Tony Birch on working class storytelling in Australia

Tony Birch on working class storytelling in Australia

Tony Birch is an activist, historian and essayist. In this interview Tony reflects on his most recent novel, Women and Children.

His works include 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).

Tony has appeared on The Garret several times before, including for one of his first recorded discussions of The White Girl and reflections about creativity during the Pandemic.

Tony Birch on working class storytelling in Australia


ASTRID: Tony, welcome back to The Garret. I am incredibly thrilled to be talking to you in 2023. The last time we spoke was about 18 months ago, and you know, the world was a different place. You and I both live in Melbourne and had been experiencing the lockdowns. Tony, I speak to a lot of writers, and you are literally the only writer I spoke to at that point who reflected on having a burst of creativity during that very odd time. I'd like to ask you about the time since. How has your creativity been? You know, in the last 18 months, when I think you were writing Women and Children?

TONY: It's interesting, because although it's my shortest book in words, it's about 55,000 words long, it's actually the longest in pages because it's a hardback. But I think for a period with writing this, I had a great deal of uncertainty about my approach the story. I had an idea of the story I wanted to write, but it took me about six months to be settled on third or first person, how I would approach the different characters, and the subject matter, which is important to me. I was probably uncertain or a little anxious for the first time, and then when I had clarity about how I would write the novel, I then wrote it in a smooth way and quite quickly, in the sense of not having then to do a lot of structural editing. I really hit on the idea to start the novel thinking about the school that this boy, Joe Cluny, goes to, and to give an insight into his life before we move into a much more expansive story. I thought, I'll start, in a sense, in what you might call a micro way, just focusing on this one voice sitting in a classroom or sitting in school. Then we're gradually introduced to the other characters in his life. His mother Mary, his sister Ruby, his aunty Oona, and then, of course, his grandfather, Charlie, and Charlie's great mate Ranji. It's a story that gradually opens up wider and wider, and the ramifications of what the family are dealing with become more apparent.

ASTRID: It's a beautiful read. It didn't take me long to read, I have to say I was excited to read in hardback, not a lot of things get put in hardback in Australia. So that was a pleasure as a reader, Tony.

But to name a novel Women and Children is to draw attention to the characters, the women and children in the novel, it's to draw attention to also the grand kind of themes, if you will, that those characters experience and live through, and that is age, it is gender, it is class, it is all forms and expressions of violence. I'd like to talk to you about why… I don't know how to ask the question, it is such a silly basic question to ask you about the title, but I'm asking something deeper, you know, the focus on women and children?

TONY: Well, the title is quite deliberate, very self-conscious. I mean, it's quite an evocative title, I think. You know, it's a beautifully designed book, it's a beautiful object, Jenna Lee, who's designed several of my books, did this one as well. But it was to make a statement. It is a book in some part – not entirely –about family violence or domestic violence. We know that this statement is clearly made, which is true, is that domestic violence is overwhelmingly a crime of violence committed by men against women and children. I want to focus in on that idea of women and children, and to think about the fact of the knowledge that some of these children are female children, and some of these children are male children. So what are the ramifications for a male being subjected to witnessing domestic violence? Or in the case of this novel, witnessing the aftermath more particularly?

But from the perspective of me, the author, I wanted to write a novel that although is not an autobiographical story, I’m a man, I'm a grandfather and father, and I'm complicit in a general sense in this terrible crime that infects Australian society. You have to accept that as a man. I'm also a survivor of  and a witness to and victim of violence. It's a very complicated, psychologically and emotionally. It's sometimes quite difficult to deal with that complexity. But throughout my life, I've thought about both of those things, that I'm part of a family that went through these sorts of crimes. As a man who has experienced that, as a family member, as you know, for one of a better term a public intellectual, as a writer, to be only a victim would be to abrogate my responsibility of being a man. And, you know, men have to make dramatic changes or interventions to confront this issue.

ASTRID: Tony, I do think that you are a public intellectual. When I read this work I was obviously focused on the physical violence, and that manifests in in a variety of ways, but specifically, by Oona, who is the aunty of the little boy, Joe. The entire novel felt like it was an acknowledgment of what for so long was never ever mentioned in public and is now being mentioned much more than ever it was before. That is in no way to say that everything is very good. In addition to the physical violence, I was also aware of the other types of violence that Joe experiences at school. He goes to a Catholic Primary School, he gets beaten, and is in quite physical distress from the Catholic Church. Also, various members throughout the book of the Church commit and emotional violence as well, absolutely refusing to help various people who absolutely had a right to turn to the Church for assistance. I want it to kind of unpick the different types of violence that you explore in Women and Children.

TONY: The violence that Joe is subjected to at school is physical, as in in corporal punishment, and that's regimented. And I mean by saying that, you know, there are so many strips you get for particular offence. It's very institutionalized, and it's militarized in some ways. But the other forms of violence are the quite erratic behavior in one incident when a senior nun pushes his head into a bucket of water. But of course, what is really I think, more acutely felt is the psychological violence of the manifestation of the concept of heaven, and how internal suffering and sin. And through Joe – and this is certainly from my own childhood experience – the greatest fear that Joe has is that he would die and go to hell. Now, hell is not a metaphor, hell is a physical place where he will suffer for eternity. When we consider that in relationship to the novel, there's no way that I'm suggesting that the physical violence suffered by Oona and that impact emotionally on her family is a lesser violence, but through the eyes of a child, Joe is affected equally by both those forms of violence. I think the hypocrisy of the Church is evident in the book when Marion takes her younger sister Oona to the parish priests seeking help and gets no assistance at all. So the hypocrisy in the Church is quite obvious.

The other issue. Astrid, with religion, it runs right through the book. I didn’t want to – it sounds odd, considering what I've just said – but I didn't want to write like an anti-religious or an anti-spiritual novel, because one of the things we understand in the novel, but people are sort of hedging their bets about God. Ruby has a very strategic relationship to religion, and it's a great strategy for self-protection. In some ways she may be the least devout character in the novel, but she's very smart. Joe, of course, believes in God because he's too scared not to, which is not a great way to think about spirituality. But I also love the fact that Charlie, Charlie is antagonistic towards the power of the Church. But as he says to a younger priest at one point in the novel, he hadn't given up on God. I think that's interesting for what you might call badly lapsed religious people, particularly in Christianity, where there are so many negatives about the power of the institution. It's an extreme version of patriarchy. But there are aspects of spirituality that you engage with as a child within the Church, whether it be the sacristy – you know, I was an altar boy – and some of the rituals of the Catholic Church when you're a child do have a lifelong impact on you, and you can't deny them and you can't escape them.

Charlie epitomizes that self-doubt but, in a sense, he still hasn't made a decision of where he sits and his friend Ranji, who is a Muslim man, about the same age of Charlie in his 60s. He is based partly on my great-grandfather by marriage. Bhuta Khan, who married my great-grandmother in the 1920s. And he was a deeply religious Muslim man but I know that side of my family very well, and you know, I had great uncles who did pray like Ranji prays, but then they would spend a lot of time at the pub. They were as raucous as any other people around the suburb. They were lapsing, repeatedly. There is a moment in the novel towards the end where Ranji says to Charlie, ‘I don't think today is a good day to pray’. I think it's he indicating that his own lack of purity is problematic. So I wanted religion, of course, at one level to be a theme that I am critical of for the characters, particularly the treatment of Joe and the treatment of Oona by the parish priests, but a general level, it's certainly not a novel that is damning of a religion. It's probably really articulating the point that if you've been born into religion, as a child, by literally going to a Catholic school, attending Mass, being an alter boy, it doesn't matter how much you regard yourself as a non-believer, or in my case, an atheist, that's a culture which is really part of who you are.

ASTRID: It is not an anti-religious novel. I read it more as a novel about family, despite it being called Women and Children. The friendship between Charlie and Ranji, I found really quite interesting and beautiful, and how that models things for Joe as he hangs out with his grandfather and his grandfather's friend.

In terms of writerly craft, I'd like to explore, not the tension, but having this beautiful relationship between these two men, where they work together, hang out together, support each other, do things for each other, and their families, almost modeling good masculine behavior against some of the lesser characters who come in, commit violence and leave.

TONY: I thought that was really important. It was quite self-conscious. The problem was, we couldn't have called it ‘Women and Children and Two Good Men’. I suppose we could have. That's not a contradiction by not including them in the title. But I think it's every one of those things is that I didn't want to write again, a novel dampening men, because that would be to misrepresent the influences in my life, and I hope the influence I am in my family's life. So yeah, one of my daughters who's read the book has already said, ‘Well, obviously in Charlie you're making your own role as a grandfather a version of a saint’. So there's probably a little bit of my wish fulfillment in the Charlie character, because I have a very close relationship with my grandchildren. I care for at least one of my grandchildren one day a week every week, and I've been doing so for several years, and will be doing so for a long time.

I like to think that I'm a good family member, and a good positive role model in my family, and also that I remember men who were remarkable role models in my life. So, Charlie and Ranji, it's not a fantasy that these men of value were there. It reflects I think experience, and it also reflects what I want for Joe, and to some extent, his sister Ruby, although she's more independent than Joe is.

But I think there's another issue Astrid, and this is one that it revealed itself to me. It's one of those aspects of the craft of writing that wasn't self-conscious on my part. What became apparent to me is that Charlie and Ranji, a pair of men in their 60s, are living in a time when violence against women is either silenced, ignored, or, you know, again, people are complicit in it by not interfering. We get a very clear understanding of that in the novel, through the parish priest, through the ex-husband of Mary and the guy called Stan and of course, through the behavior of the perpetrator, Ray. What I think I understood by the time I finished the novel, these two wonderful men, they're living in a time when the only justice women are going to get is summary justice. In other words, they can't rely on the law, they can't rely on police, they can't rely on community intervention. Their only way of surviving this violence is if they take matters into their own hands. And what happens of course is that Charlie contemplates acting with violence towards the perpetrator. But what we've learned is that he is ill equipped, because he is a good man, and by that I mean, his inability to be violent means that he is rendered impotent in that sense in the book, and that I think is both a recognition of love that he can't do harm to others in a physical sense, but also his inability to protect his daughters is entirely limited because of that. I think for me in the end, that is the important or vital aspect of the story that these two men and particularly Charlie, his loving relationship and his gentleness really mean that there's little that he can do to help his daughter.

And also, it's funny that some people have spoken about this novel and mentioned the word poverty. I find that interesting and slightly annoying, because he's a retired streetsweeper, he worked for the local council. I wanted to write a novel where a working-class man, a working-class man who works on the street sweeping is also a dignified man. I am surprised at the use of the term, because for me, there's no poverty in this novel. These are working-class people, and of course, with a past which indicates a woman of color in Ada, the absent grandmother. These are people who within their community are relatively stable economically and emotionally. I was thinking when I was writing the book that it is that thing of inside knowledge. My Dad worked for the Local Council on the streets. And I think the people living outside those communities would think, you know, sweeping the streets is a low life job. But I can tell you, it was a highly sought after, highly paid unionized job. So that in other words, he's a very stable character in the book. I wanted to give a strong sense of that, and I also wanted to convey that domestic violence, the character who is the perpetrator – who, for readers, is outside the family, there is no violence within this family, they are a very loving family – there's no alcohol involved. I wanted to get away from the idea that violence is associated with alcohol. It can be, but more than not, it's not about that. And Ray, the perpetrator of violence, he's not a local criminal. He's not known to be a violent person; he runs an electrical goods shop. I wanted to show that the men who commit these crimes, although it's demonic behavior, they're not demonic figures in the community. No one would have known this of him or no one would have interfered with this because of his standing in the community. So all those representations of men were really important to me.

ASTRID: Changing tack a little bit, Tony, this is set in 1960s in Fitzroy, where you have lived for a long time and much of your work touches on or surrounds the area. I recently interviewed Melissa Lucashenko about her new novel, Edenglassie, and that very much does have a historical fiction component. Part of that novel is written in the 1850s. She said that she didn't know how to write a historical fiction novel, and she called you. And apparently, according to Melissa, your advice was, ‘you don't write a historical fiction novel, you write a novel’.

TONY: Yeah. And one of the things that we discussed is that I think people who write historical novels… I mean, in Melissa's case, there was a lot of research because she's going back over 150 years and more, and research is necessary. In my case, it's in within lived experience. I didn't have to do that. But in Melissa's case, you write a novel. What I said to her, which is really something I learned from being a teacher, is that what you don't do in a historical novel is you don't do product placement. You don't do stereotypical vernacular, all those things that you might see in a bad television production, where people talk in a way that makes them either incoherent or just completely stupid. You don't have to make sure you know exactly how a spinning jenny works, you know?

What I think I said to Melissa – and I don't want to take any credit, I mean, she's an amazing woman and amazing writer – now, this may not work for everyone. So, I say, think of two visual images. One, think of the photographic image, a sharp lens that takes a picture of historical moment. Think against that an impressionistic painting that is an impression of the same scene in the same moment. Novelists should go with the impressionistic work, not the photograph. You're not there to provide some detailed forensic accuracy of the time. It's about being true to the period. In my case, I think that both the architecture of the houses and streets I know are from the memory. If I was going back… you know, I've never done an historical novel, but the problem is that I'm getting older. I'm 66. I can write these older works and still remember what happened.

The other thing I spoke to Melissa about, and then probably it helped inform my work was that those people again, sometimes people will say, ‘Why don't you write a contemporary novel about domestic violence? Because it's more important to realize what's going on now’. Now, I don't believe that. I'm not suggesting people don't write contemporary novels about these issues, but it would be much harder for me to do it. While I understand this is an endemic in Australia and we still have to deal with it, I honestly don't have any personal experience apart from my childhood. I have four daughters, and I believe that they have really valued relationships. I believe that they live in safe relationships and their children do. You can never be certain of that, but I think I would know. I imagine that it could be occurring in my widest friendship group, but I have no insight into it. But more importantly, I would hope that people would read this story, and if they're thinking about this issue within contemporary society, I really do hope that the story would work as a more than a metaphor, providing some ethical, moral insight. I know the word sounds a bit archaic, or arcane, you can tell me which of those is correct, but it's a parable for how we are now. A lot of my stories and books, they're not high-end morality tales. But they do… I hope they are stories that say this is how we behave, and this is what we should do to stop behaving this way. In the case of this novel, you know, with love between a family at the center of the novel, I hope it would be conveyed that that's what families need to do. I think this has direct implications to how we are now, that silence around violence is a shocking impact on those who are suffering. I would hope that that is that is absolutely a contemporary discussion.

ASTRID: Tony, I often find myself thinking about your novels. They're great. And I feel I this is going to sound strange, but I want to share this with you. I grew up in Balmain, in Sydney, New South Wales. It is obscenely, disgustingly gentrified now, but it was not in my childhood, it certainly was not in my father's childhood, my grandmother's childhood, or the early adulthood of my great grandmother, who I had the great pleasure of knowing for a decade. And the history of Balmain in that time very much parallels the history of Fitzroy, in terms of working-class factories, the politics and the Church and all of it. I grew up with those stories, and they mean a great deal to me, and I have the pleasure of reading your work. Even though it's set in a different working-class suburb in a different city it evokes the memories of my childhood. I feel like the women and the children and the men that you knew at that time, the women and the children and the men that I grew up with… I get to read your work. And you're the only writer in Australia who evokes this feeling of my grandma and great grandma. And I was wondering, who do you get to read? Do you find it elsewhere?

TONY: Well, just something that you said, though, that I think is important to just comment on. I was in Sydney for the Crime Writers Festival over the weekend. I go to Sydney a lot. I absolutely love Sydney.

One of the things that surprises me a little is there is not more literature being written now about Sydney's more recent history, I would say postwar working-class migrant life and Aboriginal life in Sydney. There are a few novels, but there isn't a real… I don't think there is a real canon there that should be there. And I I'm surprised, because I know historical Sydney fairly well through the work of Ross Gibson, and a friend of mine who did a lot of work on photography, Peter Doyle, a crime writer who's done a lot on photographs. I can't do it. Because if I'd been born at the same time I was in Sydney, I would have such a rich vein of storytelling. Geographically, it's a remarkable place, the juxtaposition between inner Sydney working class life and that harbor as a working harbor. I would love to be able to write about, but I don't have the cultural insight. If you go back to the work of Ruth Park, she is one of the great writers who wrote about working-class life in Sydney. Again, I know of occasional books that have come out since, but there is no great lineage as far as I know, so if people know those books that I should be reading, please inform me. I don't have that real cannon to lean on to be quite honest, I still think that.

The first working class novel I read was back in form two in high school in 1970. I've talked about this book, many times, Kestrel for a Knife by Barry Hines, which is one of my great reads to go back to. I would say that there's a great difference in Britain, working class literature not only has a great canon, but it is also highly respected. And there is a lot of working-class literature, contemporary working-class literature that I that I have read. I read The Guardian, the English version, and if I see a novel about working-class… I could rattle off collections, there is a great ongoing body of work to engage in, we don't have that in Australia.

The other issue here, Astrid, I mean, and I loved the compliments you're giving to those insights – I remember a friend of mine published a book of short stories about working class life in Melbourne. I swear that the reviewer said, ‘This is a form of dirty realism about working class people’. But in the review, I still remember, the reviewer wrote, ‘We've read Raymond Carver’. Now, he didn't mean that it was Carveresque in its style. He meant we've read about down and out people, we don't need another one. It is an indictment on the place of working class writing in Australia. I think it's easier for people to talk about me as an Aboriginal writer than a working-class writer, because class is still a dirty word. If a politician mentions the word class, conservatives talk about the person engaging in class warfare. You're supposed to deny this history and this reality. But it's where I came from. It's where I still am culturally. And it's all I know. I couldn't write about middle class life. I just don't even know where to begin with that.

I think that there is a deeply appreciative readership for this type of writing. It's boutique, but it's there. I don't mind that that readership isn't gigantic. I'm not going to sell 50,000 books. My book, The White Girl, is my biggest selling book, maybe it sold about 25,000. But I can tell you this, because I just got a royalty statement, my collection last year or the year before now, Dark as Last Night, that's sold about 6,000 copies, which is great for a short story collection. But I know I have a really welded on readership, and it grows a little bit. But I have people come up to me and say things like, ‘We really like what you're doing, Tony, but I couldn't read those stories because I just like happy endings’. I don't write for those readers. I don't mind that. I like the fact that I have loyal readers. Now I have people that say, ‘Thank God, you've got a new book coming out’. And they they'll follow me, and I feel really privileged that people have done that.

ASTRID: It is a beautiful thing, and you can count me among your loyal readers. Tony, I have a final question for you. Going back to Women and Children and the relationship between Charlie and his grandson, Joe, there is a recurring theme or practice of storytelling. And at one point, Charlie even suggests that Joe could grow up and become a writer. I assume that was deliberate. But I did want to ask you about that.

TONY: It was deliberate. I've inserted myself into the story. I think the thing, Astrid, that matter here is that storytelling really matters. Charlie tells Joe about a Jack Russell who wouldn't grass on another dog, and there's also the story that Oona tells Joe about a girl running away from home to join a circus. These sort of stories that I heard as a kid are stories of great moral value, and they are the stories… like rather than be dedicated to 10 commandments as I was in primary school, these stories were really the stories that were saying, ‘This is how you should live, and this is how you should value yourself’. Those stories are handed down generation after generation. And I've told similar stories to my children. So that's the first point.

And the second point. He does say to Joe, Charlie says, ‘There are stories in his family that I'm told that you'll need to tell’. So yes, that's self-referential. I suppose what I'm trying to say through the characters there is that there are secrets that we hold that should remain secrets or do remain secrets, but there are stories that can't remain secret. And in the case of one, the violence against women and children, and secondly, their responses to that that were held in secret, either within families or within communities when I was a kid… I feel that that that is wrong. And I feel that in telling stories around those issues, I can not only inform people today about the value of being open about these stories, but also the fact that it's a craft as any other craft.

I would finish by saying I don't write about family violence because my work needs to be issues based, I mean, there are issues that have social and political relevance, but I write about family violence because it's an issue that not only infects and damages families like the Cluny family, but also that it's remarkable to the extent to which this family is able to overcome violence and remain a loving family. I think that is something that's often lost when we think about the impact of violence. It has a shocking impact on people but in my case, my family's resilience, to remain loving, and to hold tight is a story that I think is forgotten, so that when we think of victims of violence, we think, victim in that negative sense or victim as someone we only pity, whereas I think yes, of course these women and children were subjected to and victims of violence, but their strength allowed them to survive that.

ASTRID: Tony, Women and Children is a beautiful book, and talking to you today has been delightful.