The Burnt Stick
Questions & Answers
Writing The Burnt Stick
The Burnt Stick Q & A
... outstanding in its reminder that the human spirit, nurtured in love, can give sustenance to life and hope for the future Michelle Huet.
Is The Burnt Stick a true story?
The idea is based on a story told to me by an Aboriginal man I met in north-west Australia. He told me how the Welfare had come looking for him as a boy and how his mother rubbed charcoal into his skin to make him dark. It was a good trick - but the Welfare knew one better, and came back to the camp in the early morning. The man told me he had never seen his mother again.
Why did you write it down?
It seemed to me such a powerful metaphor for this sad aspect of our history. These things happened until at least the 1960s. Aboriginal people I know in Canberra have themselves been taken away as children and sent to institutions.
After the book was published, others told me of similar ruses tried by Aboriginal mothers in many parts of Australia. They rubbed ashes or dirt into the children to make them darker. In one case I heard of a child who had been held over a smoking fire.
Many stories have since been documented in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home (1997). At Hopevale FNQ in 2006 I was told of a little girl who was caked in mud from the creek – and got away with it until she went swimming.
So the story of The Burnt Stick really happened?
Things like it happened: but the story itself is fiction. The mission, the cattle station, the people in the story are all made up. John Jagamarra, Liyan, the Aboriginal people of the camp, the white woman Mrs Grainger, the Big Man from Welfare ... their thoughts and words and actions all came from my own imagination. For me, the most important part of a story is what is happening inside the characters - what they are thinking, what they are feeling. As an author, these things can only come from one place - from inside yourself.
How long did the book take to write?
The book sat inside me for some months, going through the sorts of changes that stories must, before I began to write in early 1990. It only took one week to complete the first draft - and four years to get the book published. It sat on one publisher's desk for two years, but soon after they decided to go ahead with the book they closed down their children's publishing department. I sent it to Penguin Books, and it eventually came out in 1994.
Were you disappointed it took so long to get published?
Everything has its right time. The Burnt Stick was published just as the 'Stolen Generations' enquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was beginning, and the Australian community was becoming aware of what had occurred. If the book had been published earlier, it might not have received the same wide recognition.
Does John Jagamarra find his mother?
I've often wondered if I should write the next part of the story. There are at least two possible books - one about John looking for his people after they have gone from Dryborough Station, and another about John finding them. They would be hard books to write, for they would have to deal with many painful things: the effects of dispossession, alcohol and broken communities. One part of me wants to write those stories; but the other part says it is better to let readers decide the end of The Burnt Stick for themselves. In a sense, we are all having to do that as Australians.
That night, under the watching eyes of the stars, among the Ancestral spirits of the ancient land, John Jagamarra knew that he would look for his mother and those people to whom he belonged - and would keep on looking for them, no matter how many years it took.
Is the sparse, restrained manner of the writing deliberate?
Yes. I wanted to give some sense of the timeless, universal quality that you find in the ancient sagas. Here was a tragic individual human story, but one that has been repeated over and over again. Besides, it was so strong and elemental - a mother trying to save her child - that the simplest narrative was by far the best. The more an author can withdraw and restrain from the emotion, the more the readers have to supply it for themselves. And thus the more enduring it becomes.
Why did the book cover change?
When The Burnt Stick was first published in 1994 it was a larger hardback book. The cover featured Mark's same wonderful portrait of an Aboriginal boy, but the surrounding colours were dark blues, browns and purple – 'the colours of evening' as his mother's skin is described.
When the small paperback edition was published, these background colours had changed to soft turquoise and mauve – very much the colours of morning.
I thought they'd been changed for commercial reasons: generally children respond much better to lighter colours.
But I was greatly surprised a couple of years ago, when Mark Sofilas sent me the cover painting for my birthday, to discover that the original colours were exactly these light blues and greens. They'd been darkened for the first edition, presumably to appeal more to older readers.
John Jagamarra. Charcoal drawing by Mark Sofilas.
The Big Man. Charcoal drawing by Mark Sofilas.
The Burnt Stick first edition cover: courtesy Penguin Boks Australia.