Financial Times, January 7, 2018
Peter Carey on facing Australia’s original sin
After decades of avoiding the Aboriginal experience in his fiction, the double Booker winner explains why that had to change
No one could accuse Peter Carey of squeamishness, or of a lack of interest in national identity, so it’s strange to note that of his many novels the latest, A Long Way from Home, is the first to reckon with the experience of Australia’s indigenous peoples. Even as he was researching and writing it, he says to me when we meet at his apartment in New York’s financial district, he kept thinking “I have to do this; I can’t be doing this.” (The echo of Beckett, an early influence of his which didn’t, as he jokes, “produce immediately positive results”, may not be an accident.) The question hovers in the background of some of his biggest, most ambitious books, such as Illywhacker (1985) and Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the first of which, as he puts it, “acknowledges the issue that Australia’s built on a great many lies of which terra nullius is one”. But until now Carey never presumed to imagine the effects of the occupation of the country on its existing inhabitants in any detail.
Back in the mid-1980s he had taken to heart the words of the Aboriginal rights activist Gary Foley about appropriation, and had remained wary of “colonising the imaginations and the self-view of the people who’ve already been colonised and are dealing with a whole lot of f***ed-up stuff anyway. And then if you’re going to write something which is shallow or mis-imagined or unduly romantic or just wrong, you’re not helping anybody.”
Carey, born in 1943, grew up in the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, and to his knowledge never encountered an Aboriginal person until the folk singer he met at a protest against the White Australia policy in 1964. He thought Foley was right. Yet avoiding the subject began to feel more and more like a cop-out: “You get to a certain stage and you think, holy shit, you know, you’re meant to be one of the people who writes about Australia in fiction and you’re interested in imagining your country in all its aspects, and all your life you haven’t really once touched the central, foundational issue with Australia, which is that our ancestors, the British, mostly” — here he gives me a wry grin — “invaded the land, slaughtered many of its occupants, did their best to destroy the culture and to breed out, in one way or another, blackness. And, er, you’re not going to write about that?” In the end, he says, “I thought, that’s ludicrous and it’s embarrassing.”
The moment to tackle it finally arrived when Carey was “nostalgically, fondly” recalling the Redex trial, a long-distance road rally that took place when he was little in the early 1950s, as like something out of Fellini’s Amarcord, one of “these marvels of childhood”. It’s “impossible to imagine now”, he says, “a whole country going insane about a car race”, and people coming to blows over the relative merits of Fords and Holdens. His family ran a small General Motors shop and they stayed up all night in case any of the drivers should need their assistance, out of sheer excitement and the desire to be part of it. He remembers being up at 2 or 3am, “well past my bedtime”, watching the racers tear by and the odd celebrity wave from a rolled-down window.
While looking up the newsreels of the event on YouTube decades later, he began to notice something that had escaped him at the time — the footage did not include a single Aboriginal person. Even though the race went all around the country, there was no awareness of the traditional maps and stories of that same land. Carey thought “you guys could be driving up the aisle of a cathedral, and you really wouldn’t know”, and immediately he knew that he’d found his next book, and that it was time to write about that part of Australian history he’d been circling around.
A Long Way from Home, like most of Carey’s work, began with an abstract idea that he followed through logically, as if constructing an argument, but springs to life on the page as something loud and fleshy and hilarious. The characters “have to be farting and tap-dancing” as he puts it, and here, they are. Though he says he hadn’t particularly planned to make it “a laugh a minute all the way to the heart of darkness”, that’s exactly what the novel delivers.
Plucky Irene Bobs and her tiny husband Titch, with their mysterious neighbour as a navigator, set off from their GM dealership (Carey gives them his parents’ address and profession, though the book isn’t autobiographical) to race in the trial. Their story converges with that of the land’s indigenous inhabitants, and the book is full of horrors and brilliance — a mass grave stumbled on; an Aboriginal rewriting of the Captain Cook story, which Carey has adapted from the version by the community leader Hobbles Danaiyarri (“Captain Cook put the bullet in his magazine, start to shooting people, same like Sydney. ‘Really beautiful country,’ Captain Cook reckoned. ‘That’s why I’m cleaning up people, take it away.’ ”).
Part of the book’s remarkable energy seems to come precisely from the audacity of approaching this subject at all. Carey spent “a lot of time fretting and complaining” during the writing of it, as his wife and first reader, the editor Frances Coady, recently reminded him — it’s a bit like having a baby, she pointed out, in that you forget the pain right afterwards. (Coady reads his drafts “continually” as he goes along, and then, near the end of a book, “She’ll say, ‘Well, what do you want? Do you want the truth?’ It’s not always comfortable! It can be disconcerting for 10 minutes or so.”) And yet he seems to thrive on risk of that kind — I lose count of how many times he uses the word “reckless” to describe decisions he’s made for books.
Still, the stakes here are clearly different. Carey describes his recent tour of three Australian cities to promote the novel, where he sometimes found himself put in rather an odd position. Fellow white Australians asked him what they should do, what their responsibility might be (“a ridiculous thing to ask a novelist”), and on several different occasions at his public readings, people of his generation “stood up and confessed to things”: “they all had accounts of parts of the land that they’d grown up on being somewhere that they didn’t like to go because they knew that the Aboriginal people had been taken, rounded up there and shot, murdered. Not in their lifetimes but in their family’s memory. It was really odd because it was like they were bearing witness.”
He speculates that the book’s humour may make the subject of race seem more approachable to white people who normally struggle to talk about it. Carey is keen to emphasise that “this is a white story, this wouldn’t have happened without white people. If there were no white people here, there’s nothing to write about, the situation doesn’t exist! So you’ve got to take the responsibility of saying this is a white story, and once you’ve taken that then you’ve got to have the responsibility of carefully, scrupulously imagining what the black actors in the story feel, or how they act, at least.”
He has no time for such shenanigans as the novelist Lionel Shriver putting on a sombrero to make a speech on cultural appropriation (“What if the audience is half Mexican? You look like a complete dick. There’s a number of really startling assumptions”). He believes the crucial issue is not what you can and can’t write about, but how much real effort you put into researching and imagining someone else’s experience. “I always think if you do the work, then you can do the reckless thing.”
In person he’s a winning combination of fervent enthusiasm and earthy wit (of other writers, he jokes, “your peers are all those people that you go drinking with who aren’t as good as you, right?”), an intellectual omnivore who jumps from Edward Said to Conrad to James C Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: “I love that sort of thing, to see behaviours emerge from topography.” He lights up when I ask if he hopes that readers will know where the joins are between history and invention in books such as True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), winner of the second of his two Booker prizes, imagining all the arcane pleasures available to someone familiar with the story: “I would love somebody who knew everything. It would be thrilling to have that kind of reader.” He believes the crucial issue is not what you can and can’t write about, but how much real effort you put in
Carey seems disappointed with the reception of Amnesia (2014), his Assange novel, whose treatment of the CIA’s alleged role in toppling the Australian government in 1975 made it a tough sell in the US. Many readers and reviewers “found it impossible to accept” the account of an event that had never been reported in The New York Times — the problem of whether to believe a coup had happened and how seriously to treat it as history “caused enormous confusion” and discomfort. He says cheerfully that his publisher Sonny Mehta, on first reading it, assured him that “Peter, this is a book Americans will hate.” He takes pride in the thoroughness of his research, telling me in a tone of slightly disbelieving amusement that after years of saying fiction writers shouldn’t discuss painting as they don’t understand it properly, he learnt that his book Theft (2006) is now being used at a museum associated with Harvard “as a guide to teach art conservation, because there’s a lot to do with layers of paint . . . ”
It’s clear that each book emerges from an intellectual curiosity that has a strong current of feeling attached to it. A Long Way from Home offered him a real chance to meet and get to know his fellow citizens — being a writer, he notes, is “a great excuse, you go somewhere and you can ask questions . . . suddenly all the normal obstacles of life are removed and you can talk to people”.
The closest he’s come so far to writing “an American novel” was Parrot and Olivier in America (2009), which sprang from his doubts about the interpretation of Alexis de Tocqueville that seemed to be agreed on in his circle: “Everyone was always saying how Tocqueville loved America, loved American democracy and, I’m thinking, this can’t be right. These kids have been to school and they’ve just read the good bits, you know?” So he got stuck in and the idea developed from there. The fact that the subject seemed an “outrageous” one for him to choose, that it was “immense and terrifying in a way, only encouraged me more”. It was also a book written “in a state of rage. You know, it’s amazing, you can’t believe how bad things are going to get — that was just Bush and Cheney! And I thought then that we were on the brink of fascism.”
Tocqueville also, he insists, “saw Donald Trump . . . These are exactly the sorts of things Tocqueville worried about arising in America, this uneducated buffoon with no principles, a circus master”. The situation now makes him if anything less eager to write about the US. “You need fiction sometimes to make something clear or exaggerate something. This is such a terrifying, lethal circus every day that there’s no room for us clowns.”
That said, he won’t tell me what the next book is about, though he already has “a hundred good pages” down. When I ask if there’s anything he fears readers may miss in A Long Way from Home, he at first says no but then fixes me with a mock-stern look: “I remember years and years ago in London at an event at the ICA, talking about sexism in Australia and seeing all these men in the room go . . . ” — here he makes a tutting sound. The sheer hypocrisy of this bunch of “London ball-scratchers” shaking their heads over “all these vile, awful Australian men” evidently entertains Carey nearly as much as it irritates him. He says: “The thing about this particular book is that it is a history of Australia’s total awfulness, and it just would be worth remembering, when British people think about it, that it was the British empire.”