Make the Story Work, and the Politics Will Look After Itself: The Rumpus Interview with Tony Birch
It is easy to be awed by Tony Birch’s prolific body of work—his dynamic career ranging from firefighter to professor—his deep love of family and heritage, and his humility. He is a historian and climate change activist who outwardly observes the devastating consequences of colonialism, yet also writes from within his experiences as an Aboriginal Australian, and as a descendent of a convict sent from Barbados. His novel The White Girl, set in Australia, is about an Aboriginal grandmother protecting her white granddaughter from compulsory removal by the government, and is informed by scholarship, yet made vibrant by the love and tenderness between the characters.
I read The White Girl through snowy nights in Alaska, where I live. Though the novel is set on the other side of the world from me, I felt like I was reading about home. What follows is from a long discussion we had, and I did not take lightly that I am a white person curating which parts of the conversation to privilege. North American readers will be reminded of our own histories of removal (rather, kidnapping) of Indigenous children, of mines working to death the poorest among us, of police abusing their power, and dividing lines that too often still exist, either implicitly or explicitly. Birch creates intimate relationships that catalyze the plot, in a landscape that, both physically and politically, works to undermine the people who are most deeply attached to it. The White Girl is ultimately a love story between grandchild (Sissy) and grandmother (Odette), as well as a political story about oppression and possibility.
Tony Birch is Australia’s leading Indigenous storyteller, and the author of three novels: The White Girl; Ghost River, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing; and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. The White Girl is his American debut.
Though, as Birch reminded me over Zoom, we can never know the particularities of another culture’s trauma unless we have lived it ourselves, novels like The White Girl can deepen both our understanding and our sense of responsibility.
The Rumpus: I’ve heard you say that landscape is never a backdrop in your work. How did you use landscape to elucidate the social struggles in The White Girl?
Tony Birch: When I used to teach writing, I encouraged my students to go to a real place. My view is that when you get to a place, narrative story is being performed that people are acting or performing into action. You will be able to engage with a place and pick up lovely ideas and little pieces of story that may fit into your work. Part of that, by the way, came from a remarkable essay, “The Triggering Town,” by a North American poet, Richard Hugo.
Rumpus: I love that essay; it’s one of my favorites.
Birch: I used to teach the “The Triggering Town.” To answer the question specifically, I was at a writers’ festival in rural Victoria. On my first morning after I arrived at the festival, I went for a run along these dirt roads. When I was coming back, one of the things I noticed is that a levee had been built about 50 years ago to protect the high side of the town from the flooding of the river, which occurred periodically. What that meant, of course, is that the town and, you know, white people who benefit from the mining industry in Australia, would have their homes protected.
On the other side of the levee, was where poorer people were. Poor white people, Aboriginal people, a couple of factories, and areas that would not be saved from the flood. They would, in fact, be inundated in a much more problematic way.
The notion of a dividing line, an economic and social dividing line, became the catalyst for the imaginary township of Deane that I created. I was really fixed on that idea of what it meant to be on the wrong side of the line, which is something that people in North America would know, but certainly something that has affected Aboriginal people throughout colonial history in Australia.
Rumpus: Can you talk about crafting, specifically Odette’s relationship with her granddaughter, Sissy, but also some of the other relationships, in the novel?
Birch: People often ask me, was it difficult to write female characters and to write about the intimacy between a grandmother and granddaughter? It wasn’t, I think partly because of my close relationships with my grandmother and mother, and my peculiar childhood, where I had a very weird understanding as a child that I didn’t know that I would grow up to be a man, until my mother one day told me, “You’ll be like your father.” So, I had this very ambiguous sense of who I was as a child. It’s also relative, of course, to having four [grown] daughters and having a very close relationship with them.
I wanted to write a book, which—although we know that violence is on the periphery of this novel—is at the center, a story of great tenderness and love, and literally to write those scenes of tenderness. The bath scene, which is over two or three pages, not long after the beginning of the book—it’s very tactile. Their relationship is very physical. You know when the grandmother washes her granddaughter’s hair—it’s about that tenderness and touch between the two, the woman and the girl.
So, in regard to Odette and Sissy, it is about that deep love, and, of course, a deep love that means that Odette Brown will never stop. She will never allow her granddaughter to be taken from her, or she would never allow her granddaughter to be taken without fighting with every breath she has for her granddaughter’s life, which is a story of so many Aboriginal women in Australia.
Odette’s relationship with Henry Lamb is really important. He’s a white man who owns a junkyard and he’s someone we might call intellectually challenged. But I have a really deep belief in emotional intelligence. Henry perceives harm done to Odette in ways that other people wouldn’t realize. He literally can’t understand why anyone would treat this woman badly. He has a great respect and love for her.
In regard to the two policemen, those relationships are really important. So, the policeman, Bill Shea, he’s quite apathetic about his own job and he’s quite hopeless, because he’s not only the town policeman, he’s the town drunk. He epitomizes the impact of colonial violence, particularly the removal of children that has impacted non-Aboriginal people, in that the violence that he’s involved in—being the removal of children, or standing by unseen government officials to remove children—it destroys him. I’m a strong believer that racism, of course, is mostly felt by people who suffer, but it can destroy people who are involved in ensuring that it continues.
Then the other policeman, Sergeant Lowe, comes into town, and he is a much more menacing, pathological figure. I wanted him to reflect, again, a historical reality that there are many government officials in Australia, both historically and even in a more contemporary sense, who have done enormous harm to Aboriginal people and don’t feel what they did was wrong.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little more about Sergeant Lowe and why sometimes it’s essential to not dress up evil as something or someone that is simply misunderstood?
Birch: Yeah, that’s really important. Why I did it, it wasn’t so much that I just wanted to show the evil. As a historian, I was often really saddened and occasionally shocked. I’ll give you an example: I have the records of an Aboriginal family who wrote for ten years from one Aboriginal reserve in the Western District of Victoria, [requesting] to have a child returned. Her mother and her aunt wrote the most heart-rending letters for about 10 years to have that girl returned. They were restricted to one reserve and she’d been taken away from her mother to work, basically, as a slave laborer in the kitchen of a government official. When you read the letters, they’re heartbreaking.
But I think what is worse are the responses from local police. These are men, and they’re all men, who when they write back, are able to say, “I understand that you may feel saddened about what has occurred, but you need to understand, I am the person who will act in this child’s interest. I am acting in the best interest of this child.” So, they know that the women are going through pain, but it is a pain that they give no value to.
So, this is a history where people like Sergeant Lowe knew what they were doing would harm women and men and families, but had no compassion for that situation. If I was to write a character like Lowe showing he was a much more complex man, it would be doing a disservice to what has happened to people in this country.
So yeah, I was very calm about writing him, I enjoyed writing him. And for Aboriginal people today, they will talk about the presence of these men who did these terrible crimes. Whether they’re in living form or not, they’re still there and they still create enormous fear.
Rumpus: I think that’s part of what makes the novel very relatable to North American audiences, because though the mechanics may be different, it’s all very familiar. I feel like I’ve met Lowe before. He’s doing different things now, but unfortunately, his kind of pernicious evil is still operating.
Birch: That’s entirely right. I published an essay called “Two Fires,” which was based on my time at the Banff Centre on Turtle Island in Canada. Three things that occurred when I was there: One was Canada Day, which was the 150th celebration of the Canadian empire. [Second], there was the Royal Commission into the murder of Aboriginal women and girls. [Finally] there was a long conversation that I was involved in around the dormitory schools, the removal of children to that system, of which we know the historical consequences now [because] of the discovery of graves of children. When I witnessed and read that, again, I could have been reading Australian colonial history.
Rumpus: How did Australian colonizers use or still use shame as a tool, and as a writer, how do you reckon with that legacy?
Birch: One of the arguments I’ve made, and would make as a historian or even as a novelist, is that one of the greatest fears in white society in Australia, is not to [be able to] control the identities of Aboriginal people. White society tries to make you feel shameful about your identity, either by casting you as sort of a mixed blood or half-caste person or whatever, but at the same time, making you feel suspect about your own identity. If people don’t feel strong in their identity or don’t have strong community around, they can feel very shameful about who they are, and start to hide who they are.
The other one, of course, is shame over separation of children, either as children or parents. Children who were taken were often told that both of their parents had died, or that they had been bad, or that their parents were bad parents. So, the shame marriage is on both sides, where parents feel completely guilty and are meant to feel shame, that they didn’t want strongly enough to keep their children. Children in homes feel shame because they felt that they were unloved, or that they didn’t deserve love, because they’d behaved badly.
The psychological impact of broader colonial violence really visits Aboriginal people in so many ways. By and large, that shame is not felt by white Australia.
Rumpus: Bill Shea is the one white character who feels a sense of shame. Can you talk about Odette’s decision to not forgive him? Do you think it’s appropriate for white people to seek forgiveness from the cultures they have oppressed?
Birch: I felt a lot of sympathy for Bill Shea because he reflects, of course, another reality. Aboriginal kids and white kids did go to the same schools. They did have playground friendships. Bill Shea says at one point, when he was a kid, he actually thought he was a Black fella, because he was so engaged with these Aboriginal kids. Then, of course, he becomes a town policeman. Although we don’t revisit it through narrative, what we know is that he would have stood by and seen kids removed. The important point to note here is that the removal of children was often done by government welfare officials, not police, but the police would be always called. If Aboriginal people attempted to stop the children being removed, which they often did—literally stand-up fist-fights with welfare officers—the police would then intervene to stop that occurring.
Shea is someone who would have been involved in that, and is someone who carries that burden and that guilt for doing so. He does seek forgiveness from Odette, particularly when the new policeman, Lowe, comes to town. Odette feels some sympathy for Shea, but to forgive him would be too much because it’s not only what has happened historically in the town, she is still at that point going through the situation of having to make a decision of what to do about protecting Sissy. It’s not a past event that in older age, she may be able to find forgiveness for.
To relate to your second question, it’s very complex. My initial reaction would be to say no, that non-Aboriginal people shouldn’t seek and ask for forgiveness from Aboriginal people. It’s too much burden. But having said that, I know incredible Aboriginal people who haven’t waited, who have told white people, “I forgive you,” who have actually reached out as an initiative. What happens in Australia is that you see these initiatives working remarkably well at a local level in regard to colonial history, certainly in regard to climate injustices. But, as soon as it gets outside the local, and tries to make fundamental change at a broader level, it is actually squashed by government. It is often squashed by business too, because the interests of government and big business are not about change, they’re about status quo.
Rumpus: What is your advice for writers taking on complex social issues in their creative work?
Birch: It’s pretty simple: I hope they do.
I get accused of being a political novelist, which is a derogatory term, but I love it. Essentially, a lot of my work is about injustice, inequality. But, the fact is, the story’s got to stand up on its own feet. So, you have to think about craft—the way you craft any story. When I’m writing a story, I’m not thinking about how it’s going to go down politically. I mean, that’s diabolical if you think you can second guess your readers’ responses. I just stick to the craft of the story, make the story work, and the politics will look after itself. I’m inherently someone who’s interested in issues of social equality, so it just permeates my work. I don’t sit down and say, “I need to write a political novel.”
Rumpus: Is there anything else that you think is important for American audiences to know?
Birch: I’m interested in readers who say, “I couldn’t read the book—it’s too tragic.” I think that what it means is that they don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want to be prodded a little bit about what the world is like. The beautiful thing is that the world requires something of us.
Rumpus: I think we’re in for really hard times if we don’t want to be challenged when we read, to some extent.
Birch: Yeah, and we need to be. A good writer may confront you, but they challenge you because they want to bring you along. People ask me, what do I enjoy the most about being a writer? It’s that I’m in a relationship with a reader. It’s an equitable relationship. I take something to the table, the reader brings something to the table, and that bond that we have is what makes the experience enjoyable.
Author photo by Savanna Kruger