Avid Reader’s Big Breakfast with Dr Anita Heiss

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I’ve mentioned Avid Reader multiple times on the blog – it’s my favourite indie bookstore in Brisbane. This morning, a number of us braved the heat and humidity for the very special opportunity of hearing Dr Anita Heiss speak about her latest release: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms.

Dr Heiss is a member of the Wiradjuri nation, and writes all manner of books, articles and poetry. She lectures on Indigenous Literature is a Lifetime Ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, is an Advocate for the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence and is an Ambassador of Worowa Aboriginal College. She is also an Adjunct Professor with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS.

The talk was hosted by Fiona from Avid Reader, who always asks wonderful questions.

With regards to creating a new story, Dr Heiss said that she had written a lot of books about Country, but none about Cowra. She was nervous about telling the story of her family both because everyone would think it was about them, and because of responsibility that she feels for getting it right. She had been struggling for a plot and flew to Hawaii, and ended up visiting Pearl Habour. While there, she became very conscious of the many Japanese tourists in Pearl Harbour, and the way they reacted to the rhetoric around the Pearl Harbour memorial, written by the US victors. While the Japanese tourists appeared very calm, Dr Heiss wondered what they were thinking.

The Aussie view of history is also a particular one – in writings about Cowra it has never been acknowledged that 4.5 miles from Cowra there was another camp with prisoners in worse conditions. (The Japanese POWs were kept in conditions in line with the Geneva convention. The Aboriginal people in the local mission were not.) Dr Heiss wanted to write a story acknowledging the other encampment, and romance would be the tool to link the two, and to draw an audience.

Dr Heiss also talked about the lengths of the reconciliation effort in Cowra – with the Japanese, not the Aboriginal people.

Research is very important to Dr Heiss, and she described sourcing stories from the Cowra community as well as checking her facts with author Graham Apthorpe (author of A Town at War: Stories from Cowra in WWII) and her meetings with an Extraordinary Professor in Japan who teaches about the Cowra breakout. Dr Heiss obtained feedback from many sources on her drafts to ensure she was telling the story accurately.  She loosely based  Mary on her mother, and Banjo on her grandfather, and was aware that she needed to acknowledge the community Elders of the Coe, Williams and Murray families. Dr Heiss would have liked Mary to fall pregnant in the story, but her mum objected that she wouldn’t have even kissed him during this amount of time. This was backed up by Dr Heiss’ Japanese expert, who confirmed that at that time a Japanese man would not have been that familiar with a Western woman. Dr Heiss explained that as war is an extraordinary time, she felt comfortable with Hiroshi’s familiarity with Mary as long as he was aware it was an extraordinary situation.

When asked why she had chosen fiction, Dr Heiss responded that she wanted to compliment the work that already existed, and draw a wider audience. She wants people to realise that Australian history can’t be discussed without also discussing the Aboriginal people.

We learned a little about Dr Heiss’ background – her Austrian father couldn’t speak English when he met her mother, but they shared strong family values and work ethic, as well as  great love for each other. Dr Heiss  said that their relationship had made her a romantic, which meant that she could believe in the relationship between Mary and Hiroshi and see the bigger picture.

Dr Heiss is hopeful that the book will be picked up for the school curriculum. From my own point of view, it would be a great tool in an English classroom. I mentioned in my review that the book provides a clear but accessible understanding of the laws of the time and the impact on the people. 

Dr Anita Heiss has a new book due out in May (yay!).

You can read my review of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms here.


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