At home with Tony Birch

Dr Tony Birch is an activist, historian and essayist. He is the author of three novels - The White Girl (winner of the 2020 NSW Premier's Award for Indigenous Writing and shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Prize), Ghost River (winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing), and Blood (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award).

He is also the author of Shadowboxing and four short story collections, Dark As Last Night, Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People, as well as the poetry collection Whisper Songs.

Tony appeared on The Garret in 2020 and spoke in-depth about The White Girl.

Tony Birch_The Garret


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Tony.

TONY: Thank you very much.

ASTRID: Now, you have not one, but two works being published in 2021. The poetry collection, Whisper Songs, and the short story collection, Dark as Last Night. That is a lot for anyone, but it feels a huge achievement from the outside as a reader, given the state of the world over the last 16 months or so. So can you tell us what explains two books within a few months of each other?

TONY: Well, it is in part because of the last 16 months. So that regarding the short story collection, Dark as Last Night, I had, I think, probably about six stories that were finished, and in the poetry collection, Whisper Songs, there may be, I think, three or four poems that had been previously published in magazines, et cetera. But I actually found that last year in particular, that when I was in lockdown, or from about March to September, I wrote enormous amount, both poetry and the short fiction, and I actually found the lockdown incredibly productive. And I suppose people might think, well, that's because you had time and space because there's nothing else you could do, particularly in Melbourne when we had a very severe lockdown, but it just happened to coincide with a really intense creative sensibility. So by that I mean that you use the term that you're on. I just felt that I was on that. There was a lot coming to mind that I wanted to write about.

The poetry in particular came during a fairly intense period and I'm ready to admit this. So I wrote most of those poems probably within weeks of beginning and finishing, and the stories I was writing relatively quickly although the ideas for those stories had been calculating for quite some time. So I found a really intense period of creativity really served me well at the same time that there was nothing else I could do anyway. I was really pretty much locked at home as most people in Melbourne were.

ASTRID: Tony, what you have just said brings me a great deal of happiness. I have spoken to many writers and poets recently, and very few of them had a productive 2020. I respect your work, a great deal. And the idea that you found 2020 in Melbourne, where we both spent last year and are to be honest in lockdown as we record remotely today, I find that just a beautiful thing, Tony. Melbourne had a very different experience than much of the rest of Australia over the last year or so. How did that isolation, all that space and time, influence any of the creativity that you did experience?

TONY: Well, I suppose something that became more acute than usual, I talk about this a lot, and probably when I taught writing I used to drive my students crazy, about the powers of walking and running. And I've always done that. I've certainly been running for about 40 years, but what happened to me last year, two things coincided. Is that that daily limit of 5km became obsessive. In the sense I felt, well, I've got this one hour, I have to use it to exercise and I have to explore my 5k limit. Which of course becomes 10k, because it's 5km out and 5km back. And I was running most days, I was walking most days and taking a lot of photographs. And it did coincide with a fairly intense period of grief following the death of my younger brother the year before so that my brother's anniversary of his first year of his death occurred at the beginning of lockdown.

I remember quite distinctly because it was March 26 last year and it wasn't possible to see any of my family, which would have been such an important day. So we couldn't see each other. I spent many days, many, many weeks and months walking and running and thinking about my brother very intensely. And it did become quite helpful, quite therapeutic, that being gathered around the river or being walking around in Melbourne where we'd grown up and spent all our time together, it really did allow me both the solitude, because there weren't many people out and about, and the time to process how I was feeling. So I actually, fortunately, I didn't feel lonely. I felt alone, which is quite different. Being alone was helpful to me. To be honest, I didn't want to talk to a lot of people. I didn't want to have a lot of interaction.

So, it gave me a lot of time to be quite meditative and clearly that came through in the work, both in the poetry and the short fiction. And particularly with the poetry, there're some deeply personal poems about my younger brother, but also the poems that I wrote about country and being along the river really came out of that same experience, as did several of the stories. So it's not something I would have welcomed, but all that time and period allowed me the time and space to do a lot of reflective thinking while it was quiet, not rushed and not busy. So strangely, it sounds odd to say it, but I was fortunate to have that time to myself.

ASTRID: I'm going to say again, Tony, it is a wonderful thing to have found and accessed writing and art and creativity during 2020. You obviously have taught students before. And although you didn't say this phrase, what you just said made me think about writing as therapy. And I know many of my students want to write as therapy. Is this the first time you've wrote as therapy? As such? Or have I misinterpreted what you said?

TONY: No, I think that it's a really important question because I would have probably over the years rejected the idea of writing as therapy and maybe thinking that I'm an artist and I'm not trying to avoid self-examination. But I would say that that's a bit deluded on my pardon. I'm not openly dishonest, but a bit superficial because I think that one, what I do know, what I've always known, what my writing is about, is it's the only way that I can make sense of the world in an articulate, rational manner. And when I say rational, I don't mean that in a dry way, just to try and make sense of how crazy the world is at times. And I would say therefore, in relationship to my brother's death, which was quite sudden, very shocking and very, very difficult to deal with in some ways. I had a really difficult weekend, just past, thinking about a particular memory of my brother, so with great difficulty.

What I would say is that when I started to write about him, I felt quite guilty. I didn't want my brother's life and death to be about creativity and art, or I didn't want him to become a subject matter, if that makes any sense. But what I have to admit too, after being quite hesitant to do so, writing about my brother, which I've done in the poetry books, some stories in the fiction book and in a couple of walking essays I did for Meanjin, I would have to say that it's therapeutic in the sense that it allowed me to have my brother close with me and to feel connected with him and to resolve a couple of issues that had been troubling me.

So to answer your question, in hindsight, I'd have to say that it was therapeutic in the sense that it brought about clarity for me and a lot of peace to be quite honest. A lot of peace. So having said that, if I were teaching writing, it's something you couldn't manufacture. I don't think you can do it as a sort of a provocation. I think probably for most people, the impact of writing on your emotional self comes, if not after the event, through experience, rather than some sort of exercise, if that makes sense.

ASTRID: It does, Tony. You just said that you didn't want to give the impression that your brother was subject matter. Having just spent the weekend reading and reflecting on your poetry collection, it feels like an honour to read, and it feels like a written honouring of your brother, but also your wider family. This is dedicated to your brother, but also a personal collection where you look back at your ancestors and of course your children and grandchildren who have come after you. Can you explain what it is like for you as the creator and the artist and the poet to share these intimacies with the world?

TONY: Yeah, that's another really important question. So clearly there are several poems which are about my relationship with Wayne, my younger brother. I did talk about that period of intensity last year, and there is a poem that I wrote for my grandson, Archie, who's just about to turn three. And we were within our 5k radius last year, we were in the cemetery, Carlton cemetery, which I visit quite a lot. And we went to the children's graves. These are the graves of children who passed soon after birth or were born stillborn. And it's a very poignant part of the cemetery. And it's a really important part of the cemetery because historically often parents whose child was born stillborn, didn't have a funeral, didn't have a grave site. The baby was taken from these people when they needed most to care for their child who had passed.

And I went there and my grandson was sort of laying on the grass. It was a beautiful sunny day. So the poem that I wrote about that experience is something that really is just trying to capture that emotional snapshot of being there with him and him falling asleep in my arms. And that sort of contrasted the mourning for babies that have passed and having the wonderful beauty of having my grandson with me. There's one for my granddaughter Isabel, and a poem for my daughter Grace, and my daughter Nina. Each of those poems is a way of trying to value those young people and to value an aspect of their life. My daughter Grace, the poem that I wrote to her is based on, this was an old poem by the way, this is a poem that I'd never published before, which I literally had in my drawer of important things for 20 years. And it's a poem I wrote the first day of her primary year at school and reflecting on her sense of anxiety of having to go to school.

So I think firstly at a personal level, they're just ways of legitimating that intimate connection. I think the issue you say, sharing with the world, is a different issue. And it's not to dismiss how readers value the work, but once I put a book out there, whether it'll be fiction, short stories, novel, or a poem, I know I have no control over that relationship. I have no sense of the life of that poem. And all I hope is that it brings value to people who read the poem. But I don't know if it does or not. I don't need to know. I start to then think as a reader. How do I react to poems that people write? And how do I react to stories? So I really do have a strong belief in the work having its own life beyond me. And I like to wonder about what it's doing out there. I like to wonder what it's doing when someone's holding a poetry book in their hand and reading. But I don't know that.

I mean, we only know that occasionally we have the opportunity to speak to people about our work and particularly a local library book groups, which I love doing. The relationship between a reader and a writer is most acute in those groups. When you go to a local library, you're usually sitting down with about a dozen people. Usually it's 11 older women and one older man. And they tell you something about the work that you didn't realise, or they got something of value out of the work that you didn't fully understand. And when that happens, it's in fact the richest outcome of writing that you can have, when a reader tells you something about your work that they enjoyed or that they got value from, that you weren't aware of. And it doesn't get better than that. That is what I live for as a writer, to hear what readers think and learn from what readers think. So I hope those personal poems touch people, but I have no real sense of how it will touch them.

ASTRID: I have no doubt it will touch them. Tony, you brought pleasure to my life over the weekend when I am literally stuck in lockdown and not really going anywhere. And Melbourne is grey and cloudy and not the happiest place it can ever be. So thank you personally, Tony. So much of your life and your work is centred on the area that we both find ourselves in now, Carlton and Fitzroy, and maybe the surrounding streets and suburbs. You have described to us how you have explored the hyperlocal area in lockdowns lately. Would you ever turn your art to along homework, along home fiction work, exploring the experience of COVID and lockdowns on your area?

TONY: No. Oh, well I have. Sorry, I have. In the new story collection, there's a story called ‘Blood bank: A love story’ and ‘Catching trains with Thelma Plum’. Now they were both written around the idea of lockdown. They're both shorty stories. I think they're about 1,600 words each. And the story, ‘Blood bank: A love story’, was written last year during COVID and the real life story behind this is that I found out that if you give blood you could go anywhere you like. You could go outside your 5k limit. And I had given blood many, many years ago, but not for some time. So I just thought, I'll just go and give some blood because it'll get me out of the house. So I used that as an excuse to get out. And I went into the city and went to the Red Cross and gave blood. And I wrote a short story based on that experience, because then I was making observations about how vacant and empty the city was, except there was still a relatively high number of homeless people in the city.

And I walked past a guy who had that sign about what his life was going and what he was going through and he had his hat in front of him, but there was really no one to put money in his hat. And going into the blood bank, it was quite a surreal experience of how often you've given blood or if any of your readers has given blood. But you've got to answer about 40 questions and really they're all about, oh no, sorry, a lot of those questions are about how transgressive your lifestyle has been. About when you had your last tattoo, when you last took drugs, when you last had, I think it was called vigorous sex, I'm not sure. And I answered no to all of the questions. So I realised by the end of the 40 questions, I didn't do anything with my life of recent years that was in any way transgressive. And the nurse who was asking me the questions looked at me with such pity.

ASTRID: I did love that story, Tony, and I noticed at the end that the two characters in this story hold hands and there's a question about, are we distancing or not? I guess I asked a very leading question. I was greatly impacted by the White Girl, several years ago, and I was essentially fishing to see if you would ever write a novel length, exploring what on earth has happened to our city.

TONY: Yeah. I think that's a really important question for a writer because I think you're really onto something because I'm sure many people will and I'm thinking people already are, by the way. Yeah, I think novels are coming out of bed now and I'm sure there will be many novels that either directly or indirectly, and probably more indirectly, touch on this time. For me I think that, and I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with this, I couldn't do it as a commissioned idea. So if someone said to me, if my publisher said, "I reckon a COVID novel is what we want right now," and they're probably right, I wouldn't sort of think, oh yeah, I'll do a COVID novel. I do have to respond to what's driving me psychologically, maybe politically and creatively.

So to give you a sense of what my next projects are, which answers your question, but I'd say that's why I'm not going to do a COVID novel, one of the things I'm interested in now is that, and I hate to use the term without getting jumped on, but identity or identity politics is the way that we are compartmentalising ourselves, or we are compartmentalising to particular distinct identities, and then thinking what sort of identities crossover. And I'm still very fascinated by the fact that one of the issues that I don't think is discussed enough is poverty is class disadvantage. Class in the sort of current terms is sort of a very outmoded sort of concept or identity construction. And I've been doing a lot of thinking and working around homelessness and I have published around homelessness before. In my novel Ghost River, there was a whole cohort of homeless men in that novel. I'm actually thinking of a short novel, which deals with homelessness and disadvantage, which might be set during COVID.

And to say, here are a range of people who we otherwise put in these distinct identity categories, but something they share unfortunately in common is that they're incredibly poor, they're marginalised, they're living on the street and what sort of community might they construct. So I'm thinking about that. So in other words to think that there are terrible aspects that unite people and that is people who have nothing actually find that they have a lot in common. So that's one idea. And the other idea, probably after that, is to do a big feature crime novel set in the '60s, which I've been thinking about for years and years. And probably to be a bit provocative, but just as a teaser, a sort of transgressive anti-woke novel. And I'd love to hear from your readers. Something that really interests me, so people may remember there was a lot of controversy the year before last about the novel American Dirt. Do you remember the controversy around American Dirt?

ASTRID: Absolutely.

TONY: Yeah. So now I'm not suggesting that the controversy around that novel is not legitimate, it's a very important discussion. But one of the things that I'm interested in is why do some people, why are some people able to seemingly get away with the worst representation and other people get held up and put through a series of interrogations. One of the things on that novel that interests me, one of the shout lines of supporting the novel, and if you look at the novel, it was endorsed by 70 people, was Don Winslow, the crime writer. Don Winslow, the crime writer, he had talked about American Dirt as a great novel. Don Winslow has written books which are sort of narco-crime, sort of crime books sort of around the narco-wars between Mexico and the U.S.

Now, I think the representations of Hispanic, Latino, of the Mexican community in that novel are shocking. Shocking. And this is a writer who sells millions of copies of a novel like that. And how does that book go through? How is it that book's not questioned? Hang on, what are we doing here? So I'm interested in the way that we respond to particular texts in a very direct way. And again, we've legitimate criticisms, but there are people who seem to get away with all sorts of, in my view, shocking racial stereotypes, and no one pulls it out. I'm also interested in things like The Wire. Have you ever seen The Wire?

ASTRID: Yes, I have. That was lockdown two. The project in lockdown 2.

TONY: Yeah. Now although one of the responses to this could be, well, in The Wire we have both positive and negative representations of African-American people. The fact is we have a lot of very negative representations of African-American people. A lot of use of language, this language is not appropriate any longer, and I don't mean it in everyday speech, by the way, in art, in culture. And yet this is such a celebrated series. Now I love The Wire. Let me add that. I love The Wire. But again I wonder, why is it that certain cultural artefacts don't seem to get picked up as having problems? And again, I'll be using the term advisedly where half of books could be cancelled or could be relegated to such a state that they're not selling.

I'm really interested in this because I wonder, why do we use a particular approach to some text, visual or written, and not to others? So I'm thinking about that. I'm also thinking about, as people would know, I think I'm a very responsible writer. I take my work very seriously. But also I think, to what extent am I really aware of what I think is appropriate for me to write about? And in some ways I feel like testing it.

ASTRID: Tony, there are two very large ideas in there. The COVID novel, and as an aside, I suspect lots of COVID novels will be written and most of them will be terrible. But the idea of a crime novel set in the area where you tackle the genre, but also who gets to write what and why, anti-woke as you described it, that fascinates me on so many levels. And I just want to take the opportunity to say your work makes me feel like I am at home. I grew up in very poor working suburbs in Sydney that have gentrified in my lifetime, but my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my father lived in Balmain when it was working poor. And your writing is sort of the only writing I have found in Australia that matches the stories that I heard from my great-grandmother and my grandmother. So if you are writing a crime novel set in this area in the '60s, I cannot think of anything better, Tony.

TONY: Well, and the other thing that, and again, well, this is the challenge. So if I'm going to write a crime novel set in the '60s, the use of language that was used then is very different than the language now. So the question you need to ask, well, how authentic can you convey the language? Because to be honest, if I convey the language authentically on all sides, a lot of that language would be racist language. And a lot of that language would be sexist language. So I don't want to celebrate that language. I do want to put it into a proper context, but if I were to write a novel which completely avoided that reality, it would be as if I was simply sitting in a bubble in the '60s, but really my writing would be addressing all these sensibilities today.

I think that I'm capable of doing it. In my short story collection, Common People, I wrote a story called Frank Slim, which I remember I loved writing the story. And that story interests me in regard to these sorts of what we might call moral ethical dilemmas or how they were culturally. So in that story, just very briefly, a woman who runs a brothel, an older woman, is assaulted physically and sexually assaulted by a local petty criminal and her way of dealing with it, her way of getting justice and revenge, is to hire the most dangerous man in town, who's a man called Frank Slim. And Frank Slim basically does her beating for her in relationship to this man. And yeah, I've discussed the story with a lot of people and people think, well, this is a story about a woman who suffers violence at the hands of a man and the only way that she can get justice is by reducing herself to having to get another man to do that violent beating for her. But when I put that into the historical context of the time, that's what women would have done.

Well, I know women that would do that because they could never get justice off the police. They would rarely get someone to listen to them. And this woman, because she is empowered financially, she seeks justice through whatever means possible. So what I'm saying is that I would hope that when people read that story, it's not about whether this is right or wrong, but how you understand that in the context of the time. And for me, it was a very authentic story to that extent. So if I'm thinking of a crime novel set a bit later in the 1960s, they're the sorts of issues that I need to consider. Because as I said, I'm just not talking about wanting to celebrate or have a sense of nostalgia for that behaviour, but understand the context of that. Understand how systems operated at that time.

And that people, their interactions, I don't want to get technical, but there's a concept called verbalization. And it's looking at social geography of people who lived in working class and migrant areas in the post-war period, both in the Western world, but certainly in Australia and the U.S. and the UK, and the people use language, not as a means necessarily to harm, but as a means of defence and a performative thing. So what people say is not literally what they mean. And it's just really balancing act of understanding how that operates, that the way people talk is much more symbolic than the literal meaning of the word.

ASTRID: I like to think that you have the skill to do this, Tony.

TONY: Well, if I don't, I'll get in trouble.

ASTRID: Well, I think you might be able to talk your way out of any trouble that you get in, Tony. That is my sneaking suspicion. When you think about your two latest works, poetry and short story, Whisper Songs and Dark as Last Night, what are the themes that you think that you have written about? I have a list here, but I'm interested in what you would say.

TONY: I love lists. Look, I think in relationship to the poetry collection, it's divided into three sections, I think ultimately that is about love. It is about injustice or seeking justice. And it is about a love of place. I think a love of place or privileging of place runs through all of the free sections. And I think that the relationship between people and place or landscape or country are vital to the stories. I think in the short fiction it ranges so that I tend to have in my short story collections, there's always, I think, quite distinct stories about injustices to deal with Aboriginal people. There are always stories, I think, about the sort of complexities of domestic life. So the title of story Dark as Last Night, looking at domestic violence, is a theme that I've written about since my first book Shadowboxing.

And I think there also occasional sort of crazy stories that I like to write. And when I say crazy I'm using that in inverted commas. Animal welfare is a story in that collection that I just loved writing. And it's sort of quite surreal. So for me as a realist writer, it's interesting that when I do write a story that is not so real, although if you're taking drugs anything's real, I suppose that people sometimes get surprised at those types of stories that I write as if I'm a realist writer and I shouldn't sort of branch out at all. So I think really it's a love of place. It's family connection, and it's dealing with injustice.

And also failure. Failure is a big theme in my writing. And I don't mean that in a negative sense. I mean the fact that life is difficult and I think that we fail more than we succeed, or we fail as much as we succeed. And I actually like writing about our flaws and our failures much more than our successes. Even people who like my work often say that it's grim. I don't think it's grim at all, but you got to defer to your critics. You can't get out there and take them on. But I think that what they mean, sometimes the subject matter is difficult. And I like that. I like to look at life in a way that says, how do we get out of the challenges? I mean, when it's going well, it's easy.

So at the moment I am interested in lockdown and how people respond to it and how do we deal with each other. And I've been very conscious of my family, both my parents, my brothers and sisters and my children. And not seeing myself as a saviour, but knowing that during these times of lockdown, I need to be aware of what they're doing and be conscious to make sure they're okay. We keep ourselves as socially connected as we can and look after each other. So this is when, I think, our goodwill towards each other is tested. And I think some people have had really good experiences socially with lockdown and some people haven't. And I'm not saying it's enjoyable, but it is what it is. And I'm interested in how people respond.

ASTRID: My final question to you, Tony, is about your family. You do write about family, past and present. Do you get permission beforehand? Do you read poetry and share poetry at home before it's published? How do you talk to your loved ones about something that you were about to bring public?

TONY: I mean, I'll just give advice as a writer to other writers here because I think one of the traps people can fall into is that when they're writing about personal and family experience, they will tend to, well, one approach is to try to disguise the reality so that in fiction they might create a character or just create somethingthat people won't recognise themselves. And that is bound to fail. Everyone, I think around a story based on reality will always know the essence of the story and who's who, so I don't think you can disguise the realities through fiction. So I wouldn't advise anyone to do that. I think what you're asking is really important to the death of my brother in particular. So I'll just explain this.

So my brother had been very sick for about 40 years. He'd had different psychiatric illnesses, which had an impact on him psychologically, but it also had a real impact him physically. So he changed the way he looked and carried himself quite dramatically from when he was a child. And why I say that matters is my younger brother was exceptionally beautiful. And I can say that objectively. People look at photographs of him and he was just such a gorgeous looking boy, beautiful big brown eyes and this massive luscious brown curly hair and an infectious smile. And I said at his funeral that he must've thought he was adopted because he's so much better looking than the rest of us. And when he died, I started to write about him and I felt really anxious about it. I felt strangely that when I sat down to write I felt good about it, but then when I looked at the written page I felt guilty because as I said, I didn't want him to turn into an artwork.

So what I did was I spoke to my mother and showed her the work that I was producing. And all my mom said was, "People who only knew Wayne when he was sick don't really know enough about him." So my work is pretty much all based on when he was a child, those reminisces, and it does convey both his vulnerability and his beauty. So my mum was really happy with me doing that. So I did in that sense get permission. But it might surprise people, generally I don't ask for permission, and that might seem odd. But the reason I don't, and it's been vindicated in my work, one is, my family understand where I am in my family. They understand how I represent them. And I've never had a family member comment on my work in the negative.

And say in a work like Shadowboxing, my first book, which was very autobiographical, based a lot on the shocking levels of domestic violence we experienced in our home as kids. The only people who criticised that book were people who didn't want to consider the fact that we had lived a very violent life because they were complicit in that because they knew what had gone on in our house. So they tried to deny it by saying, "You shouldn't have written these things." Whereas my mom and all us kids, and yeah, we're all of course older adults, we felt completely comfortable with it. And I'm lucky, I think this goes to the heart of your question, is that when writers reveal what we might call family stories, it's often because they're revealing stories that are not widely told or in some cases are held in secrecy.

Now for better or worse in my family, we don't have any secrets. And fortunately, all our discussions have always been very open, around the table, around family. So that again, if I were to use that experience of violence, we've never shied away from talking about this to each other because we think we're entitled to. So I've never felt that I've revealed anything in the sense that this is something that no one knows about us. And I think to go to what you said there, if I did feel that it was an issue of secrecy or private business, I actually don't think I'd write about it. Not out of fear, but maybe that I don't think it's for public consumption.

And I don't know if it's your experience, but I think this is a really strong Aboriginal and working class thing. We don't have the secrets the same way the middle class do. I don't think so anyway. So my experience had been, my friendship group that I grew up with, they wouldn't shy away from talking about these issues. But when I taught at Melbourne University, no one had ever written about violence in families and we know it's there. So I think clearly in the middle class, there's a lot more secrecy about these sorts of issues.

ASTRID: I would hazard a guess the upper class too, the very wealthy as well, Tony.

TONY: I've never got that far.

ASTRID: Neither have I. I'm guessing. Tony, it is always a pleasure to talk to you and to listen to your so articulate reflections. I commend to everybody your short story collection, Dark as Last Night, and your latest poetry collection, Whisper Songs. Thank you, Tony.

TONY: Thank you very much.