Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

Like life.

But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

Larissa Behrendt
After story
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263316

Sydney Writers Festival 2022, Live and Local (Session 1, and only)

This is the fourth year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia. I nearly missed it this year because, somehow, I didn’t see the usual advertising. However, I caught it just in time, and was able to attend an event that particularly interested me. For the rest, my time was already committed so … next year?

Damon Galgut, Larissa Behrendt and Paige Clark in conversation with Sisonke Msimang: Saturday 21 May, 4pm

I was thrilled that this was the session I could attend, as Damon Galgut’s The promise is my reading group’s May book, and I hope to read Larissa Behrendt’s After story for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week in July. I am also interested in Paige Clarke’s She is haunted, which was longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and in Sisonke Msimang, who, besides also being an author, is a wonderful advocate for diverse storytelling. The session was billed as: “to explore the responsibilities and opportunities of the creative writer and artist, and ask: who gets to tell a story?”

Before the session started, a brief message from Festival Director, Michael Williams, was streamed to us, in which he talked about the Festival’s theme, Change my mind, having been chosen to reflect our current uncertain times. This was followed by a very neat animated graphic on the theme.

The audience at our venue was very small – under 10 people – which is significantly less then I’ve ever experienced before. I didn’t feel it had been as well-advertised as in previous years, but the NLA staff member on duty thought, probably rightly, that there was too much else going on – like an election!

The limits of imagination

(I will use first names to describe the speakers, because that seems appropriate for describing a “chat”).

Sisonke commenced by acknowledging country, noting that this was a country rich with stories. She then of course introduced the writers, and explained that the topic they’d been “given” was Who gets to tell a story. However, she said, this conversation has been going for a long time, and will keep going, and the authors on the panel had written great books that we also want to hear about, so, she said, “we will be subversive” and try to cover both! I think the audience appreciated that, though in the end, the focus clearly was “who gets to tell the story”. The question was explored well, but it was clear that, while he gave it his best shot, Damon, as the only “white” and only male on the panel, was the most challenged by Sisonke’s probing.

How do you help students understand or handle this “who-tells-the-story” question?

Sisonke, noting that all panel members also teach writing, thought to approach the “who-tells-the-story” question via their teaching. Good one! She also took the opportunity to note the current attack on humanities as a discipline.

Larissa spoke at some length, teasing out the issue, starting with how layered it is. For example there is a diversity of First Nations across county, and she can’t tell stories from nations that aren’t hers. In fact can’t tell all the stories of her own nation, because they aren’t all hers. This runs counter to the Western academic tradition which is founded on the principle of sharing stories, of being entitled to know everything in the academy.

So, her approach is to ask students, Why is this your story to tell? She made the point that as a lawyer she needs to consider when it’s your role to tell a story, and you should create space for others to tell it. She does, however, believe it is possible to write from a range of perspectives; she’s done it herself, having written from male and non-Indigenous perspectives. The question then is How well do you know the story you want to tell?

Paige observed that to write “other” characters you need to research, and she, personally, is not prepared to do that. But, to students, she would ask Why do you want to, or think you need to, write the story? Could the story be written in the writer’s own identity-space; could they approach the topic from their own space?

Damon felt that South Africa, where he’s from, has gone from being behind the times to being ahead in these issues, though I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that. He quoted Nadine Gordimer who had often been challenged on her right to speak for black South Africans. Her reply was, What did James Joyce know about being a woman, and yet he wrote that wonderful Molly Bloom soliloquy? Fiction, he said, is about imagination. “Judge me by the results”. He feels that if we limit what we are allowed to write we might as well give up fiction. (I have some sympathy with this, as many of you know, but I also feel there’s a power issue at play and that past gaps in stories need to be redressed.)

Sisonke followed his comment with, but …

Can there be harm done by the attempt to tell a story that’s not yours?

But, by what culture do you assess the achievement? By the prize culture? This has seen the canon of writing about Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal writers being judged by non-Aboriginal people who have the same perspectives as the writers. Is this valid?

Larissa stated that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important, which also, she said, brings in the relationship of politics to writing. She – and I appreciated this coming from a First Nations writer, because I agree with her – thinks that Kate Grenville’s The secret river made “an extraordinary contribution”. Grenville, she said, didn’t feel need to fill in the gaps with assumptions about Indigenous people in the story. She also admires Liam Davison’s The white women (Lisa’s review). Both authors confront the impact of colonisation without putting themselves in the place of an Aboriginal person.

Damon commented that he’s not a woman, but he needs to imaginatively take that step. He used the words “being allowed” to write, say, a woman character.

Larissa responded by saying that the question is: What is the ethical framework you create for yourself when you are creating a character? It’s not so much what you are allowed to do, but that you should act ethically. What are the parameters you create for yourself. However, Damon felt that in South Africa, the question is “are you allowed”?

What is better about this moment?

At this point Sisonke, who asked such pointed, interesting questions, said rather than focusing on where we are “not permitted to go”, why not look at it from a positive point of view?

Larissa said current times come off the back of a lack of diversity in the canon, and that we are seeing a time of incredible burgeoning in First Nations writing across all genres. The are more opportunities for stories to be exposed deeply, for deeper understanding of diversities. We are enriched by greater intellectual exchange.

Paige, who self-describes as Chinese/American/Australian, shared that there were no identity markers in her first stories, written ten years ago, because she felt that if she wrote as a Chinese woman, she would not be listened to. Now, it feels comfortable writing from her identity.

Damon was startled by Paige’s statement, and felt that he wanted to stay silent on this as a white male. And then, somewhat reversing his previous statement, as he himself admitted, he said that he wanted to defend the right of writers to go anywhere but as a white South African, he knows there are places he can’t go. He hasn’t, he said, ventured out of white perspectives because he doesn’t know them.

Sisonke, wanting to push him a little further, responded that there was a feeling that in the current culture “white guys are going to lose by the canon being challenged”, but she feels it doesn’t have to be a loss, so, what’s positive, she asked?

Damon said that he doesn’t feel personally deprived. But, he felt that a significant positive is that new voices have been introduced. However, he would not venture into voices not his own.

The books

Sisonke then asked the authors to read excerpts from their books that she had selected. Clearly she’d thought hard about and prepared well for the session.

Larissa introduced her reading by explaining a little of the plot which takes us on a literary tour of England with a First Nations mother and daughter. She said the book explored the English canon she grew up with and that she still loves. But, she said, she also grew up with the richness of Indigenous storytelling, and that her novel marries these two traditions.

Sisonke asked Larissa about setting her book in “the heart of empire”. Larissa, a lawyer as well as writer, replied that the seed for the book lay in her observation of non-Indigenous legal people being dismissive of lndigenous people. She wanted to put her characters in a place, Britain, where they would be confronted, a place which has never really reflected on what it did. But, she said, storytelling is also about healing. Further, being overseas makes you think about yourself differently. She wanted her characters to experience that.

Paige read an early story from her book which is about race at its heart, and the gulf between mother and daughter caused by intergenerational trauma. Sisonke added that she’d chosen this excerpt because it beautifully captures the intimacy between mother and daughter, the trust that’s inherent and the trust that’s broken.

Paige said that her stories are autobiographical, but fantastical too. They are almost auto-fiction she said, in that she didn’t have to look far for them.

Damon’s excerpt featured a 13 year-old-daughter, Amor, who overhears a promise made by her father makes to his dying wife to give a home to a loyal black worker. Damon beautifully captures the innocence of this young girl – “history has not yet trod on her” – who wants the promise honoured.

Sisonke commented that none of the characters are easy to like. She said that non-South African readers see the characters as exaggerated, cartoonish, but that people who know South Africa “know” these characters. She asked Damon what he was trying to do with “that unlikability”. He replied that Amor is the moral centre because she doggedly wants the promise honoured. He believes that Apartheid was possible because of a failure of imagination, by which I understand him to mean the failure to imagine yourself in the shoes of others.


There was the usual question about influences, but the answers were not always the usual! Damon said that his answer partly encompasses a response to Sisonke’s earlier question of the positives to be gained from contemporary literary culture. He said there’s been gain in there now being a platform for other voices, and that every book you read shows you another version of the world. (He added, as an aside, that you can tell which public figures read, which don’t. This got a wry laugh from our small audience and the other panel members.)

Larissa essentially echoed Damon by saying that through reading you experience so many views of world, across cultures and perspectives. She then added that First Nations elders are like libraries, and that they value people as they get older – the “library of elders”. (This reminded me of a discussion I’d had earlier in the week when lunching with friends. We talked about ageing and the idea of being “elders”, though whether we are respected as such in white culture is the question.)

Paige answered more traditionally by naming Amy Hempel who, she says, does rawness and vulnerability, economy and minimalism, so well.

And here the session abruptly ended when the well-prepared Sisonke was told they’d run out of time. What a shame!

Larissa Behrendt, Under skin, in blood (Review)

ANZLitLovers ILW 2016In my last review – that for Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight – I shared the following lines:

Jack knows the remainder of the conversation
before it was spoke ya see any blacks roaming
best ya kill ’em disease spreading pests
(“Visitor”, from Ruby Moonlight)

Quite coincidentally, this point I was making, that it was not “the blacks” who brought disease, turned out to be the subject of my second choice for Lisa’s 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, Larissa Behrendt’s short story, “Under skin, in blood”. I chose it because I wanted to read at least something by Behrendt.

The story is told in first person by an older woman – called Nana Faye by Merindah, the granddaughter she’d raised – and is divided into three parts. The first and third parts are set in the present while the middle part flashes back to Faye’s past as she tells us why she no longer has her husband and son (Merindah’s father).

In the present, Faye (and Merindah) live in Faye’s grandmother’s country, Gadigal land, around Sydney. But Faye spent her married life, the place where Merindah was born, in Baryulgil on the land of the Bunjalung people. Faye’s flashback is inspired by a discussion she has with university student Merindah who is researching the Northern Territory’s Kahlin Compound, a place to which “half-caste children” (members of the Stolen Generations) were taken between 1911 and 1939. It had – and here you’ll start to understand my introductory paragraph – high rates of leprosy. Merindah is researching claims – claims which have indeed been made and researched – that children there were used as guinea pigs for leprosy drugs. Whether or not these claims are true – they may never be fully resolved due to lack of records – the case causes Faye to comment that the most lethal things white settlers brought to Australia were not guns and alcohol but “microbes” which were “flowing through their veins, floating in their blood, under that skin like bark from a ghost gum tree”. Leprosy, in other words, and malaria, small pox, syphilis, influenza. These killed more indigenous people in the first year of white settlement than bullets.

But these microbial-based diseases are not the main focus of Faye’s memories. It’s the mine in Baryulgil, the mine that opened in 1944 and which everyone thought made them lucky. Having lost their land to the pastoralists, but having decided to stay to be close to their country, the people suddenly found they had jobs – but, what were they mining? Asbestos! Faye tells of the tragic impact asbestos had on her husband Henry and son Jack:

… the mine we felt lucky to have, that gave us the benefits of work and kept the community together was slowly but surely killing us.

The scandal is that there was awareness of deleterious health effects of asbestos in the early 20th century, and certainly by the 1960s its relationship to mesothelioma was recognised. Australia’s best known asbestos mine, Wittenoom, was closed in 1966, ostensibly for economic, not safety reasons. It is telling though that Baryulgil was not closed until 1979. Faye says that the official enquiries that came later found

the mine was barely profitable and only continued to operate to prevent permanent unemployment among the Aboriginal workers in the area. Turned out this employment that was supposed to be doing the community a favour was actually a death sentence.

So, Wittenoom was closed more than a decade earlier because it wasn’t profitable, but different decision-making was used for Baryulgil. Now, normally, I’d approve of decision-making that took into account social values but this one is a bit suss.

This is, I have to say, a fairly didactic story. It could almost have been an essay, except that Behrendt has clearly thought, as she in fact says in her interview with Annette Marfording, that telling it as a story, showing the impacts of policy on human beings, would be the more effective way to go. So, while the story imparts a lot of factual information, Faye shares the devastating impact on her of losing her husband and son. She also tells how indigenous cultural practices work to their disadvantage in a white world. She says:

The hardest thing is to trust these people. These people who have the power of life or death over you, and use that power carelessly. These people we are mute to argue against. And our words never seem a match for what they wrote down, even though we have good memories and they make mistakes.

Now, that is probably the most important message in the story.

awwchallenge2016Larissa Behrendt
“Under skin, in blood”
in Overland (203), Winter 2011
Available online

Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Larissa Behrendt

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

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.

Larissa Behrendt, Finding ElizaAnd 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:

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015
ISBN: 9781329142473

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. To find out where you can purchase this book, please check Marfording’s website.