Warren Mundine

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is a member of the Bundjalung people. He is an activist, advocate and prominent Aboriginal leader.

Warren has worked with words and storytelling throughout his very public career. He was elected as Councillor and Deputy Mayor of Dubbo City Council, he served as the National President of the Australian Labor Party, and he chaired the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council.

Warren is a speech writer, media commentator and an opinion writer for Australia’s top broadsheets and opinion magazines. Warren released his political memoir, Black and White, in late 2017.

Related episodes:

  • Don Watson, speechwriter to former Prime Minister Paul Keating, also spoke to The Garret about storytelling and the power of words in public life.
Warren Mundine_The Garret_Quote on writing memoir


Nic Brasch: Warren Mundine is one of Australia’s most recognised, respected and revered Aboriginal activists. And one of the most outspoken. What I love most about Warren is that you can never second guess his response. He doesn’t allow himself to be pigeon-holed or his opinions to be predictable.
I thought that the release of his memoir, In Black and White, provided an opportunity to talk about the importance of storytelling to Indigenous peoples, the lack of Indigenous voices in mainstream Australian culture, words and politics, and how he felt about laying his life bare in his memoir. Warren, welcome to The Garret.
Warren Mundine: Thank you.
Nic: What do you read? As a pastime, what are your favourite sort of genres or authors? Do you get time to read?
Warren: I’m one of those sad people in that I like non-fiction books. I read a lot of non-fiction books.
And in one of the sad parts of my life, one of the first books I read was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and thank God for the toilet because that’s how I got through it all. It’s quite a thick book.
Nic: [Laughter] It’s a very thick book. Do you remember any particular authors or books that made an impression while you were growing up as a child, as a teen?
Warren: It’s more about… I’m a person who loves people, and loves listening to people and listening to stories from people. That’s why I was more into non-fiction stuff. So I had this sort of dream world that I operated in, listening to stories like The Mad King of Bavaria. He just fascinated me, such a crazy guy and misunderstood.
Nic: [Laughter]
Warren: One of my great joys in life was going over there to the fairy castles that he built in Southern Bavaria. It’s really funny over there because when you talk to the Bavarians and say, ‘Are you Germans?’ The say, ‘No, we’re Bavarians’. And they still talk like the King is still sitting on the throne. I think that’s just a wonderful fairyland approach.
Nic: And so what is it about Bavarian stories that resonates with someone who grew up an Aboriginal boy in New South Wales?
Warren: It’s not only that. I think it was just the culture. I love listening to stories, and the thing that captured me about him was, here was this crazy guy. You know he just bucked the system. I love that type of person, who bucks the system. Even though he was the ruler of the country, parliament kept trying to put him in a little straight jacket and they eventually did. But he took his culture, so the stories of his culture, and created them into the present of his times. So when you look at, you go into his castles you’re transferred back into this southern German, this Bavarian culture and Dreamtime stories, if you want to put it like that, and I just find that fascinating.
Nic: So were you always reading to learn, do you ever read to relax?
Warren: I am always reading to learn, it’s just a habit of mine. Even though I’m getting into some more fictional stuff now, I still read to learn. Because it’s through stories you learn about people and you learn about situations. And also people, I love meeting people. I have this little saying – there’s an old cowboy, Will Rogers from the 1950s and 40s used to have this saying – ‘I’ve never met a person who I haven’t liked.’ Well, I can’t say that unfortunately, but my line is, ‘I’ve never met a person I haven’t learnt something from’.
Nic: I’m going to use your memoir as a basis of our chat, and I’m going to refer to parts that touch on elements of writing and storytelling. And I’m going to start here. Can I get you to read that last paragraph?
Warren: As a boy, Dad woke up to the songs of the older men up on the hill as they sung in the morning in Bundjalung. Like the story of the three brothers, the songlines were passed down from generation to generation. The songlines weren’t just ceremonial, the words contained information that people needed to know, information that wasn’t written down. Like directions and how to travel through Country and follow trading routes. Stories and history and the law.
Nic: Can you talk a little now about the importance of the songlines to your people?
Warren: Well, there’s two things that people need to understand about Aboriginal people: songlines and kinship. They’re all tied in together. So songlines are journey trips of the Ancestral Beings that travelled across the country and formed the environment, the structures. Some of them are pretty cheeky little songlines, you know, like ‘that hill was pushed up like that because that was where they had sex and pushed’, ‘and that one was formed because they went and did a poo’, and stuff like that.
Nic: [Laughter]
Warren: They go across these incredible songlines and, massively important because they tell us the creation and where we come from, and they also give us the law about how we should behave and what we should do. And it’s also connection, because some of the songlines can travel distances, like you talk about the caterpillar dreaming songline. Well, that comes from Central Australia right across up into Northern New South Wales. And along that journey each group has their songs and their ceremonies for that, and so that connects us all together as a group of people. And so they are very important.
In fact, on my wedding ring I have goori gawa, which is the songline of the goanna and the rainbow serpent travelling from Western Bundjalung territory at the Gibraltar Range right across to Goanna Headland over on the east coast of the country, Evans Head they call it. And it’s about this journey of the goanna and the rainbow serpent as they travel through that country and what happens is, the big ceremony that travels across there to the Evans Head, the Goanna Headlands, every year is the gathering of the Bundjalung people. So, we travel across that country, we do our songs, our ceremonies along there and celebrate that journey and when we get there it’s a big ceremony and then it’s a marriage ceremony, because this is where we look at our partners and who are going to be partnered off and so on with, and the gifts we bring. So, when I looked at our wedding rings, we made that, so I’ve got my journey on that in my wedding ring and my wife has got her journey on her wedding ring across that country to Evans Head, Goanna Headlands.
Nic: So the songlines are both instructional and they are also telling you how things started, how the land was created and the stories and journeys of your ancestors?
Warren: Our ancestors and our Ancestral Beings, and it gives the environment and how everything… the creation period, and so on. I suppose you would call it our Old Testament, and of course we talk about the creation of the Bundjalung people and who we are and where our roots are and so on.
Nic: You also write about an early love of history.
Warren: I used to read history books and stories from all different periods at night in bed. I revelled in a growing understanding of how people all over the world had developed. Communities, societies, nations and even empires, and how humans had moved around the world, interacted, integrated and battled.
All except Australia’s First People, of course. There was very little written about Aboriginal people in any of the books I read, even in Australian history books.
Nic: Do you remember how this exclusion made you feel then, and have things changed much?
Warren: It was a hole, a little hole that was in my body. Yes, I sat and listened to my parents and my grandparents and their siblings and my older siblings, because I was number nine in my family. And so you hear those stories and you hear those stories repeated a lot, and I was thinking to myself why, why aren’t these things written down? Why aren’t these things there for us to read about and to learn about and to share with other Australians and other people?
And one of the things I love about the Garma Festival up in Northeast Arnham Land is that was set up to use technology – like we’re doing now, recording and stuff – so that the songs and the dances and the dreamtime stories, the songlines and that, are retained for future generations and you have the ancestors, will be recording this and telling these things. And also the retention of the language and how its produced. That’s why I think modern technology is really going to help us in a lot of ways. You see that within Bundjalung language now, where they are using language books that are on your iPads and stuff like that, which is bringing that language back and making it more stronger in everyday use.
So, I saw that as a very important hole in our lives and I think we need to have more of us storytelling, because that’s what our being is, that is how we were created. This is how we got the law across, this is how we got our culture across. This is how you survived and hunted and lived in the environment that we lived in. And that was through storytelling.
Nic: Who were the story tellers in your family?
Warren: Ah, there’s a lot of good storytellers, especially my grandfather. Some of the stories I think he was a bit of a bull shitter.
Nic: A bit of poetic licence.
Warren: Yes, a bit of poetic licence. Like I remember when he showed us this scar on his body and he told us he went to hospital and they put him in a sewing machine. And us young kids were going ‘oh that’s really good’. But he also tied his stories back to his generation and back before, because, you know he was born in about 1890 and so his father and his mother and his grandparents were born early in the 18th century. So, all that knowledge that he got and all that knowledge before that, so he’s going back several hundred years, through that storytelling. And listening to that story telling about the creation of Burringbar, and Burringbar is the Clarence River, and the creation of the Burringar which is the Pacific Ocean and Wallinby, the sacred mountains. And so they talked about those things, and they instilled in us those stories. So, stories have always fascinated me and songs and stories, and I think every kid in Australia, and I think every kid globally, should learn music and song and writing, and I think if we did that it would be a better world.
Nic: Well, in New Zealand the teaching of Maori language is compulsory in schools, would you like to see the same thing here?
Warren: For several reasons, one for a very personal reason, in regard the retention of our language and the growth of our language. Because once you have language being spoken on an everyday level and written about on an everyday level, no one controls it. It’s got a life of its own, it sings, it dances, it jumps, it jigs and moves forward. And look at simple things like in English, when I was a kid and someone sung out ‘mouse’, we’d all be looking around at the floor. And now it means something else. And so it’s good to have those things and so in that part I’m 100 per cent behind that, that kids should be learning language, Indigenous languages within their school. And the other thing too is that, we know from an educational standard that learning several languages, your mind opens up like a sponge and it soaks in stuff, soaks in energy, soaks in knowledge and it makes it a lot better and as a person you become a more open and knowledgeable person to the world.
Nic: By the time you get out of school, it’s almost too late, that sort of spongelike feature sort of almost disappeared, doesn’t it? It’s so much harder.
Warren: Well it is, it is a lot harder, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad time to start. I heard about a person who, an Italian person actually, who had come to Australia as a kid and lost their language and now they’re in their eighties and they’ve actually gone back to learn it again. The issue for us, and very important for us, is how do we put that on paper? Because it’s great to have the language and listen to the language and the songs and everything like that, but we need to read it and I think we need to share it, you know, and to me that’s very important.
Nic: Ok, I’m very interested to hear you say that, because obviously the history of the Aboriginal people, the Indigenous peoples, is oral storytelling, and I’ve got this theory that the fact that the stories were never written down actually sort of saved the Indigenous cultures once the British got here because, unlike say in Central America where you had the Anzacs, the Incas, the Jesuits destroyed the histories, the written histories, and if you destroy the written histories you actually destroy the people. And so my belief is that the fact that the stories couldn’t be destroyed by the occupiers helped save and it, sort of, it’s like a higher form of evolution to tell your stories through oral because they cannot be destroyed physically and therefore they have to survive. What do you think about that theory?
Warren: That’s a good theory. But if they destroy all the people…
Nic: That’s a drawback.
Warren: That’s the drawback. But look, I tend to agree mostly with that. It is important that we continue that storytelling because as human beings, you know, not only Indigenous people here in Australia, anywhere you go in the world, we have this incredible storytelling and the storytellers of old were the most important people in communities and even today they still are. You know, the entertainment industry for instance is about storytellers.
Nic: Well, every field is, isn’t it? The people who reach the top are the best storytellers, whether it’s politics, whether it’s law, whether it’s sales, whether it’s business. Those that can tell the best stories in the best way are the ones that succeed.
Warren: Yeah. And this is one of the things we are struggling with in our politics today, is that narrative of that storytelling. You know, I go back to the Hawke, Keating and even Howard years. They were able to tell you a story and take you on a journey, and language is so important. And unfortunately in today’s politics it is more about short term populism. And so we need and so how do we get back into that narrative and that storytelling and take people on a journey.
Nic: The telling of story through dance is an integral part of Indigenous culture and something you write about, so again I will get you read a short section from page 159.
Warren: I also founded the Janggara Dance Association, which was a group for Aboriginal children to learn traditional Aboriginal dance and cultural activities. When my mates and I would meet at the local pub, we’d often talk about how wonderful it would be if Dubbo had its own Aboriginal dance company. But it was all talk and no action. One day I put $50 on the bar.
‘Right let’s do it,’ I said. ‘We’ll put an ad in the paper and kick this thing off.’
‘Jeez Warren, we’re just a couple of drunks. We don’t know nothing about Aboriginal dance,’ one mate joked.
‘Ok well we’re about to find out,’ I replied.
We put an ad in the paper and over fifty kids turned up at the community hall to register.
Nic: Did you learn about your culture through dance?
Warren: Not in the beginning actually, it was more through storytelling, and so that was another missing hole within my body.
And so this was a really great experience for us, because it was a challenge, here we were – well we weren’t actually drunks, although we did enjoy our drinks – and for us to say ‘Oh stop whinging about this hole, why don’t we operate to fix that hole?’
So, that’s how I sort of operate myself. If there’s something missing let’s find something that will fill it.
And we were very lucky at the time because Bangarra Dance kicked off. They thought we were mad. We rung them up and said ‘Hey, we’ve just formed this Aboriginal Children’s Dance Company in Dubbo and can you teach us to dance?’ And they went, ‘What have you blokes been smoking, you’re crazy?’ But they were very generous. They took us as some sort of bunch of clowns, which we were, but they did send up one of their dancers to come up and helped us do that performance. To learn it they gave us these videos and we sat there to learnt, and learnt it. And then we started training these kids. And the good thing about it, and this is what I’m a great believer in, once you let things start and you give permission for people to do things, they grab it with both hands and they take ownership of it.
And the good thing about it is, one of the proudest moments I had, is one of the kids that was working with us, he’d come from a pretty tough background and had domestic violence within the family, and he came up with this dance about domestic violence, and he used the emu and the hunter as part of that. That was really special to me because he actually took ownership of it and took control and made it him.
Nic: Just turn to politics for a short while, and words in politics. You’ve given and written many, many speeches in your professional life. In your book you note perhaps none more memorable than the one you gave at the National Native Title Conference in Coffs Harbour in 2005, and then another one at the Garma Festival in 2013.
What does it take to write a memorable speech? How do you go about it, and do you always know that the one that you are about to give… The ones that make the splash, do you know beforehand they’re going to make the splash? Or have you been taken by surprise?
Warren: Sometimes I’ve been taken by surprise, but that was more of a media thing. It’s interesting because I don’t quite understand the media about how they pick things out, which surprises some people because I’m in the media all the time.
But especially for me sometimes it becomes a painful exercise. Those two speeches were a painful exercise for me because I was putting out a challenge to people to think in a different way and to look at things in a different way, but going back to their grass roots as Indigenous people and then coming forward from that but thinking about it and looking at it at a different way.
And I sort of struggled over because how far was I going to go, how far was I going to challenge people? Because it was a massive challenge. I’m a great believer in dangerous ideas and disruptive thinking, and I knew what we were doing at that moment wasn’t getting the traction that we needed to get. So I had to really think through it.
And of course that one at the Native Title Conference was really painful because I was up all night and I was trying to work out what I was doing and I was sweating, and this is in the middle of winter, and I went out and dived in the pool and it was like ‘Oh my God’, my fingers and toes just dropped off and other parts of my body. And I did a couple of laps and it cleansed me and got me back into it and then I said I’ve just got to do this and I did.
Nic: Do you go back, when you’re writing speeches or when you have written speeches, have you gone back and studied other famous speeches in history? Or do you look at structure it in a particular way, looking to get particular words? Or limiting your messages? Do you think about it in such a pragmatic way?
Warren: I always try and look through the eyes of a child. I always try and look through a story approach. Because children are very optimistic. You go to some place in the world and children are living in abject poverty, next minute you see this kid pop up out of a humpy with a big smile on their face and kick things around even though they are living in abject poverty. So, I want to look through that so I get a very optimistic, positive feel to it, but telling a story that’s going to take people on that journey to make them think.
At the end of the day they may say, ‘Oh, that was a load of rubbish Warren,’ but I want to get them to think. And one of the things especially at the Native Title Conference in 2005, you know some of the old women came up to me and said, ‘Look we don’t necessarily agree with what you just said, but you made us think about it’, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Nic: You talk about stories in speeches, when I think of Kevin Rudd’s apology speech, the thing that stands out to me were the stories he actually told about people’s real lives and the rest of it he should have… it was the stories that made the impact. You were in the public gallery when that speech was given. Was it merely the occasion or was it also elements of the speech that made it so memorable?
Warren: It was both. It was something that we never – and I’m talking about we as Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders – we never really thought would happen. And all of a sudden you had this amazing Prime Minister who came to power and he stood up there and he said he was going to do this, this is what’s going to happen, and so all of us – the whole place was packed out, outside and everywhere, even in the streets of Sydney – and people listened to that speech. And the words, he captured the moment.
You know in Australian history… We don’t talk about some of the speeches that captured the moment like they do in America. But that speech really, he captured that moment.
And I remember sitting in that gallery and, I’m still emotional now. It made me think of my parents, made me think of all these other incredible people I met in my life who passed away and would not hear those words. And I thought it was so incredible for, you know, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to do that. And that will be his legacy for Australia into the future, that speech will always resonate with me. I had a bit of a tear in my eye, and it was the words and the moment that a nation, I believe, really moved forward.
Nic: One of the most, one of the parts of your book that really took me by surprise, in reference to this speech, you talk about talking to John Howard about why he didn’t make the speech. And at one point he says to you, almost as if he thinks he should have but he said, what was it, he said something like, ‘they wouldn’t have taken it from me.’
Warren: Yeah that’s right.
Nic: Which I found fascinating.
Warren: Yeah, as I say, I love people and I love listening to them. When you’re listening to a person you’re not only listening with your ears, you’re listening with your eyes and you’re seeing their body and how they look, and it was one of those funny moments that we were standing having this conversation… Because the background for me with Howard, the first conversation I had with Howard was I thought he was a racist bastard, and then a couple years later he asked me to work with him, which was quite odd.
And so he, it was really interesting, he turned out to be, he was a man trapped in his time, he just couldn’t make that extra step, even in his heart and in his mind – this is what I saw, this is my thing, what I saw for a minute – he thought he should have done it.
Nic: Wow. Wow. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Don Watson on The Garret, author – or it depends on who you believe, co-author – of the Redfern Speech. Where were you when the Redfern Speech was given, and did it have an impact on you at that time, or was it retrospective?
Warren: I was actually in the Bush at the time working, so I didn’t hear the speech when it happened. But when we came back to camp it was one of those great speeches, again another great speech, and probably spoken by one of the greatest speakers in Australian political history, Paul Keating. He just had a way of capturing the language and the presentation of that language, and he knew how to reach out to people’s hearts – and also probably beats people’s hearts to death, he just had that talent – and that was one of the great moments of Australian political history.
And he did that, and it was great, because it motivated us to say ‘Ok this is an amazing, amazing speech’.
And I’ve given it, showed it to people who come from overseas and they say ‘Wow, this an amazing speech’. But it motivated us then to ask what are the actions and the reality that we have to take this speech to, and that’s what we need to do, we need to take that.
And one thing about words, even though they mightn’t seem important at the time, you know, you look at the Gettysburg Address by Lincoln at the time and you read the newspaper articles like it’s a crap speech, and yet here we are a hundred and something years later or fifty years later and it resonates today. And so a speech, the word, the written word, the spoken word, it gets a life of its own, and you don’t know where it takes people in the future.
Nic: When you are talking to politicians, you’re trying to get them to listen and obviously to act. Do you think beforehand about the words that you are using? How can we use words to get politicians to listen and act? They don’t seem to do either.
Warren: When I’m writing I do. It’s funny but when I’m in a conversation, I actually don’t. I usually walk into a room and I know what I want, to try and convey a message across, but I’m a bloke who sort of dances on his feet.
Nic: [Laughter]
Warren: And so I usually go in a room and I work through the moment. I feel the room, and how do you take the room through that journey of what you’re trying to achieve, and take people and make them feel comfortable.
Look, I’m a great believer in people through positive stuff they do better. I use an old football analogy that I know of, of a team at the Grand Final that didn’t believe in the positive and didn’t believe in themselves, so it’s about taking them on that journey. So, when I sit in that room and I talk to them – it’s only a few times I sort of went off my nutter, that’s in the sealed section of the next book – is that you try and take them and what they’re thinking and take them on that journey rather than yourself.
Nic: And words are so important in political life, and one of the great examples in your book again is you’re talking about the welfare mentality, you’re talking about whenever you try and do something with welfare people arc up because you’re taking money from people. And you point out if we just called it ‘poverty’ rather than ‘welfare’, people would actually come on board. Can you take me through that?
Warren: We’ve got to get back to the essence of what we’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to achieve… people have fallen on hard times and some people have fallen into poverty. And as a basis, we’re generous people. We want to reach out to them and help them, so we want to take them from that poverty, take them from that hard time that affected them and make their life better for it.
So that’s what we’ve got to get back to. I was trying to… because people get caught up in words, so if it’s welfare or something else and they get trapped in that conversation. I was trying to break through that conversation. I said ‘Ok how can we make life better for people? How can we work with people to achieve that and lift people out of poverty, lift people into work, get their children educated, have a healthy life and a better life for themselves?’ And that’s what I wanted to focus on. So, it really wasn’t about whether you were taking money off people or giving them money or whatever. What is the practicality that they, that we, need to work with them and they not get caught up? As soon as you say a certain word that just locks people into that discussion... We want to say to them…
Look, this is one of the things I learnt when I broke my arm and broke my back in a motorbike accident, about how do you motivate people back in and how do you work with them? So, at the end of the day it may mean extra funds in a particular area, or it may mean better spending of the way you’re spending money now, or it may mean we don’t need this much money. I don’t have an answer for that, but we’ve got to look at it, focus on it and work with people and listen to them about how we lift them.
Nic: With some exceptions, there seem to be a lack of Indigenous faces and voices in mainstream Australian culture, on screen, on paper, on canvas. Is it something you’re concerned about, aware of?
Warren: I don’t know about on canvas, there is major Indigenous art in the world.
Nic: It is, but someone pointed out to me the other day that if you asked most Australians to name an indigenous artist, they would say Albert Namatjira. Which is so wrong. We have had so many but how many people can still name Indigenous artists?
Warren: Yeah, unless you are in the trade, that’s right, you can’t. And that’s one of the big problems with Indigenous art is that you have this incredible international global art industry, in fact you talk about Indigenous art across the world and it always goes straight back to Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander art in Australia. The issue there is the artist is not getting the credit they deserve, but also not getting the funds they deserve too, and so we’ve got to work a lot harder and how do we fix that.
In regard to TV, in regard to film, in regard to radio and television and everything, there is a deficiency there. I think as a nation we don’t celebrate or analyse enough about ourselves in our own writings and film and TV, and everything else in the art form. We need to do that more often, we need to talk about our history, talk about our people, because there’s so many great stories out there that we could tell. And for Indigenous people, like I said, there was this hole that was in my body, and my grandparents and parents were telling me these great stories. We should be… how do we put that out there and write about it and get it into the mainstream, and not only in Australia but on a global scale. How do you do these things?
There are some incredible stories and tragic stories and great love stories and amazing things to write about and to read about. And also us in our interaction with the colonisers that come to us, the pastoralists and all that.
One of the things I found really hard to write about was when I went into the archives and read letters about, ‘Oh, we went out and shot a few Aboriginal people’. We all know about that stuff, but then you realise that that’s your ancestors, that’s your family. It’s hard to write about. But we need to write about these things, we need to write about and to tell stories also from opposite sides.
Like one of the things I learnt at the South Australian Institute of Technology when I was studying there was about the native police, the native mounted police, and they just had this dreadful record, they were used by the colonising governments to go out and clean or cleanse the countryside of Indigenous people. So they just rode into the Darling Downs and shot everyone and just did horrible things. So I was trying to get into my head, who are these people and why would they do these things? As I did some research, and I wrote a paper on it in my final year there, it was just fascinating that happened, because these Indigenous people were taken from their own country and treated massively cruelly and they were given uniforms and guns to go out and kill people from another tribe, an opposing tribe. And so I just wanted to get inside their head.
I think we need to write about that stuff. I reckon it would be a great movie and story about those individuals, and also the other side, the poor bastards they were going out and killing.
Nic: I know in the telling of contemporary Indigenous stories, I know the writer Tony Birch has said, do we need to keep having this narrative of prison, Aboriginal prison narratives? We’ve got to change the narrative, the stories we tell have to be different as well.
Warren: I’m a great believer in we do have to.. We don’t stop talking about these things, we don’t stop telling those stories, but there is so much more there that we need to be talking about.
And as I said, some great stories, all of them are great stories, some positive, some not so positive, some incredible, but also talking about our Dreamtime, our creations, as well as our modernity, you know, what’s it like to be an Indigenous person living in Melbourne or Sydney as well as living in the bush and growing up.
So, we need to tell those types of stories, as well as the interactions between us. Not just the white people, but also the immigrants who have come here. I’ve met so many immigrants when I was working in factories and gas pipelines and that and listening to their stories, and the interactions we had sitting together on the work lines. I talk about some of the stuff there like the Austrian guy who was in the German army in the Second World War who was a Nazi. I think we need to talk about those stories and have those things.
Nic: What was it like writing a warts and all memoir? And you don’t hold back, or maybe you do but it doesn’t seem as though you hold back a lot. You’re very upfront about many things, personally and professionally. What was the process like for you?
Warren: I like an honest story, an honest conversation. And this is what I learnt when I read about Atatürk. He was the bloke who I had this incredible respect for, but when I dug into the research about him, and you see some of the horrible things he did, like once he was going into this battle where the Greek army was and he wanted to send a message across to the Greek soldiers, across Turkey, who were fighting a war there, after the First World War, so he got a general who hated the Greeks, hated them with a passion, and he sent him to clean this town and it was a total massacre of this town and they did dreadful, horrible things.
So, you read about these things, you know about these things, but you’ve got to put them down on paper, you’ve got to be honest about them. You know I had this great love and respect for this guy, and when I got some of that research I had to put it down and go away for a couple of weeks and then come back and redo it again. You’ve got to do that, you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself even though it may pain you sometimes.
Nic: There’s a lot in there about your family. Did you take into consideration your family at any point, or did you leave stuff out that you couldn’t write about for a start? And were there bits in there that you thought, ‘Oh, I’m really not sure if I should or I shouldn’t?’ How do you deal with that sort of thing in memoir?
Warren: Well – it’s a giggle now, but it wasn’t at the time I was giggling – because it is, you are talking about people’s lives and you’re talking about people like your parents, your older siblings, because they knew my parents better than I did, then they would have a different view. And so I made sure I sat down and listened to them and had conversations with them about my parents, but it was still my story. At the end of the day it was still my story and it was still my viewpoint, and I made that quite clear to them. I said ‘You may come out and beat me up for some of the things I said, and you have a right to do that, but it’s still my story. And when you write your story you may have that different view in that and that’s fine,’ but at the end of the day you’ve still got to take ownership of it.
Nic: Did you talk to other writers who had written memoirs beforehand to find out how they’d done it?
Warren: Not, not really. I’m just one of these crazy guys who just does crazy things, you know. And I like to do things, if people ask me to do things I just say, ‘That sounds like a good idea, I’ll do it’. I’ll be one of those crazy guys if a doctor walked in, ‘Would you like to do brain surgery’ and I’d say sure, I’d give it a go. I don’t know if the patient would be happy but I’m just one of those blokes who just does things, and so I didn’t. Look, I’ve read a lot of memoirs, of course, and so that would have probably subconsciously and also at the front of my brain probably would have influenced me a lot, but I wanted to tell a story and that’s what I just basically wanted to do.
Nic: Just finally, I’m just going to ask you, what’s your favourite word?
Warren: [Laughter] My favourite word, gee that’s a challenge. I never thought about this. My favourite word, oh God. Ah, ‘interesting’ is my favourite word, because it could mean so many different things. It could be interesting, because this is fantastic, this is nice, or interesting you’re a flaming idiot. And so I love that word interesting. And also it makes you think, because even if you think ‘God this bloke’s a flaming idiot,’ it makes you think, oh this is interesting, this is fantastic, it makes you think. And that’s why I like that word.
Nic: It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you Warren. Keep up the great work, keep stirring and keep writing and keep having an impact on the Australian political discourse. Thank you very much.
Warren: Thank you very much for having me.