Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

Book cover for Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally

Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally is the second I’ve read in Black Inc’s Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) being the first. As I wrote in that post, the series involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. Hmm … the way Keneally inspired and influenced Grant is not perhaps what the series editors envisaged, but certainly his essay meets some of the other goals: it is “provocative” and it absolutely starts “a fresh conversation between past and present.”

Most Australians will know immediately why Grant chose Keneally, but for everyone else, it’s this. In 1972, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published. It is historical fiction based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man who was executed in 1901 for murdering a white family. Keneally is on record as saying he was wrong to have written the book from an Indigenous person’s perspective, but he did, and the book is out there (along with its film adaptation by Fred Schepisi).

That’s Keneally, but what about Stan Grant? Of Wiradjuri and Irish heritage, he is no stranger to this blog. He’s an erudite, thoughtful man, always worth listening to, but, here’s the thing. I find it difficult, with this book, to be a white Australian discussing a First Nations Australian writing about a white Australian who wrote a novel about a First Nations Australian. The politics are just so complicated. I’ll do my best, but will just focus on a few ideas. At 86 pages it is a short piece so, if you are interested, I recommend you read it yourself.

If you have ever listened to Grant, you will know that his thinking is deeply informed by history and philosophy, and so it is here. He is also palpably angry, and pulls no punches. He writes, just over half way through the essay that

This entire essay is about writing back to the white gaze. I need to write back to the white author who would steal my soul. I must prove I exist before I can exist.

Grant starts his essay by reminding us of Australia’s history and how “in a generation or two, my people were nearly extinguished.” He introduces us to Jimmy Governor, who was executed just three weeks after Federation. Jimmy becomes the lynchpin for his argument, because he, “that grotesque murderer”, is also, says Grant, “the memory of a wound. He is a scar on our history that runs like a fault line between black and white.” He is “a spectre that will not let us bury our history.”

The problem is, argues Grant, that the real Jimmy is nothing like Keneally’s Jimmie:

Keneally’s caricature of a self-loathing Jim­mie Blacksmith is a lost opportunity to explore the complex ways that Aboriginal people … were pushing against a white world that would not accept them for who they were; that would not see them as equal; that, in truth, would not see them as human.

But, of course Keneally’s novel is historical fiction, and, historical fiction, as most of us realise, says as much about the time it was written as about the time in which it is set. In Keneally’s case, The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written in 1972, a particular time in Australian history, Grant recognises, “a time of anti-Vietnam protests, the election of the Whitlam government and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Grant continues:

Keneally was writing a protest story for a protest era; he needed Jimmie Blacksmith to be the freedom fighter that Jimmy Governor never was. Jimmy was a man who wanted respect. He bridled against injustice, yes, but this was a crime of anger, not an act of war.

Grant though wants something more. He wants exploration and understanding of how history, how Australia, has negated First Nations Australians’ very beings. He refers to Jacques Derrida’s coinage of

‘hauntology’, to describe how the traces of our past – our ghosts – throw shadows on our world.

Grant believes that “the West thinks it can vanquish history; that the past can be entombed”. I don’t personally ascribe to that. It’s not rational, to me. But I can see how the course of Western “progress” does in fact manifest that way of seeing, and it leaves people – like First Nations Australians – in its wake. This, really, is the theme of Grant’s essay.

However, at times Grant lost me. He says Christos Tsiolkas is “copping out” when he says that it is not for white Australians to write “a foundation story for the first peoples of this country”. Grant suggests Tsiolkas can, and that he could “look to the First Peoples to enter our tradition; to understand that story and his place in it before he writes a single word about what it is to be an ‘Australian'”.

I’m uncertain about how a white Australian can do this right now, but that is probably my lack of imagination. Regardless, I feel that Grant is refusing to recognise the respect behind Tsiolkas’ statement. It’s a respect many of us feel when we contemplate writing about First Nations Australians. We don’t want to presume we know what we can never understand. Grant says it himself, late in the book:

No one who has not lived through our interminable loss could capture what it is to be Indigenous in Australia.

In the last part of the essay, Grant discusses other Australian writers. Besides Tsiolkas, these include Patrick White, Joan Lindsay, Randolph Stowe, from the past, and contemporary Indigenous writers like Tara June Winch and Bruce Pascoe. His thoughts are often surprising. He clearly approves Eleanor Dark who “knew that blackness hovers over everything that is written in this country”.

The final part of essay reads like a manifesto. Grant states exactly what he will and won’t do and be. But, he also says he is glad Keneally wrote his book because it has stayed with him for forty years. In it, he felt “the weight of my history”. The results weren’t always positive, but the book has, I think he’s saying, kept him thinking.

And he says this:

Like me, Thomas Keneally made his own pilgrimage to the old Darlinghurst Gaol. Standing near where the real Jimmy Governor was hanged, he said he was sorry for “assuming an aboriginal voice”. He should have sought permission, he said. “We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder,” he said. I don’t think we can police our imaginations. I don’t think we need to ask permission. Australian writers have never done this and, frankly, I see them in my country more clearly because of it. It is like the debate about Australia Day; why move the date if it will only hide the truth.

I will leave you with that.

(My third post for Lisa’s 2021 ILW Week.)

Stan Grant
On Thomas Keneally: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2021
ISBN: 9781760642327

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary dynasties

Some years ago I wrote a Monday Musings post on Australia’s literary couples. However, it recently occurred to me that we also have some literary dynasties, which could be fun to explore. This post, like many of its ilk, is a bit of a fishing exercise. I will share a few that came to me, and would love you to share ones that come to you.

By dynasty, I mean two or more generations of one family (that is, in the same line of descent.) My focus is fiction but I’m allowing some deviations from this where writing reputations are strong. So, here’s my list – in chronological order by birthyear of the oldest family member.

Charlotte Barton (1796-1867) and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Charlotte Barton and daughter Louisa Atkinson are probably the least well-known of the writers I list here, even though Charlotte is credited as having written Australia’s earliest known children’s book, A mother’s offering to her children, and Louisa as the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia, Gertrude the emigrant.

However, Atkinson had a bigger bow to her name, botany. As I wrote in Wikipedia and here, she was well-known for her fiction during her life-time, but her long-term significance rests on her botanical work. She’s regarded as a ground-breaker for Australian women in journalism and natural science, and is significant in her time for her sympathetic references to Australian Aborigines in her writings and for her encouragement of conservation.

Louisa (1848-1920) and Henry Lawson (1867-1922)

Book coverBy all accounts, Louisa Lawson was quite a force. A poet, writer and publisher, as well as a suffragist and feminist, she was fully engaged in the country’s literary and political life, but is most remembered now for the latter, particularly her feminist causes.

Louisa’s relationship with her poet-short story writer son, Henry, was fraught. However, together they edited the radical pro-federation newspaper The Republican, and, later she published his poems and stories in her own newspaper, The Dawn. She used this press to publish his first book, Short stories in prose and verse. It is Henry, then, who is most remembered for his writing. His most famous story is “The drover’s wife”, which many Aussies do (or did) at school, and his best-known collection is While the billy boils. Lawson is probably still Australia’s best known short story writer.

Bill (The Australian Legend) quotes Bertha, Henry Lawson’s wife, as saying

“If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother …”

Ruth Park (1917-2010), D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967), and Deborah (b. 1950) and Kilmeny Niland (1950-2009)

Novelists (and writers of all forms) Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland created quite a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and (primarily) illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before, and need to review Niland on my blog, but when I was the mother of young children, I became very aware of Deborah and Kilmeny who collaborated on thirteen children’s books. Their best known book is an illustrated version of Banjo Paterson’s poem, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. First published in 1973, it has never been out of print. Unfortunately, Kilmeny died in 2009.

Olga (1919-1986) and Chris  (b. 1948) Masters

Book coverBoth Olga and her son Chris Masters were journralists. Chris still is. Olga commenced work as a journalist when she was only 15 years old, but through her relatively short career, she also wrote novels, short stories and drama. Her career as a published writer of fiction was very brief, with The home girls short story collection being published in 1982 and Loving daughters, her wonderful first novel, published in 1984. It is Australian literature’s loss that she died just as her fiction career was taking off.

Son Chris is, primarily, a journalist, but he is at the top of his profession with multiple Walkley Awards to his name, and his controversial biography of a controversial radio personality, Jonestown: The power and the myth of Alan Jones, won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. I wonder if he’s ever thought of writing a novel?

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002), Merv Lilley (1919-2016), Kate (b. 1960) and Rozanna Lilley (b. 1960)

Multi-awarded poet, novelist and playwright Hewett led a colourful and controversial life – some of which has come out posthumously in poet daughter Kate’s collection Tilt and daughter Rozanna’s memoir, Do oysters get bored? I don’t really want to explore that here because it’s a whole other subject, but you can read a little about it on the ABC and in my post on a Canberra Writers Festival conversation with Rozanna.

Meanwhile, and regardless, they do comprise another dynasty of writers, with, between them, a significant oeuvre.

Ann Deveson (1930-2016) and Georgia Blain (1964-2016)

Ann Deveson was well-known to Australians of my generation, because of her high profile as a social commentator and filmmaker, not to mention her role as the “Omo” lady in a famous serious of television commercials for Omo laundry detergent! She was, you’d have to say, versatile, also having been chair of the South Australian Film Corporation and Executive Director of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Her most famous book is, probably, her memoir-biography about her son’s schizophrenia, Tell me I’m here.

Deveson’s daughter, Georgia Blain, was also a writer, but, unlike her mother she had a substantial body of fiction to her name, as well as non-fiction. Blain won or was short or longlisted for many of Australia’s literary awards, with her most successful novel being her 8th and last, Between a wolf and a dog. Deveson and Blain tragically died within days of each other, which I wrote about at the time.

Thomas (b. 1935) and Meg Keneally (b. ca 1967)

Book coverMulti-award-winning author Thomas (Tom) Keneally has published over 40 novels, from his 1964 debut novel, The place at Whitton, to his most recent 2020 novel, The Dickens boy. He is best known for his Booker prize-winning novel, Schindler’s ark, which was adapted to the Academy Award winning film, Schindler’s list.

Amongst his 40 or so novels are four in The Monsarrat Series, which he co-wrote with his daughter Meg. Meg has gone on to publish a novel on her own, Fled, with another due out this year. Both Tom and Meg write primarily historical fiction.

In a “Two of us” article in 2016 in The Sydney Morning Herald, Tom writes

Temperamentally I could see she was very like me. I think that’s why we’re able to work together now. I find it hard to batter out 1500 words of a new draft of a novel in a day, and I was always impressed by the speed and fluency with which she could write. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to get her out of the maw of the corporate world and turn her into something really self-destructive, like a novelist?”

Haha, love it!

There are other dynasties, most notably families of historians, but I’ll finish here and wait for your suggestions. 

Postscript: No, I haven’t forgotten those 10th anniversary literary requests. They will be done, but they require more time than I have now, hence this post that was already in the offing!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Two Aussie writers in 1965

Continuing last week’s 1965 theme, this post discusses two articles on two Aussie writers who published books that year. I chose them because I think they are instructive examples of book reviewing.

Thomas Keneally

Cover illustration

Audiobook edition

Thomas Keneally, born in 1935, is a prolific Australian author with a long (and still continuing) career. He was shortlisted for the Booker prize four times between 1972 and 1982, one of which he won, and he was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin three times between 1967 and 2003, two of which he won. These were for seven different books! That’s impressive. However, the book reviewed by Maurice Dunlevey in The Canberra Times in 1965 was not one of these. It was for his second novel, The fear.

The reviewer was Maurice Dunlevy and he compares Keneally’s book with Things as they are by American author, Paul Horgan. Both, he said, were about the loss of innocence in boyhood, and both were true to this type of writing. They were also, he continued, “similar in that they deal with Catholic boyhood. That, however, is where the similarity ends.”

Horgan is successful, handling the subject “with a sensitivity surprising from a writer best known for fat volumes of historical fiction and a Pulitzer Prizewinning history”:

Horgan knows exactly what his subject is and he deals with it imaginatively and economically.

In contrast, he describes Keneally’s book as

a novel in search of a subject. Keneally doesn’t know where he is going and his characters don’t know where to take him.

The only imagination displayed in this book is that reportorial kind we expect from the great Australian tradition, the novel written under a coolibah tree.

He then goes on to (vividly) explain this tradition: it requires that

the coolibah tree should be accurately described, branch by bloody branch. The novelist must be there, on the flamin’ spot, mate, so that he can report on the tree and the nearby jumbuck with photo-graphic accuracy.

Anyone who has read ten Australian novels has read seven that were written under this realistic coolibah tree with a thumbnail dipped in the tar of experience.

The problem is that these novels are not “illuminated by imagination; they are enchained, bolted, riveted to experience — the novelist’s own actual physical experience.” These authors, in other words, focus so much on writing about things they have experienced that they are not, in fact, “writing a novel but filing a fact-filled feature story”.

Then he says something that regular readers know would interest me:

But facts are facts and truth often has nothing to do with them. Truth in literature is usually born of the imagination. It is possible that it has some relationship with facts, with hard-earned experience, but it never slavishly follows their dictates.

Events, he continues, don’t just “fall” into the necessary literary form; “they don’t impart their significance to us simply because we record them accurately.” They need to be “moulded in a unique, personal vision”.

Cover illustrationUnfortunately, Keneally does too much reporting of events, it seems. There is no “vision of the world”, “no sense of direction, no consistent subject or theme”, just “the reporter’s eye for inconsequential detail”. Dunlevy’s assessment is that The fear reads more like “a collection of notes for a novel, perhaps fragments of an autobiography”.

I don’t know what Keneally thought at the time, but I do know that he can be reflective, rather than defensive, about his earlier work. Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Susan Wyndham, wrote in 2013 that Keneally has described The fear “dismissively as the obligatory account of a novelist’s childhood.” (Interestingly he republished/rewrote it in 1989 as By the line.)

Nancy Cato

Cover illustrationNovelist Nancy Cato was one of the writers that last week’s Soviet author, Daniil Granin, met. The Canberra Times article, I read, is by John Graham, who reviews her latest novel, North-west by south. I chose this article for Graham’s thoughtful commentary on Cato. He starts by calling her “a curious phenomenon in Australian literature, a feminist without a formed social outlook.”

He compares her with her more literary contemporaries — Eleanor Dark, Kylie Tennant, Eve Langley and Dorothy Hewett. He says they

have all expressed definite views on society through their novels. Mostly, they are militant socialist rather than purely feminist ideas, a tradition of political awareness handed down to them by Mary Gilmore and Katherine Susannah Pritchard.

But, he says, Cato has never

been drawn into this dynasty. She is closer to the individuality of Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson in her poetry, much more aggressively feminist in her novels.

However, he continues, she never fully developed her feminism “in the social sense”, and consciously kept away from “political awareness”. Delie in her Murray River trilogy has the pioneering spirit that comes from one side of Australia’s “feminist tradition”, he writes, but she doesn’t have the social viewpoint that might have made her “a memorable figure”. (Little did he know that actor Sigrid Thornton would make her memorable via the TV miniseries, All the rivers run, in 1983!)

Seriously, though, he continues to say that Cato “has found a welcome new theme in the historical novel”, Lady Franklin, about whom I’ve written here before. Graham suggests that Franklin suits Cato much better  than Delie:

Lady Franklin’s feminism is of the same activist variety, but much more capable of development through her position as a Governor’s wife. She also has the virtue of reality, a considerable advantage for a writer with limited powers of character development.

Oh dear, that’s a backhander isn’t it! Anyhow, he goes on to detail how Cato makes a better fist of this protagonist in terms of feminism, and says that

Miss Cato handles all these subtleties with impressive dexterity, indicating a considerable technical development since she laid Delie to rest.

It’s not perfect, though, because Cato “has still not controlled her tendency, to rush from one event to another without pausing for significance”. He gives examples, such as her handling of Mathinna, the indigenous girl adopted by the Franklins. He feels that Cato became “so enmeshed in the historical details that the book is not satisfactory either as a character study of an unusual woman or as an examination of Franklin’s governorship”. Handling their historical research is, of course, a common challenge for historical fiction writers.

Graham details other gaps, suggesting for example that Lady Franklin and her husband’s efforts “to better the conditions of the convicts and to solve the problem of the disappearing Aborigines are treated so scantily that they might better have been eliminated altogether”. This aspect of the Franklins’ lives is a tricky topic that many have tried since Cato (and I list some of them in my post linked above.)

However, he also has positive things to say, calling it Nancy Cato’s “best novel so far” and suggesting it “indicates a direction in which a writer of her talents and limitations might develop further”. It’s the sort of review a writer may or may not like, but it’s clear, detailed and respectful.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed these little dips into 1965 Australia via its newspapers. I have!