Author Paul Daley examines how National Library collections are giving life, shape and voice to the characters and landscape in his new novel, Jesustown.
Transcript of ‘My Novel Jesustown’ with Paul Daley
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (RH), Paul Daley (PD)
Location: National Library of Australia
RH: Good evening and welcome to this National Library Creative Arts Fellowship presentation but Paul Daley discussing the creation of his novel, Jesustown. I’m Robyn Holmes, Senior Curator at the National Library with the responsibility for the fellowships and scholarships program. I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home.
Tonight’s presentation makes this acknowledgement of traditional owners and country especially poignant as Paul Daley exhibits a deep and ethical engagement with indigenous affairs. As political reporter, investigative journalist, columnist, essayist, playwright, writer of short and long-form fiction and nonfiction Paul has won an array of awards for his writing, far too many to list. But perhaps most relevant tonight, in 2014 he both the Walkley and Kennedy Awards for his feature writing in The Guardian and Meanjin on questions surrounding indigenous history and Australian racial politics from the colonial frontier to the present.
Jesustown is his second novel and it similarly explores black and white politics but from a fictional perspective. Set in a remote Aboriginal community in the mid-20th century Paul unravels complex generational, social, personal and moral dilemmas stemming from early research in collecting expeditions into indigenous Australia. And please note that Paul’s going to be displaying ... or just behind Paul will be displayed a photograph containing indigenous remains should anybody find this disturbing.
Paul is the inaugural National Library Creative Arts Fellow in Writing. That’s a long title. But let me comment just briefly on the creation of this particular creative fellowship and in particular acknowledging the role of two special women. For some 20 years Dr Patricia Clarke who is sitting in our third row and probably known to some of you, Patricia represented the Australian Society of Authors on the Library’s Fellowships Advisory Committee. She advocated tirelessly over this long period for a special means to support creative writers. Noting their need to explore the Library’s rich and unique collections, not for traditional, historical kinds of research, but to find inspiration and wonder, to inform settings, characters, dialogue or historical authenticity in fictional, dramatic or poetic writing. Paul’s presentation tonight exemplifies and bears out precisely Patricia’s vision. Paul clearly demonstrated to the specialist panel ... selection panel of experts that his proposed research in the collections was not a substitute for creative imagination but rather intrinsic to the creative process at a precise point in need.
When the National Library Friends initiated and funded the first Creative Arts Fellowship in 2015 the Library was inundated with a wonderful array of applications from vibrant artists all ‘round the nation across multiple art forms. Pat Clarke made the case again that writers clearly needed their own award and so we now have two Creative Fellowships, one supported by the Friends and one by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Matthew Trust. Without the bequest of Eva Kollsman in honour of the Australian writer, Ray Mathew, this Library would not have had the funds to offer this writing fellowship so tonight we acknowledge the commitment and leadership of two wonderful women, Patricia Clarke and Eva Kollsman, in their support for Australian writers. I think we should clap.
Paul, we thank you especially for being such an inspired choice as the inaugural fellow. Paul has been a prodigious user of the Library’s collections for many years. As a Canberra resident and perhaps known to many of you we have valued your ongoing presence in and support of the Library over many years, Tweeting, inserting gems from the reading rooms into your novels and nonfiction writing and promoting the value of the collections and services to the nation. We wish you well in your forthcoming family move to Sydney with the promotion of your partner, Lenore Taylor, to the role of Chief Editor of The Guardian and Lenore is on a plane at this very moment coming in so we hope she arrives before the end of your talk, Paul. Let us hear now about the creation of Jesustown, your use of collection sources to instruct the novel with a few draft snippets from the novel to entice to read it or buy it when it’s published. Thanks, Paul.
PD: Thank you. Thanks very much, Robyn, it’s a very generous introduction. I’d like to start also by acknowledging the traditional owners past and present of the country where we stand and sit tonight and I’d like to begin by thanking those who’ve ensured the success of my 2016 Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing. Firstly thank you to the Eva Kollsman and Ray Matthew Trust for funding the Fellowship and thank you, Pat Clarke, it’s fantastic. It was awarded to me at the perfect time, when I was barely midway through an early draft of my novel. It’s afforded me time to delve into areas of the Library collection that are relevant to what I’m writing. But just as importantly it’s given me a couple of other precious things, time to think and time and space to write. I’m now at the point that when I vacate the fantastic Fellow’s Room in about a month’s time I’ll leave with a complete early draft manuscript which is really going to thrill a whole lot of people, not least my agent who’s been waiting on this for a long time now. Thank you also to the NLA’s Director General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the head of Australian Collections, Margie Byrne, of course Robyn Holmes and also a few others I’d like to name, Andrew Sargent, Katrina Anderson, Shannon Sutton and of course Beth Mansfield and everyone else who’s generously supported my research and invested in outcomes that are as yet some way off.
I’ve written many times about the critical role played by this institution, the National Library of Australia, in this country’s cultural life. I’ve long been captivated with the notion of an institution that was established to collect every book, magazine and obscure journal written in this country and much else besides including varied personal collections of the famous and not so famous. The way the NLA meets that mandate and continues to do so through the new digital frontier is an incredible thing, I think. It’s astonishing to me that successive federal governments meanwhile have continued to impose ridiculous budget cuts to the NLA and select other national institutions and then to compound them with apparently punitive so-called efficiency dividends. And why don’t we just call a cut a cut by the way? Where did efficiency dividend come from?
I’ve seen firsthand here and elsewhere the impact of these cuts. Cuts that would amount to small change lost behind the back of a sofa in other portfolios such as defence are devastating for places such as this but still the NLA does more with less because it and its people believe so strongly in the function it serves in a liberal democracy. So that’s my sermon out of the way. But you know give me a microphone and I have to say it.
This place is a primary cog in the cultural machine that serves as the national memory for all its good, its bad and its ugliness and it really is an honour for me to have been chosen as the inaugural Creative Arts Fellow in Australian Writing for a book which when I filled in the application form for the Fellowship was basically a one-page synopsis in my notebook, a few early rough chapters, a series of thought bubbles, really. Ordinarily I would be incredibly reluctant to talk publicly at all about any book, fiction or nonfiction that I was working on until it was close to complete. Writers are often deeply suspicious, sometimes superstitious beings and one of the superstitions that I’ve heard of, and to which I’ve been an adherent, at least until now, is that to speak in too much detail about a book that is still heavily under construction is to jinx it. But speaking about it now in both broad and quite specific terms is part of the Fellowship compact and I’m very happy to let you inside what I’ve been doing here on and off for the past few months.
Before I illustrate how certain elements of the NLA collection instructed the book I’m writing it’s important for me to give you some background about how I came to embark on the novel which I’ve given the working title, Jesustown. I lived my first 29 years in Melbourne, a place where I knowingly met few indigenous people. I considered myself socially and politically progressive. As a university student in the 1980s and as a fulltime political journalist for most of the ‘90s and well beyond the issues surrounding Britain’s continental occupation of terra nulls and native title was certainly in my consciousness, dispossession to my mind, thanks to what I’d learned in HSC Australian history and a little bit that I’d done at university, certainly happened when the white men came and forced the Aboriginal people off the land, off their land. I had some minor consciousness of widespread violence against Tasmania’s indigenes and I was compelled and moved by the shameful stories of forced removal of Aboriginal children, the stolen generation. But thanks either to the shortcomings of my formal education or to a profound absence of curiosity on my part or a combination of both, organised colonial violence against indigenous Australians and the widespread cultural theft that accompanied it was in my consciousness largely confined to the island state. I was perhaps a living symptom of the great Australian silence, the amnesia, the wilful ignorance and back-turning about the dark side of Australian history called out so courageously by anthropologist, William Stanner, in his 1968 Boya Lectures and echoed by many others too.
It was ridiculous to me it seems now that I only began to learn about and probe what happened when I was in middle age, at the same time as my children were ... thanks to some but not nearly enough curriculum renaissance ... themselves learning some of the truth. It began in part for me while researching one of my nonfiction books, when I learnt about the near extinction of the Wiradjuri in the 1830s. They’d lived around the Yarra in Melbourne in what became Melbourne, taking the eel, herring and freshwater mussel, spearing the kangaroos and possums along the banks since the Dreaming. When the whites came the Aborigines were observed kicking a possum skin ball around, I learned, then I read and I heard more stories about how the settlers had killed them to take their land including what became a place called Dight’s Paddock, the eventual home of Britannia, the team that became the Collingwood Football Club, the club of my family for generations for which my grandfather played. So I awoke to the violent malignancy of dispossession.
Then my research about early Canberra for another book led me to stories in oral histories and in the archives of violence against the Aboriginal people of the limestone plains. Onyong the last fullblood chief of the Ngambri people of the limestone plains, died at the end of a rival spear in about 1850. Settlers soon dug him up. They fashioned a sugar basin from his skull. Onyong’s descendants believe the sugar basin remains in a private Canberra collection and I believe they are right. I know who’s got Onyong’s skull cut and he knows I know because I’ve let him know that I know. But he never calls me back.
So I was contentedly out of journalism by this time, working happily on books and essays and short stories but the story about Onyong’s head awoke in me the need to look countrywide at one of the nastier widespread symptoms of occupation, assimilation and frontier violence, the theft and trade in indigenous body parts. Heads, limbs, skin, genitalia and secret sacred artefacts and art. What began as an exercise in self-education for me soon turned into part of my professional occupation. And so since late 2013 I’ve been writing a regular column called Post-Colonial, focusing on indigenous history for The Guardian in both Australia and the United Kingdom.
All of my research about indigenous frontier issues for my books and earlier articles led me to this place, this place we’re standing in, to the NLA to either the main reading room with its early anthropology and phrenology books that include pictures of severed indigenous heads that were sold to Edinburgh University Medical School and to the Manuscript and Oral History Rooms. I started at the beginning, with NLA MS1, the journal of HMS Endeavour, 1768 to 1771. This naturally led me to the Admiralty secret instructions to Captain James Cook. The Admiralty told Cook he should scour the shores for the products thereof, the mammals, birds and fish, any potentially valuable material and decent organic foods. You are also, with the consent of the natives, to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain, or if you find the country uninhabited, take possession for His Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions.
I was over at the Aboriginal embassy a couple of weeks ago talking to a group of young blokes who are going back to London. They’re there at the moment trying to reclaim the Gweagal Shield, the shield that was taken by Cook’s men on that day. And the mob down there that day were talking about these instructions to Cook and laughing hysterically. Consent to take the land, they were saying, really, you know? How preposterous. And so I began to travel to indigenous communities in northern Australia. I did a lot of sitting, a lot of waiting and a lot of listening. For the first time perhaps I realised my place in continental Australian history, that while my 50 or so years of life so far might amount to not quite a quarter of post-invasion Australian time it was but the blink of an eye in the 50 or 60,000 year human history of this place.
I was introduced to song lines, to the creationist animals and to the many overlaying dimensions, physical, spiritual, remembered of story. In Arnhem land I met people who saw and communed with the dead as they strolled among us and I came to appreciate the distant connections including with the Makassans of Sulawesi whose influence on and connection with the Yolngu and others predated the British. I met people with a belief system that incorporated the creationist animals, Islam and Christianity and Australian football, always football all at once. I’d felt but never been able to properly articulate a spiritual link to land especially in Canberra, even though I was born in Melbourne but it was only in Arnhem land that I came to understand the meaning of country, it changed the way I looked at the world completely. I’ve heard many descriptions of what country is, what it means in the indigenous sense. My friend, the anthropologist, John Carty, based on his many conversations with Yolngu and others has come up with one of the best descriptions, certainly the best I’ve ever heard from a whitefella.
He explains, I’m talking about country as a concept that gets thrown around every day in art and museum circles but rarely used or interrogated with the seriousness that it deserves. I’m not talking about country in political terms, of nation state nor aesthetic country in terms of a neutral landscape. Country, which in the translation from various Aboriginal words such as Ngurra into English has a depth of meaning far exceeding its common usage. It is a political and aesthetic phenomenon but is so much more. Country is a kind of memory, it is memory laid down by the lives of one’s family, by the events of one’s childhood, by the journeys of one’s ancestors and by the tensions and conflicts of a changing world. Historical, mythological, familial and personal narratives are all layered, sedimented in places where they happened, they are not separated out into different moments in time or categories of reality.
When I was in Arnhem land that first time there was much talk about repatriation, about bringing home from Europe and America the bodies of the ancestors and the sacred objects that had been stolen by explorers, archaeologists and anthropologists and taken to foreign institutions. This was not an 18th and 19th century phenomenon, it happened shamefully well into the 20th century. They talked about the bodies of ancestors that had been repatriated from the Smithsonian in Washington only a few years earlier and the ancestral human remains that were still there and in the vaults of institutions in other countries. This inevitably led me to Trove which led me to reading about a number of pioneering Australian anthropologists. Tindale, Stanner, Elkin, the Berndts, the intriguing Donald Thompson and the self-taught Charles Mountford and this led me inevitably to the story, one that I’d never before come across of the 1948 American Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem land, an alliance-building exercise underwritten by the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society.
My initial curiosity was sated by the work of the National Museum of Australia’s Margo Neale and the filmmaker historian, Martin Thomas who ... Martin’s here tonight ... who staged a remarkable conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the expedition and edited a fantastic book to coincide with that. Martin has continued to undertake ground-breaking research into the cultural legacies of that expedition. In 2013 he won the coveted Calibre Essay Prize with a stunning beautifully written essay about the repatriation of some ancestral remains that were stolen from Arnhem land in 1948. And I was talking to him just before. His film which will be fantastic is going to be out hopefully next year.
I wrote an essay for Meanjin about the 19th and 20th century trade in Australia and indigenous remains that was then published in the UK in The Guardian’s magazine. But I wasn’t done with the issue or Arnhem, that’s why I’ve been back there repeatedly and why I felt I had no choice but to base my next novel partly in that space and to deal with some of the issues as well as many others such as the urgent need for treaties, white, black welfare envy and closure of remote communities that I’ve engaged with as a journalist and essayist.
I began writing the novel at a friend’s place in Ukalla, about March 2015 which brings me to now and to Jesustown. The book I’m writing spans three generations of two families, one of them Aboriginal strongly linked to country somewhere in the north around an old mission station thus Jesustown, and one established nonindigenous family from Melbourne. The story unfolds as the current generation, the indigenous twins, Tamar and Jericho Bakerman, and the white man, Patrick Renmark, contemplates the truth about the long contact between their families from the early 1930s.
Patrick is an Australian-born, boorish, so-called popular historian. He’s intellectually lazy, a purple writer of racy mythology, a racist and a misogynist who is partly responsible for the recent death of his young son. He keeps seeing his son in dreams and while he was awake, on the street, on the buses, through the windows of aeroplane and in shops but he won’t believe what he’s seeing. Patrick’s a creep, he’s been frogmarched out of the British university where he was tenured for a sexual misdemeanour with a female student. I’m actually working on finding some redeeming qualities for this guy but I’m finding it really hard but I will put in some more spade work on that.
But Patrick is also the only grandson of a great man, the pioneering, autodidact anthropologist, Nathaniel Renmark, who in the late 1930s struck a peace deal with the so-called wild tribes of the far north who’d been killing the Japanese Trepang fishermen who came en masse into Australian waters after the federal government imposed restrictions on the Makassans who’d previously been in northern Australian waters for centuries. In striking this peace deal he saved the tribes from a planned reprisal mission, and this is actually based on fact, planned by the federal government after the Yolngu of Caledon Bay murdered Japanese fishermen and an Australian policeman.
Nat Renmark, Rennie, embedded himself with the tribes for years, amassing an invaluable wealth of photographs, ethnological artefacts, stories and diary notes that are now kept in a museum in Jesustown. He argued vociferously that Canberra’s assimilationists were wrong, that the best thing they could do to protect the Aboriginal people was to leave them alone. The old white man lived on and off in Jesustown from the 1950s until his death in the ‘90s. From there he waged a permanent war against the academic establishment which wanted his lifetime of research but didn’t want to give him the credit he believed he was due.
He was after redemption because after his earliest contact with the tribes he left for some years only to usher through the remote north a group of Australian and American scientists around 1950. It was his chance to get recognition for his years of pioneering work and so he cut a deal with the devil, telling them they would be experiencing the last of the Stone Age men. But things had changed, the military base during the war and the missions had impacted on traditional life. While some of the scientists, the fish expert, the botanist, the nutritionist, the orthnologists set about researching and collecting samples, the archaeologists, anthropologists and ethnologists competed with each other to amass the greatest collections. When he died Nat willed that only family members would ever be granted to his archive for research purposes.
Nat’s grandson, Patrick, couldn’t care less but as the key holder to Nat’s estate, a historian of sorts, he is in the enviable position of being able to write something informed about this famous though eccentric, reclusive grandfather. Having lost his job, his child and his home, the only thing he has is a contract to write his grandfather’s story. He goes reluctantly. A local indigenous man, Jericho, who is espousing a return to tribal law, an abandonment of what he calls the Australian citizenship is his go to man. What is happening here and what happens next is plot and there’s no need for me to detail it any further but I do want to show you how character and sense of place is being directly instructed by my research into the archives here at the NLA.
Some of you who know might see in Rennie elements of Donald Thompson and the actual leader of the 1948 expedition, the autodidact ethnologist, Charles Mountford, actually a former Adelaide tram driver and postal department linesman. Well the truth is that my Rennie comes from many, many other places, he’s not Thompson, he is not Mountford, he is a confection. I’m happy to volunteer however that Dr Ivan Newman, known to the young men around Jesustown as the soft American was born from me in NLA MS5230, the personal papers of Frank Setzler who you can see up here.
Setzler was the head curator of anthropology at the United States National Museum, now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He took part in Mountford’s 1948 expedition during which he stole the bodies of numerous indigenous people from Arnhem land as well as those of several Makassans. Here are some of the single words and some sentences from different parts of Setzler’s diary, scrawled as they were written and later typed up back home in Washington by a secretary or perhaps his wife. Courtpot, Banyu, Charlie, Copicha, Combiala, Mowata, five men with many, many on right hand. Five more men from Umbercumba, Mikarna, Neanderthal at right. Here he describes the morning he digs up the Makassan grave. Got up early as flies and sand-flies especially swarmed all over me. Got a breakfast of stewed prunes, cornflakes, toasted damper and coffee. Began clearing the site of undergrowth, vines and roots. Killed a death adder, a vicious and poisonous damn snake. Worked from 8 to 12 then cooked lunch of sausages, potatoes, peas and prunes. Lot of prunes in his diet.
So from the story ... so from the diary let’s go to the latter part of my manuscript and my introduction to the soft American. The young men called him the soft American. He was always hungry, eating whenever he could. Maybe they thought when you’re so fat as him you’ve just got to keep eating all the time and so they watched him stuffing himself at breakfast most days with prunes and peas and cold leftover fish from the evening meal the night before, with biscuits and damper and sausage, washed down with coffee made from tins of condensed milk. He stood tall but to them he had more the shape of a woman than a man, it was the way his round hips seemed to finish up way up near his chest, his chest which was really more like a lady’s bosoms, showing there through his white t-shirt. His pants were always hoisted high up there with a piece of rope and he kept them close to his calves at the bottom to ward off prickles and the snakes and scorpions about which he was totally paranoid.
One day he stood outside his tent with a dead magpie goose in one hand and a pistol in the other. He was posing for Hipwell, the photographer, to take his image with the dead bird. Truth was that one of the boys, Mikarna, the one the soft American called Neanderthal for his heavy low brow, long muscular arms and sausage-fingered hands had speared the goose on the beach. This was a joke among the boys who sniggered as they watched him, wondered how he could see anything at all out of those piggy eyes through those round glasses. They had in their heads the words of Mr Nathanial, Rennie, whom they loved for his kindness, who’d whispered to them in their language, stand clear when he’s fixed on shooting something, lads. Dr Newman, well, he couldn’t hit the vicar’s shithouse if it collapsed on top of him.
The soft American had a foul temper, he hated Rennie, they all knew that but Rennie hated him back harder. They knew the soft American thought they were all just dumb savages, somewhere up from animals, monkeys maybe but not quite people. You could see it in his little mean eyes, that’s why he gave them tobacco in return for measuring their heads, so he could take moulds of their faces just like you would with rare animals. He noticed them talking behind their hands to each other as he stood there with Mikarna’s bleeding goose in one hand, the gun in the other. You boys wouldn’t be laughing at me, would you all now? He asked as Hipwell moved in with the camera and the tripod. Newman smiled for Hipwell. No, boss, Banyu promised. Newman suddenly pursed his small mouth, scowled and pointed the revolver at the ground in front of him. As he fired the red dust exploded all around them and brought the other members of the party running from their tents. Hipwell cowered next to his tripod, the boys and young men unmoved, just stared with their mouths open. As the dust settled the soft American searched the ground in front of them. There was a reasonable hole but no snake. A freaking death adder coming right for me, he said, I think I must have blown him to pieces. Banyu smiled and shook his head, ah boss, bad luck, eh? I reckon he got away, that one. The other boys turned away and laughed openly.
Long before I’d come to write the sequence of this book which is perhaps the last fifth that deals with Nat Renmark’s 1950 expedition I had a fair idea thanks to Martin Thomas’ research and his 2013 essay what Setzler had done but there is nothing like handling the primary material, going back and forth over it, trying to understand why a person behaved in the way they did and precisely how they recorded their actions and feelings. Journal-writing, particularly for posterity, is a difficult business. How do we want to be seen and perhaps more importantly, remembered? What amazed me about Setzler was how blithely he segued between writing about grave robbing and describing what he had for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Between writing about stringing together a ... human vertebrae for packing for his museum, for posing with his head next to a skull he was about to prise from a crevice to complaining about the flies and the weather and of course Mountford who was himself something of a flawed character.
I spent far longer, at least three weeks with the Setzler collection here than I’d intended or anticipated, transcribing bits of it by hand and later typing it into Word format. Mindful of this presentation perhaps some days I recorded my emotional reactions to what I was reading. Here I was at 3pm on day 1, the 18th of July. Quote, I'm 10 pages into the first document in Setzler’s file, a description of all the photographs that he took in Australia. And he’s already talking about skeletons, human remains and cultural theft are major themes of Jesustown so this is prescient. Tamarind trees are mentioned in the same sentences as the graves. This too is prescient, unsettling as the opening sequence, the first page of my book has a Tamarind tree and Makassan graves. Makes me wonder at the power of the subconscious in fiction-writing, the capacity to channel and to somehow even anticipate perhaps future discovery.
This is the ninth paragraph of the book as it stands, written in early 2015. This is about Rennie who having convinced the tribesmen not to kill the Japanese during the 1930s was like Donald Thompson during the war now urging them to do the opposite, to spear them on sight. He’s just reunited with the men of his tribe after walking miles and miles overland. His eyes have lost focus, his tongue is tingling and his hands feel unmanageable, leaden like bricks dangling from the end of Pandanus ropes. His body surrenders, he slumps sideway into the sand but through their legs beyond the gnarly cephalopod roots of the grandfather Tamarind he notices the row of big rocks and vines placed at neat intervals just above the tideline. Muslim graves. It’s a plot setup of course for what will happen when Rennie’s expedition comes through years later and when the soft American and others including Rennie himself will do the wrong thing and that becomes about character. But here is Setzler’s description of the Makassan graves on the beach which I first read after I’d written the passage I’ve just read to you.
We looked over the Makassa site which is on the first dune back of high tide. It seemed to consist of blocks of ironstone or travertine on the surface, black midden layer and the one introduced item brought in by the Malays from the town of Makassa, namely the tamarind tree. Here is a regular grove of these lovely trees along the beach. They have leaves similar to those on our locust or thorn trees at home. Some of these trees are 18 to 20 foot in circumference. Charlie, one of Monty’s artists, came ashore and showed us where the last Makassa was buried. It was a jumble of rocks, vines and undergrowth.
Here Setzler captions one of his photographs, distant view of tamarind tree around site, McCarthy standing near graves. And another, back to food. Our lunch on Sunday, July 25th 1948 under a tamarind tree. Turtle eggs, catfish and wallaby. The photographs of Robert Rush Miller, the American photographer who accompanied the expedition in 1948 are also helping me to define the soft American, Dr Neman and others. There’s a photograph of Setzler holding the magpie goose in one hand and the revolver in the other and looking pretty darned pleased with himself. I don’t know if one of his native boy helpers as he called them, shot the goose for him or if he shot at a death adder that day as Howell was about to take his photograph at Yirrkala in late 1848. I made those bits up and that’s the fun bit but that’s what I’m doing here, ripping off versions of real events, documents and facts and images and just making stuff up.
We do know from Setzler’s personal writings that he was surreptitious in his theft of some remains, stealing them while his Aboriginal guides were asleep. For Setzler, of course, and others, it was all a race against time to chronicle the race before it passed as they anticipated it would. They were wrong, of course. What is unedifying, even shocking today was scientific research competition at the time which does not absolve the wrongdoing. And so again inspired by MS5230 I wrote in my manuscript about the soft American.
He thought he was so much smarter than them but they knew what the soft American was up to. A couple of times they’d let him close to the old people’s caves. He’d look around like he was not so interested and then they’d have a feast for lunch, more tinned fish, damper, some turtle eggs and wallaby, and they’d all lie down on a flat rock or under a shady tamarind to sleep it off. Some like Mikarna were initiated. Although the soft American still thought of them as boys they were young men of the tribe, warriors and they did not sleep with both eyes closed. They knew that when they were all supposed to be asleep he went up into the caves and stole the bones of the old people and put them in a sack. He would take every piece of the old people that he could lay his hands on, all the while he complained every day about how Rennie gave paints and paper and if they were good enough, flat pieces of bark to the men and boys of Jesustown who fancied themselves as painters.
In return they got baccy. It was like the soft American was in a race with Rennie and the winner was the one who collected the most stuff, no matter how they got it. There was a difference, though, that the young men could plainly see, Rennie was kind to them and he wanted to know all of the stories in the art they were making, even though sometimes they just made up yarns about feats of totemic animals just to keep him happy and to keep the baccy coming. But an unequal as weighted in Rennie’s favour as it was the relationship was transactional but with the soft American it was all one way. They just watched him sneaking around, taking the old people and putting their bones in the ammunition boxes in his tent. Nobody trusted him but then nobody ever stopped him either.
On the 27th of July after about 10 intensive days in the Manuscript Room I recorded how I felt about the material I was dealing with regarding Setzler. I wrote it’s incredible how you become immune, accustomed to the language Setzler uses about and the attitudes he displays towards the indigenous people he’s dealing with. There’s an extraordinary sense of entitlement associated with his research. He finds he’s led to bones belonging to Makassans or Aboriginal people and there is simply no questioning, no self-doubt surrounding the decision he makes, that he will just take them. He just assumes that they will all want to have their face casts done too, he can’t understand why they would or might be scared.
I felt really privileged to spend a few hours with Rush Miller’s photographs, many of which contain sacred and secret material and depictions of the dead and so largely restricted. Bear in mind I’m still developing a lot of characters including the soft American, Dr Newman, but one photograph in particular I’ve found incredibly impelling was actually published in National Geographic magazine along with countless other images that would not be reproduced today on the grounds of cultural sensitivity, in I think 1949. It was in an article by Mountford titled Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land. It shows Setzler as his diary notes in the process of getting a movie sequence of our discovering human bones in the crevices of rocks. Note he says discovering rather than stealing.
We had spotted a good site on Gallery Hill and I was interested in removing the bones for packing. About 10am, climbed the hill with the photographic gear and packing material. We got some good shots ... see film ... and I found enough bones to fill three ammunition boxes which we carried down. Rush Miller’s still photograph shows Setzler adorned with a headband squeezed into a crevice next to the indigenous skeleton he’s about to steal. He’s looking into the eye sockets of the skull. Of course its pictorial resonance with Hamlet is undeniable though any literary comparison is cheap for Setzler harboured no such Shakespearean self-doubt.
Many of you familiar with the expedition will know better than me that Mountford’s mutual disdain for Setzler blew up ... blew open during the expedition and manifested in a failed coup by the American on Monty’s leadership but such differences were papered over in National Geo. Mountford captioned the image of Setzler, this one here, and the skull thus. Alas poor Yorick, alas poor Setzler, the Smithsonian anthropologist crawled into the shallow burial cave first for moving pictures then for still cameras. When asked what his find meant to him Setzler commented measurements of the skull indicate a longheaded individual with a cephalic index of 69. The skull, like all the remains he pilfered across Arnhem land, was never more than an object to be measured, probed and ultimately added to a collection of things, it was completely dehumanised.
As a journalist I spoke to many indigenous people and denied to many white anthropologists who are still in the field about the cultural vandalism but more importantly the spiritual sacrilege that is part and parcel of the theft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains. My current day character, Jericho, a leader of the indigenous people around Jesustown who heads a back to basics tribal movement that eschews federal and territory strictures and trappings including currency, driver’s licences and car rego is on a quest to bring the old people home from Washington.
Nat Renmark’s numbskull grandson meanwhile just can’t understand what all the fuss is about. This brings me to MS8540, the papers of Bill Harney, bushman, patrol officer for the Native Affairs Branch of the Northern Territory, curator of Ayer’s Rock Reservation for a time, poet, recluse and author of numerous popular books on life in northern and outback Australia. Harney worked as a type of fixer on the 1948 expedition and he’s often mentioned by Setzler and others, sometimes ambiguously when it comes to cultural theft but always as a facilitator. He was a world war one veteran who went bush upon discharge. These days I think he probably would have been diagnosed at PTSD sufferer. He had been married to an Aboriginal woman who along with both of their children had died in separate tragic events. He was an autodidact scholar of indigenous language and culture, a bridge between different worlds.
One of the marvellous things about intensive archival research such as that which I’ve been doing for this fellowship is the possibilities it raises for future writing projects. Harney’s collection here in the NLA is rich and deep, not to mention superbly curated by Shannon Sutton, thanks Shannon. I’ll be revisiting this one for sure with another writing project in mind. Anyway it was some time in the 1940s that Harney wrote about the death ritual at Yirrkala. When a person dies they are kept one night, next day they are painted with red ochre then yellow in the pattern of the deceased one’s miriam... totem. The dead one is now wrapped in the paperbark and taken to a square hut where people assemble for the dance of the dead one. The deceased is now lifted and the words of his miriam is uttered allowed. They now take the dead to a platform and with calls to his miriam he is laid upon it. He goes on to describe in incredible detail the process that takes place over months and months as decomposition sets in and breaks down the body, and of the ceremony after that involving the dog dance, the snake dance, the stingray dance, the man spirit dance, many other dances to separate the spirit from the bones so that the spirit can rest peacefully. He describes how in Yirrkala the bones were placed in hollow log coffins while elsewhere they were wrapped in paperbark and kept in trees or caves and he talks about the dreaming road associated with death.
Quote, this myth is connected with death and the belief that the shade or spirit of a person is external or belongs to the Dreamtime. The shade enters a woman and a child begins to grow. When at death the shade departs from the deceased’s body it lives near the bones until the final death ritual, partly described above, takes place and the bones are placed away in the burial cave. It stands to reason therefore what should happen if the bones are disturbed, let alone taken to another place out of country, out of the continent, out of the country to the other side of the world.
On the back of Harney’s writing I’ll take you back to my Jesustown manuscript where Jericho who’s off to the US to bring home the bones of the old people is trying to explain it to Patrick. Patrick says Auntie Amelia’s been talking about that, about you bringing the old people home. What the hell’s that about? I mean why bother? Jericho glanced at Tamar, his sister. She rolled her eyes. I’m amazed how little you know, brother. We walk among the dead around here, I mean see them, feel them with us constantly ‘cause there are restless spirits everywhere, spirits disconnected from their country because their bones have been taken away, stolen. The bones are gone so their shadows are wandering, restless, blowing around like flumes of smoke ... like plumes of smoke, sorry, on the beach and in among the Stringybarks. God, don’t tell me you haven’t seen them, felt them wandering the hall of ... halls of Nat’s old place where you’re staying. The shadows ... there’s shadows everywhere in Jesustown, Patrick, because your granddaddy for all the good things he tried to do for us people let those others in and they took the old people. I can’t believe you don’t know, a historian supposedly, that repatriation of ancestral remains is a massive deal in this country.
The soldiers and the settlers had been taking the bodies of blackfellas forever, they killed them specifically for trophy and cut off heads, skinned people so they could have their tribal markings and sent them to medical schools and museums all over Europe and America. They saw us just as a step in the evolution of man, somewhere the apes and the white man on the human scale so that’s what I’m about, I’m heading off to the States to bring them home and when I do the shadows will reconnect with the bones because we’ll bury the bones so no meddling white bastards come and steal them again.
Patrick laughed out loud. He said honestly, Jerry, how bloody ridiculous, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. When the ANZACs died they just buried them on the battlefield where they fell, why not just leave them be, Jericho? It’s just bones. In any event with you jumping off the Australian citizenship how are you proposing to raise the airfares to America? Jericho stood, clenched his fists. His sister walked behind him, put her hands on both his shoulders and pushed gently, he sat down. Jesus Christ, Patrick, you are one dumb white jackass telling me about the ANZACs, all of your young warriors buried neatly under rows of straight little white stones in green clipped lawn cemeteries and cared for by gardeners. Can you imagine if they were dug up, put on display, pulled apart and then kept in boxes in museum basements? The outcry. Sometimes you are so damned ignorant I just can’t believe you’re related to him.
Jericho and Patrick have lots and lots of special moments together. Their conversations have been instructed by all sorts of things, my journalism, my own discussions with whitefellas and blackfellas all over Australia, books I’ve read and not least the manuscripts I’ve been passing over here. There’s no real pattern to the way I’ve used the material that I’ve been collecting here. As I write, and especially as I reread and rewrite my Jesustown manuscript, not least when I was preparing this speech, something I’ve seen or written down during my fellowship may and often does come to mind. A colour, a smell, something about the sounds of a place at night, for example, the unsettling foreign voice seeing along to yirdaki and clapsticks while the whistle of a kettle sounds, a dog howls, an American rapper chants from a portable speaker and the kids scream and laugh and whistle and call for the ball on the footy field.
I'm a dog-lover so it’s no surprise that there’s lots and lots of dogs in this book just as there’s lots of dogs in most identifiably indigenous suburbs, towns and settlements such as latter-day Jesustown. Camp dogs have never made me particularly uncomfortable or afraid but not surprisingly Patrick Cleaver is no fan of them. Early in my manuscript when Jericho collects Patrick at the airport and drives him into Jesustown, Patrick who last visited the place as a boy sees fit to complain about the significant canine presence. Patrick said still fucking dogs everywhere I see, what is it about you people and your dogs? I don’t understand. Lending emphasis to Patrick’s observation a mottled yellow bitch with a greyhound’s tail, a square bulldog head and a Labrador’s sleek trunk and full swinging udders sauntered onto the road and lay atop the next speed hump. Jericho slowed the vehicle to a stop just in front of the dog. He shifted the car into neutral, engaged the handbrake, stretched over the back seat and opened the rear passenger door. He clicked his tongue and sounded a high-pitched whistle and just audibly said Simba, Simba baby. The dog rolled onto its legs, stretched and sauntered over to the car, climbed in and lay across the back seat. She’s all mine, Jericho said, all mine, aren’t you, baby? He scratched Simba under the chin and pulled the door shut.
They continued driving slowly through the outskirts of Jesustown. Puppies on the way, I’m hoping seven, maybe eight, said Jericho. Great, Patrick said, congratulations. What do you people do with all these dogs? I mean do you really need more? We hunt, Patrick, and they keep us safe from outsiders and besides that we just have them because we love them, because we’ve had hundreds of dogs here forever, for thousands of years, it’s tradition. Each child has at least one dog to look after. Okay, I felt like I was onto something here as a dog-lover who ended up with half a dozen dogs on my porch in Yirrkala every afternoon when I was writing, all different shapes and sizes but I might actually get a chance to refine this conversation further and to absolutely nail it, I think, now that I’ve read Harney’s papers because at the back of Harney’s papers in a yellowing brittle 1958 newspaper feature slid in between two pieces of plastic which Harney had torn out and kept, the journalist writes how one tourist ... one woman tourist at Ayer’s Rock asked Harney with sniffed nose condescension, why do they keep so many wretched dogs? For the same reason as the Duke of Norfolk, Bill snapped, turning on his heel. Because they like them. If you’re not seeing the Queen surrounded by corgis now you’re not trying.
And finally on dogs, Rush Miller took an amazing photograph of those Mount ... of those Mountford and Setzler would have described as the wild blacks, members of the tribes from the northeast who’d sometimes gravitate to the missions, perhaps camp on the outskirts for months at a time and return back to their homelands. I can see perhaps six dogs of varying shapes, colours and sizes in that photograph, one with a curled tail of a pug walks across the front of the shot while others are snouty black smudges, shaped like kelpies and Jack Russells and even a Collie amid the long shadows of their masters’ legs. Here I describe Patrick’s first experience of the house where he would stay on vacation in Jesustown with his eccentric grandfather, Nat, in the late 1970s. Patrick hated the dogs then too. An assortment of dogs seem to have all areas accessed, they were roo hunters, intimidating, yellowing, mottled muscular mastiffs, fidgety dingoish beasts of burnt orange that responded to any attention by growling and who twitchily sniffed and riffled about for food scraps and that Chihuahua bitzer cross Jack Russell lap dogs that the ladies dangled like rag dolls by a forward leg. They had the run of the place, they all eyed him and sniffed him as the imposter.
One of the tensions underlying the 1948 expedition was the failed expectation for the most part of Mountford to produce the last of his promised stone age men. My 1950 expedition to Jesustown and beyond which occupies the last fifth of the book is marred by similar tensions between the Americans especially Dr Newman and Renmark. In 1948 the mission Aboriginal people were sometimes asked to disrobe for photographs so as to appear more genuinely native in inverted commas. While the ceremonies that were filmed and photographed were often truncated for the benefit of the tourists and performed in return for rations of flour, sugar and the ubiquitous tobacco. Setzler and others were disappointed at what Setzler called the missionisation of the natives. As Setzler noted in April 1948 it is quite obvious that the so-called wild Australian Aborigines of Arnhem land are non-existent. The people over practically all of Arnhem land live either at the missions or work at the various cattle stations. This is probably due to the war which gave them a taste for white man’s food and tobacco. Elsewhere Setzler observed how quote the natives are carrying on with the making of bark paintings and the making of spears, baskets etc. It is unfortunate that these natives have to be told what to make rather than our collecting the paraphernalia of their material culture. There are delightful moments born out in letters and diaries collected here that make it clear that while the compact such as it was was weighted disproportionately, unjustly, unjustifiably in favour of the visitors, the blackfellas would where possible get their own back.
On my wall at home I have a prize print of a string puppet figure, a possum’s nest. The Yolngu women were famous for making the puppets from string fashioned from kangaroo hide and even human hair. They used them to entertain their kids. The 1948 expedition thought them brilliant for the stories from the ancient songlines that they like the bark art supposedly encapsulated about the totemic animals and the ancestors. In my Jesustown the blackfellas have the whitefellas on, competing to make up the tallest stories that the likes of the soft American will pay for with tobacco.
For Mountford’s 1948 expedition the princess of puppeteers was the Yolngu woman, Narou. She knew all the stories. Brian Billington, a member of the ’48 expedition writing 20 years ago to Raymond Spect, incidentally the only member of the group of 15 still alive and who I’m now in touch with, said in a document held here, at Yirrkala Narou was also interested ... was also instructing Fred McCarthy in the complexities of string figures. John Moody was with us at the time and he knew a few too. One day he did the string figure for a saw, sawing wood and asked Narou whether she knew that one. She shook her head. Moody taught it to her, Moody and I were gently suspicious that our earnest anthropologists were writing down as cultural fact the stories of the Dreamtime as told to them without testing their veracity. Who is to know which ones were spur of the moment stories and that the teller straight-faced at the time would later laugh and tell his mates that so-and-so will believe absolutely anything. We decided to test this hypothesis by asking Narou would she do the sawing figure for Fred. Pretending it to be a true blue Yirrkala item Narou grinned and said she would and there it is, number 168 on page 505, volume 2 of the official expedition record. Moody had learned it at school in Melbourne.
My character, Jericho is forever telling stories too, mostly to Patrick, about the ancestors and the characteristics of the land and of the birds and the animals. Here’s an example, when they first drive into Jesustown. Jericho turned quickly and clutched Patrick’s arm. He said look and pointed to the sky, a weight of grey and white bearing down on the wind-whipped green sea at the bottom of the road where it met the water. Patrick could barely make out a pair of what he assumed were large gulls, each of their wings two conjoined arcs like childish caricatures of birds in flight. Jericho said frigate bird, you only ever see them during the cyclone, they’ve been in our stories and our art forever, in the paintings of the big winds. Nobody’s ever found their nests on the land, you know. That’s because they lay their eggs at sea on floating nests made of seaweed. Patrick laughed and said bullshit, really, how ridiculous. You people, if you don’t know the answer to something then you just make it up. Just like you make up the supposed history you write. In any event the frigate birds are in the songlines, it’s true. That’s rubbish, Jericho. Okay then you tell me then where exactly do those birds lay their eggs. You got a better explanation than the songlines? Patrick didn’t. This is at the beginning of the story. By the end of it Patrick who is still seeing his son everywhere has another meeting with the frigate birds.
There’s a lot in what I’m writing about ... in this manuscript about story, about what is true and what is false, about what we can and should choose to believe. There are many other characters in my manuscript already including a vicious white Trepang fisherman, a guy called Dougal Sharkey who enslaved young tribal men to dive for beshtamere and held their sisters as sex slaves that the archives here and elsewhere have helped shape. Sharkey for example is based partly on William Wiltshire, a frontiersman, who recorded his violent excesses in several exceedingly rare books which are of course held by the NLA. Thanks Andrew Sargent for pointing me to the digitised copies. My Dougal Sharkey is also influenced by descriptions of Harney, no shirt, shorts with a knife in the belt, boots with no socks and on top a rather grubby petty officer’s cap worn rather absentmindedly and by the moral ambiguity that I could detect in him and some of the other frontiersmen in the documents.
There’s a curious letter to Harney from one of has publishing associates about their forthcoming visit to the north that reads in part Dear Bill, jolly pleased to hear from you. All send their regards with a request that you pick out some primitive young thing for each and every one of us. It’s an opening, I think, if ever there were for a novelist to fill. Wiltshire for all his evil had a wonderful eye for the prosaics of food and weaponry, sights and sounds of camps, just as Setzler and the photographer Howell had for the killing and eating of native foods. Setzler wrote in detail about the capture and butchery of a green turtle, something that I’ve witnessed ... it’s pretty grisly business ... of how they remove the eggs from the inside of the sea turtle and replace them in the intestines before the whole thing was cooked on a fire.
Jericho takes Patrick spearfishing in the morning after a big night. Patrick has a killer hangover, he is green with queasiness. He is amazed when Jericho deftly spears a mullet that neither of them can see from a sandbar on the edge of a swiftly flowing inlet. How’d you do that? Patrick asks. So the mullet, he always makes a different sound when he comes into the river mouth from the saltwater side. Again, thanks Bill Harney for imparting that. So were you just born knowing that sort of stuff? Patrick asked. No, it’s what the old people teach us. For the museum’s a place where you put our spears and our art and our stories and knowledge all written down and behind glass cases. For us the museum is here all around in the country. I was taught how to do that by one of the uncles because the knowledge was handed down. You’ll never get it, bro, here, hold the spear, keep the fish upright on it. Jericho had another spear, just as well because Patrick heard something in the water behind them. He froze at the sight of the big dark shape moving swiftly under water to towards them. Jericho, crocodile. Patrick said. Jericho passed Patrick the mullet wriggling on the end of the spear.
Patrick promptly dropped it in the water and it began to swim off, dragging the pole with it. Jericho raised his other spear. It’s no crocodile, it’s a turtle, bro. I’ll take him anyway, eh? Leave the turtle be, please, Jericho. The spear hit the turtle at the vulnerable point just where the neck joins the shell. Jericho screamed bullseye. The wounded turtle thrashed around squirting blood into the water and all over them both. It tried desperately to swim off with the spear. Jericho hauled it to shore, it squealed and shook its head as he flung it onto the beach, the weighty green dome of its shell pinning it upside down on the sand, its legs flapping madly. He took a pen knife from the back pocket of his cut-off jeans and in one stroke sliced its head off. Jericho said the old people, they love the turtle, full of fat, it’s so good for them. This one’s a big lady, she’ll be full to pussy’s bow of eggs. Pull them out of the wound and stick them back in the intestines to cook. Nothing better than turtle eggs straight out of the guts from the fire when they’re still warm. Patrick struggled with the twitching fish, fell to his knees in the shallow water and dry-retched. You okay, bro? Jericho asked. It’s just food.
So there’s so much more I could tell you but we’re out of time here and I’m here in and out of the NLA at least until the end of November, I’m yet to make more than a cursory entry into the recorded oral histories but that I plan to do in coming weeks and there’s going to be stacks more material there. Thank you once again to everyone at the Library who supported my Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing. I hope I’ve demonstrated what an important contribution it has and will continue to make to the progress of this book and thank you for coming out to listen to me tonight. Thanks.
RH: I just wanted to say that I said before that Paul was an inspired choice for ... as our inaugural writing fellow and I think you’ve demonstrated that in every possible sense at how deeply the collections are intrinsic to your creative thinking and imagination. And that’s truly an inspiration to us from the Library, to see our collection so powerfully used and the power of fiction to translate those messages and stories that are deeply embedded in collections into things that are so deeply moving and incredibly courageous to tell. And I think you’ve been courageous in telling us your story about the development of the novel before it’s finished or in the process of finishing it and thank you very, very much, Paul. So with that we might take some questions.
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