The Burnt Stick home page
The Burnt Stick Q & A
WRITING THE BURNT STICK:
THIRTY YEARS ON…
It’s now more than thirty years since my novella, The Burnt Stick, was first written down in one bursting week of creativity in January 1990: over quarter-of-a-century after it was published by Viking/Penguin Australia. The story was my first commercial success as an author: winning several prizes, including from the Children’s Book Council of Australia, opening doors to visit schools, and establishing myself as a writer of some merit in this country.
Even now, after all this time, I continue to be gratified at how widely the book is still read in primary schools, even some universities and drama workshops as a precursor to those many attempts to grapple – through story – with the human dimensions of what are now called the ‘Stolen Generations.’ The metaphor of rubbing charcoal into a child’s skin to make him or her too dark to be taken away, remains a powerful one in our culture.
Over the years a number of people have written asking for more information on how The Burnt Stick came to be written, beyond what was already on my website. I’ve usually replied with a fuller account; and although I’m not able to add a lot more to the substance of the origins and composition of the book, it seems appropriate at this distance to expand on it somewhat for my wider readership.
I was working as a speech writer for Governor-General Bill Hayden in mid-1989, when we made official visits to the Pilbara and the Kimberleys. It was at one of the receptions – a barbecue at either Broome or Derby as I recall – and talking to a group of people about our childhoods, an Aboriginal man related the anecdote of the welfare coming to take him, and of his mother adopting the charcoal ruse. Of getting away with it too, until the welfare man hid in the bush and came to the camp in the early morning. And he said he’d never seen his mother again.
It was a passing tale among many shared that night, and after 32 years I have no memory of the man’s name or where he came from, apart from a general understanding it was the north-west. Yet the story stayed with me as another example of the removal of what were then called ‘half caste’ children.
I was aware of the practice, because an Aboriginal woman I knew in Canberra had herself been taken as a little girl to Cootamundra. And it sat in my subconscious for three or four months, going through the sorts of changes these things have to for a creative writer. What names would I give the people and places? Altering the structure from two visits to three, a much more effective literary device (think the three bears, the three pigs, the Three Brothers Karamazov). Eventually, it welled up and was written down in one urgent release between 22-27 January 1990, according to the manuscript.
Now, I knew I had to adopt a sparse, very restrained language, as if telling an ancient saga, both to heighten the drama and to make readers insert their own emotions. I also knew I didn’t want to write a piece of journalistic reportage, which would have limited any newspaper or magazine article only to what the sources told me. I wished it to be a much more universal story than that, using the techniques of the novelist to explore the thoughts and emotions of every actor I imagined in the drama: the boy, his mother, the welfare man, the station hands, the owner and his wife, the fathers at the mission.
Hence, I felt no need to consult further in any formal sense, beyond the several Aboriginal people mentioned herein and looking up references at the National Library of Australia on Aboriginal names and belief systems generally found in the north, as noted on the imprint page.
I was concerned that no one individual would identify themselves with the invented characters in the story. And names often carry their own connotations in fiction. Why ‘John Jagamarra’? Because it sounds euphonious. Because ‘John’ is a common enough European name, and ‘Jagamarra’ (under different spellings) is a widespread Aboriginal name in the north, thus reflecting both aspects of his heritage.
On our travels we had seen the region’s landscape and spoken to many of its people: visited several cattle stations, Aboriginal outstations and communities, secret/sacred keeping-places mainly in Catholic schools, former mission stations at Kalumburu and Beagle Bay, and so on.
From these external experiences and my own internal responses at having seen, as a journalist, the appalling conditions under which Aboriginal people lived at places such as the former Lake Tyers settlement – or myself having been sent away at a very young age to a boarding home, I drew the material to write The Burnt Stick. It only took a week to compose as I say, a couple of months to edit and refine – and four years to be published.
I sent it to Magabala Books at Broome, but nothing came of it. The manuscript sat on another publisher’s desk for two years before they decided to go ahead with the project. We even selected an illustrator, Bevan Heywood, an Aboriginal man from Western Australia who worked under the name Poorooar and was himself at constant threat of being taken as a boy. He even told me a detail about the canvas blinds on the welfare trucks being kept rolled down. We were no sooner accepted (white voice and black voice) than the publisher stopped printing children’s books. I then sent it to Penguin, who took it on, although ultimately they decided to use Mark Sofilas as the illustrator. I understand that Bevan returned to WA and has since sadly passed away.
It was a long wait, but everything in its time. The Burnt Stick appeared in 1994, just as the Human Rights Commission ‘Bringing Them Home’ report was being prepared, and suddenly the subject of our book was being talked of everywhere. As mentioned, it was successful for us, and in my travels since I’ve found that similar things happened all over the country. Sometimes charcoal was rubbed into the children’s skin; sometimes dirt; sometimes they were covered with mud to make them too dark to be taken away; in one case I was told of a child being held over a smoking fire to darken the skin, although it may also have had some other spiritual significance.
Rarely, however, did such attempts at escape succeed. ‘The end,’ as the novelist and reviewer Allan Baillie remarked of The Burnt Stick, ‘is as certain as the sunset, but the tension here is palpable.’
One of the responses following publication of the novella, was a Book Gig at Ipswich, Queensland in the mid-1990s, organised by the late Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, champion of literature for young people. A dramatization was produced by the Aboriginal director and playwright Wesley Enoch. His technique was to have a child lie on a piece of white paper, mark the outline in charcoal, and then slowly fill in the silhouette with charcoal as the performance proceeded. It was very effective – very dramatic.
Incidentally, it was during this visit that I realised The Burnt Stick had even wider implications than I thought. A teacher mentioned how she’d been reading the story to her class for the first time. She told me: ‘I came to the part where the Big Man from Welfare rubbed his hand through John’s hair, saw the charcoal on his palm and said, “What’s this?” Suddenly I couldn’t go on. I thought, “What if this was my child…?’’.’
I understood then that The Burnt Stick is not only an Aboriginal story – although it is certainly that – but it is also about all mothers and all children. We writers and artists don’t necessarily comprehend what meaning our words will carry for the audience. If we try to impose one, we usually end up with just another didactic exercise.
The continuing tragedy of what happened to the Aboriginal children who were taken and their families up until the 1960s, is obvious. It is still being played out in the Australian polity day after day for anyone who cares to look.
But, in my view, everyone who was engaged in the practice was burned by it. It is one of the ideas behind the title of the book. Indeed, the only real criticism I’ve had of The Burnt Stick was that the text is too kind to the Europeans involved – the mission fathers, pastoralists and welfare officers. Yet even they deserve understanding. Their real tragedy I think was that, for all the cruelties, they thought they were doing the right thing. Possibly some still do. ‘They’ll soon get over it. They’re different to us.’
Perceptions are very different today. In the essential human things – those that really matter –we are surely all one.
Meaning, I’ve always believed, must come from the story, and it will differ in the minds of everyone who reads or interprets it. But thirty years on, that is and – always has been – the power of art and literature.