Sunday, August 28, 2011

MWF - Native Titles

Today I headed in to the city to go to my second Melbourne Writers Festival event for this year. Next Saturday I am spending all day at the festival so I suspect my next Sunday Salon post will also be about the festival.

The session I attended today was called Native Titles:
Can fiction reveal the truth of the earliest encounters between Indigenous and settler Australians more honestly than conventional history? Three award-winning novelists, Kate Grenville (The Lieutenant), Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance) and Rohan Wilson (The Roving Party) consider approaches to the relationships at the heart of our nation. With Stephen Romei.
Kim Scott
The reasons why I chose to attend this session are that I have read and enjoyed both of Kate Grenville's historical fiction novels which are set during the earliest days of British colonisation of Australia and her latest novel, Sarah Thornhill, has recently been released. I am really interested in hearing more from Kim Scott. His book, That Deadman Dance, has been very successful in terms of literary prizes including winning the Miles Franklin award this year and I intend to read it at some point, although I am not sure when that will be as my library still doesn't have it on the catalogue at all. I think I am going to have ask them to buy it. Again I walked away from the session thinking that I needed to read all of the books that were discussed, including Rohan Wilson's The Roving Party which sounds fascinating.

The focus of the panel today was discussion of the portrayal of the settlement of Australia by the British and the representation of the indigenous story. I found the composition of the panel itself to be quite interesting. Kim Scott is a member of the Noongar people, an indigenous Australian tribe and is writing from the indigenous viewpoint. He stressed the importance of indigenous Australians having a voice and how important this will be in the continuing healing process which would include being able to look back to find strength and sustenance from their own stories. Kate Grenville is a white Australian who can trace her family back to settlement and places an important emphasis on the fact that whilst she has Aboriginal characters in her works she does not, and she will not, enter the Aboriginal characters internal world.. Finally, Rohan Wilson is a white Australian who does write from an indigenous perspective in his novel. Part of the reason for this is that, unlike other states like WA where Kim Scott comes from, there seems to be no indigenous voice in Tasmania and he hoped to at least start a conversation about the issues, and he has had positive feedback from the indigenous community despite his own doubts as to the correctness of choosing this voice.

Once again, the session was very interesting. Each of the authors started with a reading from their latest book and then it was on with the questions, starting with why does the story of settlement and first contact need to be told and what are the advantages of using fiction.

Kate Grenville
Kate Grenville talked about coming to the realisation that her own forebears may well have been involved in many of the events that happened in the early days of the colony, particularly in relation to the taking up of land along the Hawkesbury River which would by definition have resulted in the displacement of the native Aboriginal tribes at the time, and yet in all the historical records of the time, there was no mention at all of them. She originally planned to tell her ancestor's story through non-fiction, but instead it became a fictionalised representation of the first contact story. When asked if she was done with the historical setting that started in The Secret River continued in The Lieutenant and now concludes the trilogy with Sarah Thornhill, Grenville did agree that there was a chance that there is more to come from her pen within this setting.

One of the themes that was touched on many times throughout the panel was the idea of the silence that is in the historical record. Kim Scott expanded on this idea by saying that he wanted to rewrite the history to give voice and agency to his previously silenced ancestors and to also emphasise more the shared history that we all have. For Rohan, the idea of the profound silence of minorities such as indigenous and women in the historical record was a motivating factor as well.

As a fan of the historical fiction genre, I was intrigued by the discussion that were held about the role of fiction in telling the story of history. At one point, Kim Scott talked about history itself being a narrative, and therefore we see limited viewpoints including who are the good guys and who are the villains ( which to my mind reflects the well known adage that history is written by the winners).  He said that fiction can attempt to create a narrative sensibility that informs story and gets readers to move in consciousness as well by creating a relationship between reader and writer and using that as a basis for illuminations. It was interesting to me that there were several times where I saw correlations between this session and the last one I attended, and this was one of those moments.

Kate's answer to this question was that she takes elements of what is real and shapes it to create a believable bigger story, illuminating human nature and a moment in space and time.

Rohan Wilson
The question of historical accuracy is one that often comes up for readers of historical fiction and each of the authors had examples of readers identifying errors. Rohan Wilson did however have a different perspective on the issue of accuracy. He agreed that it is important but he is more than happy to bend and shape the story as he wants. He is not a history writer, and fiction is not history. When he is writing it is about characters and story, aiming to create characters that can be represented in such as way that reader's disbelief is suspended. Personally I wonder if this is a differentiation that you might also be able to draw between the historical fiction genre itself and literary fiction with a historical setting, but I think it is something that I need to ponder a bit more yet.

Also touched on is how the past could shape the future, and the idea that we can work towards a better relationship in relation to the many issues that are still very real for indigenous Australians because really the story is not over yet. Definitely food for thought.

There was quite a bit more that was covered during the session, but I think that those were most of the main points!

It was heartening to see how full the festival bookshop was both before I went into my session and after it and the signing queue for Jonathan Franzen was huge! I had to leave pretty much straight away because I was on babysitting duties but I am looking forward to spending a bit of time browsing the shelves next week! I was also very pleased to meet up with Lisa from ANZ Litlovers blog and I am looking forward to having a bit of a longer chat with her later in the festival! You can read Lisa's take on this session here.

My next session is on Friday afternoon, and I am contemplating asking the boss for half a day off so that I can squeeze in at least one extra session on that day and then all day Saturday as well!


  1. There is nothing as wonderful as a book festival.

    I'm curious about the silence of some authors about representing native populations. Interesting. It presumes some type of static voice that transcends the ages. Can that be true? I just read the wonderful Australian children's book, My Place, and I was delighted to see voices of many children presented. I respected the attempt.

    Here is my Sunday Salon: Friendship Bread: Starter for a Real Book Club.

  2. Deb, these authors were all talking about the silence of the historical record when it comes to minorities and addressing that silence through their fiction.

  3. Very interesting post. I love reading about everyone's individual regional book festivals as tehy have their own location based flare to the event. Thank you so much for the in depth look at the goingson.

  4. This sounded like it was very thought provoking. Still envious of the MWF - wish I was there!

  5. Sounds like a great experience. I wish I had more time to attend events like this.

  6. The history and nuances of Australia and it's literature are fascinating to me, and I would have really enjoyed being able to be at this event to explore and learn more. It sounds like you really enjoyed your time there and that your curiosity was met with some well designed presentations! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  7. Zibilee, it is interesting to read about, but there isn't a whole lot out there. I guess though you can see the effect of colonisation on indigenous peoples in the history of many of the former British colonies.

    Celawerdblog, this is the first year that I have been able to allow myself to attend so many sessions for various reasons.

    Sam, it was a very interesting session.

    Pam, there are definitely different flavours to different festivals.