Can Knowledge Change the World?: An Interview With Kate Grenville

Australian writer Kate Grenville’s novels include Lilian’s Story, The Idea of Perfection, and The Secret River. She has worked in the film industry, lived in Colorado, London, and Paris, and currently resides in Sydney. Her awards include the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the New South Wales Premier’s Award. Her writing often appears on school and university syllabi and she has been a prominent voice in public conversations about settlement, national identity, and place-making. Our conversation focused on her work about boundaries, history, the novel, and her latest work of non-fiction The Case Against Fragrance.

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ROBERT WOOD: I want to start by asking you to reflect on your early works, namely Bearded Ladies (1984) and Lilian’s Story (1985). Reading them now, one is struck by the strength of character as they voice marginal perspectives, particularly those of women. Can you speak about where you came from, in a writerly sense? Who influenced you and what was the moral imperative in those days?

KATE GRENVILLE: Born in 1950, I grew up in a world where it was obvious that boys had all the fun. As a teenager I dreaded the approach of what seemed my destiny as a woman — being a meek wife and mother. It seemed to me (wrongly, as it turned out) that every other woman was happy with her destiny — I felt like the only oddball. Then in 1972, when I was 22, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published. It was like a trumpet-blast knocking down walls of silence. I gobbled up all the feminist writing I could find, and started to write fiction. Bearded Ladies is a collection of stories about women who didn’t want the life women were supposed to want. Lilian’s Story is a novel about a bag-lady who chose freedom and a fearless life even though there was a price to pay. The ‘70s feminist movement gave me my voice, and it let me glimpse the bigger picture — that the world works by setting up boundaries and exclusion zones, and that a good way to chip away at them is to tell the stories of what goes on around those boundaries.

In thinking through the connection between those things, between boundaries, morality, and character, I want to ask you about your turn to colonial history after this, specifically with The Secret River (2005). This focuses on the relationships of settlement in the Australian past as well as being a family drama. What is the relationship between the intimate portrayal and the bigger picture?

The Secret River started as an impulse to find out about the first of my family to come to Australia: a London thief called Solomon Wiseman, transported as a convict in 1806. The family story had it that when he’d been freed he’d “taken up land” outside Sydney, got rich from it, and died wealthy and respected. It was a commonplace story, and it wasn’t till 1988 that I realized it ought to be unpacked. That was the bicentenary year of the first white settlement in Australia, and big celebrations were planned. But there was also a vigorous pushback from Aboriginal people, pointing out that what was a day of celebration for us white Australians was a day of mourning for the first Australians, and that what was blandly called settlement was in fact invasion. The Secret River grew out of listening to what they were saying and realising that “taking up land” was a phrase that could hide all sorts of dark secrets.

The research was confronting and distressing — like most white Australians, I’d grown up with an airbrushed version of our history. But a couple of conversations with Aboriginal people encouraged me to keep going. Forget the idea of black history and white history, they told me. This is our shared history, and it needs to be told.

The importance of stories that need to be told matters for thinking about the past, for thinking who gets to tell what story and how that comes through in the contemporary record. Can you speak a little about the characters and the motivation of The Secret River?

 The Secret River is fiction, but based closely on the historical record. It tells the story of convict William Thornhill and what happened when he “took up” land that had belonged to the Dharug people for 40,000 years. In telling that story I didn’t want to repeat the “heroic pioneer” story that I’d grown up with, but I also didn’t want to get into bleeding-heart breast-beating. Thornhill isn’t an angel or a devil — he’s just a human being more or less like the rest of us, with a moral compass that can, under pressure, be knocked off course.

There was an urgency and a compulsion about writing the book that I’d never experienced with any of my five earlier novels. The half-truths of family history, the secrets of a hidden national history, and a landscape I knew and loved all came together to propel the writing. I felt this was the book in which I might start to understand what it meant to be a white Australian, and to acknowledge the dark side of that identity.

I think that is an important set of concerns — about the familial and the national, of identity and place, of the past’s relationship to fiction, of sharing in an understanding of land and traditions. From that, how has the afterlife of this novel in plays and television helped you think about relating these concerns to one another?

The book sailed into a storm of controversy when it was published — traditionalists accused me of demeaning the pioneer story, historians accused me of straying onto their turf — and I was naïve enough to be surprised. Since then the book has won prizes, been adapted for TV, turned into a play that’s had long runs in every capital city in Australia, and is on school reading lists. It’s also generated a continued outpouring of mail from readers. That afterlife confirms that there’s still a hunger out there to try to understand our history, and to confront it, painful though it is. The problems created when the British dispossessed the original Australians don’t admit to any easy answers. But before there can be any answers, there has to be understanding, and a novel can sometimes slide into the cracks in peoples’ prejudices to let understanding begin.

I think that is one of the benefits of novels, something that they can do which is distinct from the newspaper article or the poem. Speaking of form now, your latest release signals a shift because it is a work of non-fiction: The Case Against Fragrance. What is the argument of the book and how does it connect to the rest of your oeuvre?

The Case Against Fragrance began with the headaches I get from artificial fragrances of all kinds. For years I’d thought I must be the only person who got sick from something that’s supposed to be glamorous and desirable, but when I finally did some research I found that I was not alone. In fact, one person in three gets headaches, asthma, and other symptoms from perfumes, air fresheners, scented candles and all the other artificial scents that are now everywhere. Many of the chemicals in artificial fragrance are known health hazards — many are allergens, carcinogens, or hormone disruptors — yet the only regulator of the fragrance industry is the fragrance industry itself. Consumers can’t even know what’s in the products they’re using, as the ingredients don’t have to be fully disclosed.

I started the research out of my own curiosity about what was making me sick, and wrote the book because I thought the facts should be better known — as the facts about tobacco smoke needed to be known a few decades ago. But a year after publication, I can see that the book is another facet of what I’ve always been drawn to — telling the untold story and examining the unexamined myth. The world works through boundaries and the binaries of “us and them,” but the power that underpins those structures of exclusion is the power of secrets — secrets and ignorance. Can knowledge change the world? Maybe not all by itself, but it’s a good place to start.

In that way, knowledge matters as a starting point, and this is knowledge of character, of history, of industry — untold stories being shared more widely, like you say. So, what has working outside the novel in The Case Against Fragrance allowed you to do that is new?

The Case Against Fragrance is solidly based on science — every fact is footnoted — but in the end it’s a narrative, shaped to take the reader on a journey, and in that way it’s not so very different from a novel. The difference is that the journey is along the railway tracks of the known, rather than the free-form hike of the imagined. What I think it has in common with all my other books is that something is at stake. There’s a problem there that’s important — and also fascinating — to try to work through.

Writing fiction is gloriously free — you’re inventing a world from first principles — but that freedom can be daunting when you’re staring at a blank page knowing it’s up to you to fill it. Non-fiction is limiting — you’re morally bound to be as faithful as you can to the facts — but it’s also wonderfully reassuring to have a critical mass of material from the real world to work with.

This sense of working through problems is there in all of your work from the feminist earlier work to the studies of white belonging of last decade to the very latest release about fragrance. I was wondering what is the next problem for you to solve and what you are working on now?

My current project, like The Secret River and several of my other novels, takes historical sources as its starting point. Working that way that seems to get my imagination fired up. Perhaps it’s a way of getting the best of both worlds — having the reassuring boundaries of fact but allowing the energy of invention to operate as well.

I’m writing about a woman who was among the earliest settlers in Australia. Unlike the illiterate William Thornhill, she was educated and left behind a good number of letters. Like so many 19th-century letters by women, they’re disappointingly bland. But it’s well known that her life was beset with major problems (chief among them was her husband, who if alive today, would be diagnosed with severe mental illness). The lack of fit between the letters and the life is what interests me in her story. It’s almost as if, in leaving behind that record of bland contentment with her lot, she’s written the fictional version of her life…which gives me space to imagine what she’d say if she felt free — as a woman of her time and class would never have been free — to write the real story.

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