Author searches for the Arnhem Land ‘back’ story

Writer Paul Daley

Writer Paul Daley… “The missionaries were a mixed bag.”

NOBEL Laureate Patrick White was fond of likening his writing process to “welding”, but for author and journalist Paul Daley, it’s more a matter of backfilling.

Daley, who is presently the 2016 National Library Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, has been deep in the manuscript section researching background information for his new novel, “Jesustown”.

He’ll be at the library next week talking about how the NLA collections are giving life, shape and voice to the characters and landscape in his draft manuscript.

“It all came about because I’ve done a lot of journalism in the ‘blackfella’ space,” Daley tells “CityNews,” explaining that while he’s  basically given up regular journalism, his studies into frontier violence that won him a Walkley a year or so back have led him into contact with stories about indigenous history – “creation myths, song lines and all that, it took me into Arnhem Land and other places.”

He’s been trying to find  a way of entering that space creatively for some time, so when the idea for a novel hit him, he went back to Arnhem Land in 2015 and started writing.

After a couple of false starts, he won a writer’s residency at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga , where he spent two weeks doing nothing but writing, away from journalism, family, kids and his beloved dogs.

The announcement that he had won the NLA fellowship came as what he calls “a kind of prize on top of everything else – something that gave me a chance to backfill through the archives”.

So he’s been deep in the reading room in the manuscript files for three or four months now, particularly looking stories of anthropologists and explorers who were in Arnhem Land up to the mid-part of the 20th century – and, by the way, did I know that they’d been an Australian-American expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948? I didn’t.

Daley fully acknowledges the great academic work done there by distinguished scholars, but his research into cultural theft and, particularly, the matter of ancestral remains, led him into dark territory.

“The missionaries were a mixed bag,” Daley says. “Some were entirely selfless and non-judgemental, they just wanted to help people on were not even dead-set on ‘civilising’ people, but some were there to document what they saw as the extinction of Aborigines – an unholy race to take artworks, facial casts, to measure their heads, to document the passing of a people.”

His novel, “Jesustown,” is set in a fictional mission town and involves both an historical element involving white researchers, do-gooders and missionaries in the first half of the 20th century and a contemporary story about the legacy of what they have done.

His research, he says, has helped him flesh out the story of his protagonist, who is searching for information about his grandfather, who had been an explorer, autodidact and anthropologist in the ’20s and ’30s. Initially the old man had high ideals, but became increasingly convinced of his own importance in the culture of the North – “everybody’s flawed in this story,” as Daley puts it.

Paul Daley in discussion, Conference Room, Level 4, National Library, October 27, 5.30pm-7.30pm. Free, bookings to nla.gov.au

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