In a piece published not long ago in a scholarly journal, the academic Sue Kossew claims that The Secret River is “open to accusations of ‘whitewashing’ the past.” This claim seems to be part of a larger move by some academics to portray the book as a justification for the barbarities of white settlement in Australia. 

This seems almost too  grotesquely perverse to warrant an answer, but several pieces with this argument have appeared in reputable, and I assume peer-reviewed, journals. My experience with the “history and fiction” debate is that if unchallenged, ideas (no matter if they have no foundation in any source) go on to become received wisdom. For that reason, I have to speak out against this  serious and deeply offensive claim.

Kossew’s argument is representative of the other pieces I’ve read. Essentially it rests on two kinds of support. One is that Thornhill (the coloniser who’s the main protagonist of the book) is not a completely and wholly evil character. The other is the assumption that the viewpoint and attitudes of Thornhill are the same as those of the author.

In support of the first argument, Kossew asserts that the novel contains “an ackowledgment of the strength and courage of … acts of settlement” and describes the book as demonstrating “admiration for the settlers’ survival skills.” She goes on to assert that the book attempts “to balance blame and admiration”.

This is an interpretation that Kossew takes away from the book. She’s entitled to her (mis)reading, but she hasn’t quoted from the book to explain or justify her stand, and in my view it’s a very false one.

What the book shows is a man who, not from his own choice, becomes part of the colonial project: he’s a prisoner, sent to the penal settlement that is displacing the Aboriginal people of New South Wales. Like all the others, he’s forced to make whatever life he can in the place he finds himself. This involves hunger, thirst, fear, and spartan living conditions.

But “strength and courage” imply a choice: you could have chosen an easier life, you could have chosen a less dangerous one. Thornhill and the others had no choice. In and of itself, living a life of hardship and fear and having survival skills, doesn’t demonstrate anything about a persons’ character or morality.

Kossew doesn’t quote from anywhere to support her claim about “admiration” for a good reason: there is nothing to quote. Nothing in the book, or in my comments about it, suggest anything resembling “admiration” for the colonists I’m writing about (or those real historical people on whom some of the characters are based). A reader who leaps from the idea of “hardship on the frontier” to “admiration for people who survived those hardships” is revealing more about their own world-view than about anything in the book.

Kossew offers a quote from me to support her claim that I’m in two minds whether to condemn Thornhill or admire him: “most of the settlers weren’t bad people”, she quotes me as saying.

This is the only support she offers for what she claims is my view of the settlers, so it’s worth deconstructing a little.

The most significant thing about the quote is that it’s from a newspaper article about The Secret River. Please see Academic Fictions in “Facts and Ficiton” for detail, but in brief, newspaper articles are essentially simplified paraphrases of whatever might have been said. 

Because it’s a newspaper article, only the writer of that article – assuming she taped the interview or took it down in shorthand – can know what I actually said. However, I do know what I think about those early settlers, and know that I would probably have said something like “most of the settlers weren’t completely bad people, but a mix of good and bad like the rest of us” or “most of the settlers might not have been bad people, but they did bad things”. It’s no reflection on the journalist (with her time and space limits) that this might have come out as “most of the settlers weren’t bad people.”

What the use of this quote does reflect, though, is Kossew’s desire to prove a point at all costs, by bringing forward something that might – or might not – bear much resemblance to what I actually said. A case that has to bring forward such unreliable witnesses can’t be much of a case.

(For more on the idea of characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, see below.)

She not only uses this unreliable quote, she then argues far beyond what it will bear. She writes that in saying “ ‘most of the settlers weren’t bad people’, Grenville is voicing the moral ambiguity of settler positionality … ”

This is taking a huge and unwarranted leap. My quote (like the whole book ) acknowledges that settlers were representative of the human race: neither villains nor angels. Their actions, though, were unambiguously bad. This is quite a different matter from voicing any kind of moral ambiguity.  

The book shows, in the most unambiguous terms, and with no “admiration” whatsoever, many of the settlers perpetrating morally horrific acts.

The book attempts to understand why those people did what they did. That couldn’t be more different from agreeing with them. No matter how well we understand their actions, the morality of their actions remains unchanged: their actions remain evil. There’s no “moral ambiguity” there. 

In critiquing the colonial project in Australia, as a novelist I had choices, one of which was to write a cartoon-novel in which the characters were either “goodies” or “baddies”. This would be a nice easy read, and unconfronting. Readers would identify with the “goodies” (who’s going to identify with the villain of the piece?) and go away confirmed in their smug convictions that they themselves would never do anything bad.

White Australia has lived in that complacent blindness for over 200 years. My aim in writing The Secret River was to shake up that smugness and force non-indigenous readers to confront the facts of the past. I hoped, too, that readers thinking about a story set in the past would realise that it’s also a story about the present.

So, rather than writing a cops and robbers account of the frontier, I chose to make it a more complicated experience. I wanted readers not to be able to fall back on reassuringly simplistic moral positions. That’s why many of the characters aren’t wholly monstrous.

Many non-indigenous readers have told me that they couldn’t finish the book because “they knew what was coming” at the end: the massacre scene. I’m always a little disappointed that they didn’t read to the end, but I also feel that the book has done its job. Whether or not they finish the book, they’ve been brought face to face with the central (but often secret) reality about white Australia: that it’s based on violent dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples.

To write that sort of a book, though, is an entirely different thing from voicing the “moral ambiguity of settler positionality”.

Kossew goes on to assert that my telling of the colonial story demonstrates “a mixture of guilt, pride, resistance and complicity.”

“Complicity!” Even from “admiration”, this is a breathtaking leap.

Her thinking here is that, since Thornhill is based (in some aspects) on one of my own ancestors, I must be in the business of justifying his actions.

This is to miss the whole point of Searching for the Secret River, the writing memoir about the research and writing of The Secret River. In that book, I’m very frank about the journey that led me, as a white Australian, to try to discover the truth about my ancestor and his interactions with Aboriginal people. Far from being “complicit”, I wanted to know the worst.

Kossew describes a conversation between me and the indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko: “whereas [Grenville] had been focussing on the history of the struggle to survive by the convicts … Lucashenko reminds her of the destructive nature of the colonial enterprise.”

Just about everything about this paraphrase is false. 

Firstly, at no stage was I ever focussing on the history of the struggle to survive by the convicts. I researched my own convict ancestor and – once the project became a novel – I needed to find out what the daily lives of such people were like. This is very different from “focussing on their struggle to survive” (which, however, suits Kossew’s argument. What a useful device a paraphrase is for appearing to support a case!). All this is clearly spelled out in the memoir.

Kossew’s paraphrase give the impression that Melissa’s comments were what made me realise the destructive effects of the colonial enterprise. In fact, the context of that conversation with Melissa was that I had already realised, some time earlier, how destructive the colonial enterprise was, and needed to discover what part my ancestor might have played in it. Many months (and sixteen pages in the memoir) before the conversation with Melissa, I’d realised that “I urgently needed to find out about that great-great-great grandfather of mine. I needed to know what he was like, and what he might have done when he crossed paths with Aboriginal people. Until I knew that, it felt like nothing but wilful blindness – even hypocrisy – to go through the symbolic motions.” (page 13 of the memoir)

It was because I’d already come some way along the path of exploration that I was having that kind of conversation with Melissa. Kossew’s paraphrase is wilfully distorting the words of the memoir to claim what is in fact the exact opposite of the truth.

Kossew refers to the family story about my ancestor: “This sanitised version of settler identity [as recorded in my family story] is the equivalent of the version of her own family’s past.”

Again, Kossew’s paraphrase is highly misleading.

Firstly, the family story isn’t “sanitised”. My ancestor is described as a possible murderer of his wife, a cruel master to his convict servants, and a patriarch so brutal he threw a pregnant daughter out of the house to die. (page 16 of the memoir)

The family story hasn’t “sanitised” my ancestor’s dealings with the Aboriginal people, either. Rather, it’s entirely silent on them.   

Kossew presents this as if it’s her insight, to which I’m blind. In fact, of course, it was precisely that awareness on my part – that the family story was far from the whole story – that set me on my journey of discovery in the first place (see, for example, page 95 of the memoir). In her determination to paint me as “complicit” she conceals the central theme of the memoir: my own imperative to find out the truth, no matter how unpalatable that truth might be.

This kind of slippage between text, author and reader lies behind Kossew’s second major argument, when she confuses the attitudes of the characters in a piece of fiction with the attitudes of their creator.  

To take one of many examples of this, she writes: “Thornhill does not recognise the prior claim to the land of the indigenous people who “did not plant things” … the linking of cultivation with progress and civilisation is made clear when the narrative links this “failure to plant crops with savagery.”

Thornhill has no way of recognising any prior claim the indigenous people have to the land, because the culture that’s created his attitudes can’t. He is (at least at the beginning of the book) the product of his culture, in which the markers of ownership were agriculture, fences and permanent dwellings, none of which the indigenous people needed. 

But only a reader who’d lived with his or her head under a rock for the last thirty years could not know Thornhill was wrong. In simple words, the reader knows things that the main character doesn’t. This gap between what the character knows and what the reader knows is called irony, and for a writer wanting to make an effective critique, it’s a powerful strategy. That gap, that lack of fit between one perception and another, is the place in which insights can happen. In that gap, questions about ownership, about rights, and about cultural assumptions can emerge. 

What Kossew doesn’t mention is that “the narrative” of The Secret River is in third-person subjective mode: that is, everything we read is Thornhill’s point of view. As the author, I’m paying my readers (who have the cultural context of 2005 rather than 1805) the compliment of assuming they recognise the limitations of Thornhill’s 1805 point of view. 

Kossew quotes the section headings from the novel (“100 Acres” “Thornhill’s Place”, etc) as another example of me “displacing the story of Indigenous possession”. Once again, Kossew doesn’t credit me with even the most elementary understanding, or demonstrate any awareness of the irony of those titles. 

The whole point of the book is to question the colonist’s mechanisms for asserting ownership, including measuring and naming. The content of the relevant chapters makes it clear that , for example, Thornhill may think it’s “Thornhills’ Place” but it’s not. Reader and author are figuratively exchanging glances behind the back of the unaware character.

Not to labour the point, but let me give just one example of the fact that the irony in these chapter headings is unmistakable. Early in the book, Thornhill has come across an Aboriginal stone carving which makes him keenly aware of the prior claims on the land. At the end of the book, in the chapter called “Thornhill’s’ Place”, that engraving is referred to again, now covered and built over by his own house. He’s described as being uneasily aware of it, still there, although invisible.

Other than exclamation marks in the margin, I don’t know how a writer could more clearly signal that, behind the character whose point of view we see and whose thoughts we hear, is an author with a very different set of thoughts.  

Kossew refers to the chapter called “Strangers” – in which Thornhill is shown as frightened and defensive, asserting himself against an Aboriginal man. She asks “Who, one asks, is the ‘stranger’ here?”  Well, “one” might ask, and Kossew might ask, but the answer is so clear that most readers wouldn’t need to ask: Thornhill may not realise he’s the stranger in that situation, but everyone else does.

Again, Kossew devotes half a page to Sal’s garden – the hopelessly inappropriate English garden of a settler determined to recreate “Home”. She writes: “The cultivation of the wilderness in the form of a garden is often an important trope in narratives of settlement.”

The implication is that the “narrative of settlement” of The Secret River is an unironised and unproblematised one, and that Kossew needs to spell out for us that “Sal’s attempt to reconstruct her idea of ‘Home’ … is doomed to failure.”

That’s exactly why the scene is there. I wrote it in order to make a point about the colonial mentality. For Kossew to devote half a page to spelling out that meaning carries the clear implication that I’m unaware of it. Only by making me blind to the meanings of my own words can she make the case that I’m “complicit” in the colonial project and part of the move to “whitewash” the past. 

The Secret River has become something of a debating-ground for a larger argument in Australia about our colonial past and its implications for the present. One side of that argument – the “white blindfold” view –  wishes to deny the extent of violence on the frontier, to defend the “heroic pioneer” stereotype and to resist moves in the present to properly acknowledge and address the wrongs of the past. (On the other side is the “black armband” view, closer to my own position.)

 A piece such as this one by Kossew unfortunately plays into the hands of those making the “white blindfold” argument. They can use it to discredit any critique of early colonial history and its dark legacy in the present. 

In the usual way of things, writers don’t read academic articles about their work, and certainly don’t bother to reply. I’ve done so in this case because what might seem a satisfying abstract game within the sealed capsule of academia can leak out and have an effect in the social and political realities of current Australia.

November 2009