Bittereinder: Liam Pieper and Historical Fiction
By Amy Walters
The National Library of Australia awarded their 2018 Creative Arts Fellowship for Creative Writing to Liam Pieper,supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust. They also hosted a special event in which Pieper reflected on researching and writing revisionist fiction.
In an interview for The Guardianon the release of his first novel The Toymaker, which is set during the Holocaust, Liam Pieper said:
"Sometimes you need to explore some deeper truth that can only be excavated through fiction.” This is a theme he revisits in his second novel, Bittereinder, which is currently under development, and which takes as its premise historical events that had dramatic impacts on the lives of Aboriginal people. This creative decision raises the spectre of public debates about both cultural appropriation and the legitimacy of the historical novel.
Bittereinder shines a light on a rumoured episode of Australian history in which Aboriginal trackers served in the Australian military during the Boer War, but were subsequently not permitted to re-enter Australia because of the rise of the White Australia policy. Pieper received the National Library of Australia’s 2018 Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing and used it to conduct archival research of the period, including Australia’s involvement in the Boer War, the White Australia policy, military history, and the attitudes of Australian society at the turn of the century more broadly.
However, Pieper found only limited evidence that Aboriginal trackers went to South Africa, and thus remains unable to definitively conclude that this episode in our history actually happened. Consequently, his fiction is a vehicle to ponder what might have happened, and to create a forum for conversations about Australia’s legacy of dispossession and racism.
I asked Liam if he was nervous about the task he has set himself, given the animated debate that flares up periodically about cultural appropriation in Australian literature. He says there are some definite pitfalls to avoid, such as writing an Aboriginal character using the first person, because he does not himself identify as Aboriginal.
He also identifies the “white saviour” trope as one to be conscious of, whereby people of colour are represented merely as vehicles to the white protagonist’s self-actualisation. Attention has to be paid to characters’ agency. For me, this is a question that goes beyond representing power relations between social groups; it has to involve the interior lives of the characters. A group may be systematically discriminated against, but to paint them as one-dimensional victims glosses over their personal dignity and resilience in the face of oppression, and ignores the silent rebellion that may be brewing under a down-beaten exterior.
The decision to base the book on a historical episode leads to another controversial area for Pieper to contend with: the debate about history versus fiction. When it came to audience questions, there were three in a row concerning Pieper’s choice to write fiction rather than nonfiction. I asked Pieper if he is irritated by the apparent subtext that history is concrete and literature is flimsy. No, he says, it is a valid question, and one we should discuss.
It seems to me, however, that when this question is discussed, a lot of energy is spent justifying novelists’ right to set stories in the past. It would be constructive to address the other side of the debate—the assumption by some readers that what ends up on the page of a history book is a definitive record of what happened.
Tom Griffiths, an Australian historian, examined the art of historical interpretation in his 2016 book The Art of Time Travel. He argued that a historians’ work is the result of a “lifelong dialogue between past evidence and present experience.” In addition, he reminds us that the past is not fixed; it is “alive and shifting… elusive and malleable.”
Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall, is also constructive in this regard. She gave the BBC’s 2017 Reith lectures on the subject of history versus fiction, and addressed the criticisms levelled at her for writing historical figures, including King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, as characters. She asserts that the historical record we inherit is not pure, as its production is the result of interpretation by historians. Furthermore, she says that novelists “make this interpretation transparent” and that “[w]hen a reader enters the space of a novel they know that they are entering into an imaginative project with the author.” Ultimately, to Mantel, fiction is about “examining the nature of evidence to think about how we know what we think we know.”
And as Pieper has found out in his research, the historical record can be limited. This is where the novelist comes into their own, opening up the echoing silences in our history to reveal deeper truths about ourselves.