Gillian Dooley is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University, South Australia. Gillian is also a journal editor and the author of books and articles on literary subjects from Jane Austen to J.M. Coetzee. In this guest post she writes about the launch of The First Wave: Exploring early coastal contact history in Australia, and the book’s importance in our understanding of Australian history.
On 20 June, The First Wave: Exploring Early Coastal Contact History in Australia, edited by Danielle Clode and myself, was launched in London. This was the result of a happy convergence of circumstances: I was in the UK on an extended visit, presenting at several conferences and giving the odd lecture and seminar, and Flinders University was looking for an excuse to hold an alumni event in London. The Alumni Office at Flinders organised a splendid event in the sumptuous Downer Room at Australia House, with help from the South Australian Agent-General’s office. The Vice-chancellor, Professor Colin Stirling, flew in for the occasion, and nearly 100 people, including Flinders Alumni and many UK-based friends and colleagues, were present to see The First Wave launched into the world – a few weeks before it was even published in Australia – by the incomparable Elleke Boehmer, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Professor of World Literature at Oxford, novelist, prominent and prodigious scholar of the South and of colonial and post-colonial encounters.
The First Wave draws together 26 essays, stories, and poems from a range of authors, some of Aboriginal heritage – poets, novelists, historians, literary scholars, art historians, anthropologists, musicologists, linguists, ecologists. We wanted to include multiple perspectives on multiple encounters, in a variety of genres – concentrating on meetings with explorers – temporary visitors, rather than the settlers or invaders who came later, though it’s not so easy to draw these kinds of boundaries.
Elleke spoke at the launch with even more than her customary grace and acuity. She read some passages, including an extract from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and a poem by Ali Cobby Eckermann. Referring to the genesis of the book in my exploration of the encounters described in Matthew Flinders’ accounts of his voyage, she noted
the complex fractal pattern of perspectives, observations and silent sight-lines both Indigenous and European that the co-editors Dooley and Clode had delicately constructed around Flinders’ 1801-3 journey of Australian circumnavigation. Many of these observations crystallised out from the crucial meeting on the beach, that classic zone of colonial encounter, yet at a fragile time before that encounter became violent and destructive. The First Wave also beautifully demonstrates how those observations were then recorded not only in the explorers’ journals and logbooks but also in Indigenous song and dance, so making a very different yet equally telling historical record. Dooley and Clode had achieved this fine balance by drawing together an extensive generic range of writings including some resonant contemporary poetry and were to be especially congratulated about this.
Elleke’s speech made me see the work we had done in a new light, not as merely a heterogenous collection of a variety of perspectives – which it undoubtedly is, and which was our intention – but as something which appeared, in a way, complete – which had an integrity of its own, perhaps beyond the sum of its parts. I found her words extraordinarily moving and extremely gratifying.
Alastair Niven, LVO, OBE, formerly Director of Literature at the both the British Arts Council and the British Council, now of Harris Manchester College, Oxford, kindly agreed to make some closing remarks:
‘It is a genuine privilege to take part in the launch of The First Wave. That’s the sort of politely conventional thing one says on this sort of occasion, but tonight it is really true. This is a monumental book, and I don’t just mean in terms of weight. It is an essential work of true scholarship. This book matters, re-visiting old episodes and in the process re-visioning them.’
There is a crucial if brief sentence in Gillian Dooley’s and Danielle Clode’s excellent introduction. ‘What were the Europeans NOT seeing?’ These essays examine the not seen, which includes how they were themselves viewed by the indigenous peoples they found on arrival in Australia. I don’t usually spatter my talks with Biblical references, but it’s hard not to be reminded of words we have all grown up with and know as evidence of what we define as our civilisation: ‘Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ This book helps us clarify our opaque vision.
‘Throughout The First Wave words are given new shades of meaning as a consequence of their post-colonial interrogation. Take as an example Valerie Munt’s essay ‘Sense or Sensibility? Encountering a “Savage” Land in a Romantic Era’, where every word of her title is ironic or nuanced: ‘sense’, ‘sensibility’, ‘encountering’, ‘”savage”‘ (placed in inverted commas), ‘land’, ‘Romantic’, ‘era’, even ‘or’. This is a book full of such upendings. Encounters and exchanges, footprints and landing parties are all seen afresh. Books like Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island and Lord of the Flies will never seem the same again.’
Once again, I was touched, flattered and surprised by Alastair’s kind words. I have learned a huge amount during this project. When I first conceived of this book project, I knew I’d need a co-editor and the multi-talented Danielle Clode was my first choice, given her expertise on the French voyages to Australia and her wide and varied experience in writing and publishing. Luckily she agreed despite her overflowing schedule and she has been a wonderful partner in this enterprise, in addition to contributing her own beautifully crafted and carefully researched story about whaling on Australia’s east coast. I am grateful to every single one of the contributors for their unique accounts of a myriad of meetings, sightings and exchanges. Only one of them, Patrick Kaye, was able to be present at the London launch, but we look forward to celebrating its publication with many of the others in Adelaide soon – watch this space.
The First Wave, at over 450 pages, has turned out to be a big book, but I hope you will agree with me that its size is justified by the richness of the insights it provides.
Many thanks to Flinders University, Australia House, Elleke Boehmer, and Peter Livingstone, photographer, for their involvement in this wonderful evening.
To purchase a copy of the book, give us a call on (08) 8352 4455, visit us at our Mile End Bookshop, or find it in our online web store.