Unsettling the Settler


This was a lecture given as part of the Australian Psychoanalytic Society’s annual conference, 22nd July 2006, on the theme “Unsettling the Settler: History, Culture, Race and the Australian Self”. It was published in their online journal, Psychoanalysis Downunder.

I’ve spent the last five years writing a book about “settler” Australians. It’s a novel about a representative settler, William Thornhill, who comes to Australia as an unwilling immigrant – a convict – and at the end of his life recognises that this foreign place has become his home. It’s a complicated sort of home, though, because in some ways it’s still a foreign place.

[READ short version of the opening chapter of The Secret River.]

I want to talk today about how I got to this point, of writing about some of the earliest moments of the “Australian self”. The project of the book started with a family story about an ancestor, Solomon Wiseman.  According to the story, he worked on the docks in London and for  an “offence we don’t know about”, was transported in 1806. He “took up land” in 1815 on the Hawkesbury River and did very well for himself, dying rich & respectable. 

For years this was just a family story – like Granny’s old chest of drawers or silver-plated teapot – an object you didn’t question or go into but just accepted as a kind of capsule – you either swallowed it whole or you refused it, but you didn’t go in there and ask questions about it. 

The Reconciliation Walk was the thing that burst the capsule open for me. During that walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman – we smiled at each other – but I suddenly had a thought I’d never had before – her ancestor had been here in 1806 – so had mine – they might have met.  What kind of meeting would it have been, though?

It was the time of the “history wars” – Australian historians at each other’s throats over what kind of violence might have taken place on the frontier in the old days, how many killed, even whether there’d been any violence at all. I was aware of not knowing much about our history in so far as it included the Aboriginal people, and suddenly finding out more became an urgent personal quest.

Was Wiseman one of those settlers who carried a gun to “disperse” the Aboriginal people? It was a question that broke through a whole lot of cosy unexamined assumptions for me – a question in which something very important was at stake for me, personally.  I needed, urgently and very much at the level of feeling rather than fact, to know who Solomon Wiseman had been, and what kind of relationship he might have had with the Dharug up on the Hawkesbury when he settled there. 

I started with research in the archives and began with that mysterious “offence we don‘t know about”. The first surprise was how incredibly easy it was to find out about that thing we “hadn’t known about” for some 5 generations. The family story claimed not to know about the offence, but it had carried along, for 200 years, the two bits of information that made it elementary to discover it – the date of his arrival and the name of the ship he came on. If you have those two pieces of information it’s the easiest thing in the world to find the transcript of the trial and read every detail of the offence. The family story hid, pretended it didn’t know. But at a deeper level it knew that it knew – and made sure that the key to the code was there for anyone who went looking. Concealing and revealing in the very same moment.

The idea of concealing and simultaneously revealing was something that became something of a motif in the journey I then took to find out more about Wiseman and in a more general way what went on on the frontier.

For a start, I realised that I knew much more about the frontier and its violence than I’d ever let myself realise that I knew. The more research I did, the more I realised that, although I may not have known the details, I had to recognise that I’d always known the broad outline of the story. A simple one, really – we had come here and displaced the people who were already living here. Some of the dirty work had been done by smallpox and measles but we all knew there’d been violence as well.  Look at any map of Australia, full of places called things like “Niggers’ Leap” and “Waterloo Creek”.

The research was upsetting in two different ways. It was upsetting to discover things I hadn’t known – that is, the detail of the cruelty and ruthlessness of some frontier acts. But the other upset was realising that I couldn’t pretend, really, that all this was brand new to me. I’d known, but not let myself know that I knew. Like the information embedded in the family story – known, but buried.

I realised  also how the language was an accomplice in this knowing-and-not-knowing. It was a kind of linguistic sleight of hand – calling it “taking up land” when really it was simply “taking”. “Dispersed”, as in that phrase found so often in the old records: “we dispersed them in the usual manner”. The whole point of the word was to be vague and not encourage questions.

It began to be impossible not to start thinking about where my own sense of “being Australian” came from and what it was. To do that I found myself going back to childhood. I’d be interested if others of you here had a similar experience of becoming Australian. I grew up in the city but with a sense of the bush as the real Australia. I loved the bush – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood was a lot of going to the bush for picnics, holidays, fishing, canoeing, all that. We had a block of land in the Snowy Mountains when I was a teenager where I’d go off for the whole day with a knapsack of food and a penknife (and Condy’s crystals in case of snake bite). Later as a uni student I went on week-long canoing trips with friends, out of touch with anyone, no mobiles, just us & a map. We took pride in foraging for what these days we’d call bush tucker – fish and freshwater mussels, blackberries (hardly bush, I know). My boyfriend shot rabbits & I braced myself to skin & cook them. I ate a (very small) raw fish one day (pre-sushi this seemed incredibly daring). On one memorable occasion I cooked and ate a snake. We tried and failed to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together. I liked to go barefoot in the bush and with as few clothes as possible. Took some pride in the feeling that I knew the land, could live off it to some small extent, felt at home in it, trusted it not to cut my feet or scratch my skin. I felt a deep bond and love for it. The smell of burning gum-leaf in a London flat later on could reduce me to tears. Does this all sound familiar to any of you? I think it’s a pretty common experience of growing up into an identity of being Australian.

This was all in the context of assuming that the Aboriginal people were “all gone”, as the family story had it. I’d never knowingly met an Aboriginal person (I was about 25 before that happened), and the unexamined idea around at the time was that the Aboriginal people had more or less died out leaving only what were referred to as “half castes” who of course were not “real” aborigines. Their demise was sad but inevitable, according to the prevailing ideas of social Darwinism. On our family picnics Mum would always look around at some lovely creek or beachside spot and say, “The blacks must have done well for themselves here.” So there was a sense of them having been there, underneath our own lives, but somehow – blamelessly – now vanished. 

Of course, I genuinely did (and do) love the bush. But looking back at my way of relating to the land as I grew up, I think I can see a strange slippage of identity going on. It was – this is exaggeration, but only to tease out a nuance – as if I was proving that I could live a little the way the Aboriginal people had. At some level, I was declaring my right to be there because of a kind of mimicking of what I dimly thought of as the Aboriginal way. It was as if I was saying “they are gone, but I am their rightful heir because of my deep bond with the place.” I am the “native” now.

I’ll talk in a moment about where the “going native”  illusion has gone for me, but it’s very clear to me that it’s still alive & well for many. When I was writing The Secret River and I’d tell people what it was about, a frequent response was that they fired up with instant indignation and would say something to the effect that “I love this place as much as the Aboriginal people do – that gives me just as much right to be here and there’s nothing to be ‘sorry’ for.” Now that the book’s published, one of the most common questions is about the Aboriginal connection to the land – I’m often asked what it is, and how it differs from non-indigenous Australian’s bond with the land, and whether non-indigenous Australians can have an equally strong bond. The implication behind these questions is that Aboriginal people may claim a special bond to the land but in fact non-indigenous Australians can have just as strong a bond, just as “spiritual”. We can, in fact, be white blackfellers. (The comedian Russell Coight cleverly satirises this absurdity.)

Writing this paper, and thinking about all that, I see for the first time the implications of that attitude. What it means is that we’ve denied the idea of ourselves as the “other” here. We’ve had a kind of anxiety to prove ourselves not “foreign” to it, not “alien”. We’ve identified with the place, even appropriated the identity of its true “natives”, in order to fend off any sense of ourselves as interlopers.

It’s easy to see why. As “native-born” Australians, we’ve got nowhere else to call home. If we don’t belong here, we don’t belong anywhere. It’s too uncomfortable to live with the idea of ourselves as outsiders who need to consciously create a way of belonging.  We’ve tried to leapfrog over that discomfort and taken a short cut to “belonging” by appropriating the belonging of the people who really do belong here.

So no wonder seeing that Aboriginal woman on the bridge, and having that insight about her ancestor having been here too in 1806, was so shocking and disorienting to me. A great and complicated grief happened in that moment. Part of it was the grief of losing my unquestioned sense of belonging here. I had to allow in the idea that others had been here first. In being a fifth-generation Australian I wasn’t, as I’d often boasted, “about as Australian as you can get”. I had to face the illusory nature of my “deep bond” to this place when put alongside the bond of the culture that woman came from. (This is putting it very baldly but I seem to need to do that to work through ideas which even now I’m struggling with.)  It was a powerful sense of loss – an idea of myself as “native” had to be replaced by an idea of myself as “foreign”.  An idea of myself as “at one with the place” had to be replaced by the reality that I was descended from those who had tried to destroy the people who really had been “at one with the place”.

 Novelists are terribly thrifty, we never waste a thing, so I gave that feeling of something like outrage to my character Thornhill.

 [READ extract from engraving scene.]

I did a huge amount of research for the book, and I think now that the kind of obsessive detailed research I did was a kind of mourning for that lost self-image. I had to visit every single element of the whole situation and feel the grief all over again. From books I visited the terrible facts of the frontier, the details I’d never known. No wonder Australia didn’t want to look at it for so long.  There was – to take just one documented example – the settler in Queensland who had killed 15 Aboriginal people and cut off their ears by way of trophy. He had 30 ears nailed to the wall of his hut. From walking over the land where my story took place – the Dharug National Park – I visited the other terrible reality – that the landscape that’s now so empty was once teeming with Aboriginal life. Once someone’s shown you what to look for, you can hardly walk a step in the bush there without seeing the marks of their life written on the place: cave paintings, rock engravings, scarred trees.  But – like that “for an offence we don’t know about” – it can stay conveniently hidden until you have had your eyes opened. There’s a huge tree that’s had a bark canoe cut out of it, leaving a cigar-shaped scar some 4 metres long, up there beside the river. I’d probably driven past it a dozen times and never “seen” it until I was shown. Once you start reading, you realise that to describe the Aboriginal people as “nomads”, which is how I’d been taught to think of them, is so simplified as to be falsifying. They not only dug up some plants called yam-daisies, they re-planted them as well, just the way the Irish planted a bit of a potato to ensure a crop the following year. In the course of this learning, I had to let go of a whole world-view, both about myself and about the Aboriginal people.

Learning all this was horrifying, a long process of going through detail after detail in order to taste every part of the new idea of myself not as one who “belonged” here but one who – figuratively – was an outsider and a destroyer.

In writing the book I was forced to taste even more of that because the process of writing about a family of settlers meant that I had to identify with them. They were the literalisation of my own new sense of “outsiderdom”. To write the book well, so that they were more than just cardboard pioneer cutouts, I had to experience the place they way they must have – as the most foreign place on earth. 

Once the anxiety to prove how much “at one” I was with the place was questioned, it was amazing how easy it was to accept that it had always felt somewhat eerie. I spent several nights in the bush in the Dharug National Park – trying to camp one night and spending the night in a tiny hut another night. The first time – camping – I was set upon by squadrons of mosquitoes so determined to drive me away that they were prepared to sting through mosquito net – even through the cloth of my shirt. The second time, in the hut, I lay awake in the night listening to the wind travel around the ridge above the hollow where the hut was. It was like a gigantic breathing creature all around me, not hostile, but a being to which I was entirely irrelevant.

I also experienced the fear that the settlers must have lived with day in and day out – the fear that would have easily driven them to do terrible things. That bush is as crumpled and folded and intricately notched as a piece of scrunched up cloth, and when I took a few steps off the track one day – just to get the feel of not being on a track – it was terrifying how quickly I felt lost. It swallowed me, turned me around, disoriented me, got to me in some very deep way so that it was a huge intellectual effort to remind myself that the track was behind me, and I had only to turn 180 degrees and take six steps and I’d be back on it. It was a panic of boundlessness, a terror that – if there really hadn’t been a track, as there wouldn’t have been for the settlers – could so easily have taken over and made you lash out in any way you could. 

The writing experience, then, was a very confronting shift of identity, but it did also feel like an authentic experience in a way all that barefoot-in-the-bush stuff had never felt authentic.

What about the reading experience? I’d expected resistance on the part of readers, even anger. I’d expected a continuation of the denial I’d lived with for so long and which had been voiced so often when I was writing it – the “but I love this place just as much as the Aborigines” attitude. What I’ve found is a huge hunger to come out from behind that denial and go through the same experience that I did in writing it – to start asking questions rather than announcing answers. In many ways the book seems, for audiences, to be just a medium to facilitate the opening up of thoughts about belonging. There’s a kind of anxiety there, but also a willingness to voice the anxiety. Fiction is probably a good medium for that – you can identify as closely or as distantly as you can deal with or find useful at the moment. You can come back and on a second reading be ready to deal with another layer of experience.

I say experience because I think experience rather than ideas is what fiction does well, and these griefs and anxieties around belonging are the realm of feeling not thinking. Fiction can act as a “living out” of an experience in a safe context. We can stay with it for longer than we might in life because, firstly, it’s a vicarious experience – we can stop reading any time it gets too much. Secondly, it offers a compensatory pleasure to offset the dis-pleasure of the confronting experience – namely the particular pleasures of a story – the satisfactions of narrative, the engagement with characters, the sensual pleasures of language.

There’s no doubt, I think, that non-indigenous Australians can and do “belong” here. But I think that belonging has to be, in a way, earned. Part of the earning is the acknowledgement that it isn’t our place, in the sense that, for example, Bermondsey beside the Thames was Solomon Wiseman’s place. We’re immigrants here, and our connection to the place goes back at most five generations – nothing when you think of families in France and Scotland who’ve been living in the same landscape since the Middle Ages (not to mention 40,000 years for the Aboriginal peoples). In our immigrant anxiety to “belong”, we’ve tried to leapfrog over the knowledge that we don’t – not automatically. We’ve worked hard to prove how much we belong, and so the not-belonging has never had a chance to be worked through. It has to be pushed down. Then, when other sets of “others” come along from other places on the planet and want to belong, all our anxieties surface. Who should we let in, and under what circumstances? It’s uncomfortably close to asking ourselves how we got to be here, and by what right. 

At the end of the book, Thornhill has made good, has lots of money, has driven the Aboriginal people away. But he’s infused with a kind of melancholy, some gnawing feeling of something not being quite finished, or quite right. There’s a toxic silence at the heart of his life. Things have happened, in the driving-away of the Aboriginal people, that has made it impossible to go through a process of mourning about them. Violence has created a no-go area around itself where the past can’t be re-lived or shared with others or even looked at straight on.

As I wrote this scene it felt to me that it was the way non-indigenous Australia has been until recently: in that unresolved state between knowing and not-knowing. But unlike Thornhill,these days we are finally talking and listening and working on it.   

READ last few pages of The Secret River.