UNLIKELY LOVERS’ TRUE LOVE STORY
The lovers in my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, seem such an unlikely couple, at first glance.
Annie Bird is a part Mulgoa, part English woman searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather. She’s Aboriginal in both her understanding of herself, and in the way others treat her; but she’s been robbed of the vast majority of her culture, her Aboriginal inheritances, and especially mourns the loss of her mother’s language. At the same time, she is both intellectually and conscientiously Christian.
Jem Fox, on the other hand, is part Polish, part French, and although educated in London, in the English public school system, with all its oppressive Christianity and class snobbery, he is inescapably culturally Jewish. As a result of these clashes and confusions, he’s rejected religion, and any convention, pretty much entirely.
Both of them are Australian, though. Their starry paths cross and they fall in love with each other. Like people from diverse backgrounds do, every day. The love of Annie and Jem is a love that’s destined to be successful in every way, and yet the more successful they become in business, the more the complex cultural details of their lives will be whitewashed away. Jem’s Jewishness disappears from annals of the day; the colour of Annie’s skin is omitted from any mention. Their grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on down the line, might inherit little more than a whisper of who these lovers that made them really were.
It’s a trick of history Australians are particularly champion at. It’s also a form of identity theft against those who sit outside what the mainstream decides an Australian should look like, and we do it all the time, every day, today. We have done it, forever and most profoundly, to First Nations people, and these thefts should be considered crimes.
The year after the novel ends, 1869, the Aboriginal Cricket Team mentioned in the story, a group of grown men who’d been touring England, returned to a country in which the laws had been changed, at least in Victoria, to ensure an Aboriginal person couldn’t leave these shores again without government permission; those men could now also have their applications to marry arbitrarily refused.
The year this novel was begun, 2014, a beautiful, vibrant Aboriginal woman, Miss Dhu, died of complications of septicaemia and pneumonia in a police cell in Western Australia, there for unpaid traffic fines. The same year, in the case of another young Aboriginal woman, Lynette Daley, who was raped so savagely that she died of her injuries, the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions decided that the white men who attacked her could not be charged despite coronial recommendation and the glaring evidence against them; an injustice that has only been overturned, by the determined efforts of her family, as I wrote these trail-of-breadcrumbs notes for the novel more than three years later.
Throughout the writing of it, I came up against immeasurable holes in the historical records of what happened to the Mulgoa and the Bathurst-Wambool Wiradjuri, after colonisation. Half-sketched or absent acts of war that remain unresolved by truce or treaty today. Open wounds that can only be closed by the telling and acknowledgement of the truth.
What really happened and is continuing to happen is that Australia has a devastating problem with racism.
As an Australian of European descent, I wrestled for a long time with the ethical dilemma of taking on the voice of a First Nations, Aboriginal character, but Annie’s is a voice that’s been with me a long time. This woman is my friend. I grew up at La Perouse, on the northern, axe-edged tip of Botany Bay, where half my friends were Koori and the other half came from all over the world. Few of us fitted neatly into the white-bread square of what an Australian should be. The Aboriginal people in my life today are not only people I’m proud to call friends, but are among my oldest friends. Maybe it was inevitable that I would one day try to write a bold, determined and triumphant black woman to match the examples in my own reality.
It was a chance encounter that really got Annie Bird whispering, and sometimes shouting, into my ear, though. I was roaming through some research, wanting to discover the history of the wild west of the New South Wales goldfields, where I live today (and indulging my long-held love affair with that period, the 1970s TV series Rush and my abiding crush on the actor John Waters), when I came across a fleeting footnote to the white male history of the times: the real-life bushranger wife of Captain Thunderbolt, Mary Ann Bugg. Bugg was the daughter of an ex-convict English farmer and an Aboriginal woman of unknown nationality (possibly Worrimi or Biripi) from the Hunter Valley area; she was boarding-school educated in Sydney and variously said to be exceptionally beautiful and articulate, a cracking good opera singer and a resourceful, britches-wearing bushwoman; some time after her husband was shot dead by police in 1870, in one account, she stated that her heritage was Maori rather than Aboriginal, possibly in order to obtain work and perhaps to retain her independence, to avoid being corralled on a mission station and having her life controlled by church and state. Her story, or the wisps of it that remain, intrigued me for what it says about the nineteenth-century myth of the First Nations peoples’ inability to make their way in the white world or between cultures; and what it says about survival.
My story is not an Aboriginal history, though, and doesn’t pretend to be. The intricacies of that history are not mine to tell. Like all my stories, Lady Bird & The Fox is an expression and invention of the love, curiosity and despair I have for the country I call home. There are many First Nations writers exploring stories of dispossession and survival and triumph through their fiction today, the complexity and diversity of that experience infused with living, contemporary culture: Anita Heiss, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Tony Birch, so many more – discover them and be richer for it. It’s my hope only that I inspire readers of all kinds to go and find out more – more and more of the truth.
As for my credentials as an 1860s larrikin Ashkenazi Jew, well, perhaps there’s a fair amount of that in my DNA, both Prussian and Irish, an intense need to know what Sydney was like when they stepped off the ship, and to understand how and why that element of my family identity has remained so strong so far down the line. To have an Irish Catholic great-great-grandmother, as I do, is one thing; to have an Irish Jewish great-great-grandmother as well feels, to me, like I’ve inherited some kind of cultural jackpot.
But Jews have often been painted out of the picture of Australia, too. It’s a consistently overlooked fact that they have been a significant part of the fabric of Australian life since British colonisation, and have contributed to this country enormously – far beyond their weight of numbers, and despite religious and racial prejudice. Among the approximately one hundred and fifty thousand convicts transported to Australia, it’s thought that around one thousand of them were Jews; by 1868, when the colonies had swelled to a population of about one and a half million, about six thousand Jews had come to call Australia home. From the beginning, they’ve comprised only about half a percent of the population and yet gave us our first Australian-born governor-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and our first and most famous military general, Sir John Monash – both of them born here during the gold rushes.
These identities aren’t political dots points. They are real people, who live and love. They are the twenty-four million from all over the world who call Australia home today.
They are Annie and Jem.
They are you and me.