Disgrace Down Under: Shedding light on Australia's shady treatment of its Aborigine population

Kate Grenville's latest novel focuses on violence, sexual abuse and the mistreatment of Aborigines. She tells Anita Sethi why she's on a mission to rake up Australia's murky past
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The Independent Culture

Kate Grenville vividly remembers the moment she first saw the world clearly. She was 13 and had just been diagnosed as extremely short-sighted. For the young Grenville, the world was difficult to navigate. "I'd see a boring blur while other people said, 'Look at the lovely landscape!'" Even a human face was beyond focus. This might be the source, muses Grenville, of her sense of being an outsider. The theme is pervasive in her fiction – though she describes not only the debilitation of being an outsider, but also the power. "I had a happy childhood in a loving, intellectually interesting home, but I didn't see the world as others did. I think if I'd grown up with 20/20 vision I wouldn't have valued what I do now."

Her fiction pays close and compelling attention to details which have been wiped from history or pushed to the periphery of the consciousness – and conscience. "Once your eyes are open you can't close them again," says Grenville, explaining why she concentrates her unflinching novelistic gaze on dark, disturbing subject matter: violence, sexual abuse, the mistreatment of Australian Aborigines. "I could close my eyes and walk away. But the only way to deal with it is to go in there with a torch and look at it, or it gets more powerful. It will always be there, like the bogeyman under the bed, and you will be like a kid in bed cringing with your knees pulled up, waiting for dawn. [Exploring it] is a way of robbing them of their toxic power, plunging in there, looking at dark bits."

Grenville, who was born in Sydney in 1950, was 17 when Aborigines were first counted in the census as part of the human race. She remembers the moment clearly, and believes attitudes have shifted enormously since. Last year, as she was halfway through writing her new novel, The Lieutenant ("as often happens, I was in that floundering state, losing faith"), she witnessed the apology given by her government to the Aboriginal people. "It was one of the most moving experiences of my life." Everyone was in tears, she recalls; quiet tears of sadness and joy. "It had a profound impact on the novel. I went back to my desk and had focus. This book is about communication; how do you communicate across gulfs?" Her previous novel, The Secret River, shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was inspired when she discovered her convict ancestry. She describes The Lieutenant and The Secret River as "yin and yang". The end of The Secret River is very sad; communication comes to an end. At the end of The Lieutenant, set in the 18th century, the possibilities for dialogue have opened up.

The dialogue at the heart of the novel is between Daniel Rooke and an Aboriginal girl. Rooke grows up a strange, isolated little boy, who, explains Grenville, has "all the awkwardness and unhappiness that being a scholarship boy might bring". He is the son of a clerk, knows Latin and Greek, and loves prime numbers (which, like him, are "solitaries"). He knows "the misery of being out of step with the world" and yearns to escape his insular life in Portsmouth to a place he might belong.

"I think most writers feel slightly out of kilter with the world, so writing about the outsider comes naturally," says Grenville. "Stories about outsiders have an automatic drama – can we draw them back in? Can they become an insider, or make their peace with being an outsider? Most people are outsiders in some way so it's also a great relief to read about."

Her latest outsider grows up to become Lieutenant Rooke, a character based on the real-life William Dawes, one of the first soldiers to reach Australia, where he set up a remote conservatory and began an intense friendship with an Aborigine girl. Grenville studied Dawes' notebooks: "Their communication blazes off the page. Theirs is a platonic relationship that is tender and warm." Learning each other's language, they find how a whole world can be represented in a word.

"In a way, damage can open you up to other kinds of learning," believes Grenville. "If Daniel Rooke had been a well-adapted social creature, he might not have been the person who went out to that solitary place and had those conversations. In a way, it was that damage that enabled him to step into that place. It means the possibility of change." Rooke knows the emotional peripheries, and ventures also to the geographical edge.

The dynamic between landscape and language plays out potently throughout her work, and Grenville, a creative-writing teacher and author of numerous books about the creative process, talks fascinatingly about the nuts and bolts of her craft: "There is a temptation to use metaphors to try to tame the landscape, domesticate what cannot be domesticated." She recalls one night camping in the bush when she became acutely aware of that wilderness. "There is nothing human about it. The bush doesn't care about us. To us Europeans who like to think we matter so much, that is an important lesson." But the large cosmic things, says Grenville, such as the sky at night or the wind, can also be wonderfully comforting as they tell you that you are part of the world and your individual problems don't matter as much.

Grenville relishes moving from the known into the strange. "It is an exceptional leap into another world. Now I understand its beauty and fascination. I spent many cold hours one winter with a star chart and I thought, 'Gee, these charts are the same as my characters looked at.'" She also allows her subconscious to play a role. "You might begin thinking you are doing one thing, but as you get into it you tap into a part of your knowledge which is unconscious, and look at it in astonishment. It's exciting, marvellous, humble-making, all your clever-clogs notions crumble."

The thorny issues that staking one's fictional territory in history might ignite are something of which Grenville is aware, so she was delighted at the response to her novel from Aborigines she met. "An Aboriginal woman said to me, 'This is not your or my history, but shared history.' That's a wonderful way to look at it. We're on this continent together and must work it out together."

As for her novelistic trajectory, Grenville says she has one more book to write about the foundations of Australia, based on her great-great-grandmother, who was an illiterate wife of a country publican living in a tiny hotel on the frontier. "It was a remote, dangerous, unimaginable life. Illiterate, working-class women's lives vanish from history. We stereotype them as domestic, crouched over the washbasin killing snakes. I want to give interior life to this woman. Hers is the first generation in which there was mixed descent. Through her story I hope to explore another dimension of the history of race in Australia."

Women who defy stereotypes were also at the heart of her first collection of short stories, Bearded Ladies (1984), and Grenville went on to win the 2001 Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection, a "life-changing event". Is being a female Australian intrinsic to her writing identity? "In an ideal world it wouldn't matter if you were male, female or anything in-between. But women and Australians do have the advantage that a lot of our stuff hasn't been written about; it's still up for grabs; the unexplored territory of human experience." Grenville is a writer passionate in her belief that, as she quotes Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The extract

The Lieutenant By Kate Grenville (Canongate £12.99)

'...He saw others comforted by their idea of God: as a stern but kindly father ... What comforted Rooke, on the contrary, was the knowledge that as an individual he did not matter. Whatever he was, he was part of a whole, one insignificant note within the great fugue of being ... He had no evidence, but doggedly believed that there would one day be a place, somewhere in the world, for the person he was'

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