Big books can shape life – so it’s no surprise that the people who inspire us to dive into the world of literature can also leave a lasting mark.
For actress and producer Claudia Karvan, this person is her HSC English teacher, Jan Murray. “I owe her a lot,” she says, “she made English contagious, she made you want to examine the books and impress her.”
But as she reflects on her high school years, Karvan – who has since judged the Stella Prize, Australia’s first literary prize for women – says that there were not many Australian books on her reading list at the time.
“Of course, when I went to school, there was a bit more cultural upheaval,” she says, referring to the term invented in the ’50s to describe Australia’s respect for English art. Instead, she “surrendered” to writers like Graham Greene, Jane Austen, and the Russian greats.
It’s a familiar tale: For decades, Australian schoolchildren were introduced to Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and George Orwell, left to discover the stories of their own country later in life, if at all. “It took me a while to get around to Helen Garner and Peter Carey,” Karvan says.
If her bookshelf previously lacked homemade authors, she has now taken a crash course to host Books That Made Us, a three-part documentary series that focuses on Australian literature and asks the question: can books help us understand our Country?
A scrapbook of Australian experiences
For the ABC series, Karvan interviews some of Australia’s most acclaimed writers – including both Helen Garner, whom she admits she was a little intimidated by, and Peter Carey – about how their works came to be. (Or it almost did not happen, in the case of Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, of which the handwritten manuscript he reveals was almost left on a bus in Rome.)
Instead of retreating from our unique history, the books included in the series relentlessly depict the good, bad and ugly parts of Australian society. The picture that emerges is not a homogeneous Australian identity, but a scrapbook of different narratives that share only one common similarity: a burning desire to show us more of ourselves. Even if we do not like what we see.
It is this growing diversity of voices that Karvan believes has gone some way to removing the cultural crisis from previous years. “We are more honest [now] when we look at ourselves and tell our stories, “she says.” I think there is a real value in having so many different perspectives that have really opened up in the last few decades. “
Section one sees this “open up” in action. After visiting Punchbowl Boys’ High School with Sydney author Michael Mohammed Ahmad, the setting for his acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel The Lebs, they travel to the offices of the Sweatshop Literary Movement in Western Sydney – a workshop for new culturally and linguistically diverse writers who he Founded.
Ahmad tells Karvan that the Sweatshop movement began when he heard the phrase “coming to vote”, which he describes as the act of “moving from silence to speech as a revolutionary gesture”.
“Transforming our circumstances, giving our society a voice, not just because it feels good, but because it is a political act; it is a way of declaring our existence in this country in this moment.”
On its face, it looks like the Australian literary industry is now hungry for voices that have previously been put on the sidelines. For the past five years, the Miles Franklin Award – Australia’s most prestigious literary award – has gone to a woman. Two of the last three winners have been native women, Tara June Winch (2020) and Melissa Lucashenko (2019).
Lucashenko won the award for his fiery honest and funny novel, Too Much Lip. Lukashenko describes the process of developing the book in the space above a bookstore in Brisbane, where she wrote it, and tells Karvan: “I thought I could be torn to pieces because of it, but I want to write about intergenerational trauma and what going on in the Aboriginal communities that I see and why. “
The power of truth
This attempt to show the reader what is actually going on, or has continued, is the thread that connects all the books, and what Karvan says has many great novels in common.
“Helen Garner’s book is now [almost] 50 years old, Monkey Grip, and how do you explain its longevity? I think it’s probably because of its honesty, I mean, it was basically a diary. You can’t argue with someone’s lived experience, “she says.
“It is a great liberating act, and has often been a subversive act, to reduce the truth in words.”
While many of the books deal with dark themes – racism, violence, poverty – Karvan says there is plenty of hope too. As proof, she refers to Honeybee by Craig Silvey and describes it as a “truly nourishing book full of humanity”.
This may come as a surprise considering the passage of the book read aloud in the series. It describes the main character, a gendered person called Sam, who is considering their suicide.
A few minutes earlier, the audience experiences that this scene was based on a real event. While Silvey’s brother and sister-in-law were on their way to the airport, a young person on a highway bridge noticed “standing on the wrong side of the rails”. Eventually, they volunteered that they had struggled with their gender identity and had been thrown out of the home.
As Karvan reads the passage, she is moved to tears. “I think there is enough light, courage and love to get us through,” she says, “but there are also some gloomy things.”
When Karvan is asked to choose, Karvan struggles to choose only one of the books from the series that has stayed with her after she read it – “every book had moments where they somehow grabbed you by the throat” – but finally settles on a line from Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s first book, Death of a River Guide.
Like Honeybee, Flanagan’s book borrows from real life. The now famous author was traveling down the Franklin River in Tasmania when his kayak was jammed between rocks and water cascading over him. With only a small hole to breathe through, he was trapped there for hours.
The line is, “Death is not a complex matter, life is.”
Books That Made Us airs on ABC Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. See the first section on iview.