Peter Carey, a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, has set his latest novel in 1950s Australia. (Supplied: Heike Steinweg)
Acclaimed writer Peter Carey says he previously avoided writing about Australia’s Aboriginal past, fearing that it was not his place to speak about race.
His new novel A Long Way from Home follows the main characters in the Redex Trial, a brutal cross-country endurance car race.
But the book also explores some of the more fraught and shameful parts of Australia’s history.
He sat down with Lateline’s Matt Wordsworth to discuss how he approached the story.
The novel was inspired by a car race that went through his hometown in rural Victoria
“I just remember a hallucinogenic vision of the main street at night and cars coming through and Jack Davey, who was a really big deal radio star … came through Bacchus Marsh with the window open, waved and said, ‘Hi ho everybody’ and that was a pretty big deal for me.”
Race relations and how they’re ingrained in the Australian landscape
“I was thinking of a book that was about two sets of maps.
“One a sort of map you make with a Redex Trial, which is like going around the border pissing and declaring your territory.
“And then the other is what we know now — what I know now that I didn’t know then — that those maps go over a whole lot of much older maps, ancient maps, I mean songlines, storylines over the traces of religion and culture.
“And when you look at the old Redex newsreels, you see those cars ploughing through the bulldust, you know they weren’t thinking about that at all. They didn’t know where they were in fact.”
What right does he have to write about the Aboriginal experience?
“Our job is to be other people. To have empathy for other people. And it’s almost the daily task. That’s what you do.
“You mightn’t like the person that you’re writing about, but you’ve got to be empathetic … I believe I have really found a way to deal with this issue.
“And one can only talk about that by explaining the plot or explaining the characters and what happens.”
Why did he write dialogue that featured racial slurs?
“You have to not pretend that your ancestors — or my ancestors, in this case — were different. What are they really going to say? Are they going to use these words? Yes, they are.
“And my Indigenous readers and people who work closely with Indigenous people … I think, everybody in the end thought that what I was doing was correct, and yes, it’s painful and yes, its ugly and you can have someone who’s using an ugly word like that and you can still feel affection for that person.
“Isn’t that really something to think about?”
How does he think we can reconcile the past and present?
“I think as we move forward as a nation, it can only happen with conversation, with curiosity.
“And people use the word guilt, which I sort of think is a really weird word because guilt sort of means maybe you’re not manly enough to sort of confess that you had to kill people or whatever.
“I think the right word is responsibility.
“And Aboriginal Australians — all Australians — are part of a community, so we have a responsibility to respect their history, our past, our part in their history and where there’s suffering and injustice to correct.”