At home with Larissa Behrendt

Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai and Kamillaroi woman, is a writer, lawyer and academic. She is the Distinguished Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and at the Director of Research and Academic Programs Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research.

Larissa won the 2002 David Uniapon Award and a 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her novel Home. Her second novel, Legacy, won a Victorian Premiers Literary Award. Her most recent novel, After Story, was published  in 2021. She has also published numerous textbooks on Indigenous legal issues.

Larissa wrote and directed the feature films, After the Apology and Innocence Betrayed and has written and produced several short films. She won the 2018 Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Feature Documentary.

Larissa is on the board of Sydney Festival and a board member of the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Panel. She was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year.

Larissa has appeared on The Garret before to discuss Finding Eliza: Colonial Power and Storytelling. 

At home with Larissa Behrendt


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Larissa.

LARISSA: Oh, it's so lovely to be back.

ASTRID: Now, you have appeared on The Garrett before. I have interviewed you about your non-fiction work, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling. But today I would like to talk to you about your fiction and most specifically After Story, which is your third and latest novel. Congratulations.

LARISSA: Thank you. Thanks. Yeah, I do flip between the two, but this novel's been a long time coming, so it's been great to finally get it out.

ASTRID: I am interested how you flip between the two non-fiction and fiction, and I would actually like to start there. You have a long career. You have worked writing and directing films. You have written fiction before clearly. Highly awarded fiction and you have written many non-fiction works including academic texts. When you sit down to write, what do you get differently from fiction and non-fiction? Where's your impetus to kind of spend your time?

LARISSA: It's such a great question Astrid. I think for me, it's almost like when I've got the idea about what I want to write about, it starts to then become apparent which medium I'm going to use. So, it's almost like the story or the subject matter will choose itself. Sometimes, it's you think you can get a richer seam of ideas through something by exploring it through fiction. Sometimes, the power of the true story means that you should let the facts speak for themselves. One thing I often think about in relation to using film is where I feel like it's going to be a more powerful story if it's told by somebody's personal experience, as opposed to being translated by me, whether it's into fiction or non-fiction. That is a kind of key thing where I think well actually let's think about this as a visual story where we can explore a different form of voice.

I feel like I work in the same area. It's obviously all about issues to do with colonial structures and deconstructing them. It's about the unfairness of laws and policies, how those have impacted on my own community, my own family, me as an Aboriginal woman, but also I think another really strong theme in all of my work is always looking at the agency of Aboriginal people. There's always I think for me something to be really celebrated or to learn from the agency of particularly Aboriginal women in the way they maintain their grace and dignity after going through such difficult things or become generous leaders in the way that they do that. I sort of feel like it's the same project, but I just have to pick different mediums to explore it in.

ASTRID: I love that. A moment ago, you said that this story After Story has been a long time coming. How long have you been thinking about it and how long did it take to write?

LARISSA: I had the first ideas of it. I went on the tour, so I'd obviously been thinking about it while I was pulling the tour together and I probably just had the bare bones of this story of the two main characters and it was more an intuition where I thought, I used to do a lot of those tours with my mother when I was younger. They are just such a claustrophobic environment. You get on the bus, you get off the bus, you get on the bus, you get off the bus and there's not much time when you're apart from each other. So, it seemed like it was a really great narrative device. My then boyfriend and I decided to do the tour to see how it would work.

ASTRID: And of course by tour, you're meaning a literary tour.

LARISSA: A literary tour.

ASTRID: Because After Story is a literary tour around England of Shakespeare and Bronte and Austen and all the rest.

LARISSA: That's right. We went to the Jane Austen villages, the Bronte Parsonage. We did go to Stratford-upon-Avon. We did quite a few walking tours through London to do the different slices of the Bloomsbury and Dickens. We went to Thomas Hardy's house and then we actually went to quite a lot of other places as well. The two had got condensed to fit in with the rhythm of the book a bit.

We took tour maybe about 10 years ago so we've been married 10 years. I guess that's a bit of an indicator of how long ago it was. We went to those sites and I had a lot of ideas, but it was a funny thing. I always said that this was a book that was much more inspired by my work as opposed to my personal life. I guess eight months before I finished the manuscript, I realised that it was actually probably a lot about me and my mother and once I had that epiphany about what I was really writing the rest of it seemed to flow so I guess I had a little bit of personal work to do before I could finish the book.

ASTRID: There is an interesting quote that I actually want to read to you from page 11 of After Story and it reads, ‘I've always liked to know what motivates people, why they do the things they do. That's what reading books is all about. Write as an attempt to reveal truths about human behaviour, about our inner workings, our inner flaws’. As I was reading that I immediately wondered is this Larissa talking, is this part of your experience in the book? So, I guess that's my question to you. You obviously did a lot of thinking to write After Story and it's such a beautiful, I'm a reader and it's such a beautiful experience for me as a reader to go into the literary history that you're going through, but it's not just literary history. You are deconstructing what it's like to be a reader. What it's like to be a reader on the other side of the world in a different time, in a different culture looking at these classics and what is wrong with them and what is beautiful about them and it's a mother and daughter in this hot house environment of the bus tour all crashing together and I wanted your opinions on reading. That sounds like such a lame question, but I mean that…

LARISSA: No, no I love the question because, I still think of myself much more as a reader than a writer and I've loved reading and I think what I've tried to do the book is obviously I look at the literary traditions that we've already talked about, but I also look at the oral storytelling and storytelling in my Aboriginal culture and I love them both equally. So even though there's a lot of exploration about the differences between the two, I became a reader at a really early age. I grew up in a house that didn't have any money, but both of my parents who didn't get the educations they wanted were both self-learners and both read a lot and we always had books in the house and books were given as a reward. If you ever did anything good, you got a book. We were brought up to sort of really value books as treasures.

So not only was that kind of the mindset that my par- I felt very lucky and my mum taught me to write at an early age as well, but reading was what I loved, and I did it escape into them. My brother and I were often the only Aboriginal kids where we were so there was always this sense of being a bit disconnected and a bit isolated. I think we had a very political and intellectual family, which also meant it wasn't easy for me when I was growing up to find like-minded people, I did when I got to university. But it took me a while so I was very much alone or I spent most of my summers reading and I loved those books and I actually, in that quote that you read out, the idea of it's basically we read to- because it helps us understand the world and even as a young Aboriginal girl, I felt I learned a lot about the world from writing Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.

There was something there about the oppressiveness of the society that women were living in and the way in which one's ambition and will can be crippled by your circumstance. I read a lot of Dickens. My dad had me read a lot of George Orwell, who I also really responded to though I haven't put George Orwell so much in the book. These were obviously other authors who really help explain class structure and Dickens through story continues to teach us about what it means to be humane or inhumane and I thought I learned a lot about the world when I was growing up in a world that didn't provide me with Aboriginal stories to read because they weren't published. They were there in our oral histories, but they weren't accessible to me in the same way. And I felt like I really responded deeply to those books and in the process of writing the novel and going back and re-reading those favourites, which I occasionally would pick up again and they just feel like old friends, I almost feel like hugging the physical book. What struck me was how much of what I'd kind of picked up in terms of those bigger ideas about how to understand the world was still actually interestingly disturbingly quite relevant. Virginia Woolf's work, particularly her essays were so of our time and sure we talk more about intersectionality and a whole range of complexities around these issues, but in terms of first brush strokes for a young mind interested in the world, these were really pivotal to me and I feel very affectionate about them. But I do think for me, it helped me understand the world around me.

ASTRID: Much of the narrative in this story is obviously around the literary tour of English authors in England. There is one little paragraph in the novel where you actually mentioned Alexis Wright, Tony Birch and Anita Heiss, all three living, breathing, writing contemporaries of yours. Did you show the manuscript to them, or did you tell them that you were giving a sneaky little reference of them in their work?

LARISSA: No, no, I didn't at all. Alexis has been a huge inspiration to me. Anita and I have known each other since university so there's actually an amalgam of Jasmine, the daughter's friends of various girls that I was at uni with and those women now, I think when they go back and read the book will see bits of themselves in there and Tony wouldn't have seen that. He did very generously give an endorsement for the cover so it was sent to him and he would have had to discover that himself. He's also been a very supportive person as well.

In terms of my writing, I feel sheepish he's so talented to show my work to him, but- and for me they represent not just books that I've loved and being able to then discover a whole new Canon of literature. I think we are living in a wonderful time for Indigenous writing, but have all been people who've really fostered through other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, or really actively involved in the writing community and particularly focused on literacy as well. So, I've got three really good people to give shout-outs to.

ASTRID: I'm glad you just said the word 'canon'. Look, I studied English literature at university. I did the whole go through the white Western canon and many of the texts in that body of work are beautiful and stand the test of time and I am deeply grateful that I got to study them, but the older I get, the less I actually find myself caring about them and the more I get great joy from reading the works of contemporary writers writing today that I can speak to you, like you Larissa and it's just a different understanding of the world built on the shoulders of that cannon, but so much more and so many other traditions and I guess that was one of the many reasons why I so greatly enjoyed After Story.

One of the many things that you explore is the other ways we tell stories and the way that so many things have been left out, people have not been able to tell their stories. They have been silenced. They have disappeared from the pages of history, and I think it's probably time for us to explicitly talk about After Story. Can you give us for those readers who haven't yet read your latest work, the kind of brief overview of the characters and what happens? so we can dive into the themes.

LARISSA: My two main characters, Jasmine who's a young university educated lawyer, Aboriginal and her mother, Della, who never had the same level of education, and they find themselves through various circumstances, but driven by Jasmine to go on this literary tour that reflects Jasmine's reading when she was growing up and it's the way in which Jasmine's trying to connect with her mother after the death of her father. But what sits between them is that decades before, that Jasmine's sister, Della's oldest daughter was murdered, and it looks at the intergenerational trauma that is experienced when a tragedy like that happens in a family and so the tour becomes a device by which they start to confront their pasts, their own flaws, and to think about their relationship with each other.

ASTRID: It is in one reading, an explicit exploration of grief and trauma at the individual level, but also intergenerational, and even for communities and societies and in some ways, nations writ large. You write from the perspective of Della and also her daughter, Jasmine so we kind of inhabit the minds of each and halfway through the book, Larissa, I realised I'm probably more like Jasmine, of an age and education and outlook and backgrounds, but Della was the point of view that I feel I learned from. When Della was having her thoughts about the Elgin marbles in the British museum. My goodness, I felt like that should be on the curriculum and that kind of point of view is something that we would all benefit from having. It was just a beautiful literary device.

LARISSA: I'm so glad you said that and in a strange way, obviously Jasmine is so much more like me. I've read 'The Canon, I respond to it like she does I'm of that generation. I've already confessed that her friends are an amalgam of my friends. I found her really hard to write. I think maybe it was a personal thing too, of maybe there were things about it that I didn't like so much, but I loved Della and I found her voice really easily considering she's not me at all, but she was inspired by an amalgam of several women that have been really important to me, whose voices I can hear. So she was really easily crafted in terms of finding her voice and I had a lot more fun, even though there are obviously parts of her story that are very tragic, but I had a lot more fun creating her and finding her voice and remembering those things that those women would say that would seem like odd things to say, and in some ways, but then you'd think about them and think, oh, actually that's really wise.

Part of that is our dismissiveness in the way that we are- through the education system that we've had and definitely that I had that had a lot less Indigenous content than you would get now, but even so in a way that we're not even conscious of we're privileging, the different ways of speaking, different ways of talking, different ways of learning, different ways of engaging and for Jasmine, it was really, part of her journey was to understand what she'd left behind because she'd been able to be successful in that world and doesn't take anything away from her successes, but it does mean that there's a part of her that's missing because she hasn't connected to it the way that she should.

There's always parts of when you're writing things. I say this about every book I've written, where the characters that you're drawing are being drawn from real life and it helps you engage with those people that you're drawing on. Particularly if they're characters that you have affection about. I always felt that my second book was kind of a love letter to my father after he passed away and I felt like this in writing this, I felt like it was kind of a love letter to those women to say, thank you and actually, I was listening.

ASTRID: At the beginning of this interview, you said that much of your work, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction or for the screen looks at colonialism and how to deconstruct that. There is a very clear thread in After Story. Taking a look at the British empire, what imperialism has done in Australia, but by default around the world. I wanted to ask how much of that was a deliberate intention when you started to write this book, or how much did that naturally flow into the narrative? Because you have set up the structure so beautifully that it just begs to be torn down.

LARISSA: It's always such an undercurrent of my work. I don't have to think about it. I think the stories that I'm inevitably drawn to, and the genesis of the ideas where this was were the absolute inability for our justice system to bring a closure to families who've been victims of crime and that's particularly so in relation to Aboriginal families and I've done a lot of work with victims of crime and I've done a lot of work with families who've had a death in custody. To me, it's not just that even if you have an outcome where there's a conviction or a finding in those systems, there's no way that gives you a closure, but most Aboriginal people who are in those positions don't even get that. The grief that is added to that lack of closure is all consuming.

So to me, there's a failure at the system, but it is racially charged and that system has been structured that way because it's part of a colonial system. Those laws were the same laws that were used to colonise Australia to remove children. They're responsible for the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the out-of-home care system and in the criminal justice system. It's not like I set out to write about those big topics. To me, it's seeing people go through that and seeing the pain and one of the things that really triggered the writing of this story was I would get gobsmacked at how many times white people in positions of power would say to these families, particularly parents who were seeking justice after long periods of time for a death that shouldn't have happened or a death that was wrongly investigated.

LARISSA: And just say, well, you know, I think after this time, you should move on. I could just- it was gobsmacking to me that anyone would think anyone would get over the loss of a child in any circumstance and I- there was just a thing about me when I'd heard that said by some, particularly by one person in a really big position of power to an Aboriginal father. I thought there's no way you would have ever said that if that child was white and so there's just an inherent additional layer in here that inevitably creeps into the stories I deal with because that's what I deal with in my everyday life. To me, it's always more important to delve into the characters and it's a very, as you know, it's always the trick when you're writing either something that's historical or something where you do a lot of research, it's- you really want to tell the reader how much research you've done.

There is a real challenge in trying to pull that back and remain really character focused. But for me, it always comes out of that- the human consequence and maybe that's something we get from reading Dickens that it's hard to find a more powerful opponent of unfair laws than Dickens, but you don't get that as a polemic in his book so bluntly, but you see it by the way the characters are treated and what those institutions and those laws do to people and what they become as products of that system. I think for me, the bigger questions underlie it because it's- they underlie people's actual lived experience every day

ASTRID: In the novel. There is also an explicit exploration of the current justice system and how that so often fails those caught in it, including people who have committed a crime, but nevertheless people in a system that will continue to treat them horrifically and I guess the obvious example is Jasmine, when she is on this literary tour and she is in England. She is continually checking her emails and finds herself thinking about her illegal case that she is working in at home and that case is a young girl who has murdered someone, but there are so many mitigating circumstances that justice will probably never be able to be done because that girl had been treated horrifically by everybody who had power in her life, including the state for so very long and I wondered about why include that strand of the story? Because structurally the book would work without it, but it adds an entirely new layer, an entirely new area for the reader to consider.

LARISSA: Yeah, it's an interesting thing, isn't it? Because, I think in an earlier edit, one of the editors had asked a similar question, do you need this? And sometimes when you're crafting a story, I would say actually and maybe it's just because I'm not as prolific as other writers, but I just feel self-conscious talking about my process, but I come to a lot of things intuitively or instinctively, like I knew I had to put this thing on a literary- this story on a literary tour. I knew that the strange about that character that you referred to, Jasmine's client was a strange, I guess I can't explain why I felt it was important in a intellectual sense because it wasn't a decision to say, well I've got to have that story in it because it says x, y, and z, but it felt to me that what was important was that Jasmine can see these cases that she's dealing with and understand the complexities of intergenerational trauma and be grappling with the idea of causation and effect and justice and punishment.

She thinks about these things deeply, but within her own family context has not been able to ask those same questions and in a way it reflects her ability to see what's around her in her new world as a deflection from asking the hard questions in the world that she thinks she's escaped from back in the hometown that she grew up in. It did feel to me like it was a theme through the story, which was unintentional as well about how society treats children and our responsibility to children and the many ways in which we fail to protect them and the failure to hold people account for that. It felt like that story had something to add in terms of, I've, I've worked with serious offenders for a long period of times and other part of my work in the justice system.

So that story is an amalgam of several stories that I saw, but it is a repeated thing. It's that perennial question as well. People have been victims at what point does their own behaviour complicate the fact that they're victims and we can see that in a very clear case like Jasmine's client, or it can be in much more subtle ways where unchecked behaviour, unexamined behaviour, unexamined patterns of behaviour that are caused by trauma, give rise to another set of circumstances where your agency is very different in those circumstances. I don't have any easy answers to those questions, but I think for me, there were things that were really thought provoking. I wanted a book that would allow a reader to dive in and think about those things in their own way.

ASTRID: That is certainly what you give the reader Larissa. You've released books before and you have released novels before, and I'm always interested in how you, as the creator, as the writer, feel about a work that is now in the public domain, how would you hope your readers respond?

LARISSA: It's a really great question because I'm always conscious of two audiences for my work. I write for them equally. It's obviously really important to me how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers feel about the books and the characters. It's important to me that there's a resonance and that people see the strength and resilience of my characters. In the early feedback I got from the book from Aboriginal women, particularly who I admire and whose opinions I value, the comment they had about how much love I had for the sisterhood was something that was really touching to me that obviously the affection I have, not just for Della and for Jasmine, but for auntie Elaine, who's the real matriarch in the family also based real women whose loss I've mourned in a similar way. That's meant a lot.

For the non-Indigenous audience I write for and for me, I always imagine a reader who is somebody who's interested in these issues and comes from a place of wanting to learn and a place of good. It was a way of perhaps showing some different levels to how the Western canon and Western structures sit beside Aboriginal stories and structures. The first you hope people would just love the book, love the characters and love Della and be glad that Jasmine worked herself out and all of the things that happen. Love Aunty Elaine. Being moved by it, you hope that, but I did hope that by exploring what I've seen as the weaving between of the two cultures, that there was something in that. Particularly as there's more interest in Indigenous knowledges to show how an Indigenous story and I've included two in the book, that to me are really good examples of the layering of Aboriginal stories.

Those stories are often packaged up as dream time stories, children's books like a little parable and parables always have a little moral to them, but there are so much more than that. They tell you about the world around you, about the landscape, about relationships. I think there's also a greater understanding of what Indigenous knowledges can do to help us understand the environment. But within those knowledge systems, particularly our stories, there is a lot about what it means to be part of a community and that's why I chose the second story. The piece earlier in the book about the old man, because it is a story about the importance of looking after children and it just feels like that perhaps there's another conversation we can start to have about what Indigenous knowledges tell us about how we live as a community.

As we look at the challenges that face us going forward. I think we can all agree that climate and sustainability are those, but I think we've got real challenges around how we behave with each other as a community. We worry about the fragility of democracy. We worry about the backlash when we push to have more diverse voices and a greater role for women. We are far from resolving any of those issues even if we are talking about them more indifferently. In fact, the more we talk about them, the more, I think we see a more virulent backlash. It feels like there's some very important things about how we deal with each other that are in those as well. In a way I just was happy to share as you picked up on some of the ways in which our older people see the world that can give you a really different perspective.

I love that comment that is made by Aunty Elaine about how she despairs about people buying things in a supermarket, because when you buy something and it's pre-packaged you never pay respect to the animal that's died, that has allowed you to eat. The more we move away from living so closely with our environment, whatever our cultures are, for Aunty Elaine and then for Della, that it completely explains why we stuff up the environment because we don't understand our relationship with it. Somebody who's just dismissive of supermarket food can be dismissed in a different way, but you should really understand what they're saying. There is a profound knowledge in there that makes us think well, if we are going to live differently, we have to still remember that those relationships with our environment and people might be different, but they are still really important. We have to think about how we them.

ASTRID: We really do. I think that the character of Della is going to stay with me for a very long time.

LARISSA: She will with me too and I was so thrilled when they did the audio book and Shari Sebbens read the role and they sent me a little clip when she was just doing it and I just thought I couldn't have imagined it being done as well as she's done it and I think she's really brought it to life, but yeah, she's a great character.

ASTRID: Thank you so much for your time today, Larissa.

LARISSA: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much Astrid. It's so lovely to talk to you again.