Five minutes with author Larissa Behrendt | HerCanberra

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Five minutes with author Larissa Behrendt

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Why do the stories we grow up with shape us so clearly?

Indigenous academic, filmmaker and author Larissa Behrendt has created an intriguing story in her new novel After Story of family loyalty and the sustenance of stories—whether the classics or from one’s own culture.

Tell us a little about the genesis of telling a story about Indigenous storytelling via a journey through English classics?

I love reading and I was a vociferous reader from an early age when my mother taught me to read and would reward me with books.

I came to understand my own culture of storytelling as I grew older and I have, over time, become even more aware of how powerful the process of storytelling is in my own First Nation’s community.

It contains our law, our great values. It bonds our community together and helps us to overcome our grief and trauma. It is complex and compelling.

I love both the literary tradition I grew up with and the storytelling tradition deep in my Aboriginal culture and I was interested to explore the strength of both in the story I wanted to tell about family relationships and intergenerational trauma.

What is your own relationship to the ‘classics’ and/or what have you learnt about yourself, story, culture from literature?

I loved them growing up. And I related to a lot of them. Like Jasmine, I read to escape. I loved what I saw as the feminism in Jane Eyre, and in the books of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.

I loved the understanding of structural disadvantage I learnt from Charles Dickens and George Orwell. It also taught me the power of deepening understanding about the human condition through the telling of a compelling, powerful story—and the way you can really fall in love with a character you relate to.

And because we are all vicarious travellers at the moment, can you share a little about your research and travel for the book?

I mapped out the tour myself and then travelled to all the sites with my then boyfriend (now husband). I got to see every place and immerse myself in them.

I was still formulating the story, particularly in terms of how I would reveal the aspects of the murder. I had to finish the book while unable to travel back but I had lots of photographs, notes and pamphlets. I also re-read some of the books which was an enjoyable part of the research—like visiting old friends.

And how did it compare with Jasmine and Della’s travels?

I have Jasmine and Della on an organised tour. I used to do those kinds of tours with my own mother when I was younger—but never a literary focused one.

There were always lots of characters on them—and the sisters from Boston are based on two people we actually toured with. I loved travelling with my Mum but you’re really on top of each other so it seemed like an excellent narrative device to keep my characters together.

When I travel with my husband, Michael, we love having themes in our itineraries—women writers, artists, World War II, the Roman Empire. It helps us see a different slice of the places we love revisiting.

There is grief and trauma running through After Story—how did you balance the specific grief of one family and their child with the broader grief of Australia’s First Nations people?

The story was inspired by the victims of crime and the families dealing with Deaths in Custody of a loved one that I’ve worked with.

Their grief is often compounded by the system letting them down—crimes against Aboriginal people being taken less seriously, no accountability for use of excessive force, coronial findings that deaths were avoidable.

Every parent who loses a child has endless grief—but when you know a form of justice was denied because you are Aboriginal and the police have not investigated the way they should have, that’s an added layer of trauma.

The personal pain of a First Nations family in such circumstances is linked to the broader injustices experienced by First Nations communities. In a story, you need to focus on the characters and the personal but I think it’s important for a reader to understand the context.

There’s also levity and real warmth—did writing that come easily? 

My characters are amalgams of women I have known and I admire every single one of them. They are strong and they get through life with big hearts and laughter. They are the glue in our communities. Their generosity seems endless. Their wisdom is profound. I am grateful to them and it was easy to capture those characteristics.

Aunty Elaine combines several older women who, despite everything that life has thrown at them, have been strong and resilient. They often do that with a cheeky sense of humour and strong connection to culture. They show that laughter has a great capacity to help with healing.

How does being a filmmaker and radio broadcaster influence your writing?

I see them as different ways of storytelling. Film and radio give me a chance to create a space for other people to tell their stories. I love both as a medium to give a broader audience a chance to hear voices they might not otherwise hear.

I have seen that it can make a big difference on the person hearing the story but it can also have an impact on the person who has previously not been able to tell their story.

The book offers an excellent reading list, but what’s on your TBR pile?

I’ve loved Anita Heiss’ new book, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, and I want to read it again. I’m looking forward to Chelsea Watego’s, Another Day in the Colony.

Also by my bed: Whisper Songs and Dark as Last Night by Tony Birch, Drylands by Thea Astley and Flock: First Nation’s Stories Then and Now edited by Ellen Van Neervan.

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