Clark, Anna: On listening to new national storytellers

Clark, Anna

‘Friday essay: on listening to new national storytellers’, The Conversation, 2 September 2016

The author reminds us that ‘each piece of history has a message and context that depends on who wrote it and when. As the US historian, Carl Becker, explained in his 1932 Presidential address to the American Historical Association, history “cannot be precisely the same for all at any given time, or the same for one generation as another”‘. She discusses history and ‘the contested politics of collective memory’ with reference to remarks by Bain Attwood, Don Watson, WEH Stanner, Henry Reynolds, Nicholas Clements, and others, who understood that approach, and earlier authors like Ernest Favenc and GV Portus, writer of school textbooks, who may not have.

There has been a change in recent decades as ‘Australian history texts went from the casual inclusion of Aboriginal people as “stone age” snapshots to a concerted acknowledgement of Indigenous perspectives. It was a wholesale historiographical reimagining of Australia’s national story.’ But there is more to it than this:

Historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might have been actively erasing the impact of settler-colonial society on Indigenous people in Australia – but what about different national storytellers? Were there other, metaphorical guns, like that one on the rock face in Kakadu [painted by Indigenous artists], historians were missing?

In particular she quotes Tom Griffiths that ‘historians who ignore the potential of fiction to imagine their way into some of those undocumented encounters diminish their own historical imaginations’. The debate over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is mentioned. Protests and other ‘historical moments’ might have potential also.

Working outside the cultural economy of the canon opens up new possibilities for historical engagement. This isn’t a new idea, by any means. Feminist and postcolonial scholars have demonstrated that the past can be embodied on its own subjects. Histories of motherhood, the Holocaust, migration, colonisation, sexuality, and slavery play out corporeally. Environmental historians and archeologists have further argued that the archives aren’t simply buildings with microfilm readers, but are all around us.

Finally:

If the incorporation of everyday Indigenous narratives into the canon of historiography interrupts the Great Australian Silence invoked by Stanner and others, what other assumptions about Australian history might be broken down by expanding its disciplinary boundaries?

There is a lot more in this extended essay. Anna Clark is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.

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