Birch on books

He’s among Australia’s finest living writers, a poet, activist and academic, as well as an acclaimed novelist and short-story writer. Tony Birch’s writing is concerned with Australians, especially Indigenous Australians, living life on the fringe.
He writes, too, about the dark shadow cast by the state in the everyday lives of marginalised people, and this month is speaking at Montalto at their Books and Ideas evening. 

“I have been to one of the Books and Ideas at Montalto when I was actually interviewing another author. This time I will be talking about my new book, and answering questions about the novel and the writing process itself,” said Tony, who became the first Aboriginal writer to win the Patrick White Award in 2017, in recognition of his invaluable body of work, including the novels ‘Blood’ and ‘Ghost River’ and the short-story collections, ‘Common People’ and ‘The Promise’. 

“The new book, ‘The White Girl’, is about the stolen generations, set in 1960’s rural Australia. It’s the story of Odette, and her fair-skinned granddaughter, who she must protect from authorities at all costs. It was important to me to represent how strong older Aboriginal women are, that they are true leaders in the community,” said the 62 year old writer who is also a climate justice-Indigenous rights activist that grew up in inner-city Melbourne with a rich Aboriginal, Barbadian (convict), Irish and Afghani heritage.

“There’s speculation around the fact that I wrote the book in eight weeks, but it was only the first draft. The second draft took a year,” said Birch with a laugh. 

While his other novels read like they were written with ease, Birch does admit that ‘The White Girl’ did flow very easily.

“I guess the difference with this novel is I knew what I wanted to say. It was also always going to be a book about strong black women. I knew at the outset that I was going to write a novel that could reach Aboriginal women, and was determined to write a really strong, central female character, to celebrate the courage and heroics of Aboriginal women,” said Birch. “’The White Girl’ is a novel with national Indigenous themes: colonial oppression, dispossession, the stolen generations, generational violence against Aboriginal people. Every Aboriginal person I have met has a story of loss through the stolen generations.”

Birch didn’t start out as an academic or author; far from it. He grew up poor and tough, and went off the rails as a teenager, being expelled from two high schools for fighting and found trouble with the police for the same reason. 

“I was a bit of a bugger of a kid, always getting into fights, and got my first odd jobs working for the fire brigade, hospital and post office,” said Birch. “But I was an avid reader and decided to go back to do Year 12 at TAFE. It was at night school where I met my mentor, Anne Misson who told me ‘You’ll be great, but only if you work your arse off’. I applied this to everything and soon my passions became writing and running. I discovered that when I go out for a run, my ideas are created and shaped for my writing. It clears the head especially if I come to a road block. I go out for a run, and before I know it, I have the solution. I come down to the peninsula regularly as my mother-in-law lives in Mt Eliza and I love going for runs through Red Hill.”

Birch was first introduced to the Mornington Peninsula twenty years ago when he came down for holiday with one of his friends.

“A mate had a holiday house in Rye and we went to the back beach at Gunnamatta. It was the first time I had seen the ocean and I loved it. Now, I come down a lot and have a favourite spot I go to at the rock shelves between Sorrento and Portsea.”

These days Birch holds a master’s degree in creative writing and a PhD in history, a far cry from the brawling, drinking and smoking early years. “I loved university when I went there. At first I thought I would just do an arts degree and teach but I was hooked so I stayed to complete my masters and then my PhD,” said Birch. “It has had a flow-on effect in my family too. I was the first person to attend university and now my sister has gone back. Of my five children, four of my daughters have all gone to university and have professional careers.”

Birch has been publishing short stories and poetry regularly since the 1980s, although his first collection, ‘Shadow Boxing’, only appeared in 2006. Since this, he has published four more collections of short stories and poetry ‘Father’s Day’ [2009], ‘The Promise ‘[2014], ‘Broken Teeth’ [2016], and ‘Common People’ [2017] and two novels ‘Blood’ [2011] and ‘Ghost River’ [2015]).

“I published my first book when I was 49; the semi-biographical, ‘Shadowboxing’, and I lecture at the University of Melbourne,” said the author and academic whose philosophy is simple. “When you write or do anything, it is about having discipline, and keep working at it.”

Tony Birch – Books and Ideas at Montalto, Friday 26 July,
7.00pm – 9.00pm. 

First published in Peninsula Essence – July 2019