Tony Birch has appeared on The Garret before, and in this episode we are going to do something a little different. Our host Astrid Edwards had the honour of reading The White Girl (2019) before publication, and this interview represents Tony's first in-depth public discussion of the work.
Tony is an acclaimed writer. His short story collection Common People (2017) was shortlisted for both the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Indigenous Writers Prize in the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Ghost River (2015) won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Blood (2011) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Tony is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio. He taught creative writing at Melbourne University for many years and was the inaugural Bruce McGuinness Research Fellow within the Moondani Balluk Centre at Victoria University.
ASTRID: Tony Birch is the author of Ghost River, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing, and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2012. He is also the author of three short story collections Father's Day, The Promise and Common Ground.
Tony has appeared on The Garret before and in this episode we are going to do something a little different. I've had the honour of reading The White Girl, Tony's forthcoming novel, and this episode will be a discussion on that work.
Tony, welcome to The Garret.
TONY: Thank you for having me.
ASTRID: Introduce us to The White Girl.
TONY: Well, The White Girl is a novel which is set in 1963 in a regional town, a fictional town in somewhere in south-eastern Australia. And it's a story of an Aboriginal grandmother, Odette Brown, who has the sole care of her granddaughter Sissy who's a 12, 13 year old girl. And it's a story about their ability or their attempt to survive a new policeman who's come into town, a Sergeant Lowe, who has a very clear sense that fair skinned Aboriginal children shouldn't be with their family. And he's determined to have Sissy taken off her grandmother. And really the novel is about Odette and Sissy's struggle to escape the clutches of the police sergeant, and of course, then to escape the town itself. And so it is a bit of a road movie, or a train movie, perhaps, where they have to find a way to survive the onslaught of this colonial imposition on their lives.
ASTRID: The novel opens with the elderly Odette, who I have to say is a beautiful and a powerful character. In the first chapter she actually reminded me of my own grandmother. When Odette is treating herself and enjoying the bread and dripping, even though she can now afford different food. My grandmother used to do that just eating margarine, too much margarine and bread, because that was her treat as a child.
ASTRID: It's an extraordinary time in history, twentieth century time when bread and dripping could be an emotive memory.
TONY: Yeah, and in fact I mean part of that is a personal memory of childhood. When we didn't have any money we would have fried bread and dripping and black tea. The way that my mother dealt with this was to explain to us in the early 1960s, it was the same food that Superman ate, and therefore if we ate it we'd turn into Superman.
But it is interesting because there is I think always an affection for taste, smells, scents, sometimes sounds, from childhood or from your past, although they are triggers for memory that may have occurred in difficult times there is also something of a real attachment there. So, that moment where she savours eating the fried bread is really about in a way giving giving justification to a past that she actually felt very loved in. So it's about a sort of the love engaged in that process.
ASTRID: This is a podcast for writers and I read your first chapter twice. I found it masterful in how you established not only the time but the place, the family, the history and the character of the whole work in that chapter. There is no telling, it's all experience of the reader, how do you do that as a write
TONY: Well, I think I didn't want to have an extensive backstory. In other words, people who like my writing tend to say that I write it at a page turning pace, or hit the ground running with a narrative that engages readers very quickly and holds them I hope. And so what partly is that in that opening chapter is to establish the culture, the environment, the location, a little bit of historical understanding about Odette's life, just enough so you're guiding the reader so that they get a sense of where Odette has come from so that we all know where she's going to.
So, if I was giving writerly advice I would say that what we're doing there is just give signposts of past experience, just enough to engage the reader in what I call an impressionistic way. So, when I taught writing I used to say to students imagine two visual images, one is a photograph, a sort of supposed accurate representation in detail, and next to that you have an impressionistic or abstract painting. I tend to favour the notion of impression, because what then happens is that you really allow the reader to make sense of that image, or to clarify that for themselves. So, you are hoping for a what I often call a generous reader, who not has to do work but you're in a relationship with a reader and I hope that that relationship is one which is generous on the part of the writer and the reader. And people who like my work, I think, tend to be readers who enjoy that process.
ASTRID: Is the first chapter where you started to write?
TONY: Yeah, I mean I write pretty much in sequence. It would be the case though that working with my editor on the first draft, I did get some really helpful advice from the editor as well about trimming some of what we might call background to the story to keep the pace moving.
I love working with editors, and I think good editors they know your work and they know what you're doing and so we would have done some trimming there. But it also meant that we had to fill in any possible gaps later on, so it's an exercise of sort of mending as you're going along.
ASTRID: So Odette, who we've already discussed a little, is the main point of view, she is the heroine of the story. But we also experience her story through a few other points of view. Sissy her granddaughter and several others throughout. How do you choose the right point of view to tell an aspect of the story?
TONY: Yeah well, I mean just a couple of things there. One is that you're dealing with primarily with Odette, so the world is sort of is understood through her experience. Having a 13 year old girl, I've written child characters many times before and it's that balance of what you might call innocence and an idealism and sort of worldliness, so that while Sissy is a quiet even reserved girl in some ways, she surprises her grandmother with a sense of knowledge that beyond what we we think she might have. And when I think of Sissy I think of most kids around that age, particularly kids who might be a bit quieter, they're usually children who are doing a lot of observational work and understanding the world around them, and Sissy really is a girl who is starting to learn about her own survival. And even if she's not too self-conscious about it, as a young Aboriginal girl to think about survival beyond the life of her grandmother, which would be the case with many young Aboriginal teenagers at that time. So her character probably requires the most balance all to be really careful with the work.
I do have another old Aboriginal woman, Millie Kahn, who is in some ways a minor character, but she's such an important character in the book because she's so feisty and she's very confrontational. And while that puts Aboriginal women in danger in that time, I did want to write a character who would really get in the face of the policeman in this case. And she's reminiscent of some older Aboriginal woman in my life, older Aunties, so that she was important for that that reason.
And any of the other characters, I mean the two policemen in the town in some ways they contrast, and I wanted see thee policemen to convey in a sense two aspects of law. And that, you know, people may not realise this but Aboriginal people living in a country town, any regional part of Australia in the 1960s, how they were dealt with by police would be dependent on who the policeman was. So there may be a rule or a law or legislation saying you can and cannot do this, but it would be depending how that law was carried out.
So that Shea, the copper Shea, of he represents really a sort of a docile but sort of an ambivalent attitude his job. And because he's not that diligent Aboriginal people, at the time of the novel, experienced a relative sense of freedom. Whereas Sergeant Lowe, he really epitomises that sort of dogmatic approach to control of Aboriginal people, which people may not realise was very strong at the time. This is four years before the 1967 referendum, and while it was a very successful referendum in the sense around Aboriginal rights, there was a lot of recalcitrance on the part of government officials and police in the years leading up to the referendum who didn't want Aboriginal people to be granted any freedom, and were really annoyed by that and put out by that. They wanted the old regime to continue, and he represents that old regime.
ASTRID: Talk to me about Sissy. I felt that the novel turns around Sissy. We see her move through time, and the novel ends around 1980, so Cissy, you know, is a grown woman. And she has navigated a change from regional Australia to the city, the death of Odette. She has a very complicated childhood and a complicated life. Tell me the stories you were telling through Sissy.
TONY: Well, I think what Cissy epitomises in the end... So we meet her as a 12 year old girl about to have her 13th birthday. She has a very secure and loving relationship with her grandmother, but they are both living in a precarious situation both within the town and the history surrounding that town of the incarceration of Aboriginal people, the removal of Aboriginal children from family, and in the end possibly a psychopathic policeman who they have to avoid or run from.
You also have of course the explicit violence that marks that town, the violence of white men against Aboriginal people. And she is a product of that violence. What I would say about it is that what Sissy does epitomises for me is, you know, we often... there's a historical word in the sense of recent political history of sort of Aboriginal survival, and it can become a cliche but I think in the end ultimately Sissy represents the survival of Aboriginal people and identity. You know, all sorts of things could have happened to her, and whether it be how she was treated within her family or if she had faced life in an institution, but the way that the novel turns on her experience and the way the novel ends is that in the end she epitomises the groundedness of her life and her grandmother's life.
And I wanted to write a novel that, I hope, does outline all of the horrors that were visited on Aboriginal people in this period. And we witness it through the the telling of stories by several Aboriginal characters - Jack, Dolores and others. And we know that they've had horrific experiences because of the Aboriginal Welfare Board or protected boards, and I wanted that to be known to the reader and told to the reader, but also ultimately through Sissy the ability to defy that... really a form of extermination. So it's a novel that I hope gives some great value to Aboriginal people around the idea of tenacity and strength and survival. So she epitomises that strength and courage through her own actions and through her... the way that the knowledge she carries through her grandmother.
ASTRID: I think Sissy, for me as a reader, as a white reader, Sissy's experiences and telling of stories was a beautiful learning for me. One of the moments that stand out for me, Tony, is when Sissy is recounting lining up, all the children lining up in the schoolyard and lining themselves up according to the colour of their skin, and discussing will they take the darkest of us or the lightest at first.
ASTRID: Intellectually I know what happened but in a paragraph from the voice of a child it's very powerful.
TONY: Yeah, and there would be so many children who would know that. And that's an important question of which there is no answer, because one of the issues about the book is that you often hear people say well fair skinned children were targeted. They were in certain instances. But yah we know that very dark skinned or near full blooded Aboriginal kids were also targeted. The point being is that they were sometimes targeted for different reasons and sent to different institutions. The prize of a very fair skinned child though, of course, is that you could, if you're a Welfare Board official, pass that child on to a girl's home, and then that child was fostered out, you could literally a race her identity. So we know today that there are there would be fair skinned elderly women walking around the cities of Australia who have no knowledge of their Aboriginality because Welfare Boards were successfully able to erase it for all time, and that idea that you can not only take someone from their family but you can take them from their self was was a terrible stain on this country.
ASTRID: It remains a terrible stain.
TONY: Oh absolutely. And one of the things that I thought about while writing the book, and I was talking to someone about this on a different matter yesterday, is that the incarceration and imprisonment rates of Aboriginal children and teenagers are greater than they've ever been. So that it's still the case that Aboriginal children are being taken from family and community at will by governments. There are parts of Australia where Aboriginal children are in adult prisons at this moment, and the fact that we don't do anything about it is obviously indicative of continued history that hasn't stopped.
ASTRID: I the acknowledgments of The White Girl you explain why and for who you wrote the book. Can you tell our listeners?
TONY: Well, there are several things I think that readers would be interested in. It is set in a fictional town in a fictional part of Australia, and that was deliberate. I would hope that any Aboriginal person reading this would be familiar with this story. And nominally, we could say it is set somewhere in south-eastern Australia from the Brisbane line downwards, so it could be anywhere in southern Queensland, New South Wales or technically Victoria or other parts of Australia. So in my imagining it is in that sort of area of south-eastern Australia, sort of regional, more towards a sort of a centrist area. That was important.
Secondly, it was the case that I didn't want to take the story of an Aboriginal person I knew and turn that into fiction. One reason is that to do that you would need to work very closely with an individual. But secondly of course, I did want the story to be more widely representative. So it's not anyone's own story, but I hope it's everyone's story.
And that is the third issue. I really - more than any other book I've done - I really hope that Aboriginal people who read this book will recognise something of their family experience and get value out of it. And I think a lot of Aboriginal people know that these stories need to be told and they still haven't been told. So the book is an attempt, even though it's working explicitly as fiction, to give some sense of this history, not only for Aboriginal people but for non-Aboriginal people as well.
ASTRID: You are creating experience for the people who were not there through this novel. As a writer, do you think that readers reactions will differ based on their race?
TONY: I think it will clearly you know I was talking before about a generous reader. I think, what I hope for, is the reader is what I expect from myself as a reader and that is to go to a book with an open and generous spirit. And I always go to a book with the view that the writer has done something because they want to be read and as an act of generosity and as a shared experience. So with that in mind, I think that people will respond differently. I think for Aboriginal people there will be an overwhelming sense of familiarity. But I think that is for them a value.
And of course for... I do think you have... The notion of institutionalisation is not only an Aboriginal issue in Australia. I know from my own work as a historian that many many tens of thousands of children are of all different cultures spent lives in institutions and lost contact with families, so I would hope that there'd be something in common for other readers. Some readers might be a little... react a little defensively, because it is really a stain on white Australia as a bureaucratic and governmental entity, and that can't be avoided. And with those readers I really think sometimes... you meet wonderful people who read a book like this that confronts them and then they learn from that and really get value out of it. And people who become defensive and reject say the story, well you can't write for them anyway, but that just comes with the turf. And you know in my previous books even my fans say that some of my writing is grim so you can't you can't have everything. So you know, I'm very happy with the book. It does what I wanted it to do, so I'm as happy as I can be with it and I really am excited about the sorts of responses that it will elicit.
ASTRID: I feel very honoured to have read this early, Tony. In my reading I learnt a lot. The White Girl is not didactic like it by any means. It is a story of loss, of trauma, of love and a family. But I did find it a history lesson and a useful one for me. International history - if we take the really big picture - so there is reference to returned soldiers from both world wars, including Aboriginal soldiers who served on the front line. There is a reference to the Holocaust, particularly in the character of Dr Nathan Singer, and all of the 20th century recent Australian history, frontier violence, Stolen Generations. Just the outright menace that the bureaucracy posed to people living in Australia - its history, but it's written in beautiful prose. You are teaching your readers. Is that your intent?
TONY: Well, wouldn't be a self-conscious intent. So in other words I wouldn't write a scene with a notion of 'this is how I'm going to teach a reader on this issue'. It's interesting I think that the backdrops that you talk about in relationship to war history, frontier violence, other issues is that because I think partly I didn't do any new research, or I did some reading on the exemption acts actually.
ASTRID: That's my next question, Tony.
TONY: So I didn't do any new radio except that, and the fact of talking about say the First World War and its impact on Aboriginal people I'd already known and experienced. So it is the case that many Aboriginal men went to the front in France in particular in the First World ar and died in France and their families suffered because of that. So I've done a lot of work as a historian on Aboriginal women's writing and letters from reserves and missions. And one of the issues that comes up repeatedly in the 1920s is Aboriginal women who had lost husbands or sons at the front and then didn't even get a war pension, for instance. So those sorts of issues, they were still threatened with being put off reserve for those sorts of issues. So they were there.
The issue of Dr Singer was more of a self-conscious decision, not to teach anyone but I'll be quite open here, that people may or may not know that there is a very strong relationship between the Jewish and Aboriginal communities here in Melbourne, and that during, sorry, in the aftermath of the terrible Kristallnacht in Germany, William Cooper an Aboriginal man, he led a delegation to the German Embassy or the consul here in Melbourne, with a petition against the violence being committed against Jewish people in Germany. No other government did that by the way. Well, he wasn't in government but no government did that. And he has in recent years been recognised by the Jewish community because of that. So I have a lot of what we might call leftist leaning Jewish friends, and we see a lot of comradeship in that sense. So when I thought about the possibility of Dr Nathan Singer and his relationship with Odette Brown, it's very real, so in the sense it's not just a prop. So it's very real. It fits the period. It's authentic to the story, but it is a way I did want to make a gesture towards that friendship and to say well, you know, for Aboriginal people to survive this colonial violence, it required great strength from people in our community. But there were people who were great allies, and he represents those sorts of people. And you may see in the book towards the end there's reference to a lawyer who's a communist. And yeah, there is a great affinity in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s between people in the CPA - the Communist Party of Australia - and Aboriginal people agitating for rights and industrial rights.
ASTRID: So what was the quote Tony? One of the character says, 'I'd rather a Red than a White'.
TONY: Yeah, that's right. So yeah, 'I'd rather a Red than a White'.
And yes, some of those relationships - and it's epitomised through Jack Haines - are pragmatic relationships, but they still again are realistic ones. So Aboriginal people who are fighting for citizenships rights in the 1960s are very politically savvy, and very aware and strategic about how to build good political relationships, and relationships with the Communist Party, relationships with people like a Dr Singer, are part of that history. So I did want to deal with those issues. The point being though for a reader and a writer, if it doesn't work in the story it's a waste of time. If it looks hackneyed or it does look didactic you're really going to impact on the quality of the stories. So yes Dr. Singer has got to be a real character, he's got the character of value so that... I actually, what I loved about his relationship with Odette was his dignity and his respect towards her, which she's really surprised by initially but that quality that he has again is one where, yeah, I would hope people reading this say well this is a terrible period of racism in Australian history but all through the book there are people that also treat Odette in quite a dignified way. So it's also saying there is potential in all of us to act differently. Even when she gets off the train and loses Sissy and the railway porter gives her a lift on his buggy, you know, 'Can I help you, love?' You know, that's sort of intimacy in that moment which surprises her is to say well there are people who do not act towards another person in a negative way because they're a different skin colour.
ASTRID: Going back, you mentioned the exemptions, Tony. Can you talk to us about them and in particular the shame that the characters feel when they requested or granted an exemption?
TONY: Okay, well firstly the Exemption Acts are really central to New South Wales and Queensland legislation in particular. People might be shocked to know that legislation in Queensland I think was in place till 1972, instituted in about 1905. So these acts of legislation in those two states really form a role of controlling Aboriginal people for most of the 20th century, certainly up until the mid 1970s. And what they allow an Aboriginal person to do is to apply for an exemption in the sense to apply to be exempted from the Aborigines Act. So in other words, the Aborigines Act brings with it all sorts of governmental controls - where you can live, where your family can live, your children could be made the automatic wards of the state, if you can drink alcohol, if you can live off a reserve, all those restrictions.
And it is possible for an individual and on behalf of their family to get an exemption from the act, so they don't have to live under those restrictions. Now you can imagine why someone would do that. They might do that because they want the freedom to go and travel where they want to and find work, they want the freedom to have their children in their care and not under the control of the state, they want all sorts of freedoms and that's the only way they can get them. The problem is of course that once you get that exemption, it's in a way to deny who you are. So even though you carry your own name still and you still may be dark skinned, in a sense for many people the sense of shame that they felt was sort of denying Aboriginality. For many other people though it was again simply a pragmatic necessity. It wasn't something that they wanted to do but it's something they needed to do, so there's a sort of a just a reality to it. And for other people it would be the survival of keeping their families intact.
But having said that, I think that many people, older people, live with the memory of that feeling some sense of shame for having done that, not that they should ever feel that way. So I wanted to... I wanted to convey that in the novel through Jack Haines, who has an exemption from the ACT, and particularly in his conversations with Odette.
So it is a very common experience, you know, tens of thousands of people went through that. The other thing to note though, and I think it does come out very clearly in Jack's interaction with a policeman at the railway station and then this other policeman Sergeant Lowe, is that even though an exemption ticket could be granted, again when we think about notion of summary justice, it would mean that whenever a policeman or another government official treated you any better, or a boss at the workplace, wasn't whether you had an exemption, it was whether they were racist or not. So you know, many Aboriginal people may be exempt from legally from the act, but they were reminded everyday of who they were. So in other words, it's doubly problematic because if a person doesn't regard you as equal as a human being, a piece of paper is not going to change their mind.
So it was a terrible period for people to have to live through, but a period that I wanted to write about because I wanted to convey all the contradictions and hypocrisies in that form of legislation, as well as the removal policies.
ASTRID: Fiction enables your reader to not only learn what happened but to feel it and to understand. And I'd like to talk to you about how The White Girl approaches blood ties, which are very strong and very fractured in this work. We have the beautiful bond between Odette and her granddaughter Sissy, but Odette at one point finds herself very briefly you know questioning her love for her granddaughter when she realises who the father of her granddaughter is. And there is no real contemplation of finding family or finding connection with that family for really obvious reasons in the novel - the violence and the trauma that's involved in that family. But elsewhere in the novel there is a quest for and a desire for family and connection well beyond blood ties, thinking of Jack Haines and his family, of Wanda. So can you talk to me...
TONY: Yeah, well I think it's really good to pick that point up because there are many... I mean several things to note here is that people may or may not know - and most people don't know - that in the Victorian colony of 1886, this colony before it was a state in 1901 - enacted the first piece of blood quantum legislation in Australia, the 1886 Half Caste Act. And that really tried to separate Aboriginal people along percentage of blood lines, so with the racist terms of half caste, quarter caste, octaroon et cetera. So that notion of blood separating out people was something instituted by the state. So at one level, Aboriginal people in the sense of blood is that sort of you know, it's a bit like the US, it's that one drop syndrome in a positive way. So you know, when you meet Aboriginal people the notion of what percentage of blood they are, for me and for most Aboriginal people, has no place. It's that, you know, they're part of our community, they're part of our culture, particularly if they've been estranged from the community to bring them back into the fold is absolutely vital. So in other words, blood matters and doesn't matter at that level, which is complex.
The other issue that you raise of course is that the notion of mixed blood children being born out of violence, and not all relationships are that way but but certainly many were historically. Well, it's not possible or rarely possible for those situations to enact a sort of a family connection. One is because the white fathers - who invariably were the white fathers of these children - don't even recognise the children overwhelmingly let alone accept what they've done. So certainly not accept the crime of violence, and certainly for Aboriginal people there's no desire to seek out those relationsh
But the one I think that you talk about which is so important is that, you know, I think culture trumps everything, and in Jack Haines, in Wanda, in Jack's wife, is that they become family for Odette, they become family for Sissy because that's the decision they make, and they don't at any point, well, they don't at any point express self-conscious desire that you are now family, it's just the way that they behave. And even in the way, the tragic way, that Odette carries the photographs around of Dolores' children, she can't even get rid of those photographs because she feels responsible to those children even though she's never met them. And I think that's a real strong force in Aboriginal communities, particularly amongst women, to carry on the memory of those children who are lost. And even if those children are never found they are often spoken about and remembered in family as if they are still part of family with the hope that one day they'll be... They'll be reunited with them. And of course we know that many children never experience that. So yeah, there are many thousands of people in Australia today walking around who have denied, have been denied their identity, and it's so sad because Aboriginal people carry memories of those same people but they never get the chance to connect up.
ASTRID: There is a scene in The White Girl that made me burst into tears, Tony, and I mean that quite literally. And it was the scene where Wanda meets Odette, and I feel that - forgive me if I don't express this very well - but you reclaim the use of the word 'aunty'. So earlier in the book Sissy is really distressed when in public she has to call Odette Aunty when she is pretending to be a white girl and travelling with her grandmother. But in this scene you bring about identity and all that is beautiful in reclaiming that connection and coming home to family. I'm going to ask you to read that scene for us, if that's ok.
TONY: Yeah I'll read it and then I'll talk a little bit about it. So Wanda is a young woman who is a receptionist at a hotel and Odette and Sissy have moved into that hotel for a couple of nights, and this isa discussion between Wanda and Odette.
'Can I ask you something else?' Wanda asked.
'Can I have a hug?' she asked, in a tone so hushed Odette could barely hear her.
Odette smiled. 'Yes, Bub. Yes'.
The women embraced. Wanda savoured the scent of Odette's hair, the touch of her skin and the warmth and strength of the older woman's body against her own. She listened for Odette's breathing and the rhythm of the older woman's heartbeat. It was the first time Wanda had felt the touch of an Aboriginal woman since the day she had been taken away from her own mother.
Wanda didn't want to let go. 'Thank you, Auntie,' she finally whispered. 'Thank you'.
So, what that's about, I mean clearly in the novel it's about this young woman who is haunted by the loss of her mother and when she sees any older Aboriginal woman in the street or anywhere else she initially fantasises that it might be her mother. And that is really a terrible story of many Aboriginal people, boys and girls, men and women, who were taken from family. And the two things that they often experience throughout their life is simply an absence of love and that absence of love being... Yeah, I've heard women talk about they never got touched by a person the whole time they were in the homes, or they never got touched or felt loved by a person. And then when Wanda holds onto Odette she wants to savour that. But of course, Wanda is left with the absence of her own mother, and while Odette can contemporarily fill that emotional void for her, it's still something that remains unfulfilled for her, which again is the experience of many Aboriginal people. and there
And there is, I don't know if people will pick up on this, there is a moment before this when Odette hugs Henry Lamb. And she says to herself it's the first time she ever touched a white man voluntarily. And what that indicates is we know that there's probably something in her past of that same violence, but it's of course it's left unstated. So, for these women while they have an enormous capacity for love that is, you know, physical as well as psychological, they are also dealing with this incredible pain.
It's why I wrote what I call 'the bath scene', which always sounds like some sort of macabre murder or something's going to occur, but the bath scene is... I wrote that quite subconsciously to show the beautiful love between Sissy and Odette, and their physicality, their bodies. And you know, at various times, at different times in the novel there are both... of them is naked in the bath the other one is easier washing the other person. I wanted to show - it might sound odd - but there is a sensuality there, but a platonic sensuality between grandmother and granddaughter. And so I was really careful about how I wrote those scenes that showed how that physical touch is so important to these to these generations of women.
ASTRID: Thank you for reading that, Tony, it's quite special. Wanda is not the only woman who misses her mother in The White Girl. Odette's mother died in childbirth, so she never knew her own mother, and Sissy's mother leaves. Sissy is not taken away her mother leaves. Tell me about these absences of mothers.
TONY: Well, I think they occur as you see in there for different reasons. I mean, with Odette's own mother, it's you know, that she born in 1900 so we also know that for Aboriginal women in particular in institutions the potential for the loss of a newborn is very high. So the stillborn rates are very high for Aboriginal women in institutions in that period. So that's not... it's unspectacular in a way, that loss.
In the sense of Sissy's own mother leaving, we know why she leaves and we find that out later on. And what that.... That is to epitomise the other aspect of what violence does to people. Yes, some people were taken from family, other people run from family. And yet while we might want to make - well, some people might make a negative judgment of that - it all results from this seed of colonial violence. So that what's happening in this case is that we're having different generations of women being impacted in different ways because of that whole notion of what colonial control does to people. And it both destroys families and fractious families. And then of course through the strength of someone like Odette you have the potential for a family to remain intact, as much as that family, you know, really consists of two people by the time of the novel. So you might think well, it's not much of a family, but in the sense you know when we leave Sissy at the end of the novel we know she's a very strong young woman, a very powerful woman. And I think that I would hope again readers would say well she epitomises the strength of herself and Odette through her own survival.
ASTRID: She does and she has found and built a new network of family and kin and support. She does go and find her birth mum.
ASTRID: And is okay with what happens, I think.
TONY: Well, she I think what she is is realistic. There were a couple of different ways I was considering dealing with that, and I did write a potential different outcome for that. And the word I would use is the outcomes of the novel or what I hope to be are the most honest outcome. So that while she finds her mother, there is no romantic reconciliation and the sense of everything becomes wonderful, because there is a reality of it. One of the realities of finding her mother of course is the terrible impact that those years of hiding her own identity and having to escape, and of course the violence that she'd experience as a 16 year old girl, the mother, that these have impacts. And the impacts are often quite negative.
So that I, again if we take this to actual history, I know several Aboriginal people who have found family and the outcome has been really sad. Even though people have been glad that that quest is over, which for some people takes years and years, but what they find is a lot of trauma and damage. And people are warned about that and people know about that, and they go into the search knowing that that's probably more likely an outcome than something else, so that they find people who've been damaged because of colonial violence and that's the reality. So, I wanted that to be an honest outcome for Sissy, and I was satisfied with the decision I made.
ASTRID: We see repeatedly characters doing their best to stay out of the way of authorities, even sometimes giving the appearance of being slow or not understanding. We also see characters taking advantage of the ignorance of settler society. I'd like you to give me your thoughts on what were you thinking when you had Odette pretend to be from the Bilga tribe.
TONY: Oh, okay! I mean it's interesting, because I understood that it could possibly be read in one way that... so she's asked to tell a woman who wants to employ her, or use her skills as an artist, to paint gift cards. And the woman tells her, 'We need to know your tribe, because that gives greater potency and authenticity to the artworks, they'll be worth more money'. And then Odette looks at a jar of honey and sees 'Bilga Honey' on it, and says, 'I'm from the Bilga tribe'. And the woman goes, 'The Bilga tribe'. I think I say, 'She looks off into the distance', as if she can see them, you know. And some people could read that as saying well, Odette doesn't know where she comes from. But we know she does know where she comes from, and what it is - without wanting to overstate it - is Odette making an immediate decision 'I'm not here to authenticate myself to you, I'm not here to give my knowledge, my Aboriginal women's knowledge to you as a white woman because you want to stick it on the card'. So, she is really... to use the colloquialism, she's taking the piss here, and I really love that. And I found it amusing and I found it empowering for Odette to do that. Yeah, that sort of idea about my sense of who I am is not your business. I'm not here to open up to you. And you get a sense of how bureaucracies work, how white society works, Aboriginal people are always asked to tell our story, to give up our genealogy, to say who we are and where we came from. And what Odette is doing in that little scene is saying, 'no, you're not getting that'. And I have a real affinity with that. I don't think it is our role to parade our story around for the benefit of white people who not only want us to authenticate ourselves but in a way to get value out of it in a way.
ASTRID: To monetise your own history!
TONY: And that they own that story! Yeah, I mean it's a short moment in the book but I was really pleased with it.
ASTRID: I enjoyed that moment too. Tell me about how you approached the idea of class.
TONY: Oh, that's really interesting because I did have a few discussions with my editor. ASTRID: Oh did you?
TONY: Yes it's quite interesting, because look the other thing I wanted to convey in this novel, it's not - and I can understand it being read this way - that you know, the white people in the town are sort of poor white trash, in a way. But this is a fact, that we talk about this country as a white country being built on the back of pioneer settlement, the struggle on the land et cetera. Well, we know in fact that - and this is my work again as a historian - if you go through the upper reaches of the western district of Victoria into the western areas of New South Wales, what you find in relationship to white agriculture is a history of failure. So that you're talking about people who are attempting to farm land that should never been farmed in the sense of European agriculture, and it never worked. A lot of soldier settlements were given out in the first and second world war to people - it never worked.
And people may or may not realise that from the Great Depression of 1930s onwards there were farmers, nominally farmers, living on farms that were literally producing nothing from the 1930s onwards. And in the post-war period you've got a lot of white people living almost hand to mouth on these farms, and that's what's happening in this town, it's a town in absolute decline. It also doesn't self consciously reference - but again through my work as a historian, people would be surprised at this - in the western district, once you get up past Ararat, not to those southern sort of past years, there were historically more empty buildings than buildings with people in them because people had abandoned farms, people abandoned whole towns. Whole towns have disappeared in those parts of Australia that existed in the early 20th century. So what it's about, it's about conveying one, that the white people in this town are really struggling. Two, is that they don't have any ability to do to deal with it except for resentment. And three is, and it's alluded to, they do carry the stain of colonial violence. Now some people know that consciously, some people know it unconsciously, and this is up to readers to understand to what extent that land carries the memory of that violence and to what extent that violence impacts on later generations. And my view is that it a has an absolute conscious impact on later generations.
ASTRID: I think that is accessible to the reader. And the two sons, Aaron and George, who are essentially Sissy's half brothers, although no one is aware of that but Odette. One has been abused by his father, who is a failed farmer and a horribly violent man by any description. And Aaron turns out like his father, or is on that track. And George is, for want of a better phrase, a gentler soul, but they're all tarnished with the same brush, and they're all on that farm that's going nowhere.
TONY: Yeah. And and again, one of the battles you have as a writer is that people might say, 'this guy, maybe he should be a more rounded character'. You know, so maybe he does macrame as well, I don't know. I don't believe that. I think that some characters, they aren't that rounded. There are people who in real life, believe me, they're not fully rounded. They have quite a specific view of themselves, so what you see is what you get with some people. And in this case, I didn't want to write what we might call thin or flat characters, but in fact as they reveal more of themselves they are more of the same. And what happens in this case with the white farmer, he is too far gone. He has lived a life of drunkenness and violence, and there's no way back for him. And of course, tragically we would hope in a better world that there might be a way back for his sons or one of his sons, and possibly would have been if it wasn't for Henry Lamb, who is another character in the novel.
And in a way that tragedy that visits that town and visits those people, it is again an outcome of what has gone on there and its impact. Ross Gibson, who's a friend of mine wrote a great book called Seven Versions of an Australian Bad Land, and Ross would claim that landscape is haunted, and it's haunted by its own crimes, it's haunted by its own past. Now where do you take that metaphysically or spiritually? The fact is that what we do in place has an impact on what happens in that place subsequently. So, if people are acting in violent regressive and negative ways it has an impact not only on later generations but a whole set of relationships that occur there.
ASTRID: Henry Lamb, of course, does commit a violent act. He is a fascinating character and I thought quite a bit about him and what you may have been... what his role in the story was both in terms of race and class and social structure.
TONY: Well, I loved writing the character and in a way, you've got to be careful when you write characters like Henry, because you know, what we would say now is that he's certainly intellectually challenged, or you might say he's intellectually disabled, and what he carries is both a naïveté and a really sharp perception. So, he does for me one, he holds another world view from the perspective of white people. He's not unaware of the violence in the town, he's not unaware of these men that menace the town, and he is of course impacted by it. Now while he is seen as not even quite innocent, I like the fact that his relationship with Odette and how he has seen the world from his perspective is not only unique but is really revealing. So he knows more about what that town is and its memory and its identity than say Aaron and George do, or the policeman. So, to be honest, I wanted him... He's a fairly loving character and that's quite purposeful. So again, you've got to write for story. The story is the only thing that matters. Now, in hindsight some readers might see his relationship with Odette and Sissy as a bit romantic or romanticised, but I don't mind that. I don't mind that at all.
ASTRID: It is a beautiful story of human connecti
TTONY: Yes. And I think his connection to Odette and Sissy is not because, you know, he particularly loves Aboriginal people, it's that he has a reality to him. He can't understand why they could be treated badly, d that's why so puzzled and angry about the behaviour of other people in the town, because he doesn't believe that people should be treated that way. And he knows that through the way... his life experience. So he was... And in a way the other thing of course - someone who writes about my work a bit will say I'm doing this again - but he has a junkyard, and I always liked that idea of the where the refuse of society ends up, and it ends up at his junkyard. And in a way you see it, a town in terminal decline, and he's gathering up rusted machinery, pots and pans, all sorts of stuff. But he values it. He wants to do stuff with it, make stuff with it. He makes a bike, he gifts something to Sissy. And in a way he is trying to give value to material culture that other people have discarded.
ASTRID: It's also a prompt. Some of the relics in his junkyard are a prompt for Odette. She sees the old carriage.
ASTRID: And she has a memory of the carriage bringing her sweets, which you know is a nice thing to happen if you're a kid, but then she has an equal competing memory which is the carriage taking children away.
TONY: Yeah. And in a sense the other thing that's so key to that is that the line, that track that she walks to the cemetery each week walking past Henry's junkyard, the track that is really the link between quarry town and the old mission, it's full of contradictions, it's full of terrible memories and really happy memories. So one of the things I did there... Memory and other events that occur along that - you know, a confrontation with Aaron, Sissy learning to ride a bike - is that the line in a way epitomises the contradictions of the town, where the joy of watching a girl ride a bike for the first time can be really joyous and at the same time you have this menacing young man who wants to do harm to that girl along that line.
So, I drew a map for this book before I started writing. So I drew a map physically, and that road or that track I knew would be like the pulse, the heartbeat, and the pumping vein literally of the novel that takes place in the town that surrounds.
ASTRID: Will that map be published in the book?
TONY: No, I'm not...
ASTRID: I'd love to see that, Tony.
TONY: You get me a cartographer.
ASTRID: Now as a writer, can you say everything you want?
TONY: I can say anything you want me to!
No, and... Well, I'm not sure of the question. In one sense you can't do that with your work, and it might seem odd but with any of my work there's got to be... you've got to be left with some level of dissatisfaction, that could be more or something that you could do that you can't say.
I've published work as a poet, and one of the things I know as a poet is that I really like the idea of using language very economically to say something greater, and that's the challenge and that's always the frustration of doing that work.
So, no you know you can't. And then of course the other issue is that nor should you. I really do believe that good readers are what matter. So in my short stories in particular, I can think of quite specifically open ended endings that are not tricks, that are not there to deceive the reader, not to leave a reader frustrated or up in the air, but not quite landed in a way that I hope the reader makes a decision of what happened next. So rather than someone say to me what happened next... nothing happened next because that's the last page. I just say, 'There is no next'. But I like the reader to possibly muse on what happened next. I do that as a reader, I don't do as a writer. I know no more about what happened next than anyone else does.
ASTRID: Tony, The White Girl is a beautiful book. I want to thank you again personally for letting me read an advance copy.
TONY: Thank you for having me.