IV Reasons “Antipodes”, My New History Book, Shouldn’t Exist

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Like any virgin author, I’m excited to see my first history book ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT in stores. It has been a long and at times difficult road to publication. The truth is, it very nearly wasn’t so. Here’s how the book, mimicking the southern continent about which it muses, sputtered into and out of existence.

1: It started with an inland sea

The book is about the European idea of—then relentless search for—a massive continent in the southern hemisphere, particularly from the 16th through 18th centuries. So, first things first: I never intended to write a single word about Terra Australis, which is what this imagined land came to be known as.

When I began research for a PhD at the University of Queensland, my topic was the 19th century idea of an inland sea in the Australian interior. Great topic (was then, still is now, and I encourage any budding PhD students to tackle it). But, before I did any research on the non-existent Australian inland sea, I brushed up on the broader and longer history of what Europeans imagined for the entire southern hemisphere.

A year later I was still brushing up… and realised that there were so many interesting avenues of inquiry, so many things still to be said and so many maps to ponder that I was now in the Antipodes business (apologies to my PhD supervisor who must have thought I was utterly insane).

2: I did not know anything about anything

How does one become an expert? Decide you need to become an expert then read everything you can get your hands on, think about the subject constantly and have the audacity to both put your own ideas out there and be willing to tell others they are wrong (preferably when they are).

It was a truly daunting prospect having to learn all that had to be learned—completely from scratch. My subject covers two thousand years of history, from antiquity to the modern era. It involves all manner of sources from many different places (try communicating as a non-Italian speaker with Italian libraries for a fun experience), and covers multiple fields of scholarly inquiry.

Had I appreciated the true size of the subject and how unreasonable it was for a young scholar to try to understand it all, I would never have started. I had no idea I would need to translate ancient Greek philosophy! Or understand symbols on Medieval maps! Or grapple with the mental state of Christian explorers!

What may have looked like arrogance on my part, tackling such a broad swathe of history, was in fact pure naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, much like many of the explorers who set out in search of knowledge in the Age of Discovery and after. Luckily, I didn’t end up as a pile of sun-bleached bones in a desert, though at times it felt like I was as lost as Leichhardt.

That is why it took me 5 years to finish my research and complete my thesis—that, and the presence of a bean bag in my office.

3: Based on a PhD that was based on the book that didn’t exist

When I was a graduate student I was not shy in my disdain for the manner in which many research theses are executed at universities. My opinion on the matter has only firmed now that I work professionally as an academic editor.

That is, theses are often obscure and preposterously narrow in their focus (I used to joke to new people I met that I was researching the history of beer bottle caps, or the history of chip-board in Australia; no one ever quibbled).

They often focus on intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant content (but then everyone thinks what they are doing is important, yours truly included).

And, worst of all misdemeanours, they are often written as if the scholar is functionally illiterate and has relied on a random word generator—or hates readers and wishes them to suffer as much as they did writing the monstrosity.

So, I said to hell with literature reviews and other such wastes of everybody’s time, to hell with fusty academic phrasing and credential establishing, I’m writing a damned book and that is going to be my PhD. So I did, with informal language (sacrilege), a less than reverent tone (scoundrel), no literature review (fool) and so on (again, apologies to my supervisor; there was more than the odd raised brow and cautionary word over my caper).

It was all a bit iffy as to whether my examiners would throw me out of the academy or welcome me with open arms. In the end, I was lambasted for my attitude, and applauded for my content. The book is now considerably different to that PhD thesis, but the same heart beats in both.

4: My first publisher dropped me

In academic publishing, promising work is sent out to academic reviewers for their opinion and to give a yay or nay for publication. Some academics do this reviewing in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. Others are rooting for the writer; they know how hard it all is and choose to see the positive.

And then others—far too many others—seek to flay the writer no matter what, in the act that I heard Australian historian Tom Griffiths aptly describe as boundary riding. They seek to protect what is theirs, and with some academics what is theirs is all of academia—so get out of my territory!

To be blunt, they can be complete and utter miserable bastards. The whole process is notoriously bruising and disliked by just about everyone who has ever written a manuscript that must be signed off on by academics.

So, I was very pleased when after more than six months of messing around a respected English publisher received their reader reports and told me they wanted to publish. Many months more down the path, they unceremoniously dropped me—over email.

Their Australian agent had finally told them my book would not sell enough copies in Australia (we shall see). Unfortunately, these processes don’t take months, but years, and so I was set back so badly I very nearly decided not to bother trying to find another publisher.

I could not let it go, and finally I did find a good home at Monash (thanks to Nathan Hollier at the Press for not messing around in the least when it came to expressing interest and deciding to take it to print). But the book took 5 years to write, and then 6 years to publish. 11 years!

No, the book should definitely not exist.

But I’m glad it does. It is not boring and it is not pointless and it is not written to frustrate readers. In that sense, it should exist. Many said the same about Terra Australis, and they made that exist, too.

To see how, you’ll need to read the book. It won’t take 11 years. Unless you are my wife. She still hasn’t read it, but I am assured it is the very next history book she will read.

Is ‘Discovery’ Really an Evil Word?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

It seems like the debate over the word ‘discovery’ has been going on forever now. It looks something like this: when talking about the exploits of European explorers, you should not use the word ‘discovery’ because all the places they ‘discovered’ were already known by the indigenous people who lived there for hundreds or thousands of years.

Well, sure, absolutely! But that’s not the way in which any half-sensible historian or writer uses the word. In fact, I drop the ‘d’ word over 500 times in my new book, ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT.

When someone who is not a nutter (or a woefully misinformed individual) talks about ‘discovery’ in these sorts of contexts, it does not mean they were the first person to encounter a particular place or thing. It refers to their learning about the existence of something and then sharing that knowledge with others. To be honest, I have never seen a modern historian or writer use ‘discovery’ in the ridiculous sense of being first to encounter something already known to exist by others. There must be one or two examples out there, but for the most part the whole debate is a strawman argument—people simply aren’t that misinformed or  wilfully wrong.

As for how this all came up, I stumbled upon an article by Paul Daley in The Guardian discussing criticism of changes to a guide on appropriate indigenous terminology at the University of NSW. We’re talking mostly sensible thigs like writing ‘elders’ and not ‘chiefs’, ‘Aboriginal people’ not ‘blacks’. But it also covered the terminology of ‘discovery’.

First, I was struck by Daley’s comment in which he writes in relation to the example of James Cook: “Cook mapped the east coast of this continent [Australia]. But he hardly discovered it.”

That’s right in the narrow sense, and wrong in the sense that historians and writers actually use the word. The UNSW guide Daley is referring to inadvertently tells us how Daley has missed the point. Here’s what the guide says:

More appropriate

  • Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”.

Less appropriate

  • Captain Cook “discovered” Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to be the first person to “discover” Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word “discovery” offensive. However, it can be noted that the word “discovery” can mean finding something that one as an individual did not know was there. This meaning should be stressed if the word is to be used. One reason why so much had to be “discovered” is the fact that Indigenous knowledge was discounted and disregarded for so long.

That is pretty much on the ball. Anyone who suggests Cook was the first person to encounter Australian or even eastern Australian shores is a sure-fire lunatic (or an undergrad student destined to be swiftly disabused of this notion at their respective universities; it’s no coincidence that it is exactly this group at whom the UNSW guide is aimed). I don’t know of any of these people who have been published in the last 30 years making such outrageous claims in print. Do they exist?

To be clear: Europeans did not know land existed where Cook encountered it, and it is in that sense that Cook can be fairly said to have discovered that land (to Europeans). It is not meant to deny indigenous presence or knowledge, and to construe it that way strikes me as miserly and needlessly contrarian. Indeed, why fight that fight when there are more important and worthy fights to be fought?

So, having essentially agreed with the UNSW guide up to this point, I do have to aver on one point. Where it says the following I’d suggest it has gone completely off the rails:

More appropriate

  • “… since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”

“Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s” reflects the beliefs of many Indigenous Australians that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land.

Less appropriate

  • “Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years”

Forty thousand years puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Indigenous Australians see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.

Well, many peoples have many beliefs. But when you are talking about facts you really need to use facts and not feelings or beliefs. Unless the claim is a serious scientific/historical claim that humanity has existed forever(!) and began in Australia (completely rewriting the history of evolution and a million other things), then you have to put a figure on it, just like the Beyoncé song says.

For the record, I think that the article by Stan Grant that came out in The Guardian the day after Daley’s was spot on. Read it here.

 

Australian Characters

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

I recently finished writing an article on male readers of romance novels. I interviewed one particular Australian named Len—a real character.

I’ve lived in London for a year now, and though I continue to have contact with Australians, it’s mostly with the sort of urban or middle-class sorts likely to travel through or live in such a sprawling, cosmopolitan metropolis. Which is to say, there’s not an enormous amount of variety in the Australians here. They—we—mostly sound the same, look the same, talk the same, think the same.

But Len—he’s a different beast. Born, raised and made a life in rural NSW. When he greeted me over the phone from the other side of the world it was like I was listening to a crude Australian film where the director insists his actors ratchet up the ocker accent for the sake of playing to an international stereotype. A guttural, almost crow-like timbre that comes from the bottom of the throat washed every of Len’s words; the cadence was broken and sentences trailed off into…; and there were silences—long thinking silences that might roll into the rest of a thought or might just as well remain a silence. None of this is to suggest Len was anything less than articulate, well considered, and engaging—only that his idiom and his persona were so very different to what most people know.

I suppose I have been thinking about this—about the fact that there are so many interesting sorts across Australia, away from the lights and the cities—because my Mum reminded me in a letter how lucky she has been (and I have been being the child at her side) in the vast array of characters that have passed through her life. The cities have their own benefits, but true diversity of personality, traits and experiences is something that the country produces, par excellence.

The passage from my mum’s letter is worth sharing:

“Sweating like a pig.” These hot days had me thinking. I’ve worked and raised pigs—never seen them sweat; (but must) so asked Big Steve. “Never seen ‘em sweat,” he said. “But I saw an old boar rooting for a solid hour once and he never raised a sweat.” I decided not to ask Steve why he watched for an hour.

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