At home with Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe, a Yuin, Bunarong and Tasmanian writer, has turned his craft to picture books. Found, illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, is the story of a lost calf finding his family. It is also an allegory for the Stolen Generations.

In this interview, Bruce introduces the stunning illustrator Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, explores the real life impetus behind Found, reflects on Dark Emu and looks forward to his forthcoming novel, Imperial Harvest.

Note, this interview was recorded via Zoom and in parts you can hear Bruce's dog in the room with him.

You can read Astrid's previous interview with Bruce Pascoe about Imperial Harvest here.


ASTRID: Bruce Pascoe is a writer of Tasmanian, Bunurong and Yuin descent. He has worked as a teacher, a farmer, a fisherman, a barman, a fencing contractor, a lecturer, an Aboriginal language researcher, archaeological site worker and editor. Bruce is an award-winning author, and he has brought us Dark Emu and Younger Dark Emu. His latest work is his first picture book, Found, illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lweis. In 2018, Bruce was the recipient of the Australia Council for the Arts prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.

Welcome to The Garret, Bruce.

BRUCE: Thank you.

ASTRID: Now, thank you for speaking to me via Zoom today. It is one of the least personal ways of interacting with anyone, but in the time that we find ourselves in 2020 it's also I guess a useful tool.

Now Bruce, I assume you have heard what I'm about to say many times, but I feel when I read Dark Emu for the first time – and I've now read it twice – as an adult I felt like you gave me an understanding that I didn't have before, an understanding that I didn't have, that you know, wasn't on my school curriculum in the 1980s. And that's not what we're here to talk about today, but I just want to say thank you, because it was a moment of my adult life that I appreciate. And I can't wait to my nieces are old enough that I can read Younger Dark Emu to them, because I hope they have that experience that you gave me decades before I ever had it in my life.

BRUCE: Well thank you. I'm grateful for the role the Elders who've had enough patience with me and my ignorance when I was younger to instruct me well. And my grandmothers, both of them, were very conscientious about making me stay at school, and that provided me with the tools to write the book. So, all the material was always there, my grandmothers gave me the tools in which to analyse that material. So, I feel very lucky as well.

ASTRID: So, we are of course here to talk to you about your latest remarkable work, the children's boom, the picture book Found. Now that's obviously illustrated by Charmaine Ledden- Lewis. This is your first picture book. Bruce, can you introduce us to the story?

BRUCE: Well, I bought this farm on the Wallagaraugh River so that I could grow Aboriginal foods so that there would be ongoing employment for Aboriginal people, but also that we would be seen by other Australians as being a normal part of the agricultural economy and thus a normal part of Australian life. I wasn't really keen to be jumping up and off tractors at my age, but I thought that it was very important. So, I tried to buy a farm closer to New South Wales, but it was too expensive. I ended up buying a farm that I knew quite well because I was friends with one of the owners from the past. But it was very rundown, and when I inherited the farm I also inherited a dog, some chooks, some horses and a calf.

And I felt really sorry for the calf because it had escaped from the stock crate when its mother and sisters and brothers were taken away, and it was left on its own. And I watched this calf over a number of weeks, and it gradually gravitated towards the horses. Perhaps they’ve got four legs, you know, they’ll have to do sort of thing. But it was desperately lonely, and as it got older and matured and stopped becoming a calf and became a cow it was then looking for serious company and was starting to bellow and fret, and I felt really sorry for it. And my neighbour’s cows had broken into my farm a number of times. And I was trying to grow grass for the grain, so I didn't actually want cows on the property, I'd sold all my own. And I had this poor, lonely calf. And when my neighbour’s cows broke in the last time, I thought, ‘Well, here's my opportunity’. So, I opened the horse paddock gate and got the calf out and introduced her to the herd.

And so that's the basis of the story, my feeling of discomfort that a fellow creature would be lonely. So, I tried to do something about it, and the calf went to a very good home and being a cow, she's still with us and is part of that herd looked after by the redoubtable Alphonso the bull.

But also the dog that was left on the property by a person who wasn't a very kind animal owner – I must say not my old mate but another person – was going to be killed. But instead of that I begged a mate of mine to look after this dog for two days because I had to go away. I just said, ‘Look after this dog for two days or it's going to be shot’. So, you know, being a good-hearted person she looks after the dog for two days. I come back to collect my new dog – I already had two – and she said, ‘Well, you're not getting her back. She's ours’. So after two days that dog had wheedled its way into a house that had never had a dog, because I thought I'd be safe giving it to them because they didn't like dogs, but she was such a beautiful animal that she won their hearts and now dominates the household.

ASTRID: It's interesting that you've just told me two stories about animals, a calf and a dog, and of course in Found it's a very simple story of an animal of a calf finding home but it means so much more than that as well. Before we get into the different layers of meaning that, you know, we can read into Found, what prompted you to write this as a picture book?

BRUCE: Well, this is the important thing – all the attention should be going to Charmaine, because this whole venture was for her. We didn't know it was her at the time, it was a competition to illustrate a book. Magabala asked me to write the book, and I had already started writing the story of that calf and I thought, ‘Well there it is. It won't be a small teenage novel, it'll be a picture book for kids’. So that's how it happened.

But the whole the whole emphasis was on Charmaine, and we want the publicity to be for Charmaine. But it also should be for Magabala, who are trying to encourage young Aboriginal writers and artists. And they are Small Publisher of the Year, so that's, you know, a magnificent coincidence for them, but it's also a magnificent coincidence for Australia, because they've got at last a recognised Aboriginal publishing company. And that should have been recognised ten years ago, but it's now recognised. They've got a magnificent CEO in Anna Moulton, a great publisher in Rachael, and now they've got a brand-new book illustrator Charmaine.

I've worked with Rachel Bin Salleh for twenty years or more, so they're like family to me. You know, when they're in Victoria they stay with me and you know, I feel like Magabala is part of my family home. And now Charmaine is, you know, one of my nieces.

ASTRID: It is a physically beautiful book, and Charmaine’s illustrations are gorgeous. You put the words and she wrote to those words. What was the collaboration like between you and Charmaine?

BRUCE: Well, Charmaine lives remotely and I live remotely, but we live remotely on opposite sides of a very remote continent so it was just a matter of sending text around, text and art, and we worked with Rachel and we worked with Anna. So, it was a collaboration between a number of us. And we emphasized some themes and rejigged other things and compromised on others, you know, which is just the reality of publishing. But the whole thing was for Charmaine, was to allow Charmaine the room to develop her art and for Australia to win another artist. And Australia, like any country, needs artists. We need to have art to soften and thrill the hearts of our children, or otherwise if we don't soften and thrill the hearts of our children we will harden and horrify the hearts of our children, and it's just not a future that is survivable. We need better people.

ASTRID: This interview is going to be published on the day that Found is released and goes into bookstores. Have you seen the reactions of any little children to the artwork yet?

BRUCE: I've seen a couple. You know, obviously I'll read it to my grandchildren, and other random children who fall in my path are made to read it. [Laughter] But the kids find illustrations really appealing, and that's a lovely thing. If they can relate to the pictures they can relate to the story, and it's the perfect vehicle to introduce young readers to words, because everyone loves art, and to introduce new readers to a new artist, that's a fantastic thing.

ASTRID: You also use Found to introduce young readers to quite profound topics. I mean, this could be read as an allegory for the Stolen Generations. And on one level this is a narrative about a lost calf who finds a home, but it is also a way maybe to start conversations with younger children about Australia's history and what they need to know. Was that your intention to start with?

BRUCES: No, my intention was to tell the story of the calf. I felt sorry for the calf and it started just out of that feeling of looking down into the paddock every morning and every night and anytime during the day and seeing that animal trying to get on with its life on its own. So, I felt a deep compassion for the calf, because it's such a human… Loneliness is such a human feeling. And all animals can feel it to a greater and lesser extent. That's why dogs howl when you shot them outside, they want to be with you. That's why the calf bellowed, because it wanted its family. So, it really touched me like that, but it didn't avoid me that it could also talk to children about what it's like to be alone, to be separated from your family and what it means.

And it's not just for Aboriginal children who have been separated from their families, it's also for their parents and their grandparents and their aunties and uncles. It's also for migrant children who have been torn away from their parents for reasons that have never truly been explained. So, I see it as a human story – the emotion of loneliness which we all feel which we can all survive.

ASTRID: Loneliness is a universal emotion. I did notice in the book itself you repeat the phrase ‘I'm alone’, and you know, as it's repeated a few times it really is a haunting… You know, as an adult it's still has a profound effect on me.

I know you haven't written many children's books before, Bruce, this is your first one. What are the rules of putting words into a story for children? Is there a word limit? Are there words that you're not allowed to use? I mean, how did you find that?
BRUCE: Writing for very young children is a very tough gig because there are some things you've got to avoid. You don't want to scare the living daylights out of children, you know, in the process of nurturing them you don't want to vandalise their souls. But I've written quite a number now of teenage novels, that's much easier but there are still restrictions on that. I'm currently writing an adult novel and it's like being let out of jail in many ways because you can do whatever you like!

But I love writing for children because children then write to me ,and you know, I've visited schools in all parts of the country and private individuals who have asked me to come and look at their guinea pig, you know, that sort of stuff. And there's a lot of guinea pigs I haven't looked at, incidentally, but I do… When a kid says, ‘Come and look at this kitten, it's outrageous look what it can do!’. And in fact that the kitten does basically what all kittens do, but if it's your first kitten you think it's pretty remarkable and you want someone to know about. So, I've done a lot of that, and you know, you learn so much from children about what they would like to read and how they would like to read. But also for someone my age who has seen quite a bit, to be in the company of a joyous child – there is nothing to be. And you know, my grandchildren are here on the floor now because of the COVID virus. They can't go back home. So, the whole family is here, and we're living in a two-bedroom house, and you know, it's wonderful. On the farm at the moment, we've got nine people and six dogs and two horses. And no one's no one's lonely here.

ASTRID: I suspect that you are having a much better experience in the year of coronavirus with your family than many people including myself in the cities where we are all alone in little boxes, and it's not particularly pleasant.

BRUCE: Well, I'm very conscious of my luck and good fortune, I do appreciate it. And I'm sorry, because I have friends of mine who are locked in very small places and it's unpleasant. I'm not the sort of person you'd want to share a room with under those circumstances, because I'm so used to open spaces.

But also, this house survived the bushfires, and how it survived is a miracle in itself. You know, I kept the two horses that were that calf's companion. They survived the fire. I just let them out of the paddock and I said, ‘See you later’. We never saw them again but we heard reports about them. And the day after the fires calmed down – that's five weeks later – that morning I walked out and they were waiting by their gate wanting to be let back into their paddock, you know, they knew so well the danger of the fire. They also knew when it was over. So, they came home. So, you know, I lost all the crops, I lost fences, I lost sheds, but everything else that was dear to me survived. It was saved for me, you know. I worked pretty hard, so did my neighbours, we didn't lose a property on this river. So, we've been really lucky because it was it was hairy and scary for a long time, and we didn't lose a house on the river. We did at Gypsy Point, we lost 140 in at Mallacoota, and those people, I don't know. I don't know how they survive it. I'm just really lucky. You know, I've been lucky all my life and I continue to have luck.

ASTRID: Bruce, I'm so glad to hear that your family and your house and your home was okay. I remember watching the bushfires and I remember seeing the reports of you as a volunteer firefighter at Mallacoota. As a reader and as someone who loves your work that was such a beautiful and shocking thing to see you giving your time like that. So, thank you.

BRUCE: Well, there were hundreds doing it. You know, people do talk about me because of you know books and so forth. But there are so many unacknowledged people there. I can real off 100 names of heroes, including Lynn Harwood. Lynn was in the fire shed when it caught fire and kept on working. Looked around, saw the fire shed was on fire and kept on working. And there were kids – you know, when I say kids I mean 30-year-old men and women – who have reputations of disrepute, you'd have to say, but some of them saved eight or nine houses on their own. They were the people who stood up, that's what cheers me up. My first half hour when I came through the fires to get back to my farm, I found a person standing on the Wallagaraugh Bridge, and it was one of these young ratbags and he'd saved about six houses including his mum's and his grand mum's, and he was shaking with weariness, and I had to make him go to bed and have a drink of water. But he was the only human I saw, this ratbag kid that no one would have thought was capable of any good had saved the river.

ASTRID: That is such a beautiful story, Bruce. A real story of someone not being a ratbag but someone doing what needs to be done because they are the person there.

BRUCE: Yeah.

ASTRID: Bruce, a few minutes ago you mentioned a novel that you're writing. And I have read you say in public before that you don't want to be remembered for your YA novels or even for Dark Emu, you want to be remembered for this novel. I believe it's called Imperial Harvest. How is Imperial Harvest going?

BRUCE: It'll be published by Magabala early next year. It was going to be this year, a lot of things have happened and it won't be until next year now. The novel is a novel about why too many men are too prepared to kill the babies of people they don't know. I'm talking about war. I'm talking about the slaughter that war is. And I just can't understand how you can do it, but I do understand there are thousands of people who will do it, because we send soldiers away who do it for us, and other nations have soldiers who will do it to us. Why is it, why is it that normally good people do these horrible deeds? And so, the novel is trying to come to terms with that impulse in the human soul.

And people say, you know, humans are like that, we're war like creatures blah blah blah. Well, for 120,000 years on this continent we had no war. This is the remarkable thing that Australians should learn about their country, that despite the fact that we were humans and could get cranky and could bash each other up and get really angry with each other and hurt each other emotionally and physically, we never went to war for the land. That's the difference. So, there was never large-scale murder. Now, the rest of the world needs to learn about this, but Australia needs to learn about it first and tell the rest of the world that humans do not have to kill each other in order to survive. You can get cranky, because you're a human, you know, you've got a bad temper so you can get cranky, but you must not go to war for the sake of the land, because you don't own it.Private ownership of land allows people to think that they control the land. But in fact, Mother Earth ,she controls us and we should respect her so much.

ASTRID: Bruce, you are so very good at articulating and writing the words and the stories and the lessons that we all in Australia and around the world need to hear. Thank you so much for your words and your stories, and congratulations on Found. It is gorgeous from you and Charmaine, and I am looking forward to your novel in early 2021. I will line up to get it Bruce!

BRUCE: Good on you. And you have to thank my grandmother, not me. My grandmother was the hero in our family, and my mum, and my dad, and my aunties and uncles, they were their heroes. Hardly any of them went to school, I'm just doing what they weren't able to do.