Carmel Bird has written many books of short fiction, essays and novels, as well as manuals for writers. She co-edited Griffith REVIEW 42: Once Upon A Time in Oz, and her essay 'Dreaming the place' provides an introduction to many of the themes and ideas explored in the rest of the edition. In this interview she speaks about ideas of myth, fairytales, and the stories we tell about ourselves.
One of the phrases I loved best in your essay was when you wrote, 'Storytelling is a mechanism for reflecting on what it is to be human in time and space.' Why do you think the compulsion to tell stories about ourselves is so universal?
The way I see it, the narrative response to life is a characteristic of being human. As a baby develops memory and language, it begins to realise and organise its place in the world by sorting out the characters, plots and settings of its sensual experiences. It realises pretty early on that one of the great joys of being alive is the power to tell the story of how it is to be alive. Quite quickly the beauty of speculation and fabrication enters, and the stories take a leap into fiction. Little children love to invent parts of the detail of their daily lives, filling in the spaces with characters and ideas that have a flimsy relationship to ordinary reality. Fiction is still telling the teller and the audience the narrative of what it is to be human, even when the details no longer have a human face or an earthly setting. In families some of the stories of family life take hold and are repeated over and over again – and so it is with tribes and national groups – some tales give such delight, or tell such important truths, that they become enshrined in the traditions of the people. I think it is no mistake that 'fairy tales' (and other classes of tale such as myth, legend, parable, fable) are widely associated with the child. They sit close to the open minds and hearts of innocence, taking the listener back to a state in which all things are possible, to a place where good and evil are clear and vivid, and where important truths are spoken in ways that are hard to forget. I think of Greek myths, Persian fairy tales, Norse sagas.
You're an extremely prolific writer, with many novels and short story collections to your name. You've also edited several anthologies of essays and stories. How does the practice of writing interact with your work as an editor?
I love writing fiction, and also essays, and I enjoy very much reflecting on writing, my own and the work of other writers. I also enjoy teaching writing, and editing other people's work. One task more or less flows into another. Working with Julianne (and also Nicholas Bray) was a terrific experience, one that I have not had before, working in concert. The back and forth and discussion and co-operation were all very stimulating, and the result is really very satisfying and I am proud of my part in the current journal.
Your opening essay in Griffith REVIEW 42 really frames the entire edition, focusing the lens on the central ideas, as it were. What was it about this subject that caught your interest, and how did your ideas come together? For instance, you mention in the essay that the bicentenary of the publication of the Brothers Grimm fairytales gave you cause for reflection.
The subject of the fairy tale has been one of my favourites since childhood, and I have a nice collection of books, both of stories and of scholarship on the subject. Yes, fairy tales have fascinated me for ages. One of the books I have is Mirror Mirror on the Wall, a collection of essays on fairy tales, collected by Kate Bernheimer. Late in 2012, when readers all over the world were celebrating the bicentenary of the Grimms, I was re-reading this book, which is American. It sits on the bookshelf next to From the Beast to the Blonde, a book 'on fairy tales and their tellers' by Marina Warner, who is English. I had an idle thought that I didn't have a book on the topic written in Australia. Just then, Charlotte Wood published a short reflection on fairy tales in a weekend newspaper. The idea of a collection of essays on the subject, with an Australian slant, came to me. I developed a proposal, which was universally rejected by Australian publishers who felt that there was no interest in the topic in this country. I realised I would have to think a bit laterally. What about a journal instead of a book? Helen Hopcroft suggested I try Griffith REVIEW. The visionary Julianne Schultz decided to go with it – and what a joy it was when Chong at Text Publishing came up with the fabulous cover image of the mermaid in the desert, enclosed in a magic mirror. In looking at fabulations in Australia, it was not possible to confine matters to what might be classified strictly as 'fairy tales'. So in the editing of the journal Julianne and I (with a great deal of help from Nicholas) moved across the different genres of myth.
Your own fiction has often brushed up against themes of colonialism and the legacy of the past. You touch on those aspects of Australian myth and storytelling in your essay, but I wonder what you find so interesting in those themes, what draws you back to them?
Just as children and families tell stories about themselves, hence establishing a place in the world, so peoples fix on key moments across time in a process of fashioning identity – something that gives shape and meaning, and promises possibility. And those moments – say, the story of Ned Kelly – move into myth that in turn shapes who the people are. The history of non-Aboriginal Australia is so short – myth can take a long time to make itself – and so folk storytelling in Australia is I think unlike such telling in older cultures. The German tales of the Brothers Grimm reference German history – for instance, Hansel and Gretel is, at one level, a famine story. So the colonial story of Australia is vital to me as a writer, even when I might be writing about the present day. The past casts its shadows – think of the forever rippling effects of, for one thing, the First World War. The centre of the novel I am working on now is a dark secret from over half a century back.
You point out that what makes Australian storytelling different from that of other places is the fact that Aboriginal place was telling itself for tens of thousands of years before European settlement, while from the outside, from the other side of the world, people were dreaming about it. That the difference comes from the meeting of these two legacies of myth.
I love trying to think about the great stretch of time during which the First Peoples have been in Australia. And the storytelling on rocks and in dance and spoken word. I grew up in Tasmania, and from a very early age I was aware that different people had been there, and didn't seem to be there any more. In two of my novels, The Bluebird Café (McPhee Gribble, 1990) and also in Cape Grimm (HarperCollins, 2005) there are hauntings by Aboriginal characters in Tasmania. And it has always thrilled me strangely somehow that while life was going on here over the many centuries, people in Europe were trying to imagine what it must be like here, trying to imagine that here even existed. Early on people brought the European folk and fairy tales here, and they have of course survived in the culture, been added to by the many, many other different peoples who now make up the population, but there is, I sense, a deep well of stories that are somehow indelibly etched into the land. I am struggling here to explain what I mean. I have always had a sense that there is an Aboriginal presence everywhere here. Just about everywhere here anyway. Certainly in Tasmania. Also a convict presence there. Don't get me started. As we edited the journal I became more aware of how the Aboriginal stories and the other stories (literary and historical) seemed to be, however subtly, merging. I had a go at expressing it in the essay – I'm not sure how successful I was. Perhaps this was happening only in my own mind? I suppose stories are a process, and there is a long way to go.
I thought it was interesting that you ended your essay on a question. Yousketch all the permutations of myth and storytelling in Australia, without giving any aspect more weight than the other. It's a very open-ended piece, which I think leaves the reader with many questions and serves as a wonderful introduction to the rest of the edition. Was it your intention to structure the piece in that way?
That's quite funny – because I just ended the last response to your penultimate question with a little question. Oh, I knew my essay had to be open-ended, as you describe it. I'm pleased you see that I was not giving one element more weight than another. I wanted to invite readers into the discussion, and to lead them to read joyfully the responses of the contributors. Sometimes I was (and am) overwhelmed by the vastness of the topic – the fairy tale in Australia. The Annotated Brothers Grimm edited by Maria Tatar lists 237 books as 'Further Reading on Fairy Tales' – and that's nothing to do with Australia at all. The title for my essay, 'Dreaming the Place', occurred to me after I had written the piece, and it sums up for me the link between 'place' which is so very important in Australia, and storytelling which is ultimately a product of the imagination. One of my favourite characters in the story of Australia is Archbishop Moran who (I believe) taught his flock that the New Jerusalem was established in Queensland in 1605. Now there's a myth to conjure with. One of the most interesting and powerful myth-making events in my lifetime was the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. Simply put, a wild dog abducted a baby girl from a sleeping tent in central Australia, at the Aboriginal sacred site of Uluru – the big red rock. The public and media response to this event chose to characterise the baby's mother as the bad mother who had killed her own baby. So a motif from folklore drove the unfolding story. And today, the whole terrible saga of the lost child, the wrongfully punished mother has become (as how could it not) a tale set firmly in the lexicon of Australian myths. For myths (and fairy tales) do not always have happy outcomes, even though the expression 'fairy tale ending' means happy ending. In common speech when the term 'fairy tale' is invoked, the meaning is generally 'wondrous, marvellous, good beyond reality.' And fairy tales have their share of truly horrible moments – the shock of cannibalism in 'The Juniper Tree' or the moment with the huntsman in 'Snow White'. Now there were two wicked step-mothers. Who knows where those tales really originated? They are more or less set in their own formulas now, their origins lost in time. Whereas the story of Azaria is still part of recent history, her parents and brothers still living. It is, I suppose, an Australian fairy tale in the making. It has a moral. I think you know what it is. The modern communication media have made a huge difference to the way stories are made. Hansel and Gretel would have developed from human to human – there are still humans, but oh, how much farther, how much faster they can reach. Am I being open-ended again?