Melissa Lucashenko on the past, present and Edenglassie
Melissa Lucashenko is a Goorie author of Bundjalung and European heritage. She writes about ordinary Australians and the extraordinary lives they lead, and her latest novel is Edenglassie.
Her first novel was published in 1997 and since then her work has received acclaim in many literary awards. Killing Darcy won the Royal Blind Society Award and was shortlisted for an Aurealis award. Her sixth novel, Too Much Lip, won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance. It was also shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Stella Prize, two Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, two Queensland Literary Awards and two NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Melissa is a Walkley Award winner for her non-fiction, and a founding member of human rights organisation Sisters Inside.
ASTRID: Melissa, it is a deep pleasure to be talking to you today. Congratulations on Edenglassie. I finished it last night and I am smiling. This is a great read.
MELISSA: Thank you.
ASTRID: Now, we're recording well before this is out in public, so the questions that I am asking you are purely the ones that occurred to me as I was reading, but that means that when we released this episode, very few people will have read Edenglassie. So, to set up the conversation, can you introduce us to this work?
MELISSA: Sure. Edenglassie is a love story, set in 1855 in the colonial enclave of Brisbane, Meanjin, Edenglassie, those are three different names for the one location depending on your cultural perspective.
ASTRID: You surprise me, I didn't know what I was going to get when I started to read Edenglassie., The very first chapter is called The Fall, and you make it clear that it is set in 2024. Like, is this speculative fiction? Why is Melissa setting this book next year? Because the other time period that we have is the mid 19th century, were back in 1855 for much of the novel. And I thought, what are you doing to me, Melissa?
My kind of initial question here is you have two timelines, that is a very deliberate choice. We have different sets of characters. There is Mulanyin and his love Nita in the 19th century. And then in 2024 we have Granny Eddie, who is a remarkable character. I think everybody is going to remember Granny Eddie, but also her granddaughter, Winona, and Dr Johnny. Can you talk to us about writing the two timelines, which is essentially two different styles, it's historical fiction and kind of contemporary fiction, as well.
MELISSA: I guess the book overall, you'd call it Indigenous Realism. So that takes in every time and is specific to one place. And the place it's specific to is now called South Brisbane, and the village that I've created there in the historic area is called the Kurilpa village, the village of the Water Rat. So what I was trying to do with the two timelines was venture into colonial Brisbane, one generation after First Contact. I didn't want to write a First Contact story, because I think that privileges the arrival of White people as the be all and end all. But what happened in the aftermath? What was happening at a time when Blackfullas and Whitefullas were roughly equal in numbers?
I introduced a contemporary storyline to get away from the dying, racist trope. Because if I've learned anything in 25 odd years of writing Australian fiction, it's that readers are apt to come from a position that Blackfullas are, if not extinct, then so damaged that we might as well be extinct. And so I introduced the contemporary timeline just to show very clearly that we're alive and firing on all cylinders. Granny Eddie is alive and unwell in hospital, but still very much a force to be reckoned with. And yeah, there's a whole host of Aboriginal people and personalities going on in both eras. That was the main driving force behind the structure of the boat.
ASTRID: I said Granny Edie before I'm sorry, Melissa. She is a force to be reckoned with. If I have that much wit and verve if I ever become a centenarian, I will be extremely happy.
Let's talk about her for a moment. She is an amazing character, she jumps off the page. You had me laughing and squealing with glee just from that first chapter, because Granny Eddie falls, but we have her in internal monologue as she is falling on some concrete, which is a horrible thing to have happen to anybody, particularly somebody who has hit 100 years of age. And yet, it was funny. And it was setting my mind up for something like introducing me to a whole new world, Melissa, this world of, you know, Edenglassie. And I also thought that, given the timelines that I asked you about before, this character, Granny Eddie, she serves so many different functions. And you know, I'm a White reader Melissa. It felt like she was the living embodiment of all time in the novels. She reaches back to, you know, she has memories of people who told her what was happening in the 19th century, and yet she's here and the 21st century.
MELISSA: Yeah, yeah. And that's realistic. I spoke to a lot of Elders, both Jagara Elders from Brisbane and other Elders from different surrounding areas. And, you know, colonization or invasion and colonization in the south happened up to three, four, five generations earlier than it did in this part of southeast Queensland. So, you know, when I talked to Uncle Bob Anderson, a Ngugi Elder here, he talks about his great grandmother being removed to Sydney. She experienced more or less this timeline, this era. It's not outside of living memory. But First Contact itself is outside of living memory, mostly, in this part of Australia, and that's one of the reasons I didn't want to write First Contact, I wanted to show that Aboriginal people had an economic role, a social role, a political role, a cultural role, and those all of those interactions went on for decades and decades.
And also, you know, the state of the Frontier Wars, because in 1855 the resistance leader Dundalli was hung, and of course I show that as a central motif in the book. It's a very pivotal era, the mid 1850s. And of course, it flows through into the current day, and that's what the modern characters show. And it's interesting you say that about Granny Eddie, actually, because I gave her the name Eddie, because an eddy is a place in a river where the current reverses, and she's a contrarian. You know, she goes into the hospital after her fall with one attitude, and then she's on pethidine for much of the book, so she's different and more mellow. But she's where things swirl and change, and in a sense, she is the embodiment of the river. That's why I called her Eddie.
ASTRID: I have so many questions, and I'm trying to sort through in my mind which one I want to ask first. Let's stay with Granny Eddie for the moment. You obviously adore writing fiction, but how did you find her voice?
MELISSA: There's a lot of my mother in Granny Eddie. Although my mother was at great pains to mask her Aboriginality for much of her life, and Granny Eddie doesn't. But my Mum was the same vintage as Granny Eddie, more or less. So my Mum's voice, other Elders’ voices, and a fair dollop of that imaginary fairy dust that all novelists need to grab onto and put in the work.
ASTRID: This perspective of Eddie Granny and her granddaughter, Winona, and Winona is very much a main character in Edenglassie as well. They are different. And I mean, partly that's a function of age, Winona is her granddaughter, she's much younger. But also, through their perspectives and their interactions as they spend more time together, we are again seeing different worlds and different outlooks upon the world. How much of that when you write is because you are creating a story that is enjoyable for the reader to read. You're following the characters you know, as they kind of come to you, and how much is that because you are making a comment on the time that we live in?
MELISSA: Winona was kind of my R&R when I was writing the novel. She is so much fun, and very, very easy to write as well, I must add, because of I guess the energy of that character. You know, that young, fierce, brash, self-confident, 20-something edging towards 30-something young woman who hasn't grown up in the racism that Granny Eddie has. She has grown up with relative freedom. And, you know, the spectre of the mission hasn't hung over Winona in the same way that it hung over Granny Eddy. And so, she's, she's very bold, she's very fun. I wanted to talk about the issues that Wenona clashes with Dr Johnny about, you know, people who are nearly identifying as Aboriginal, what Aboriginal culture is, what to expect of the Australian state, and how radical action needs to be to achieve anything. It is a Socratic dialogue, I suppose, but told through these feisty characters. And I hope funny.
ASTRID: They are feisty and they are funny. Now, when someone normally says the term Socratic dialogue, it brings back first year philosophy and people might not find that interesting. And yet, these conversations are alive, they spring off the page. They are a joy to read, but they are also for some readers, most likely White readers like myself, an education. I mean, using the term Socratic dialogue feels like you have a deliberate intention to air this in Australian literature.
MELISSA: Yes, I did. And it's also realistic, because it's a big part of contemporary Aboriginal life. Some people, either safeguarding the community or gatekeeping the community, depending on your perspective, and it's realistic that those two characters coming from those two positions would have the debates and conflicts and the relationship that they do. Yeah, I don't know what else to say about that.
ASTRID: A moment ago, you said that you really enjoyed writing Winona, and she was your R&R in this process. What does make writing enjoyable for you? Or maybe another way to ask that, Melissa, is where is the joy in this for you? How does it feel to spend so much time and so much of yourself creating worlds for us to enjoy?
MELISSA: There's a quote by I think Barbara Kingsolver, who says about writing first drafts that you just have to put your head down and hoe till the end of the row, and I believe what she means chipping weeds out of vegetable gardens. And because this is my seventh novel, the process is very familiar. I went into it knowing I could do it, but having never written historical fiction before, of course. And so that was a challenge. I rang up Tony birch, and I said, ‘Hey, mate, how do I write a historical novel?’ He gave me some really great advice. He said, ‘You don't write a historical novel, you just write a novel’. And that was exactly what I needed to hear. So, I did.
The joy comes in… research is a joy. I love researching historical stuff, I really love it. And I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I suppose weaving the historical material that I had, and just letting it sit lightly in the narrative. And surprising the reader, I love to surprise readers, you know, the things where the man is carving the weapon, you know, all kinds of things, and what we learn at the end about Granny Eddie. And surprising myself. It's not like you're always know what you're doing when you write a book. I realized, I realized quite often actually what is happening for me on a cultural level, after I've written a story. That is always fascinating to me, like the fact of Granny Eddie falling in the first chapter and rising in the last chapter. That’s obviously got a literary metaphor in it, but there's a whole lot of cultural stuff going on there that I wasn't fully aware of until I finish the book, as well.
ASTRID: If I can, I'd like to explore that a little more, Melissa. Are you referring to your own personal experience? Or are you referring to the community and what's happening around you?
MELISSA: I'm referring to Aboriginal theology, which I can't go into in any great detail. But the fall, I called the first chapter ‘The Fall’ to situate it within the Western canon, as well as to say, Granny Eddie is falling here. And it's like, the beginning of the book, the fall, all that Biblical stuff. And I originally had a biblical epigraph actually, I was going to start with that. I think it's from the Book of Matthew, ‘Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they turn again and rend you’. And I had that as the epigraph for a long, long time. And then eventually, I changed it to the one from Jean Rhys and The Wide Sargasso Sea. So yeah, Granny Eddie falls in the first chapter, she rises in the last chapter, and that has a particular meaning in Indigenous theology, of Goori theology of East Coast Australia, but I won't speak too much on that.
ASTRID: Let's talk about your historical research. I know you just quoted Tony Birch, and he said, ‘You don't write a historical novel, you write a novel’. You're good at writing novels, Melissa, but also you did a lot of research for this, going into archives, but more importantly, talking to people and listening to the oral histories of the area. How do you approach that? And I mean, are you recording interviews? Are you writing things down? Are you just sitting with the stories and seeing how they turn up on the page? What is your research process?
MELISSA: I mostly looked at secondary sources. I did go to the archives a little bit, and I went to Trove a great deal. The incident with the bullocks at Mrs Walsh's farm is it's just one of those flukes. I opened Trove, I was looking for something else, probably looking to check a fact or something, and I came across this little clipping in a historic newspaper. It was about these two bullocks that had got their horns jammed together in a stock yard and couldn't be separated. And I thought, wow, that's really an arresting image. So, it made its way into the book.
In a sense, I've been researching this book for 20 years, which is about the time since I read the reminiscences of Tom Petrie by his daughter, Constance Petrie. And that, obviously, was material that was begging to be novelized. I thought about doing it soon after that in the 1990s, I guess it was early 2000s. I didn't, and I'm really glad I didn't, because this is a much better book than it would have been if I'd written it when I was 30 or 40. The slow accumulation of images and yarns, and even dreams.
There was a dream I had in 2017 that was really important to the mood of the book. I was originally wanting to write and say, you know, all these terrible things happened, colonization happened, you need to know about this awful truth. And I had either a dream or a visitation, I really don't think it was a dream, I think I was experiencing something quite unusual. And it was as if the Ancestors came to me and said, this has to be a book of – the only word I can think of is – love. But love is too small a word.
ASTRID: When you say that, Melissa, I immediately think of a story, a scene very early in the book. And it is when Mulanyin is he's got a fish, and he is extremely proud and thinks that everybody else is going to praise him, and this is going to be, you know, a marker of him growing up. And he's told to put it back.
ASTRID: I read that quite a few times thinking, if only we had all Western civilization and had been looking after land with that respect, we would all be in a better place right now. It's a beautiful scene, and that does carry throughout the work.
MELISSA: Yeah, that is a key scene. I worked on that a hell of a long time. You asked earlier in the interview about something about my process, and what brings me joy was something about how did I write the book, and you know, I put my head down, and I hoe to the end of the row. And the book, I think, would have gone through at least 20 edits, maybe 30, a lot of work for the book, to the point where you know, whenever you finish a novel, you're pretty emotionally drained, and you never want to see the bloody thing again, and we just want to go and do something completely different and have a beer. And that was all true a couple of months ago when I put the very final touches to Edenglassie, but I also just had the sense of wonder, and I just sort of sank down onto my land and thought, how did I do that? How did I write that book through Covid, through the bushfires, through everything, through the terrible floods in Brisbane and Bundjalung Country? How did I managed to write the thing, and as for the mental process, if I if I knew how complex and how much work it was going to be then, I don't know that I could have stomached the thought of doing it. But I didn't know that it was going to be the kind of book that turned out to be, you know, your brain, it feels like your brain is a Gordian knot – back to the great classical Western metaphors again – it feels like your brain is this Gordian knot, and you've got to follow strands of the narrative through and bring off a book that mainstream readers are going to enjoy as well as be touched by, and you've got to make your Aboriginal characters fully human and funny and adventurous and bold, and brilliant. And, yeah, it's done now. And that just has to go out into the world and what will be will be.
ASTRID: Melissa, in that explanation that you just gave you suggested quite a few times, almost like you were compelled to, or there was no way you weren't going to, go through the process of getting this into a form that could be shared with the world. This is a huge question and kind of silly, but also I really want to ask, what is that compulsion or that motive for you to do that?
MELISSA: I think writers are born more than made. I don't have a great deal of persistence in the rest of my life. I don't, you know, I go to the gym, but I get slack sometimes. I think it's just the one thing that I'm really, really good at. And so, it's what I'm here to do. Once I commit myself to a book or a story or another piece of creative work, there's a stubbornness in me that that says, okay, you think you're good, let's see how bloody good you are. And you know, and there are so many stories in Australian history just begging to be told. I could have written – God, I just get exhausted saying the words – but I could have written three or four Edenglassies, the amount of material that's out there.
You know, Nita is the servant, the Aboriginal servant of the Petrie family, a pioneer White family in central Brisbane. In the book, Nita is their washerwoman and general servant, she keeps the household running in lots of way, until Mulanyin comes in and sweeps her off her feet. In real life, the Petries had a washer woman in the historical record. And our washer woman, I don't know if she was an ex-convict or not, but immediately before the events that happened in Edenglassie, that White Irish woman was sold by her husband. I would love to have included that in the book, but you just can't put everything in.
That was a precipitating incident, because maybe I do mention it in the book. Originally, I didn't I think it does get a mention, but if mainstream readers understand that even White people were being sold in 1855 in Brisbane, then of course Blackfellas were being sold, of course there was trafficking of Aboriginal girls, of course there was all sorts of stuff going on. I don't know if that answers your question.
ASTRID: It does, Melissa. And there was all sorts of things going on. You also have a scene where Mulanyin is fishing. He's at the river, and essentially a starving young White woman with a child comes up to him and begs for food, and he catches a fish and gives her the food. It would have been a very harsh time to live.
MELISSA: I've been at pains in the Author's Note to say it's fiction, but the parts that are not true to the historic record, I'm fairly sure they all deliberately changed. You know, I did a lot of research. I'm good at research. And you know, the motif of the babies, that Nita and Mulanyin are very distressed about – I might say anymore, because of spoilers – that is that they're in their historic record. It was a very harsh time in lots of ways for most people, especially for Blackfellas, because the civilization that had protected that Country and those cultures for millennia was just being smashed. It was like someone was taking a sledgehammer to it from the fringes and just coming closer and closer to the center of the culture every year, just coming in and smashing and smashing and smashing. I wanted to write about what life was like, despite the smashing. What did love look like? What did work look like? What did the future look like?
ASTRID: There are a few scenes peppered throughout Edenglassie where the action is happening, the storyline is taking place. And there's just references to the sufferers or convicts, you know, who were certainly around, either still serving their sentence or having been manumitted. And it just a reminder at how horrible the English Empire was basically just how horrible. Sorry, I don't know where I was going with that, Melissa. It was brutal.
MELISSA: You know, that's the great irony. Probably the main driver behind the book is that these people, you know, these upper and middle class Brits came here claiming to bring the Enlightenment, and you know, they kicked the heads off babies, they raped children and shot children in North Queensland, again, in the historic record, and considered it a benevolence because otherwise those children would be starving to death after the massacring of their parents. So, you're not going to get any argument from me about the British Empire. But, you know, it's a book about love. It's a book about resistance, and it's a book about possibility, I hope then, you know, I hit the funniest part of the whole thing is writing scenes like with Granny Eddie.
ASTRID: Your readers are going to laugh in Edenglassie. A few minutes ago, Melissa, you said that you could have written three or four Edenglassies because there was so much material that would be enjoyable to read. That makes me think of your other works. You know, your other seven novels. Would you ever go back to any of the one roles that you've created.
MELISSA: Oh look, every time I finish a book I say that's it, no more novels for me. I'm pushing 60. So, I am looking at semi-retirement not too far down the track. Probably next I'll put out a collection of short pieces, both fiction and non-fiction. I've got a lot of non-fiction that I'm fairly happy with.
Would I revisit worlds? Part of me is tempted to take up the story of Nita. There is a was a version of Edenglassie very early on in my notes, when I was trying to structure the novel, which took a hell of a long time, it didn't end where it ends, but it ended with Nita a few years later on. So I guess, never say never.
ASTRID: Melissa, I would love to read that work. I think that your future readers of Edenglassie would also love to read it. Melissa, thank you for your time this morning. And so many congratulations.