Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

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How did you decide what to do with the Boyer Lectures. What you would talk about?

That was indeed a problem because the one specification was that it had to be about Australia and I knew nothing at all about Australia. I lived here, that was all. And that was an occasion for some panic but the reason I decided to do them was that I'd always believed that historians typically made what they did too complex. They spoke to the eight other experts in the field, instead of taking people through the process they go through themselves of discovering small stories, a fragment of a story and then puzzling over what it might mean. So, I had the fragment of Australian history that I'd taken from George Augustus Robinson's journals of that one winter horse ride, and I'd found that deeply fascinating and illuminating. So I thought the big issue in Australia at the moment is the depersonalisation being affected by the development of corporations and so on. The next biggest is the problem of unemployment. I clearly can't handle either of those, but there's also the issue of race relations where I've had some experience in other situations, in other colonial situations, so I decided I'd do that. And off I went like a hound dog looking for the fragments I could bring back and show the audience. After all these were radio lectures, they were to be taken by ear, so they would have to be simple in structure and focused in content. And I began with the fragment, which had obsessed me for years when I'd stumbled across it accidentally, of what happened when a group of French scientists landing on a Western Australia beach encountered an Aboriginal woman. And it seems to me that those small vignettes, those moments of past time, if you give them to people they're then left with the job of discovering what the meanings are. I can suggest some but they're the sorts of small stories which lock into the imagination, and liberate both the imagination and the moral sense, which is what I think the study of history is essentially about. So I did that, getting progressively more complex as I hoped my invisible listenership might come to trust me more.

And did you find from that experience of doing that work that you changed your attitude to the question of race relations in the country?

Yes, I got much angrier. I really had not known what had been done so consistently generation by generation. You know, like most ignorant liberals, I was aware of initial violence and expropriation, but that was just about the end of my knowledge, and one of the things I tried to do in the lectures was to show the way that different endeavours to come to terms with this intruding dominant white culture: gallant, creative, inventive attempts had been obliterated by ignorance or malice on the part of those who controlled the great structures of society.

And did you get feedback after you did the lectures that they'd had an impact on other people?

I got some straight away which was extremely nice because it's a very weird thing. You record these lectures, you're cramped in a little tiny studio, doing them in bits with a deeply unsympathetic recording technician, who would say, "Lighten up", you know, "Do this", "Do that", so you'd have to do it again. And it was a very artificial and weird experience, though I have to admit I did enjoy it, and I learnt a bit about how you cope with radio, but it's quite unlike talking to someone, or giving a lecture, or anything like that. So you're really speaking into a void. So I was very pleased when I got, you know, a little flood of letters from people, some of them marvellous letters from people who fed me stories that connected with the stories I'd told and completed them, all sorts of people who were able to tell me what happened to individuals I'd mentioned, or to come up with a parallel story to one I'd told. Quite extraordinary. Non-professionals, you know, not academic historians at all, people concerned with their local and family histories and connecting it all up. I found that marvellous. And then as time has gone on, I have discovered they've gone into courses which is an ambition I'd had. They're being used in Papua New Guinea by local historians to give them some sense of how the discipline can be made to work in those circumstances. They're being used in a poetry course and I don't know how that works. But I think small, very portable collections of lectures like that can have quite a long life. Certainly others in the series have had a remarkably long life because they're useful.

How were they received by the Aboriginal people?

That I don't know. I know the Palm Islanders were pleased that their local triumphs had - at last were getting attention paid them. Noel Pearson liked them which pleased me very much. I was only interviewed by one Aboriginal broadcaster but she'd liked them. So you know I would expect there to be very slow filtration, if there were one at all, for Aborigines. They don't need to be told all this stuff, they were there. They lived through it. It's the whites who don't know. They were triggered too by the compelling interest of having gone for the first time in my life to live for some months of each year in the northern part of Australia. It was fascinating territory to me because it was at once absolutely recognisably Australian, both culturally and in vegetation, and yet profoundly different because many of those people were oriented towards the north. They'd worked in Papua New Guinea for years or they'd worked through the Torres Strait Islands, or they were oriented towards the Northern Territory, the Kimberley and so on, and I was used to moving among white southern intellectuals. So it was a very big shift and I liked it a great deal. And the elections in which, you know, a third of the vote went to One Nation, nearly a half on my particular island, occurred after we'd gone up there, and I became aware that a lot of the people I knew, respected and liked, must have voted for One Nation. And I began to do a little bit of on the ground surveying on that issue to find out why, and I was abashed to find they had, what looked to me to be good and sufficient reason for doing that. Very rarely racially based. Nearly always based on justified anger against politicians, a long experience of neglect and of the infliction of ignorance upon them. But there were some - it wasn't even anti-Aboriginal feeling. These were people who had experience of Aborigines, which was more than I'd ever had, but it was experience within a very narrow frame, both in terms of time, one generation, a few years, and of locality, one situation. You know, dwellers in a small provincial town for example. They really knew nothing else, they didn't even know the context, the living context of Aborigines who'd come into town on pension day and shop in the supermarkets. They didn't know where they went back to. And I also noticed that there were a great variety of myths about privileges Aborigines enjoyed, which they did not enjoy, but which folk wisdom insisted they enjoyed, with naturally a great deal of resentment attached to that. So really my secret audience for the Boyer Lectures were those people. Now they're not the kind of people who'd ever listen to the Boyer Lectures, or they might by accident, or they might if they knew the funny lady who's living in the new house down the road, you know, is on radio, but that was my hope, because I believed in their decency, I believed in their sense of justice and I still do, and I believed and believe that if they understood the actual political and social context of the Aborigines they saw, and occasionally interacted with, they would judge them quite differently.

Inga, having turned your mind to this as an historian and doing that work as an historian, can I ask you now as a citizen what conclusions have you come to about how we should go forward as a nation with this problem?

It's a difficult question because I'm not politically involved. I'm sardonic about large symbolic gestures, like apologies and bridge marches, and I might be wrong to be sardonic about that. But for me what eats into my heart is the daily violence, illness, suffering of real Aboriginal communities. So when reconciliation groups sit together in suburban living rooms in Melbourne, I find it extremely difficult to care, because that seems to me a moral paroxysm that whites are wanting to go through, which might be diverting but I can't see that it helps the woman who's just been bashed by her husband to get hold of the pension money so he can spend it on grog. Therefore, I am very much against the padded speech which has become typical in representing the conditions of Aboriginal life in many of the communities. Obviously Aborigines live all over the place in utterly different circumstances. You know, there's no, it's an absurd word to use, except that I do believe all those people who define themselves as Aborigines are utterly aware of their shared history. They have experienced certain systematic injustices at the hands of whites, wherever they live. But the ones who cause me most immediate and constant anxiety are the people in the communities and there, of course, we happen have a hero in action in Noel Pearson, an extraordinary man, I think. I've read everything I can get that he's written and it's a very unusual mind, because he actually understands when and why his mind changes, and that's a very unusual capacity, that self-critical capacity, he has it. He is both deeply implicated with his local communities and utterly sophisticated in his management of white society and white organisations. So I would believe that he is the hope for the future, that his solutions are profoundly based in experience. In his own life he's had to learn a remarkable athleticism when it comes to evaluating other people's moral attitudes because he grew up on Hopevale Mission, a Lutheran mission, and the hero of the mission was Joh Bjelke-Petersen because as a Lutheran he had managed to get the mission re-established after it had been dispersed, its German Lutheran pastor imprisoned during the war and its people taken off and dumped down elsewhere when it was the closest thing to a homeland they had. So he grew up with God-fearing parents he respected, who had a profound reverence for his enemy, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, because he was an activist. So, you know, that's a rare man.

But from your point of view, speaking as a white intellectual who lives in Melbourne, and looking at the future, your - what aspect of those ideas that he expresses are the ones that you want to see go forward? Could you enunciate from your point of view?

Oh, well, I mean I want employment opportunities delivered to communities which have to live where they live, but which have been located absolutely outside of the real economy. It's going to cost money, it's going to be difficult and the chief employment opportunity for young people is going to be education because here's a living example of what education can do. As for what I can do, what concerns me is my lack of knowledge in this area. I've read a lot but I have no immediate experience. But that need not be a difficulty, it can almost be a drawback, because one sees the language getting corrupted, I'm back on my hobby-horse. You see the language being corrupted in completely unhelpful ways. You can see actuality being masked and softened. You can see squabbles over whether male Aborigines used violence against female Aborigines before contact or whether it's purely a post-contact phenomenon. Who cares? If they're being bashed now, there's an issue of keeping the mind clear and focused tightly on the real issues and not on the political shadow-boxing that takes up so much time and energy and so much passion. For example, I am deeply antagonistic to the use of Holocaust imagery to describe what happened to Aborigines. It permits those decent people, for example, living in the tropical north to absolutely dismiss all the talk about genocide, stolen children and so on, effortlessly because they know it is nonsense. They know it's not like that. They've got a common man's appreciation of what the word 'genocide' means. They believe it means killing people, and I think they're right. You know, we need a word for deliberately killing whole ethnic groups of people, because it happens in the world, we need a word for it. So when you tack cultural on the front and say it's genocide when you make a child speak English at school, now something bad is going on when you make a child speak English in school if his home language is something different, but please don't let's say it's genocide because that instantly lets half the voting population, more, off the hook of working out just what the injustices are and how they might be remedied.

And what's your objection to the phrase 'stolen children'?

I don't have one to that, because that happened.

Oh I see, but you put it with genocide?

It's off - no because the children - because of the tacking on of the adjective 'cultural', they're taken, they're put in white homes, you know, either institutional or individual and they're - the attempt is being made to make them forget the fact they've spent crucial years of their lives with other people. Now that is a crime and it's important to try to understand what the precise nature of that crime is, but to call it genocide, in my view, simply muddies the waters in a politically disastrous and morally disastrous way. When Aborigines begin to write in detail their own histories and their own experiences, there's some writers have begun to do it, memorably, but as yet we're only beginning to get the Aboriginal histories. I don't want their minds cluttered with metaphors and images which belong to an absolutely different experience. Their experience is unique, distinctive, we need to understand it. And getting your experience down on paper is hard enough, without having to go through an obstacle course of the metaphors that white liberals keep thumping down in front of you, saying, "Don't forget to say genocide, concentration camp, when you're talking about the mission". Now the missions were hard places but they were not concentration camps. So that's my little hobby-horse but I don't think it's going to help many Aborigines if I start riding it around. I don't know what I can do that's of any assistance.

Maybe what we need to do are the things that we each have the possibility of doing because of our expertise, and by doing that in the Boyer Lectures, by using your expertise as an historian, many would think that you'd made the most significant contribution that you could make.

Well good, good [laughs], but - and yet there's always a problem. You're always casting bread on the waters, aren't you, and you don't really know what comes back, but you've got to keep on tossing it. Yeah, all right, I will go ahead and write a short article on the use of the word 'genocide' which I had not intended to do because it does seem so painfully remote from the real life circumstances of those people.

Can you talk now a little bit about language because it is so important to you? And if you could look back through your life and think about how your interest in languages evolved and I suppose, most importantly, why you think that language is so important in human affairs?

I can't put any sort of date on when words seemed to matter to me, but I can imagine, I assume, that's it is a conventional account of being a very isolated child with very little interaction with other playmates really, long periods of solitude, and therefore reading becoming important early and also thinking to myself, you know, I've always formulated thoughts into words. I've written them in my head in effect from a very early age. A lot of the memoir material in 'Tiger's Eye' I probably wrote when I was about eight, you know. I'd feel comfortable if I could coax feelings into words which more or less fitted them but I was also very aware from a very early age that the word hardly ever fitted the emotion. It was only a very rough fit at the best of times. So that problem and that challenge and that interest stayed with me. The writers who've most absorbed me through the years are those who do miraculously best at getting the word that fits and that shock of delight as you see that this is the right word, is not something you can give up once you start getting addicted to it. So clearly, but only in retrospect, I realise that words have always been primary to me. I watch and then I put it into private words which might or might not become public. Now that is very different from the way other people operate in and on the world. I was the only one like that in my family and my sister was a marvel to me because she interacted immediately and expressively with words, but words were only a small part of her method of communicating with others, and I'd watch her with fascination but I'd never try to imitate her.

When you were going through - when you were going through a very intense life experience with your illness, you've said that in order to understand it, you had to write it. Now some people in those circumstances would have a great need to use words but in conversation with a friend or a confidant. In your case you actually took to writing and indeed while you were in hospital used writing as a way of avoiding having to converse with other people... Could you tell me about that? Could you tell us that part of the story?

That's true... Well the bit, the sort of talk I was avoiding were not intimate exchanges. It was chit-chat which has always driven me crazy. You know, affable chatter that is about nothing. I was, I had another experience of it because I got ill in Townsville and was in hospital for a few days and decided I might as well take an interest in what was going on and this was two women and they spoke in parallel, they didn't communicate. They delivered separate speeches on approximate topics, curtains in fact, but, and they repeated themselves a huge amount. Now that stood in stark contradistinction to one of those women who I set to, as it were, to interview, to find out about because she dropped enough things in her discussion of curtains and other things, an extraordinary sort of life. So then I had a very good - well it wasn't a conversation. I just interrogated her. I suppose, I suppose because I have a secretive nature, you know, I, I like to control what I finally say which is one reason I find being interviewed difficult because I'm not in control of the form.

And that particular form asks you a double-barrelled question which is against the rules. So let's go back to the one that I asked first, which was why did you, in a situation where you wanted to express yourself, turn to pen and paper and to word processor rather than to conversation which is what a lot of people would do in a situation of stress?

Would they? I'm not at all sure about that. You see the point is you're among strangers and even when you're among friends, when friends visit you, as we were saying, they are normally appalled by your physical transformation and they fear an inner transformation as well, and you don't have the energy to reassure them. You can't do it. And I didn't go to pen and paper straight away, I went inside my head and formulated the words there. Often I wasn't physically able to write them down until later. So there were different phases in my relationship to writing when I was ill. For example, when I was put in for a fortnight of tests, preliminary to the transplant, so you'd only be lugged off once a day for something or other to be done to you. The rest of the day you were feeling okay and you were just trapped in hospital. That's when I brought the laptop in and went in for doing my hospital ethnography, you see, as a way of getting control of this absolutely new milieu and also as a weapon of defence against casual chit-chat and people wanting me to comment on what Oprah Winfrey was saying or whatever. Hospital gives you a chance for extremely close conversations which I valued extremely. It also gives you a chance for acre on acre of mindless chatter which I don't value at all, and writing let me select radically between the two situations, so it was a social weapon but later it was a, it was a survival technique. You know when your mind has shredded, when your vocabulary has flown, when your mind is empty, that for me is a very scary situation.

Why is it so important for you to be in control?

I don't know. I don't, but, I mean, it's one of the realisations that comes with age, or I can decide not to be in control, but I have to decide. But I think it is an extremely important thing to me because, you know, under hilariously, out of control circumstances, as with broken shoulder, bleeding, you know, all that, I will say, "No. Cut off, cut off the windcheater. Do this, do that". Ridiculous.

Can we talk now a little bit about the changes that you've seen in the course of your life? You've been a teacher, an academic, working in the university environment. How have universities changed and how have they changed for the people, the academics, who work in them as scholars and teachers and researchers?

Well, I've been out of it for ten years, thank God, otherwise I would have resigned about 14 times. My view is that they're completely transformed. You see we had a situation, in the good old days, where we were taking in a generous slice of the population who really wanted to go to university. They didn't just want a better job or a car, anything like that. They wanted a sense of being liberated into a world they thought might exist at the university and thank heavens some of them found such a world, because there was an expansiveness and a generosity. Ours was a - for example, I only really knew the History Department, though we worked in close association with other humanities disciplines, and I would be intermittently reminded of the generosity and liberal mindedness of my colleagues, colleagues with whom I might disagree on theoretical issues but whenever we had to work together closely on, say, examining a student for something that mattered, I would be so impressed by how hard they worked and how generously they thought. It was a great department. Then quite quickly, and initially under a Labor government of course, several things happened at once. The old rather shambling system of democratic conciliar government was destroyed and we got a return, not even to the god professor, which God knows was fraught with enough injustices, but the god vice-chancellor and administrators or as they came to call themselves, CEOs. We got a transformation in language and a transformation in conceptualisations, that's why I care about language. We started to talk about, we were meant to talk about our students which is an honourable profession, as clients, or even customers, and in a major report done for the government, it seemed to me that there was a basic and consistent confusion between information which is inert and knowledge which is active. So this very strange person was recommending wide and promiscuous use of the internet because the internet was absolutely stuffed with knowledge. It is absolutely stuffed with spurious, pseudo information, and it offers you no training at all in critical evaluation. Meanwhile, our - politically there was a concern about keeping voters happy so anyone who wanted to send their kid to the university had to be able to do so and that meant we lost our early leaders, we lost all the people who'd leavened the lump of adolescents who were concerned primarily with mating, not with intellectual exercise, came to the campuses, often holding down part time jobs as people had always done of course. So that was a transformation in the nature of the student intake. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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