IT’S ABOUT CON­FLICT. A PIECE OF LAND WITH TWO PEO­PLE CLAIM­ING IT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - AN­DREW BOVELL

Page comes at the his­tory ques­tion dif­fer­ently, as a lat­ter-day emis­sary for the miss­ing voice. ‘‘ A lot of black his­tory has come from white man’s di­aries and so we get the white per­spec­tive con­stantly,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think the black chal­lenge is not to get frus­trated with that, to ac­tu­ally feel what’s been writ­ten and then put the black per­spec­tive into that, and then some­how re­claim your sto­ries.’’

The Abo­rig­i­nal chore­og­ra­pher ad­mits his peers were di­vided over Grenville’s novel. ‘‘ I think that was be­cause it was writ­ten from a white per­spec­tive . . . At that time you were known as a sav­age or a na­tive. Those were the type of words that were used to de­scribe the black clan. A lot of black peers want to find the strength to rekin­dle those sto­ries and put a black per­spec­tive on them and help ‘ close the gap of his­tory’, so to speak. I was much more in­ter­ested in that as well.’’

Bovell wants au­di­ences to iden­tify with Thorn­hill, a ded­i­cated fam­ily man who, un­der pres­sure, does a de­spi­ca­ble thing. ‘‘ You kind of buy into his de­sire to cre­ate some­thing bet­ter for him­self and his fam­ily,’’ he says. ‘‘ The guy loves his wife, he loves his fam­ily. He’s some­body we want to like, as op­posed to a mur­derer from the out­set. You’ve got to see him be­come that, and try and un­der­stand the rea­sons why he’s made those choices.’’ The un­set­tling ques­tion that will ric­o­chet around the au­di­to­rium is: What would we have done in Thorn­hill’s shoes?

Since she in­tro­duced read­ers to the am­bi­tious boat­man, a char­ac­ter based loosely on one of her an­ces­tors, Grenville has writ­ten two more nov­els in her tril­ogy about the early colo­nial pe­riod — The Lieu­tenant, a prequel to The Se­cret River, and Sarah Thorn­hill, the se­quel. Nei­ther of th­ese nov­els has gen­er­ated the dis­cord and fas­ci­na­tion the orig­i­nal did. Asked why Thorn­hill’s story con­tin­ues to evolve and draw us in, Grenville says: ‘‘ I think many Aus­tralians feel a deep need to try to un­der­stand our past, es­pe­cially the story of black-white in­ter­ac­tion on the fron­tier. It’s not an easy his­tory to ac­knowl­edge, and a story that puts a hu­man face to it opens the door to un­der­stand­ing. This is a story about peo­ple — black and white — mak­ing hard choices.’’

In an email in­ter­view, the Or­ange and Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers Prize win­ner says she ‘‘ can’t wait to sit there on open­ing night’’. Nev­er­the­less, she is still feel­ing bruised from the stoush with his­to­ri­ans, judg­ing by her re­sponse to a ques­tion about whether we have moved be­yond the his­tory v fic­tion de­bate her novel stirred up.

Grenville replies: ‘‘ Writ­ers have taken the past as the start­ing point for fic­tion since Homer . . . with­out arous­ing any con­tro­versy.’’ She claims ‘‘ the fuss over The Se­cret River amounted to no more than two his­to­ri­ans who had their own axe to grind . . . His­to­ri­ans in gen­eral — and read­ers, of course — have no dif­fi­culty ap­pre­ci­at­ing that his­tory and fic­tion aren’t ri­vals but good com­pan­ions.’’

In fact, the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion was big­ger and nois­ier than this quote sug­gests. It in­cluded a fiery quar­terly es­say de­bate, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and opin­ion pieces, me­dia in­ter­views and writ­ers fes­ti­val dis­cus­sions — Grenville pulled out from one such panel in 2007, os­ten­si­bly for fam­ily rea­sons.

Among the ques­tions raised by The Se­cret River and the claims its au­thor made for it were: as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion be­comes more pop­u­lar and for­mal his­tory less so, where do we draw the line be­tween his­tory and fic­tion? Does an artist who claims to cre­ate a his­tor­i­cally au­then­tic work have the right to al­ter real events? Can a con­tem­po­rary artist really cap­ture the mores and at­ti­tudes of peo­ple who lived in pre­vi­ous cen­turies?

In 2005, in an in­ter­view that raised his­to­ri­ans’ hack­les, Grenville had de­scribed her novel as be­ing ‘‘ up on a lad­der, look­ing down on the his­tory wars’’. She said nov­el­ists stood ‘‘ out­side the fray’’ and could bring em­pa­thy and ‘‘ imag­i­na­tive un­der­stand­ing’’ to ‘‘ those dif­fi­cult events’’. Univer­sity of Syd­ney his­to­rian and Man­ning Clark bi­og­ra­pher Mark McKenna claimed ‘‘ Grenville had un­wit­tingly re­in­forced the stereo­type of his­to­ri­ans fos­tered by the his­tory wars, of snarling bands of fact­grub­bing aca­demics’’.

In her Quar­terly Es­say, Clendin­nen crit­i­cised Grenville’s ‘‘ op­por­tunis­tic trans­po­si­tions and eli­sions’’ when draw­ing on his­tor­i­cal sources for The Se­cret River. An­other his­to­rian, John Hirst, wrote that Grenville was ‘‘ rather coy about Abo­rig­i­nal vi­o­lence’’, given that war­fare be­tween in­dige­nous clans 200 years ago was ‘‘ en­demic’’.

Grenville re­sponded to Clendin­nen and went on to write a book, Search­ing for the Se­cret River, in which she re­vealed how she re­searched and wrote her novel, which has been trans­lated into 20 lan­guages.

To­day, McKenna — who con­sid­ers The Se­cret River a ‘‘ fine novel’’ — ex­plains that he spoke out be­cause of his con­cern that ‘‘ many read­ers seemed to per­ceive nov­els like The Se­cret River as a more au­then­tic and truth­ful pur­veyor of the past than his­tory it­self ... His­tory and fic­tion are two very dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and we should not con­fuse them.’’

He de­nies the his­to­ri­ans who crit­i­cised Grenville had axes to grind. ‘‘ It’s sim­ply not true,’’ he says. ‘‘ If nov­el­ists writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion of­fer their re­flec­tions re­gard­ing Aus­tralian his­tory in the pub­lic do­main, then it’s only fair that we en­gage with those ideas.’’ He fur­ther de­nies the re­sult­ing de­bate was a ‘‘ war’’, and de­clares: ‘‘ The more nov­el­ists and his­to­ri­ans can be heard dis­cussing the very dif­fer­ent ways they write the past, the bet­ter.’’

Neil Arm­field, who is di­rect­ing the play, be­lieves ‘‘ the heat of that de­bate has less­ened’’. He says when deal­ing with his­tory, artists must ‘‘ try and tell the truth in as re­spon­si­ble a way as you can. Kate just put one foot in front of an­other in a most car­ing and cre­ative way ... [ The Se­cret River] is an ex­er­cise in imag­in­ing what might have hap­pened, based on a broad knowl­edge of what did hap­pen. It’s a big story and an im­por­tant story.’’

Still, Bovell ob­serves that a dif­fer­ent kind of his­tory war en­dures: ‘‘ You can’t get away from the fact that there are still two ways of see­ing the past . . . those who re­gard Euro­pean his­tory as a process of be­nign white set­tle­ment and devel­op­ment, and those at the other end of the scale who re­gard it as an act of bru­tal oc­cu­pa­tion. Some­where be­tween those two par­a­digms, those two poles, one imag­ines the truth lies.’’

Shad­ing his eyes from the sun­light blast­ing the har­bour­side cafe, he says Aus­tralians are un­com­fort­able with, yet more en­gaged ‘‘ than we’ve ever been’’ by, the story of in­dige­nous dis­pos­ses­sion. He re­flects: ‘‘ We’ve moved from that sense of si­lence around the sub­ject. In my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion it was sim­ply not dis­cussed in po­lite com­pany, but now we as a cul­ture are writ­ing about it, paint­ing about it, singing about it. That in­di­cates to me a so­ci­ety that’s try­ing to process some­thing, try­ing to work it out.’’ He gazes at the har­bour’s green, glassy sur­face and re­marks: ‘‘ But it’s not com­fort­able ma­te­rial. It’s not an easy story.’’

The Se­cret River opens at the Syd­ney The­atre on Jan­uary 8, be­fore trav­el­ling to Can­berra and Perth.

An­drew Bovell, left, who has adapted The

Se­cret River, writ­ten by Kate Grenville, be­low left; be­low, Hawkes­bury River at Wise­man’s Ferry

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