We interview Chris Feik about The Words That Made Australia.What are some of the themes in The Words That Made Australia?
The idea of the workers’ paradise has been a constant in our history. So have some tormenting questions: Are we a real country? Who are the true Australians? Is immigration a threat or an opportunity? Then there are things that force their way into view against powerful resistance, such as what WEH Stanner called “the great Australian silence” about indigenous dispossession. Or the overwhelming blokiness that Miriam Dixson notes. It took until the ’60s and ’70s for definitive pieces to be written pointing these things out.
Why this collection?
When we started work, we found that there were already books of snippets of Australiana, handsome collections of documents and speeches, and home-grown belle-lettres. But there was no book that gathered together the moments when someone had arrived at a new insight (for example, the cultural cringe), or given a state-of-the-nation overview that crystallised things (for example, the lucky country or the end of certainty). Once we realised that was what we wanted, everything fell into place – the book had its raison d’être.
What are some of the little-known gems in the book that people might not be familiar with?
A discovery for me was Inky Stephensen, who covered all points on the political spectrum before ending up being interned as a local fascist. The piece we have is avowedly anti-fascist, anti-imperial and seems very modern in its humorous confidence about Australia having an independent future in Asia. Another is Maybanke Anderson who wrote in 1920 about what it meant for women to get the vote. She is a strong voice that is too little known.
Do you have a favourite piece in the collection, and if so, why?
It’s hard to go past the sly brilliance of Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone.
How do you think these essays shaped our nation?
In many different ways. For instance, the two reports on Gallipoli provided the written basis for the Anzac legend. In the case of DH Lawrence, ever since his novel Kangaroo people have kept either repeating or arguing with his ideas about the Australian landscape and society. In “The Forgotten People”, Robert Menzies called into being a political constituency – the “forgotten” middle-class – that would vote for him for decades to come. Sometimes it is a matter of sheer intellectual force changing the debate, as in Noel Pearson’s “Our Right To Take Responsibility”. Sometimes it is a new way of seeing things, as in Humphries’ vision of suburban man.
The Words That Made Australia edited by Robert Manne and Chris Feik is available now in all good bookstores.