I’ve just spent seven years, on and off, as a PhD student contemplating how historical fiction works. I’ve read a lot of great history books, and some even greater historical fiction.
But when I tell people about my studies, they often haven’t heard of some of our best truth-tellers. I mention Kim Scott, a Noongar man who has two Miles Franklin prizes, and I get blank looks. Even blanker looks greet the name of Alexis Wright, a writer as original as James Joyce, who has said that her elders gave her the task of writing her people’s stories. I have more luck with the Kate Grenville, whose retelling of the invasion of the Hawkesbury River by her own ancestors in The Secret River is controversial, but at least gives more than lip service to an Indigenous presence.
“I wasn’t taught that at school” could be a poor excuse for not knowing about the history and even the present of Indigenous life in Australia. But I think it’s more along the lines of historian Henry Reynold’s book title Why Weren’t We Told? – a recognition that at some level, history has failed us. The question is: if you weren’t taught “that” at school (and I certainly wasn’t), what are you going to do to find out?
If you want to listen to black voices, you don’t need to seek out Indigenous people and pepper them with questions. Ever since Wurundjeri elder William Barak dictated his story to a scribe in the early 1880s, right through to the clarion call of the Uluru Statement, the voices have been there for those who choose to listen. The recent upsurge in the sales of Indigenous authors suggests that a lot of us are ready to do that.
And the reading is far from a chore: Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is flat-out beautiful – a trip through time and space to the coastal country of Western Australia in the 1800s. His novel Benang incorporates real archives, mocking the 19th century obsession with percentages of “blood” and returning humanity to people dehumanised by colonial authority. Reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is like sitting around a fire with a rambling but unmistakably well-informed bloke who’s ready to set you straight on how things were. Claire G. Coleman has given the past a sci-fi twist, and Tony Birch’s short stories are jewels of observation and dialogue.
Non-Indigenous writers are filling in the gaps too. Once you read Rohan Wilson’s western-esque Tasmanian novel The Roving Party you’ll never see John Batman the same way again, and Matthew Kneale’s The English Passengers comically exposes the arrogance and blindness of “explorers” being guided by the locals.
Coming to terms with what you find in these books is another question. Historian Bain Attwood has said non-Indigenous Australians should do more than try to understand black history’ they should also look squarely at their own and try to identify with even the most unattractive of “settlers”, because otherwise we might fool ourselves that “we could never be perpetrators”.
Winston Churchill said history is written by the victors. I’m more interested in Shakespeare’s take: “Truth will out.” In the world of the historical novel, the archives are only what the victors have left behind. There’s still time, these stories suggest, to write a different story.