where it becomes interesting in terms of what we call “history”.

Take poetry, for example. Clark writes that

the sound of colonial violence and Aboriginal dispossession was ringing loud and clear in Judith Wright’s poem Nigger’s Leap, New England. Published in 1945, it’s based on the story of an Aboriginal massacre told to Wright by her father, and is a powerful antidote to Australian historiography of the time.

Or novels, like Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land (1941). In it “Dark tries to capture the cultural clash between the Eora people and the British colonisers in early Sydney”. This might be historical fiction, but Tom Griffiths, she says, argued in his book that “Dark deserves recognition as a historian for the work she did, and her impact on Australians’ historical consciousness”.

This doesn’t mean, she continues, that historians should ignore

the conventions of truth-seeking and critical inquiry. But as Griffiths intimates in his recent book, the relationship between history and fiction is surely more a dance than a clash, despite the heated debate over Kate Grenville’s historical novel, The Secret River. And historians who ignore the potential of fiction to imagine their way into some of those undocumented encounters diminish their own historical imaginations, he concludes.

Regular readers here will know that this accords with my – admittedly non-expert – views on the matter.

Anyhow, she goes on … mentions Mudrooroo’s Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, and other potential sources of history …

I think you get the gist. The point she is making is that there is increasing recognition of “the need to broaden our conception of historiography to reflect the many ways we make history, and consume it”. Aboriginal rock art is an obvious example, and other forms of “material culture”. Clark argues, and here we loop back to Cindy Solonec, that there is a need:

in Australia to expand and reconceptualise our understanding of historiography in order to recognise that history is frequently captured and made outside the academy ­– in fiction, poetry, art and even beyond the public domain altogether, such as local and family histories.

Clark has more to say, but concludes that she’s interested in how less traditional records or stories, these “vernacular epistemologies”, “can add both to our understanding of the past and the discipline itself”. I’ve been fascinated by historiography since I read EH Carr’s What is history at university, and so I loved this article.

Any thoughts?

39 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Thinking about historiography

  1. WG: Compassionate reading of history, historiography – of “seeing” the national past. Of writers and their subject. Henry Reynolds. Larissa Behrendt. Colin Johnston/Mudrooroo – and Cassandra Pybus – The Jindyworobaks even! And Judith Wright! Oodgeroo, Jack Davis. And more…

  2. Eleanor Dark deserves an enormous amount of credit for reimagining white settlement to include the stories of the people whose land was being settled on, but I think she based her account on Watkin Tench, rather than engaging in ‘history’.

    I have written about white settlement in the Kimberley, based on another PhD, by Chris Owen (who you can find on Fb where he sometimes posts old newspaper stories), but have looked more particularly into Indigenous massacres in the south of the state. And it seems to me that newspapers of the time often run quite detailed stories, which if they run counter to what the State wants us to believe, are soon just ignored.

    • Thanks Bill. Certainly Tom Griffiths seems to think Dark should get a lot of credit. I wonder though what you mean by “she based her account on Watkin Tench, rather than engaging in ‘history’.” Wouldn’t reading Watkin Tench be part of the way she could engage in history?

      Good point about newspapers. As you say, there’s a lot there that has been ignored or brushed over, but that can be mined again and again by historians depending on prevailing perspectives (says she a bit cynically, but you know what I mean. To a degree you only see what you are looking for?)

  3. When I read a book by a while American who traveled to Australia and met an elder Indigenous person and write her oral story, my first thought was, “Why would a white American be the author of such a book? Why doesn’t the Indigenous person write it?” That’s when I learned just how much oral storytelling still exists in Australia. The Indigenous woman wanted the American to write her story, had asked her to do it because she didn’t have the time, nor did she want to write a story (she travels around a verbally tells stories). I got flack from one reader (someone I don’t know) in the comments of that review because she/he felt a white woman writing an Indigenous story was an act of white privilege. Anyway, I say all that to say this: I grew up surrounded by an Ojibwe reservation, and due to progress, many of the stories of these people are completely lost. The tribe is trying to revitalize their history and language, but if the stories aren’t written, despite the oral tradition, they’re going to be lost.

    • Yes good point Melanie. It’s very complex, though what’s important to Indigenous people shouldn’t be lost if their culture isn’t destroyed. However, that’s never guaranteed – even if right now things are moving in the right direction – so writing down the stories is not a bad thing. We need to always remember though that the oral tradition is an important part of First Nations culture and needs to be supported. It results, in my experience, in their being such great storytellers, a skill I don’t have. I’m much better with pen and paper.

      • Kim Scott said that at his first school, in the Kimberly as it happens, Aboriginal kids who were denigrated for not learning could quote whole chunks of the movie they saw the previous night.

      • When I was still a professor and heard my colleagues grump about how students can’t write because all they do is text, I always remembered that people used to be grumpy about writing because no one could remember and tell a whole story anymore.

        • Yep, Melanie … I really wish people would not unthinkingly grump about change. With every change there are positives and negatives, steps forward and steps back. You would think we’d have learnt now that the prognostications of doomsayers rarely eventuate, at least in the way they/we think!

  4. IMO, not that I know much about the subject, Australian history is fascinating. Fascinating to me perhaps because of the fairly recent colonization by British and how all things British were worshipped… until they weren’t. I can see this in programmes and books, and this must have indicated a seismic shift in attitude. I still remember the SHOCK when God Save the Queenie was TOSSED and about time, I say.

    • Thanks Guy. I don’t know why but that’s nice to know. I know that I’m interested in histories of other countries, but your comment has made me realise that I’ve never been aware, really, of other people being interested in ours. In our literature yes, but not specifically our history. But, of course, they will be.

      There has been a huge shift in attitude in my lifetime, which is something worth remembering, I suppose, when we start to feel despondent about how slow some things are – though I’m not the one who suffers by this slowness, so that’s easy for me to say.

  5. Oh good grief ! – historiography ? Another sub-section of social sciences for me to fail at. Sighhhh ..
    (Dunno why I revert to my schooldays.)
    Interesting but, ST.

  6. Fascinating stuff. Oral history is becoming more and more important in all sorts of contexts – for example there was a study in the UK on older service veterans and the use of telling stories / telling histories in their lives which isn’t the same thing as this of course but feels linked – forgotten stories they had often told almost no one before the project and were important for themselves, for continuity in military history of a different kind than in the history books, and personal wellbeing https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/health-and-medicine/research/military-lives/

    • Thanks Liz, it’s all related isn’t it. That sounds interesting – and important. These stories of the rank and file, of the ordinary lives in whatever context, ARE important. I love that there was a study of “the use of telling stories”.

  7. Hi Sue, history is very deep! I know Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin was controversial, but it also is a great read about how the Aboriginal songs revealed so much history. I have Koori: A Will to Win by James Miller who traces the last 200 years of his family tribal history in New South Wales, and also a good read.

    • Thanks Meg … Songlines is interesting. As you say it was controversial for many reasons, but I think it was the first time that I became aware of songlines. Because it was by a white man, and because I hadn’t heard of them before, I was a little suspicious about how significant they were, and how widespread they were, but over time of course I’ve learnt just how big a role they play throughout First Nations Australia.

  8. I loved Tom Griffiths’ The Art of Time Travel, and bought a copy of it for The Spouse who is expanding his grasp of OzHist through U3A. (He did a year long course in 2021, and has signed up for more this year.)
    I think I grew up with a view of history that was typical of our generation, but (beginning with Henry Reynolds and Inga Clendinnen) have had my ideas reshaped by reading a variety of recent Australian history books, which draw on all kinds of sources. Ochre and Rust, for example, interrogated artefacts in the Adelaide Museum to show how Indigenous people had adapted and innovated on objects that were new to them and were not just passive recipients (or victims) of new technologies. Increasingly too, histories are collaborations: Our Mob Served (a history of Indigenous military service published by Aboriginal Studies Press) was a collaboration linking the expertise of professional historians with oral history and memorabilia, and an extensive first chapter explains the process and most importantly, the primacy of the Indigenous testimony. More and more I see joint publications where one of the professionally qualified historians is Indigenous, and I find these especially valuable because the one enriches the other…

    • It’s a great book I agree Lisa, though I haven’t read it all. As I said here I was introduced to historiography in the 79s at university. It was in fact the only history course I did at university but it has informed everything I’ve thought since because the basic principles hold true even if the histories have changed.

      Thanks for providing some examples of difference sources of historical evidence, as in Ochre and rust.

      It is great to see more Indigenous historians in the field isn’t it?

  9. I can see how similar our two countries are (in addition to our tastes 😉) in what you have posted here about aboriginal social history. And what a worthy and much needed subject for academic research and thus a PhD dissertation. Interesting too to think how oral history needs to be documented in writing for its preservation and to be passed on to next generations. Now, your academic background, could that be another similarity of ours? Sociology was my field and social planning was my interest in graduate school. Just another thought. 🙂

    • Yes, Arti I think there are quite a few similarities between Canada and Australia – except we are warmer! Haha. My major was English, with submajors in education and anthropology, but I did do some sociology which interested me strongly. One of the most influential courses I did, besides this historiography one, was Education and Society, which was essentially sociology in relation to education. These two courses laid significant foundations for me, and inform the way I view many things still, I think. My graduate study was in librarianship. But, even there, social planning, in the sense of the importance of libraries to society, was an underpinning philosophy in our studies.

  10. What is History was one of those seminal texts in my uni days too. I’ve been wondering how it would hold up to a reread?

    (Sorry quick reply, back at work & everything is omicron crazy!! I need another holiday!!)

    • I’ve not reread it Brona, but I have often dipped into it. I think it probably would hold up to a reread, but it’s probably dated in the way he talks? It’s not long but …

      We were coming to Sydney tomorrow for an event but it’s been postponed so now we have to see what the accommodation we’ve booked will do. I think they’ll give us a rain check … Good luck at work. Things are difficult here too. No staff for a start. Venue are closing, reducing hours, cafes etc are reducing menus. Etc.

  11. That’s a concept I discovered in my last year of studies, too late for me to work it into my course schedule (which already had to squeeze in around a full-time job) and I’ve always wondered “what if?” because it would be just a fascinating degree I’m sure, but I bought all the books on the shelf in the uni bookshop and read Carr’s first, and added a historiographical layer to all the papers that came after whenever possible. LOL Your post is a great intro for those who are just discovering it now.

    • Thanks Marcie. It is such an obvious concept when you think about it isn’t it, which makes it more powerful. It’s not one of those those theories that are hard to wrap your head around and apply. If I help people understand it, l’d be proud.

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