Tuesday 2 August 2016

History belongs in all fiction (Canberra's history, part one) by Gillian Polack

This month I asked readers what they’d like me to write about. I was given half a dozen good suggestions, and a couple of silly ones. 

The suggestion that stuck with me was to write about the history of where I live, which is Canberra, Australia. When I was catching a bus last week I saw my local lake from the bus and realised that I’d seen that view in the Canberra Museum and Canberra. I’ve seen a nineteenth century painting of it (with sheep, for it was a sheep station at that moment in its long life) and a twentieth century painting (also with sheep) and any number of photographs (with cars and a highway replacing the sheep). I’ve not seen any pictures of it that show it before European settlement. 

Picture courtesy NLA

I’ve had this thought before: it’s the view that got me thinking about how we brought European culture to this region and laid it over an existing landscape, which was what I explored in The Time of the Ghosts. We replaced some of the kangaroos with sheep and pretended we were part of Europe. History slips into all novels, one way or another, and in the case of The Time of the Ghosts it did a lot more than slip in. 

The changes European settlers made to the landscape inspired me to think about the way we interpret landscape and live on the land. The psychic tensions in that novel reflect the very real unhappiness we’ve carried with us to this country. Fears have to be faced, not just carried like baggage. The sheep help explain that, too, for their sharp hooves are tough on the fragile local ecosystem.

St Andrews, Canberra 1934, picture courtesy St Andrews

I didn’t tell myself “I’m writing about the history of the city I live in” because I didn’t see it that way. Not even when I added the local story about the bushranger’s hoard. History is with us in our novels, however, whether we realise it or not. Historical fiction admits this directly. 

My fiction only sometimes says directly “This has history in it.” It always contains history, however. Every single piece of fiction I’ve ever written contains history in one way or another. 

History always informs our fiction, whether we want it to or not. Some novelists deny having pasts, but those pasts are always there. History informs mine more than most, because when I’m not a writer and analysing various things, I’m a historian. I can’t imagine the world without history. I can’t imagine stories without history. This means, of course, that I can’t imagine where I live without having many thoughts and views about its history.

My forthcoming novel (The Wizardry of Jewish Women) is the last of the series with such strong Canberra links and you can see recent history a little more clearly because of this and because it’s written from an outside vantage point, being set mostly in Sydney. It traces a year (or thereabouts) in the life of a family. I used real events for a great deal of it. Those events ranged from bushfires to meetings inside Parliament House. I was using real events with intent. History in this novel is a grounding factor. It’s the firm foundation from which the reader can enjoy the magic and the special powers that some of the characters possess. Because the bushfire actually occurred and really did burn down a whole region of our city, seeing just how far magical protection can help someone in the story gives the reader a sense of the limits of magic in this world that’s not quite ours.

Canberra bushfire, picture L Rose

So many writers find something that works as grounding for their fiction. For some people it’s the quirks of everyday life. For others it’s clothes and manners. For me, in my contemporary novels, it’s history. 

It’s so easy to remember those paintings and to envisage the difference between the nineteenth century station and the twentieth century fields with a burgeoning city in the background and then the city overtaking the sheep and transforming them into cars and houses. Because it’s easy to see, it’s easy to write about.

Two weeks ago I gave a workshop on world building for writers. I talked about discovering the geology that creates the landscape, because it’s exceptionally useful in grounding the story and in getting details right. The sheep were brought to Canberra because the farming land was mostly poor thin soil. The ancient rocks brought this poor thin soil into existence. But they also count for the shape of that slope I looked at from the bus: even when the sheep are gone, the land is there. It’s the foundation of the world of the story. 

Landscapes over time are terribly important to understand how people live in a place and interact with it. It’s the foundation of all our stories, whether we realise this or not. Once we know a place, we can tell its stories. And now that you know where I’m coming from, I can tell you stories of Canberra. Not every month, but now and again, when something strikes me as interesting.
I’ll leave you with a vignette, just to whet the appetite. 

The reason the Australian Labor Party has US spelling for its name is because one of its founders was American (or from Canada – it’s not entirely clear). King O’Malley was a famous teetotaller. One of my favourite pubs is named after him. I live in a city that has a pub named after a teetotaller politician from over a hundred years ago. This suggests that Canberra is not entirely the dull national capital it appears from outside. 

Our history helps dig beneath that surface and to the bedrock of the city. I look forward to introducing you to it.


Sue Purkiss said...

A fascinating post that I'll come back to later and re-read. I've recently been - very briefly - in Canada, and kept looking for - and finding - glimpses of what the countryside would have been like before Europeans went there. Looking forward to more about Canberra!

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you! We have some unchanged landscape but, more importantly, a group of very strong locals who have retained pre-European culture. I'll talk about that one day, too.