I had been intending to write this post a little later, when I’d gained some distance from my novel, but given that Saturday was National Sorry Day and today is the centenary of my relative Patrick White’s birthday and ten years to the day I walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with H and his friends for reconciliation, I thought now would be more opportune.
Entitlement is almost done, aside from the proofreading over the next couple of weeks. The last two months have nearly killed me. My final edit, then the copy edit, went incredibly fast and the weekend before last saw me at my desk for some 30 hours, sending it off to my editor not long before dawn broke. I didn’t go outside or check the news or any kind of social media, not wanting to break open the world I was writing. And then, going to sleep, the characters were still interacting in my head and, for a few days afterwards, they were still walking with me to the bus stop.
I had forgotten how much these things sap you. I haven’t been able to shake this cold and flu that has lingered for a month now. I’ve lost weight, I’ve barely seen my friends, the pain from an old root canal flared, I haven’t been skating, although I tried to keep swimming, and some of my pet fish have died, either through negligence or because I introduced too many new ones to their tank, although they do have a history of carking it when I am phenomenally stressed. I did, at least, put on a lovely new blue-and-red Elise frock from Birdsnest and go dancing. Now, having finally stopped, my body is letting me know how truly bone tired I am, but I’m trying to cobble together some remnants of energy to start socialising again.
However, it was worth it. The novel feels good which, coming from a perfectionist, means that it probably is. The writing is polished, the plot is superb, we have a cover which I love, and it will be on the shelves in September.
Entitlement is about Cate McConville and her brother, who went missing 8 years ago. Their parents want to sell the family property, but Cate is vehement that they can’t. ‘What if Eliot comes back, and he doesn’t have a home?’ she asks them. An old Aboriginal friend, Mellor, whose country is owned by the McConvilles, offers Cate a solution, but it’s one that nearly tears her apart.
The idea for Entitlement came to me ten years ago when I’d just started writing A Curious Intimacy and was flatting with an historian in Sydney, in a terrace house in Paddington which features in the novel. She asked me if I had ever considered how my life of privilege had come from the Indigenous people whose land we owned. I was 23, and the thought had never occurred to me, which was appalling. However, at that stage my education regarding Aborigines largely consisted of that delivered to me by Mrs Woodley in Year 2, when I had diligently copied down information on hunting tools and glued a picture of a bark humpy into my exercise book.
I started wondering about the Indigenous people who had walked over the property on which I’d grown up, a mixed farm of 5,500 acres, which must have been taken from them not long ago. I also remembered a black stone my father had found which was smooth and heavy in my hand, and sat in the wooden marble-topped table on our verandah. Later, when my sister married an Indigenous man and I began doing research for the novel, she pointed out that Native Title could never have been claimed for our property because there was no record of unbroken descent, despite the fact that that tool showed they had obviously lived off that land. That seemed to me to be wholly unfair.
I can’t remember when I started to learn about the Stolen Generations, though it must have been while at university in Wollongong. I don’t know why I can’t remember one defining moment, nor why the horror of it didn’t become apparent to me until I read Anna Haebich’s Broken Circles. I think it was because I never listen to the radio or watch the news as, being deaf, it takes too much effort (and the spelling errors in teletext drive me mad), so if I learn something it’s usually through reading.
Nor can I remember how I arrived at the plot device on which the novel turns and which involves Cate, the protagonist’s brother, which frustrates me because usually my memory is very good. I chose to write about my relationship with my own brother (although it has been largely fictionalised) because I wanted to write about our childhood and, on the farm, we were rarely ever apart. To this day, he is my closest friend and seems as much a part of me as I am of myself. We have the same sense of humour, complement each other and think alike, as evidenced by the fact that one year we gave each other the same Christmas present. To lose him would mean losing much of myself, and this is tied up with our childhood on the land.
This, then, became the crux of the novel: I wanted to describe what it was like for a white person to lose their identity and their family through the loss of their land, in the hope that readers would then understand what it might be like for an Indigenous person to lose their country. Of course, this is a very basic premise and, not being Indigenous, I can hardly begin to conceptualise the entirety of such a relationship. There are many who will argue that I’m presumptuous to even try, given my background, which is similar to that of my forebear Patrick White’s: I come from pastoralists who made their wealth from the dispossession of the Indigenous.
My great-grandfather F.G. White descended from James White, who had arrived in Australia in 1826 from Somerset as manager of stock for the Australian Agricultural Country. F.G. White bought ‘Mittabah’ in Exeter, NSW, and a swathe of other properties in NSW and Queensland. He married Ivy Voss, a Queenslander, who hated the cold and was happier on her property in north west NSW, which she bequeathed to my grandparents, and which my father and his two brothers came to run. There was an element of snobbery, pride in a blueblood heritage, and of learning to speak ‘properly’ hovering in our family. ‘Are you from England?’ people would ask me, although my lack of a strong Australian accent has also been as a result of some speech therapy because of my deafness. Somehow, despite this background – probably because of my paternal grandmother’s more democratic background and my own mother’s levelheadedness - my brother, sister and I have become hardened leftists. This position manifests in my writing through a constant return to the lives of those who are on the margins: lesbians, Indigenous people, the disabled, refugees and so on, which no doubt also stems from my own marginalisation on account of my deafness. And, while I am in no way comparing my writing to that of my illustrious forebear, it is true that discussions of his similar background, and of his literary intent and style, are often held in tandem.
In a Sydney Writers' Festival panel titled ‘Is Patrick White anti-Australian?’, consisting of Gail Jones, Ivor Indyk and Geordie Williamson and chaired by Michael Cathcart of ABC Radio National's Books and Arts Daily, the now-tedious question of Patrick White’s relevance and the inaccessibility of his work was raised. My detestation of the term ‘anti-Australian’ must be reserved for another post as this one is already too long, but my impression of the questions delivered to this panel was that White’s background was somehow yoked with the impenetrability of his writing. He was an irascible man, therefore his texts must be too, an insinuation which all three speakers heartily rejected. Ivor Indyk referred to White’s identity as a homosexual which ran together with the many references to and compassion for the displaced and foreign in his work; Gail Jones, in her beautiful, delicate phrasing, noted White’s attention to physicality and how this was often rendered affectionately; while Geordie Williamson commented that, ‘To try and draw White into his social utterances and judge him by them is almost to come at it from the wrong angle’. Gail re-iterated this, noting that White has been co-opted into cultural arguments, and she would like to see a return to his literariness, to the text themselves.
It’s true, Patrick White takes effort, but I have always found him amply rewarding, not least through the richness of his language, to which Ivor referred as ‘baroque’. Besides, what kind of reader are you if don’t want a text to make you think a little? There was some mention towards the end of the panel about White’s use of parody, and I was disappointed they hadn’t dwelled on this more, because above all, his writing is stuffed full of humour. When I began Riders in the Chariot, I burst out laughing at his description of how ‘several barbs of several strands [of blackberry bushes] attached themselves to the folds of [Miss Hare’s] skirt, pulling on it tight, tight, tighter, until she was all spread out behind, part woman, part umbrella’.
Cathcart also mentioned White’s references to Australia as 'the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions’. This was taken by the panellists to mean a lack of cultural connection and a lack of spirituality, while I maintain it exists very strongly still in the recent actions of Queensland’s premier in scrapping the Premier’s Literary Awards and pushing this state towards a cultural wasteland.
That aside, how might someone who is ‘born of the conquerors’ (Judith Wright, ‘Two Dreamtimes’ 1973) and who may have, as Brigid Rooney writes of Wright in the marvelous Literary Activists, a similar ‘characteristic fearlessness and principles certainty of view … legible as signs of a born-to-rule patrician outlook' (UQP, 2009, p. 10) attempt to reconcile their privileged background with the effects of that background, namely the disenfranchisement of ‘the persecuted’ (Wright, 'Two Dreamtimes')? I have tried to do this through Entitlement by using empathy. Regardless of my background, I still have the capacity to feel for those whose children and country were taken from them, and I hope that this novel communicates that to its readers and that they, too, might pause and consider how their lives have been shaped by Indigenous history. Certainly, it’s a risk that I’ve taken, because I can be accused of speaking for Indigenous people with a white voice, and with a White surname, but I’m not the kind of person who will ever stay silent on issues about which I am passionate.