- What we collect
- Preserving our collections
- Building our collections
- Selected Library collections
- Collection statistics
- History of the collection
- Processing and describing our collections
Queers in Exile
Fellowship Presentation with Dr Ellen Smith
Fellowship Presentation with Dr Ellen Smith
22 May 2019
Warning: This audio contains strong language which may be offensive to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.
Throughout the twentieth century, many gay Australian writers and artists left Australia—some of them would never return.
Literary scholar Dr Ellen Smith explores the relationship between expatriatism and queer identity in mid-twentieth-century Australian writing through a number of case studies of writers whose decision to leave Australia can be linked to their sexuality.
About Dr Ellen Smith
Dr Ellen Smith is a literary scholar interested in the global contexts of Australian literature, and a lecturer in Gender Studies and Australian Literature at Deakin University.
Dr. Ellen Smith Fellowship 22 May 2019
*Speakers: Kevin Bradley (K), Ellen Smith (E), Female (F)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Good evening, everybody and welcome to the National Library of Australia. As I commence I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, past, present and emerging.
I’m Kevin Bradley, Assistant Director General at the National Library of Australia responsible for Australian Collections and Reader Services and it’s my pleasure to have the duty to welcome to you – you to tonight’s fellowship presentation by Dr Ellen Smith. The Fellowship program – who is standing just behind me in case you were wondering – the Fellowship program brings an extraordinary range of researchers to our reading rooms who contribute to the Library’s vision to collect, connect and collaborate and we are grateful to the donors whose generous support enables us to offer such unique opportunities.
Offering researchers and scholars the time to interrogate the collections and make discoveries is one of the great benefits of the fellowships. Often it leads to insights that have taken fellows in new directions or extended or refined their researchers. Often it had led us at the Library to know a little more about our collections.
Ellen’s fellowship has been made possible by the generosity of Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust which specifically supports research in Australian literature. It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that Ellen is a literary scholar, interested in the global context of Australian literature. She has held postdoctoral fellowships at Melbourne University and King’s College London and taught literature and global studies at the University of Sussex. Now based in her hometown of Melbourne she teaches gender studies and Australian literature at Deakin University. A fascination with Australian writers and writing has been a constant theme throughout her career. Her PhD considered the political contexts surrounding the works of Xavier Herbert, Katharine Susannah Prichard and [Aginda Waraback] 1:58 poets.
Ellen’s current research on the relationship between ex-patriotism and clear identity looks at some of Australia’s most important 20th century writers and will ultimately consider the works of Patrick White, Martin Boyd, David Malouf and Sumner Locke Elliott. But it’s been the papers - the Library’s - of Randolph Stow that have proven to be a major source of material and discovery. I won’t give anything way ‘though I’m as captivated by the title as the rest of you and instead I’ll just welcome Ellen to tell you about what she’s uncovered and where her research is leading. Please welcome Dr Ellen Smith.
E: Thank you, thank you very much. Alright I’m – I’ll get started because there’s quite a lot of material to get through. So I came to the NLA to work on sexuality and ex-patriotism as Kevin said, that is on gay Australian writers who left Australia. I was interested in the mid-century period in the experience of people who were coming of age prior to gay liberation. I had a number of people in mind who I thought fit this profile so some of the names that Kevin just read to you then, Sumner Locke Elliott, Patrick White, David Malouf and Randolph Stow. What I’ve ended up doing ‘though in my time in the Library is spending most of my time looking at the Randolph Stow collection which is a rich and fascinating way to think about this story so that’s what I’m going to talk to you about today.
I think it’s worth saying from the outset that Stow’s story is not the familiar one about queer migration to the metropolis. Stow never really liked the city. His queer expatriate story would start instead in the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea and then via Leeds, Malta, Scotland and an extensive tour of the United States and Alaska end in a small village in Suffolk, England where he would spend the rest of his life.
The story I want to tell you today focuses on the time that he spent in the Trobriand Islands as a young, aspiring anthropologist and the way he returned to that experience throughout his life. It’s a story about queer desire and the ethnographic imagination, about the way that Stow’s experience of his own sexuality took shape with and through his encounter with the Trobriand world.
One of the reasons that I’ve ended up on this particular story is because the material held by the National Library is particularly rich around the time that Stow spent in the Trobriand Islands. I’ve just got a list here for those who are interested about what some of the materials that I’ve consulted are. So this material includes a diary, extensive field notes, a lot of letters and it’s also Stow’s own archive which he returns to again and again throughout his life in an attempt to make sense of what happened to him when he was in New Guinea.
So what this means is that anecdote from the diaries, anecdotes from his letters, these things turn up in later novels as Stow kind of returns to this archive of material himself in order to make sense of what happened to him and also in order to sort of construct his fictional worlds.
I think the fact that there is more material on this Trobriand period in Stow’s life which was actually only about six months, the fact that there’s so much kind of documentation of that period speaks to the importance of this period in Stow’s life. Stow kept these materials himself and kept returning to them.
But this is to get ahead of ourselves so I want to start by telling you something about who Stow is and something about his work. Stow is often thought of as one of Australia’s best and most underrated 20th century novelists. He was born in 1935 in Geraldton, Western Australia. Something of a prodigy he published his first novel, The Haunted Land, in 1956 when he was just 21. His second novel, The Bystander, followed but it was his third novel, To The Islands, which announced him as a serious novelist. I discovered Stow through reading To The Islands and I’ve been interested in him ever since.
To The Islands came out of a period that Stow spent at Forest River Mission, an Aboriginal mission in the Kimberleys in 1957. He was 22. It’s a remarkable novel still for the way that it captures the voices of that world and grapples with the moral and political implications of colonialism and colonisation. I’ve got a list of his key publications up here on the PowerPoint.
Stow left Australia in 1959 when he was 24. He went as a cadet patrol officer to New Guinea. At this time New Guinea was an Australian-administered territory as it had been since 1920 so Stow, he left Australia as part of the colonial administration of New Guinea.
His decision to take this job leads us back to Forest River Mission where he wrote To The Islands. Stow was deeply moved by the time he spent there, living with and among the indigenous community and he decided there that he wanted to train as an anthropologist.
Stow was posted to the Trobriand Islands with the government anthropologist, Charles Julius. The Trobriands were famous in the world of anthropology then as they still are now as the subject of a series of enormously influential studies by Bronislaw Malinowski, sometimes referred to as the father of anthropology. Anyone who’s studied anthropology will have read Malinowski.
So Stow was pleased with his posting. This was a letter to his mother that he wrote in 1959.
The Trobriands are the best part of the world anthropologically as the best known anthropologist, Malinowski, wrote about six books on it. I was studying it all last year, it’s quite an opportunity. If I get to know it thoroughly I’ll know about half the work required for an anthropology degree and can go on to do one later.
In the end Stow’s time in the Trobriand Islands was personally disastrous, ending in a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. After that Stow would give up on becoming an anthropologist. Instead he continued to work as a writer but much of his work over the next 20 years would refer back to this time. Two of his novels, The Visitants, The Girl Green as Elderflower, a collection of poems and a series of short stories can all be read as sort of attempts to work through what happened to him in the Trobriand Islands and make sense of this experience.
Today I’m going to talk firstly about Stow’s experience in the Trobriand Islands as I’ve reconstructed it from the documents in the Library’s collection so that’ll be the first section of the talk then secondly I’m going to look at two stories written in Alaska about six years later that are based on his time in the Trobriands and based on Trobriand myths. I’m going to argue that these are sort of queer reworkings of Trobriand myths that he encountered in the Trobriand Islands. I’ll finish then with some brief comments about what it means to think and write about the private life of this intensely private man.
Okay so firstly Stow in the Trobriands. When Stow arrived in Port Moresby in March 1959, a young cadet patrol officer, he was unimpressed by the white colonial society he found there.
I’ve decided Moresby is pretty dull, he wrote to his mother. The white population is composed of cranks and drears and the gossip is terrific. Even in our mob we hear things about one another from complete strangers.
But if Port Moresby was pointless drinking and boring gossip the Trobriands represented something else. Malinowski’s work was not only central to the discipline of anthropology but presented new and radical ideas about sex, society and cultural relativisms. The Trobriands would have had a glamour that fitted with Stow’s intellectual seriousness and they were a world away from the provincial West Australian pastoral class. Although Stow’s job was with the Australian Government he saw himself less as a colonial bureaucrat and more as an aspiring anthropologist. It was with Malinowski rather than the other CPOs that Stow identified.
One thing I’m going to suggest to you today is that Stow’s encounter with the Trobriand Islands can’t be separated from his encounter with this so-called father of modern anthropology, Malinowski. Stow studied Malinowski extensively in the lead-up to his post and Malinowski’s the lens through which Stow encounters the Trobriand scene in the first instance. Malinowski’s colour scheme is so ripe, his diary reads, brown bodies, pale, great brown houses, grey-brown coconut trees. Further, Stow will meet some of the informants who spoke to Malinowski 40 years previous. People who Stow had already encountered in Malinowski’s photographs and descriptions would now become his guides and the people from whom he made his own collections of myths and spells.
At several moments in his diary Stow describes locals poring over pictures in a copy of The Sexual Life of Savages which he and Julius had brought with them to Omarakana. People have been here all day, he reports, poring over the photographs of Malinowski.
In the beginning the role of the ethnographer, as Stow had read about it in Malinowski, suited very well the way he orientated himself towards the world, the way he saw himself. Stow’s diary from the time shows that he sees himself as an observer and the diary itself as a record of his observations of humankind. This I think stands in defensive opposition to any kind of introspection or self-observation. Stow wants to look out rather than in and the model he adopts in his journal is that of the anthropological field diary rather than the confessional. So Stow will say, shouldn’t always write this journal when I’m drunk, it sounds too introspective and I don’t think I am. Try to analyse humans as a whole, not me.
Then in the following year after the breakdown, I can’t remember why I began this diary in 1949 but I will keep on with it and fill up the intervening years as I go. It was not to be introspection, a record of my perception of external things and not of myself.
It’s interesting when I came across these kinds of comments from Stow in his diary. At first I was a little bit frustrated because I’m doing this work which is trying to understand something about the kind of personal and private life of this man and so you sort of hope that the diary will have introspection and stuff about his feelings in it but he refuses this. But I think sort of what I realised in reading his diary is that this refusal of introspection is actually key to his character. In some ways Stow sees himself as an observer and he shies away from self-examination.
Stow’s fear of introspection as it reveals itself here I think should be understood in relation to his sexuality. At least in part this was probably about anxiety about homosexual desire but I think that it’s unlikely at this stage that Stow saw himself as a gay man. The identity would not have presented itself to him as an option. Rather, his anxiety that reveals itself in small slipups of introspection is about becoming involved in the world of emotional and sexual attachments in ways that would challenge his sense of self-sufficiency. What he would call in a poem from the time, his fortress of identity.
We can note that it is his friendships with men that throw this anxiety into sharpest relief. Reflecting on his close friendship with another CPO he met in Port Moresby Stow says, I don’t need friends. I walk by my wild lone in the wild woods. I think it’s good to remember Stow is only 24 here, he’s very angsty. Nor do I need love nor am I likely to get it but love and friendship would make so many things easier, especially overcoming melancholy, inertia and [unclear] 15:01. On second thoughts love is precisely what I don’t want, it’s too binding, too demanding. In another entry he quotes from John Donne’s Elegy 9 The Autumnal, a love poem addressed to an older woman, only to castigate himself, frigid puritan, no life in love, he says.
Stow doesn’t know how to enter the world of love and sex. Another quote, either become one of those sad people who live for a hint of friendship or renounce the human race and become a tree, he says.
So I’m suggesting there that the idea of ethnography or the idea of anthropology presented itself as a solution to Stow, allowing him to look upon and write about the world of love and sex which he in a way – without he himself being called to participate in it.
If this was the case, though, being in the Trobriands was really not exactly like this and Stow’s attachment to the position of the observer also explains something of why the lived experience of the Trobriand Islands was so psychologically difficult for him.
Early in his time in the Trobriands Stow becomes aware that people are looking back. This is his first stay in Omarakana, he comments. People are everywhere, on the steps, in the road, under house looking up through the floorboards. They are charming, nice-looking friendly people, very clean, very primitive in the administration sense as the men wear only the pubic leaf and the women the short grass skirt.
Already – and this is his first day – I think there is a tension between Stow’s cliched ethnographic perception of charming primitive natives and the dawning realisation that they might also be looking at him.
This continues throughout Stow’s diary and he experiences the Trobriand gaze as a sexual intrusion. He writes to his mother, it’s a bit aback-taking being watched through the floor, especially at mealtimes and when having a shower.
Later in The Visitants, Stow’s Trobriand novel, he more explicitly imagines Trobriand women watching the white men and this is a Trobriand woman character.
I watched him in the shower through a hole in the cookhouse wall and his arse is white like shells. All the women watch the dim-dims. Wha, Mr Ludy has a cock as big as this.
Stow also finds himself negotiating offers of sex. He writes the girls have arrived as always at this time of night to serenade me. They must imagine that going to be bed with me would result in limitless gifts of tobacco.
I want to pause at this point to say something about architecture because the experience of being watched takes place in and through a particular architectural space and because architectural metaphors are crucial to the way that Stow sees himself. This is – Stow’s not a particularly good photographer but this is one of his photographs of Omarakana where he was staying.
It’s a village of huts raised on stilts with unsealed wooden floors. People seek shade under the house and from there can see up into the room above. So this is what Stow is referring to when he talks about people under the floor, he's not just paranoid and imagining this, there are actually people under the floor.
The idea of people looking up through the floorboards disturbs Stowe particularly. It appears in the quotes above and is repeated throughout the diary and letters. For Stow eyes under the floor seem to suggest a gaze that can’t be guarded against, coming from all angles at once from where you yourself don’t look and can’t see.
In The Visitants, the novel based most directly on Stow’s time in the Trobriands, Stow uses the image of a bleeding house to represent the death of [Cowder] 19:10, a colonial officer who kills himself by slashing at his wrists and bodies. This draws very closely on Stow’s own suicide attempt.
The house for Stow is a metaphor for the self and the bleeding house suggests a self whose protective skin has been ruptured beyond repair. But the bleeding house in The Visitants also has a more literal reference. [Cowder] slashes at his wrists in a house on stilts like the house that Stow stayed in and his blood drips down through the floorboards onto the head of a young local man resting in the shade below who cries out in horror. The house is bleeding.
Stow clearly felt intruded upon by the eyes of Trobrianders and that there was nowhere he could go to escape from view. Read biographically the bleeding house become a symbol of the way that in the Trobriands in a house on stilts with holes in the wall and holes in the roof Stow feels himself coming apart under a gaze that seems everywhere at once in which he experiences as carrying a sexual demand.
We can compare the image of the bleeding house to that of a homestead stockade that was for Stow a repeated metaphor for the self. Biographer Suzanne Falconer quotes a draft – this is from a draft of a poem called Sandalwood.
Homestead and fortress of identity, the self-stockade. I man myself stockade, my silence like a fire break guards my state.
Stow wrote this, quote, in a thatched hut in the village of Omarakana on the island of Kiriwina remembering Sand Springs. The homestead image is thrown up as a defence of privacy in a place that for Stow seemed to offer none.
Stow’s experience of sexual and s[unclear] 21:04 intrusion also posed a radical challenge to the ideal of ethnographic fieldwork that he had gained through reading Malinowski. For instance in a now notorious passage from Argonauts of the Western Pacific Malinowski argues that by living in the village right among the people the ethnographer will become an inconspicuous part of the daily life of his subjects and so unnoticed be able to witness their private lives. So this is Argonauts of the Western Pacific, this is totally wild, this passage, I reckon.
It must be remembered that as the novels – the natives saw me constantly every day, they ceased to be interested or alarmed or made self-conscious by my presence and I ceased to be a disturbing element in the tribal life which I was to study, altering it by my very approach as always happens with a newcomer to every savage community.
As they knew that I would thrust my nose into everything, even where a well mannered native would not dream of intruding, they finished by regarding me as part and parcel of their life, a necessary evil or nuisance mitigated by no donations of tobacco.
So Malinowski, at least in this textual construction and I think we probably do need to read it as a textual construction and not what actually happened, hides in plain sight and can see without being seen.
Stow’s experiences we’ve encountered here is almost exactly the opposite of this. It’s not Stow, the ethnographer, who can poke his nose around corners to see the private life of his subjects, rather it’s the Trobrianders whose eyes are everywhere, who seem always to be overstepping the mark of politeness and privacy. There is then for Stow and the Trobriand Islands a crumbling of the ethnographic authority represented by the figure of Malinowski. Throughout the diary Stow’s image of Malinowski wavers. Stow reports a conversation with a visiting anthropologist, Dr Reo Fortune, who bad-mouthes the ethnographer. Malinowski, he said, was a congenial liar. The Sexual Life of Savages is a bad novel, Conrad could have done better. Functionalism is bunk.
The topic of liars remains at play. A few weeks later his interpreter, Abraham, casts doubt on one of Malinowski’s key informants, Quote, [Monacawu] 23:23, was one of Malinowski’s favourite informants and Abraham says no-one on Omarakana ever listens to him, he’s such a liar. Malinowski starts to appear to Stow as lacking in both honesty and judgement.
The idea that the ethnographic space doesn’t produce a reliable novel, that ethnographic authority is a textual construct, that informants might have their own agendas is now pretty commonplace, it’s almost a cliché but it wouldn’t have been to Stow in 1959 and we see Stow’s subjective integrity crumble alongside his belief in Malinowski.
There is an interesting moment when Stow is offered a love spell by [Monacawu], one of Malinowski’s informants who is now an old man. So this is a man who had spoken to Malinowski 40 years ago and now Stow is speaking to. So Stow reports, in the afternoon [Monacawu] came and offered to teach me love magic to make the girls come to the rest house at night. Dirty old bastard. I did get a spell from him anyway or perhaps only a song which is spoken by a woman who wants [Monacawu] to come to bed with her. It’s perhaps a spell spoken by a man to induce these sentiments in the woman.
I would argue that there are in fact two older men in this scene, two father figures. There is [Monacawu], the dirty old bastard who wants to teach Stow love magic and there is also hovering in the background Malinowski, father of modern ethnography for whom [Monacawu] was a favourite informant some 40 years earlier. Stow here wants to identify with Malinowski, the ethnographer and so he takes the spell down in his notebook like a good apprentice. This is also an attempt to stabilise the encounter, to keep [Monacawu] as an informant rather than a corrupting influence, to keep the love magic as information to be taken down in his notebook, not as something that would draw him into the world of sexual desire and exchange.
But the question of sex keeps threatening to destabilise the ethnographic encounter and the fantasy of anthropological authority that Stow had arrived with as well as his carefully protected sense of privacy and self-sufficiency is crumbling. The spell can be found in Stow’s field notes, taken down in Kiriwina with an English translation. I won’t read the whole thing out here to you but you can see it up here on the board.
In the spell there’s uncertainty about where to locate the subject of desire. Like a figure in a hall of mirrors the speaker dreams up a lover who dreams of him dreaming of her. Dreaming of you as if in person, you with me, truly you with me, you dream of me, me [Monacawu]. Are you dreaming of me, [Monacawu]?
It’s an image of displaced desire where wanting can only be produced through the lens of the other. In all of this the identity of the speaker is also confused and Stow in his diary wonders whether the spell is spoken by the woman or the man, by [Monacawu] or his lover. Where Stow is in all of this it’s hard to say but the poetic sensibility is at work in the translation and the language he finds is that of sexual longing and loneliness. The spell will turn up again in a story Stow writes based on the Trobriand myth of [Deconican] 27:03, a lonely cannibalistic ogre. I’m going to turn to that story in the second part of this presentation.
Exactly what happened with Stow’s breakdown remains something of a mystery but one night in November Stow would take himself to bed and then slash with a razor blade at his inner arms and throat. He was found before he bled out and taken to the [Taronga] 27:27 Hospital in Port Moresby. This is a notebook from that time which is in the Library collection. Suzanne Falconer in her biography gives as thorough account of the events that led up to this as possible which include the death of Stow’s own father. Stow himself however remains private about the experience.
On several occasions Stow’s writing repeats the idea that something happened in the Trobriands which must remain unspoken and unexamined. In Landfall written in 1962 the speaker anticipates the recovery, a landfall but the condition of this is a closely held silence.
And indeed I shall anchor one day, some summer morning of sunflowers and bougainvillea and arid winds and smoking a black cigar, one hand on the mast turn and unlaid my eyes of all their cargo. And the parrot will speed from my shoulder and white yachts glide, welcoming out from the shore of the turquoise tide. And when they ask me where I have been I shall say I do not remember. And when they ask me what I have seen I shall say I remember nothing. And if they should ever tempt me to speak again I shall smile and refrain.
Stow’s characteristic reticence is at play here, the refusal to speak his inner world, perhaps even to himself. In Stow’s image of perpetual silence there is the hope that one might be unburdened without confession. The speaker’s eyes are unladen. What has been seen can be forgotten and no speaking will ever be required.
But the idea of refrain that the verse ends with also suggests a closely guarded secret. It is unclear in the end whether the past has been forgotten or simply remains unspoken and unshared.
It’s tempting of course to read the secret as homosexuality as if this would return meaning to Stow’s breakdown in communication and fill in the silence that has been cast over these events but the explanation feels too simple.
There is some indication that rumours circulated about Stow’s sexuality in the Trobriands although they are inconclusive and it’s hard to know whether there was a particular series of events that Stow refused to acknowledge or whether the crisis that he found himself in and which culminated in a suicide attempt was by its very nature a breakdown of meaning and therefore something he was unable to make sense of in language.
I want to jump forward now to 1965. Stow has been traveling in the United States and living in Alaska. He’s five years old and he’s spent considerable time outside of Australia, living in Leeds, Malta and Scotland. He’s also had a love affair with the Australian novelist, Russell Braddon, about 15 years older than him and much more open about his sexuality. The story’s getting a little happier now. It’s a different moment in the history of gay expression. Whilst Stow is still a private man it has become possible for him to think about and act upon his desire.
In 1965 in Alaska Stow returned to the material from the Trobriand Islands and wrote a series of stories based on Trobriand myths. This was also a return to the ethnographic material he had collected as an aspiring anthropologist and Stow reads again the Malinowski that has been his imperfect guide to the place. However now in Alaska Stow’s approach to this material is not that of the ethnographer but rather he approaches it as a creative writer and in this space his identifications become more playful, less ridden with anxiety. Stow also uses the Trobriand myth to work through questions of desire, social convention and social exclusion.
I turn in detail now to two of Stow’s Trobriand stories which I’ll argue can be read as query workings of Trobriand myths. It’s worth saying also that these stories, one of the reasons I’m looking at them in particular is they’re important parts of the National Library’s holdings because they’re largely unknown. One of them was published but it was published in a fairly obscure anthology of Australian writing in the 1960s so sort of remains buried there and the second story I’ll speak about which is – it’s Stow’s really – his most explicitly homoerotic piece of writing was never published. So to read it you’ve got to go and pull it up from the NLA manuscript collections and sit in the nice room.
Alright. So let’s start with [Deconican], the ogre. Okay. [Deconican] is a cannibalistic ogre in Trobriand mythology. Stow first encountered [Deconican] in the writing of Malinowski for whom, as Stow well knew, the story of [Deconican] and his slaying by the hero, [Tidaver] 32:42, is an archetypal story for matrilineal culture, having something of the significance of the Oedipus myth in western culture.
Stow’s [Deconican] however differs significantly from Malinowski’s based instead on a version he took from local story, [Saam of Laluta] 32:58. Unlike Malinowski for whom [Deconican] was just an ogre [Saam of Laluta] – this is a quote from Stow – this storyteller showed some sympathy for [Deconican] and regarded him as a human being who went wrong and became a hermit rather than a supernatural being to be surmounted by [Tidaver]. Siam by his manner rather than his words convinced me that it is indeed a miserable thing to be a cannibal in a noncannibal society.
Stow runs with this sympathy, recreating [Deconican], the cannibal as a social outcast and a figure of pathos and identification. In fact Stow gives [Deconican] [Monacawu’s] love spell and so we hear [Deconican’s] longing and his loneliness like Stow would hear his own in the words of that spell. Just as a comparison this is the spell that Stow took down in the Trobriand islands and this is his creative reworking of it for the cannibal. Okay.
It’s too much to say that [Deconican], the cannibal is a figure for the homosexual. I don’t want to say that, Stow is not as literal as that but he is certainly a figure of sexual and social exclusion plagued by socially unacceptable desire. As Stow would state what is most interesting for me is [Deconican’s] conflict with public opinion. [Deconican’s] cannibalistic hunger in other words is given as a social taboo rather than as a moral and ethical failing. So in Stow’s story [Deconican’s] cannibalistic hunger cannot be separated from his love. When [Deconican] eats his favourite niece he explains to his sister who is also the mother of the child, I ate her because she had a beautiful spirit and now that spirit is inside me. His sister remarkably loved him twice as much because he was now doubly related to her. Very generous, I think.
Finally when [Deconican] is overcome by the conventional hero, [Tidaver] at the end of the tale the meeting is written as a perfect homoerotic union. From among the trees of branching light [Tidaver] floated forward, the young hero. I am [Tidaver], he said in a voice like the singing of spirits in the land of sunset clouds. [Deconican] looked at [Tidaver] with tears on his cheeks and his eyes wide and shining. My friend, he said, oh my friend. Joy and love filled him so that his body could hardly bear it. Because his voice sounded in his own ears like music he thought that [Tidaver] must understand him. He believed that he had grown beautiful because [Tidaver] was beautiful for [Tidaver] was the most beautiful man he had ever seen in the world from [Myama to Dim Dim] 35:33. Oh my friend, said [Deconican], holding out his hands, my friend, my friend then [Tidaver’s] spear pierced through him and he fell.
Stow’s rewriting of the story of [Deconican] was also a disidentification with Malinowski. Stow would state, Malinowski I think had no feeling for [Deconican] and he does not seem to have visited or ever even heard of [Deconican’s] house, the cave near [Laluta] from which he made his raids. I can at least claim to have sat in [Deconican’s] chair and admired the pitting coral that serves as his small house, and examined his kitchen and sleeping apartment and discovered what no-one had prepared me for, that these were paved with human teeth and skull fragments. There’s no doubt one feels closer to a man when one has poked about a bit in his living quarters.
Unlike Malinowski Stow identifies with [Deconican]. He sits in his chair, pokes around in his kitchen and in so doing he turns Malinowski’s story about matrilineal kinship in traditional societies into a story about what it’s like to live with a desire that’s socially unacceptable.
Okay. So this is story two. This one’s pretty racy. [Catiligi] 36:54 is Stow’s most explicitly homoerotic story and it was never published, probably because of its unmistakable homosexual content. In Trobriand mythology [Catiligi] is an island occupied by fierce women of insatiable desire who trap men and use them sexually until they perish. Again Stow would first have heard of [Catiligi] in Malinowski who in Sexual Life of Savages transcribed an account of the island in this way so this is Malinowski’s transcription of an informant.
There are many women there. When one is finished another comes along. When they cannot have intercourse they use the man’s nose, his ears, his fingers, his toes. The man dies.
Stow’s version of the myth takes this account of the island of [Catiligi] as its starting point. Two men find themselves stranded on the island of [Catiligi] where quote, if any man comes he was raped until he died. The men are raped and beaten and in their own words used by the women, quote, like two green bananas.
But in Stow’s retelling of the story the men plot an escape by telling the women of another island where a fruit grows that will quote, make a man stiff as a spear from morning ‘til night. The women take them up on this because they think this sounds like a great idea but when they get to this other island basically what happens is the men turn on them and beat them unconscious and escape.
Once free they live a calm and monastic life on the island until one day - you can imagine what’s going to happen – one of them tries the fruit and this is when the story takes its gay turn, let’s say. Okay.
Friend, said [Tabili] 38:46, I have found the [quivaker] 38:48 fruit. Sim Sim looked with uneasiness at his companion’s face and at his [yavi] 38:55 and answered nothing. Suddenly [Tabili] tore off his [yavi] revealing something amazing. I can’t wait another instant, he said. Friend, I want push push. Sim Sim was horrified. You’re a shame, he breathed but [Tabili] leaped upon him, cramming the berries into his mouth and Sim Sim swallowed and his own [yavi] split in two. Friend, he cried, oh friend, me first. Ah it’s terrible to think of two men behaving in such a way, like idiots or little boys. But [Kalimata] 39:25 was a pleasant place and the [quivaker] fruit was plentiful and in every way you might say it was a very happy marriage.
In an early handwritten draft of the story Stow includes a note explaining that a [kaquanaboon] 39:43 – this is the story’s subtitle – is a scurrilous yarn where the narrator’s imagination is invited to run riot. No doubt Stow had heard about [Catiligi] and the Trobriands but he comments also that he was not able to find any precise anecdote attached to the place while he was there. This version of the myth and its ending in particular are I think entirely Stow’s own. The happy and monogamous marriage between two men are too close to a western gay fantasy not to strongly suggest that it’s Stow’s imagination that has been invited to run wild in this case.
If [Catiligi] is Stow’s most direct homoerotic fantasy it’s also a fantasy about the sexual intrusion of women and in this I think it refers us back to the eyes under the floor. The Chieftainess is quote, a monstrously fat woman who lay under the thatch of her covered platform with her neck on an ebony headrest and her knees in the air. Stow’s homoerotic fantasy takes shape as an escape from the perceived sexual demands of women. I cannot, cried Sim Sim. You will, said the Chieftainess’ bodyguard. I’m going to return to this point right at the end.
I want to finish ‘though with some brief comments on how to read Stow’s sexuality and what it means to sort of search out the homosexual content or the kind of intimate content in the life and work of this notoriously private man. Stow never came out. Although his sexuality was known among his friends he remained fairly reticent about speaking of it. His mother never knew that he was gay and it’s likely that Stow kept his sexuality from much of his Geraldton world. Stow would also never include explicitly homosexual content in his published writings, restricting himself to suggestion, innuendo and coded communication.
But I think it’s simplistic to read Stow’s reticence around questions of sexuality, his insistence on privacy as merely a censoring of homosexual content, particularly because the issue of privacy in and of itself and independent of sexual experience is so much at issue for Stow in his experience in the Trobriands. In an interview from later in his life Stow made the comment, gossip made me a homosexual before I was one. Something which suggests I think that homosexual identity was something that Stow felt was imposed on him from the outside rather than something inherent or representative of his authentic self.
This is not to say that Stow’s main sexual attachments were not to men, undoubtedly they were but it does suggest that something about gay identity as it emerged in the second half of the 20th century didn’t ring true to Stow. The comment is certainly a long way from the born that way narrative of homosexuality.
I want to finish with the character of Perry from The Girl Green as Elderflower, Stow’s novel about a man recovering from a mysterious breakdown in the tropics in Suffolk. This is another one of Stow’s novel that was based very closely on his own experience. Perry is a queer who escapes our grasp and in this sense captures something of the way that Stow’s sexuality evades simple explanation. I fancy that blue-eyed [power] 43:06 boy, Perry says to his friend, Clare, but then a few pages later, but he’ll probably marry a Jewish girl. To Clare’s protestations – this is his friend speaking – from the way you’ve been talking I didn’t foresee marriage for you. Perry replies, for a student of the science of man there are an awful lot of books, old Clare, that have been closed to you. Anthropology, the science of man, is invoked here as enabling us to think beyond a simple heterosexual, homosexual binary.
In the final pages of the novel Perry writes a letter that mirrors very closely a letter that Stow himself sent to his good friend, Janine Jeffers, about an encounter with an Eskimo woman in Alaska – that’s Stow’s words, not mine.
Tonight I was assaulted in a bar, the first time. It happened like this. There’s an Eskimo woman I’ve got to know slightly called Delores Suvic who became very drunk because a man who had lost a bar bet [brought] every man and woman of us 17 bottles of beer. So Lalita started making conversation along the lines of I know what you want, all you men are the same, you just want to get up my rectum. Now before you make a fool of yourself in some anthropological journey I want to point out that English isn’t her first language. Well she started doing an Eskimo war dance which was a solitary business and got in no-one’s way but then she fancied something on the jukebox and wanted to dance with me. Seeing how drunk she was I clung for dear life to the bar rail and giving up at last she sat down on the next stool and started growling. Goddamn white man. Then she said Goddamn white man, are you queer or something? To this I made what I think is quite the best repartee of my life, namely, only for you, baby. She punched my nose and made it bleed.
Here like in some of Stow’s Trobriand writing queer desire is thrown into relief against the perceived sexual demands of the indigenous woman, anthropological subject. Only for you, says Perry, to Delores. Here however, unlike in [Catiligi] or in the writings in Stow’s diary the woman is allowed to reply, punching Perry in the nose. I like this ending and so I’m going to leave it there.
K: Thank you, Ellen, awesome. There’s time for questions, of course. What have we got? Any questions from the audience? Our microphones are coming down if you can wait for the microphones. Raise your hand and a microphone will be whisked to you.
A: I’d like to know whether after all of your research you like him more or less or you feel sort of drawn into making him more of a saint than he’s been seen before or how has it changed your view?
E: When I started the research I think - I started with two things, with a diary and some letters from late in his life when he’s an old man. Both of those things seemed very kind of poignant and sad to me and I thought this is going to be really hard and really depressing. I guess then as I kept working things became lighter, there were kind of hard moments in his life and also easy moments in his life so that doesn’t really answer your question. I like him, yeah, he’s alright, yeah.
A: I guess I’ve got a follow-up question which is that we’ve seen little flashes of – tiny flashes occasionally of humour. When did that start appearing? When he stopped being an – a defiantly non-introspective 24-year-old or was it always there?
E: I don’t think there’s much humour in To The Islands at all, it’s a very earnest novel if anyone’s read it. I think it probably starts around yeah after his breakdown like around 1965. Like obviously those Trobriand stories are funny so that’s in 1965 and this is funny, this - The Girl Green as Elderflower is funny. Yeah, I mean one thing he said in interviews is that after the breakdown in the Trobriand Islands he never wrote in the same way again. He saw it very much as a fundamental break in his life that changed who he was, how he operated in the world and how he wrote. I think probably one thing that changes is he becomes a little more humorous after that. Yeah, that’s a good question, thanks.
A: I guess I’m curious too, I mean Visitants can be read very much as a way of explaining his experiences but given how late it was written it could also be read as a way of wanting to provide a narrative around it for the outside world and whether you had any comment on that.
E: That’s a really interesting question so the question is sort of do we read what he’s doing in his writings about the Trobriand Islands as about explaining something to himself or explaining something to the world perhaps so people will stop hassling him about it? I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, though, isn’t it? Because it changes the way you read the novel but I mean I guess I would say it’s doing both and these things are always both things. As we explain ourselves to ourselves we’re also trying to explain ourselves to the world so yeah, perhaps those two things together.
A: Noting as you say his insistence on his privacy, his uneasiness with surveillance and also his comparison that you drew with Malinowski about how much you find out about someone poking around his things, I’m interested in your relationship with the project you undertook here, whether you felt a sense of sort of leeriness maybe if I can put it that way, going through his things or whether it was kind of more of – I don’t know, anthropological coldness?
E: So how do I feel about poking around in Randolph Stow’s private life?
A: Yeah, exactly, someone who’s so private as well.
E: I know, it’s a question, isn’t it?
A: I guess I don’t mean it in a sort of ethic way, I don’t think there’s any questions about that but just whether you felt –
E: It’s an interesting ques – Stow is a funny one because on the one hand he is really private and there are things that he just won’t speak of and yet at the same time most of his work is extremely autobiographical so you feel in this work there’s this – there’s a kind of double thing going on where on the one hand he wants to present his life to the world and be seen and on the other hand he wants to hide. He writes a number of poems for example that he calls – a number of love poems. They’re poems that are kind of addressed to lovers that he’s had but he uses a kind of allegorical mythic kind of thing to try and hide what the poem is actually about and the result of that is that the poems are really quite incomprehensible. But you can see that double gesture there where he both wants to kind of express his feelings and express his desire and he also at the same time wants to cover over it and doesn’t want anyone to see it so I don’t know if that answers your question but – except to say that there is – there’s something very complicated going on with Stow with the whole thing, with this whole question of privacy, yeah.
A: Apropos your reply how did Stow’s papers end up in the National Library? Did he keep them? Did he donate them?
E: I wonder if a librarian would be better placed to answer this than me.
K: The librarian can probably answer that one. [unclear] 51:52.
F: It’s not a large collection as Ellen knows and the material that Ellen’s using now came into the Library – it was probably about 2009 or 2010 so after his death and via his sister so I guess the point is he had kept it and when you and I were talking, Ellen, you were saying clearly he returns to it, it’s quite obvious he’s going back to the archive. So he’s kept it at the house in Suffolk, clearly didn’t destroy it – lots of people might have and in fact his sister packaged up and sent it on to the Library after he died so it wasn’t a direct relationship but he – it’s interesting to think about what his intentions were about posterity for it.
E: Yeah, I mean the other thing I would say about that is the archive is – it’s inconsistent across his life so there is quite a lot of material in the Trobriand period. There’s enough to kind of reconstruct the story as I have today but there’s nowhere near that much material on other periods in his life. This is the period in his life that he keeps the most material from and in part I think because it was a period in time that he kind of grappled with for his life. He keeps returning to that material, he uses it to write novels based on that time so it’s sort of like the material that I used to try to reconstruct Stow’s time in the Trobriands is the same material that he would use to try to make sense of that time in his creative writing. So there’s something really interesting to me about that and about this particular archive.
K: Can I ask a question while the rest of you are thinking of one? Ellen asked me to cast a – anthropology eye over it so I was going back to my anthropology and thinking about it and I was thinking that the – Malinowski of course is a – often the father of anthropology but it’s changed a lot by he time he gets there so anthropology is looking at different questions and – Stow returns to the myth, the collecting of myth and story in a Malinowski-type way and he doesn’t look to the things like - Margaret Reid’s doing the – going up in [Samara] 54:19 and other things are happening at the time. He set it – and maybe that’s why he left anthropology, he set it very much in that earlier period.
E: Yeah well Stow’s really interested in myths and traditional stories, I guess, perhaps because he’s a writer and he remains interested in myths, traditional myths and the idea of the traditional society for all of his life but what happens is he sort of decides that – he decides two things, firstly that psychologically he can’t handle being an anthropologist but secondly, that this is not his culture. He comments in interviews, he says I had these moments where I was talking to these very interesting and amiable people in the Trobriands and I would think to myself why am I collecting the kind of – the stories and the myths and the spells of these people? I should be thinking about my own people.
So Stow’s solution to that then is to go back to what he considers basically his ancestral homeland which is Suffolk in England so Stow grew up in Australia in Geraldton but he traces his family back to Suffolk. He goes and lives in Suffolk and he ends up being very interested in kind of like medieval stories from that region. This novel, The Girl Green as Elderflower, is really interesting because he uses – he does these kind of modern reworkings of Suffolk stories in a similar way I guess to what I’ve shown he does with Trobriand stories, he does that with stories from Suffolk in a novel that’s also about a man recovering from a breakdown in the tropics. So – yeah so he remains interested in that kind of anthropological work but he sort of thinks about it in relation to what he considers his own people, I guess.
K: Any last questions? Well in that case thank you all very much and I hope you’ll join us upstairs to continue the conversation in the foyer. Over the next few months we’ve got a full house of fellows and we’ll be hosting their presentations. Their field of interests are vast and diverse as the collections we hold. Next week we’re delighted to have Dr Bess Moylan presenting – and Bess has been exploring how to catalogue historical maps featuring words from both Aboriginal languages and English and I hope you can join us for what I’m sure will be another interesting discussion. But now join me in thanking Ellen for what was really a fascinating talk. Thanks Ellen.
End of recording