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Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen

October 17, 2012

This is a copy of something I wrote for a guest post for Sue at Whispering Gums.

Writing about Indigenous Peoples: Grenville and Clendinnen

I never set out to become a critic of Australian writers. When I started blogging last January, I joined the Australian Women Writers challenge because I wanted to read more globally. Then I read Anita Heiss’s guest post on Australian Indigenous Women Writers and started reading books by and about Indigenous women. I was hooked.

In the past, as a white scholar, I have researched and taught about African American, Native American, and Hispanic peoples in US history. In Women’s Studies, I also have explored the differences between the stories that women and men typically tell about women. With an African American colleague I researched and wrote about Black Women’s Clubs in Kansas. In my own mind, I have played with questions of how those from the dominant culture can write with authenticity about those our culture has defined as Other. Reading books by and about Australian Aboriginals put me back into those issues.

Kate Grenville and Inga Clendinnen have both written about the original encounter between British settlers and Australian Aboriginals. Both have strong views about how to approach the subject. In 2006, after the publication of Grenville’s The Secret River and in the context of the Australian “History Wars,” the two publicly debated their different viewpoints. Having recently read several books by each, I see their debate as crystallizing the issues for all of us who seek to read and write those who are different from us in essential ways.

Grenville writes as a novelist and Clendinnen as an historian, making some of the differences between their writing predictable. As an historian, I may be biased in favor of Clendinnen. But their initial perspectives on Indigenous people are even more divergent and more critical. Clendinnen speculates equally about the British and the people they found in Australia. Grenville explicitly immerses herself in the characters based on her ancestors and views the Indigenous people as “too different” to attempt to understand.

As many of you know, Grenville is a superb writer, in part because she literally puts herself into the landscapes and characters of her stories. For her Thornhill books, she sailed along the rough Australian coast and stepped into the wilderness just off the path to try and discover how her ancestors would have experienced those places. And she is able to convey what she has experienced to her readers. In part, her method works because people, past and present, share basic human thoughts and feelings. Clendinnen points out, however, that the British whose experiences Grenville seeks to know and describe are really not like those of us who read her novels today. Grenville is able to make people from the past seem real, but she can not know them more accurately than historians, as she may have claimed to do. She later retracted comments which implied that fiction was superior in telling what really happened. It may indeed be better at conveying the feelings, but it cannot prove their reality.

Clendinnen is very aware of the rules that historians agree to follow in their writing. She sometimes chaffs at those rules, describing herself as Gulliver held down by all the little ropes of the Lilliputians. Historians are limited by the “evidence.” They don’t write oral dialogue into their books, and they state the sources of their information, for example. In the end, Clendinnen accepts her identity as an historian. But her discipline is changing as historians, like others, face the implications of shifting understandings of “memory” and “truth.” With some assistance from anthropology, Clendinnen seeks to squeeze out clues to the larger cultural significance of human actions, and she is more willing to speculate than historians have traditionally been willing to do. Looking very carefully at the accounts written by British officials about their first contact with the Australian Aboriginals, she analyzes both groups and the values held by each, revealing both the cultural misunderstandings and the confusion on both sides. She points out how initially both groups were hopeful, even willing to “dance with the strangers.” Gradually, however, each side misread the other and tension between them grew. The British could not conceive of the rituals the Australians were enacting, and the Australians could not grasp why the British lashed and hung members of their own community.

What is unusual here, and in sharp contrast to Grenville’s first and third Thornhill novels, is that Clendinnen explicitly gives the Australian Aboriginals and the British equal treatment. Deeply aware that societies define “truth” differently, she sees both groups as equally human. She explicitly rejects any assumptions that the British accounts are objective rather than filled with their own value judgments. In contrast, Grenville stops at the surface of the Indigenous people, portraying them as if they were objects, not as she treats her fully developed Anglo characters. In doing so, she does recreate her own ancestors’ probable perception of them. However, this approach encourages her readers to go on thinking of Aboriginals as silent and thus less than human.

In The Lieutenant, the second of the Thornhill books, Grenville is able to write with an authenticity and feeling about the Indigenous people not present in the other books. Grenville does a fine job of using history as a starting point for this novel. She uses some of the same source material that Clendinnen used in her historical work, Dancing with Strangers, but she goes in a difference direction. First, she creates the character, Daniel Rooke, the fictional version of William Dawes, who kept the notebooks which Grenville used in researching the novel. She envisions him as a boy and young man with a prodigious mathematical ability but no social skills. When Rooke comes to Australia as the astronomer for the First Fleet, one of task he sets himself is that of learning the language of the people already living there. He realizes that learning individual words, as others are doing, is not enough. He wants to grasp the structure and feel of the language. A bright, young Indigenous girl agrees to help him learn in exchange for his teaching her English. Grenville says she is ten or twelve years old, the age that Rooke remembers his dearly loved sister as being. A delightful exchange develops between the two, not romance but the shared excitement of discovery and learning which Grenville describes wonderfully. In the process, Rooke becomes sharply aware of the native peoples’ humanity and, with joy and pain, of his own. As events unfold, he is forced to realize that these human bonds conflict with his duties as a military officer.

Despite their previous disagreements, Grenville follows Clendinnen’s approach to conceptualizing Indigenous people in The Lieutenant. Her major character is British and his changing thoughts and feelings are the focus of the book. When he gets to Australia and begins to work with the people there to learn their language, however, he is increasingly aware of them as real people, not as the silent shadow figures that appear in her other books. Native and British are equals; in fact he realizes that at times the girl is quicker than he is to figure things out. Perhaps Grenville is capable of doing this in this particular book because she stayed so closely to the actual words written in Lawson’s notebooks. She notes, in something approaching a footnote, that the conversations between Rooke and he young girl were not imagined but taken directly from the notebook. She only creates the feelings and thoughts that might have accompanied those words. Clendinnen and any other historians would be impressed. As I read, I didn’t care whether or not Grenville’s descriptions had actually happened because she stayed so close to what we can know in her imagining.

Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant that an author need not be Indigenous to write authentically about them. Using the notebooks left by William Dawes seems to have helped her achieve this. Sadly, she was not able to do the same thing in her next novel where the documents she used were written by those who did not honor and listen to those unlike themselves. Perhaps listening is the key; listening to documents, listening to voices that are unfamiliar. It is hard work, however, for an author to understand and write from the perspective of the Other. But it can be done, as Grenville shows us in The Lieutenant.

I agree that is easy to expect too much of novelists who write historical fiction. But I believe that the most basic requirement of the genre is that authors not treat any group of characters in their books as empty stereotypes. For years male authors treated women in this way until, finally, women began to introduce women characters that were as fully human as their male ones. Now we seeing fuller and more authentic women in men’s writings as well as women’s. We need to make the same change in how we write about other groups which have been subordinated in the past. That is what it means to move beyond colonization and assumptions of white superiority.

Relevant writings. Links to my reviews and online articles.

Grenville, Kate. The Secret River (2006), The Lieutenant (2008), Sarah Thornhill (2012) and “Unsettling the Settlers.” I tried to obtain her Searching for the Secret River, but no libraries in the US have a copy to loan.

Clendinnen, Inga. Tiger’s Eye (2001), Dancing with Strangers (2005), and her online essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past” (2006).

And now Marilyn and I would love to hear your thoughts on the books and/or issues she raises here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 11:52 am

    That’s an interesting contrast. I wonder, have you also found books in your reading that do the opposite and treat the British colonists as empty stereotypes? I would imagine it would be easy to fall into that trap as well.

  2. October 20, 2012 9:07 am

    Of course that happens and is polarizing and not good writing. At least more people can see the problem if the dominant group is being stereotyped than would see the problem for subordinate groups.

    • October 22, 2012 10:00 am

      Hmm, that’s a good point about it being more visible when dominant group is stereotyped. I hadn’t thought about that.

  3. October 23, 2012 8:50 am

    Yes, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to do. We need to learn enough about each other to move beyond stereotypes.

  4. DJ Penton permalink
    March 11, 2016 1:56 pm

    Although this thread is a few years old now, I wonder whether you have an opinion of Clendinnen’s prose style. I am currently reading Aztecs, and find the style very tiresome. I am a voracious reader of history, philosophy, science etc. (I have a math undergraduate degree and a JD (law)). I have no trouble understanding Clendinnen, but I find the prose rather purple.


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