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Stella literary prize winner on the mark

30 May 2014

Clare Wright 2014 Stellar Prize Winner Virgina Cummins

Clare Wright (above), by her own admission, maybe petite but she has a broad wing and willingly uses it to shelter, mentor and guide other women in the various fields of history in which she works.

In April this year, Clare walked away with the Stella Prize, the major new literary prize worth $50,000 for women writers of fiction and non-fiction. She writes history that packs a punch and delivers a good read and the prize was for her second book, an historical non-fiction work, The Forgotten Rebels of the Eureka Stockade (Text Publishing), published late in 2013.

Surprised to be long listed and even more to be short-listed, the win, she says, was completely unexpected.

Some weeks down the track and Clare is still pinching herself. History is not something usually associated with the winning of popular literary prizes.

“Within 24 hours of the prize announcement the second print run of the book sold out,” Clare tells me, her voice tinged with astonishment and perhaps a little pride.

The sales would seem to indicate that people want to read this sort of history, and prizes can help sell books.

“Stories of national significance don’t have to be jingoistic and blokey to be popular,” says Clare.

“Jingoistic blokeyness is a particular strand of populism in Australia but you don’t need to write that way to be popular.”

For Clare, the way history is researched and written, as well as the way we read it, has become as diverse as we are as a nation.

In fact, asking different questions and approaching the topic with an open mind is what led Clare to discover something very new about a story many would have said had nothing new to offer.

She also remembers colleagues questioning her judgment when she first broached the idea of researching and writing about the Eureka Stockade: ‘What could possibly be found that would be both new and startling in that well-worn, 150-year-old story, whose facts and details have been picked over time and time again by historians?’

“My methodology was to go back to the same archives that everybody had used but armed with a different set of questions. I was reading a primary source, a diary that was for many years known as the Lazarus Diary, but which through my research I have since proved was actually written by Charles Evans. In that diary, which has been used many times by many historians to write the Eureka story, there is an entry for Monday December 4 1854 in which Evans talks about the funeral of the people who had been slain in the cowardly massacre of the day before. He talks specifically about the coffin trimmed with white containing the body of a woman who had been mercilessly butchered by the troopers while defending the life of her husband.

“That was my ‘eureka moment’ not only were there women in Ballarat, there was a woman killed in the Eureka Stockade. That hadn’t come to light before even though historians had used the diary countless times.”

From there Clare made sure she scoured every document, looking for examples of what had not previously been seen or thought to be important: the fact that women were not peripheral but central to the Eureka story.

If a woman had died at Eureka and other women were involved – there was a female publican, Mrs Bentley, whose hotel had burned down the day before the massacre, and there were the flag sewers to consider – what, Clare asked herself, were the women doing? Why had they come in the first place? What were their aspirations and did they see this as an opportunity for freedom and independence, as well?

For Clare, her discoveries raised a whole set of questions that hadn’t been answered in any of the existing Eureka literature and wove a much more detailed and realistic picture of what had until now had been a predominantly all-male story.

Ten years of research and 150,000 words later, and we now have as one reviewer put it, “an Australian foundation story where women are not only found, but are found to have played a fundamental role”.

As Clare sees it, intelligent readers aren’t that interested in card board cutouts: “Readers don’t want people who are just playing out some kind of archetypal or mythological role divorced from historical reality.”

However, she does acknowledge that to bring about such a change in historical perception, and certainly in one that’s very deeply embedded in our culture, it had to be done from a really strong evidence base.

“I had to mount a very strong case and at times I may have gone a little overboard but I sensed there could be doubters out there. I think when you’re doing women’s history in particular, you do have to stay on the right side of paranoia but at the same time people need to be able to see and say: ‘she’s not just making this up because she has a political agenda or some sort of feminist barrow to push. There really is evidence this happened and it happened this way because of the quantity and quality of the evidence being put forward’.”

Since publishing the book, Clare says she receives almost daily correspondence from people telling her about their ancestors. On the strength of what she knows and has since found out through such correspondence she says, a little tongue in cheek, she “could almost set up a genealogical business”.

“I’ve put descendants together who had no idea they were related. In that sense the story is never finished. Where you put a full stop in history is really rather arbitrary, but for me to move on I needed a publisher and I needed my work to become a social object and not one that existed for academic purposes only,” Clare explains of her creative process.

In accepting her prize monies, Clare announced she was giving 10 percent of the money to the local high school where her children go and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF).

“I chose the Foundation [ILF] because I’ve had experience living in an indigenous community and I’ve seen first-hand what the gap looks like. The Foundation does a great job closing that gap at the grass roots level.

“We [Clare and her family] lived in Northeast Arnhem Land for six months in 2010, and I go back at least once a year.

“It was a huge privilege to be able to live and be there. It’s something I am probably less articulate on than anything else. I think that’s because it lives for me at an emotional level not an intellectual level.

“What I do know from that experience is: you are who you are and who you are, is not necessarily defined by what you do, what you accumulate, what you achieve, it is just who you are and there are no words for that in a way,” Clare finishes.

Clare’s next history project, for which she has received a major grant from the Australian Research Council, will be undertaken at La Trobe University and will take the best part of the next eight years. The working title, which is set to be published by Text, is “Red Dirt Dreaming: A History of Australian Mining”.

“It’s about telling a larger more complex story of mining in Australia and the way in which Australia has related to its great geological windfall across time. It’s a big project and I’m terrified and excited to be at the start of something new,” says Clare, who has also co-written the four-part documentary series, The War That Changed Us.

The series will air in August 2014 as part of the ABC’s centenary of World War I programming. Clare hopes it will open our eyes and expand our understanding of another story that has often been interpreted within a very narrow framework.

“I believe you can make good history and good television in the one package,” says Clare of the process.

“The series [The War That Changed Us] is about how the war impacted society. Social history allows us room to look at and explore a much broader set of experiences. It lets us explore a greater degree of historical authenticity. In the series we follow the lives of six characters, three men and three women. Three of the characters are at home and three are on the battle front. There’s a women on the battle front, a nurse, and a man on the home front, a radical unionist and anti-war campaigner. It’s an emotional journey, employing appropriate academic rigour,” Clare finishes. 

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