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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Ann McGrath


A few years ago, I wrote a letter to Greg Dening. I was staying at my childhood home in Brisbane, where my parents still live. It was the school vacation, and my daughters were being minded upstairs by their grandparents. I sat in the office under the house, a 1950s-style elevated Queensland house, not the romantic now sought-after variety with deep wooden verandahs, but one with a concrete patio and swirly wrought iron railing up a tiled staircase. Under the house was not a place for us children, at least on weekdays. This was the office and base of the family plumbing business—one side housed a row of plumbing vans which seeped black liquid onto the concrete ground, while above hung the ingeniously arranged, ever changing complex of copper and plastic pipes. Like branches of a familiar canopy, these softly gleaming creatures went unnoticed by me, though it was hard to ignore the racket of their clanging early-morning departures from beneath my bedroom floorboards. Under the house, the brick wall on the far side was lined with cardboard box after box of plumbing taps, washers, sockets, tools, hot-water systems, drain-digging devices, and the ‘Insinkerator’ cutting tool Dad had invented himself: anonymous brown boxes, except for the scrawled, indecipherable abbreviations and bad spelling. The place I wrote that letter was in the office, with its sour, peppery smells of metals, burning solder, grease, raw bricks and mortar, and its distracting poster of ‘unionist’ monkeys dressed as plumbers. This narrow, cave-like room was now devoted to charity work, especially speeches for the Lions Club.

Enjoying the powerful sense of reunion with my past self which I experience every time my eyes and being connect with Brisbane and the continuity of the family home, I had been working on a paper for a History conference which recalled my first experience of giving birth. The story of the birth of my eldest daughter, Venetia, eight years before, had taken a long time before groping its way towards a written version. As part of my historical practice, I now wanted to explore the personal, partly to show how historians prohibit entry to their own personal experiences in their work, and partly to make my point about childbirth being an important experience for many woman, yet still omitted from history-writing.1

Rather than theorising about the ‘why’ of introducing the reflexive narrative at a historians’ conference, I felt the message might be best demonstrated rather than argued, performed rather than theoretically examined. After an earlier foray into the reflexive, where I’d briefly explored aspects of growing up white and the ways my generation learnt about primitivity and Aborigines, one close colleague remarked the paper was very ‘cultural studies-ish’—that is, not history. Another accused me of self-indulgence, selfishness, and other deadly sins of the self. Eventually I bounced back to figure I could be onto something; if what I was doing was so threatening, it must be worth doing more of. Perhaps it could even be leading towards the innovative.

It so happened I’d brought Greg Dening’s Performances with me to Brisbane, and my children were having far too much fun to interrupt my absorption.2 I recognised Dening’s discussions of those most antagonistic to reflexivity and their need to clothe themselves in the theatre of earnest, stodgy prose. He grappled towards the reflexive voice: ‘We have lost history when … authors cannot recognise or refuse to display their own presence’ and ‘[A]uthorial presence is a political right in a postmodern world’.3 I was thrilled by Dening’s self-exploratory lyricism, the insights he shared with his luscious words. So, in between writing my emotional and female-centred journey, I wrote to Dening. I wanted to tell him of my joy, excitement and the way he’d inspired me with a new sense of creativity and the confidence to float around in it.

I did not send the letter. It was not quite complete. The prose seemed too humble, the tone too bereft of poetry. My letter must be worthy of its inspiration, its excitement, and it wasn’t. I look at the letter again, examine it. Its ending about my imminent trip to the United States irritates me. It has no proper date. It was to be found only on an old desktop computer, which, having caught the millennium bug long ago, records the entire 1990s as ‘1904’. But I know the letter would have been written in 1996, probably August.


Dear Professor Dening,

I thoroughly enjoyed your piece in Australian Book Review and also Performances, from which I’ve consumed numerous delectable meals, but which I’m trying desperately to shove aside in order to finish my [Australian Historical Association] paper. So much of what you say resonates very loudly with me. I love it and have been flying with it, and am wondering where to land.

In the past weeks I have been stumbling along wanting to say some of these things, some similar things, in my AHA paper; at this moment I feel inclined to give a whole paper just quoting you, geneflecting (spelling?) towards the lovely words and then preaching about how others should read them. One of the real delights in your book is to escape a certain sort of ‘politics’ and to enjoy the possibilities of wisdom through reflection and knowledge. You leave an expansive open-endedness about which direction to take this in.

The other thing which I’d like to talk to you about is the question of ‘I’ in the narrative. Yes, we have to be there to be postmodern, to live in our time, or we’ll stay fundamentalists; that’s why I liked the writing of Americans Patsy Nelson Limerick and Richard White4 in their self-conscious revelations about their engagement in writing and research. But we can go further than that.

What struck me as unresolved or perhaps out of character in your writings, was your discomfort at accusations of ‘self-indulgence’ or ‘arrogance’ in the case of using yourself/oneself as a starting point—you went along with Wordsworth here.5 It is as though you can debunk lots of other traditions but you are not sure in your own being that it is not true, that self-reflection is vanity. (Excuse unrefined prose, but there’s the AHA paper!) This seems to hit on some big ethnographic questions; is this a Jesuit influence, an Australian thing, or more a history-discipline thing? While reading into counter-anthropology I thought the term ‘navel-gazing’ was a good put-down when I got fed up with where it was going, so I’ve been guilty of the sin of intolerance myself.6 But a lot of people love reading about other people’s thoughts and lives and how they got to be where they are. I’m one of them. Introductions and prologues can be more meaningful than the rest and we shouldn’t maroon them on distant atolls. I’m not retired yet and therefore not in the acceptable autobiographical mode of this space, but the time has already come to contextualise my own experience as part of the reflection of the cultural history I write. For some years I’ve been looking for the affirmation around me to do this, and I feel I found it in your work. I was scared of being called self-indulgent. Exactly. Now I’ve already been called it [,] nastily [been] hurt by it, cried, then later realised it was the threatening nature of some of my prose to a ‘dull and boring’ gatekeeper of stodgy masculine ‘scholarship’ and [,] in the extremity of his reaction, better realised my purpose and if I again get called it I can now think of why before getting buffeted into desolation. There’s a great courage needed in self-revelation and whilst I have some of this, I have a dreadful thin skin which defies change. And perhaps it’s the ability to feel things which brings glimpses of quality to my writing.

So the reason I wrote this letter is that I wanted to thank you for the lovely experience of reading your words. I also wondered whether you might read some of mine (when ready) and offer advice. The book I’m working on is along the lines of Gendered Frontiers: Intercultural encounters in time. And finally, I’m off on a study leave trip to the US where I was planning to spend time at Yale and Johns Hopkins and wondered whether you’d recommend some people I should meet or places I should go. Several big ‘asks’ to end a letter originally intended to pay homage, but of course you can say no.

Yours sincerely

Ann McGrath

Why don’t we include letters in our historical prose?

Diary entries?

Our own letters?

It took a while for the moment to come; now it’s here7


Curiously, the letter mentions nothing at all about my current explorations into childbirth. In holding onto a kind of privacy, a refusal to ‘come out’, I didn’t even name the subject of my paper. Was it too intimate for someone I didn’t know, too female? Or was it not yet ready for the light? I harboured the hope that Greg might be there in Melbourne when I presented my paper.

Nervous to face the moment, the packed room was quiet, I ran over time. I ended with an exhortation about writing the births of a nation for federation, of exploring the spaces between metaphor and lived experience. I said historians like Simon Schama, Greg Dening, Gail Reekie and Ann Curthoys have called upon us to reflect more carefully upon the ways we might match our writing with the theoretical challenges going on in the world. We still run a little scared of poetry and emotion, a little scared of making ourselves visible. As Ann Oakley demonstrated, research projects often grow out of real life dramas.8 When we analyse our own practices, our own lives, we can learn how to look at history anew, to imagine things we might also have experienced in another time, as other selves. Within the historical narrative (not just the book’s introduction) experience can be the beginning point of questions. Potentially understanding her or his lived experience better, the writer understands the emotions of history better. While the inclusion of personal experience is no egalitarian solution, in losing full disguise, authors share their common humanity with their historical subjects and their readers.9

I was hoping to practice reflexivity as a conduit, as a device which would be part of my historical practice, not as a means of launching into autobiography itself. In part, it was also a reaction to what Aboriginal historians had been saying to us for some time: ‘Why don’t you explore your own histories? Why are you talking so much about ours?’ My paper started with a dramatic retelling of the birth of my first daughter. Performances had become an empowering text, but somehow getting up in front of an AHA audience and telling such a recent and intimate story seemed at the time a very risk-taking exposure. Its woman-centredness made it not much like Performances at all. I turned from my daughter’s birth to a call for a story of women’s experiences of childbirth for the coming Centenary of Australian Federation in 2001. I had a ‘fire in the belly’ about this project which will become a Museum exhibition at the Powerhouse. Reflexively speaking, the history of birth also became a way of doing something I wouldn’t be doing any more in real life. This new historical journey was a way of coming to terms with that.

Australian Historical Association conferences require earnest papers with clever arguments; at this one, in 1996, some elders were eloquent, poetic, and funny, though they followed the rules of argument and scholarly detachment. The AHA was a broad church, and it nicely reflected the values of the profession. Reflexivity was of course permitted in special venues where historians were asked to reflect upon their careers. It was mainly permitted for old retired scholars who spent their time on autobiography, considered a different genre, but one several historians enjoyed. But generally, the personal only entered as a joking aside, as part of a toastmaster’s repertoire; it was done, then finished.

While self-conscious about the idea of exposing a personal story of extreme physical, mental and emotional vulnerability, the challenge was also exhilarating. I had doubts too, wondering whether my public exposure of the intimate merely followed the popular craze for television revelation, à la Oprah Winfrey and the other highly successful American talkshows of the time. Was I just indulging in some therapeutic narrative? Australian humour says you should all feel just as ridiculous as me, only there’s a plotline around me doing some pretty amazing stuff. Yeah, giving birth. Although told with self-deprecating honesty, perhaps my birth story was a chance to share a bit of self-aggrandisement; I experienced it as a happily heroic narrative, but one in which my character paradoxically enjoyed only incidental control.

Like a naughty schoolgirl, I found defying the norms at an AHA conference a fun idea. The style of the childbirth story was experiential rather than a graphically medical perspective. While I enjoyed giving the paper, it probably had no impact whatever on historians’ attitudes to reflexivity. I had just done it. Although self-consciously making a kind of in-your-face statement, I hadn’t argued about it or theorised it. In conclusion I discussed my reflections upon the relationship between the ‘self’ and history, but mainly I was just demonstrating reflexivity. Now I wonder again about the difference between autobiography and history and where time comes in.

My imagined audience didn’t turn up. There were younger historian colleagues, mainly women but several notable younger men. The male elders were all absent, choosing other sessions. Greg Dening was not at the conference at all. ‘He may not be in Australia’, people said.

An American historian friend disapproved, I could tell. Pat Grimshaw was concerned that my view was warped; it was nothing like her generation’s experience of childbirth, I must study the demographics and statistics.


Fifty-one kilos or so of historian, embarking on comparative history, is transported across the date line. I’m in a Qantas Jumbo. The plane is full, but I am probably the only historian on it, the only one professionally excited about such a symbolic moment. I now wonder whether there is a place on the globe where we can cross the ‘self-line’, that divide between talking about general truth and personal truth, or between the self and history.

I was to give a seminar on inter-racial marriage in Queensland in the early 1900s at a prestigious United States University. In my Kensington home in Sydney, I had written much of it when I realised I was ignoring my new commitment to reflexivity. I must reflect upon my own ambivalent attitudes to marriage in the 1970s, which changed to embarking on it in 1988. I described how I felt during the wedding. My paper had to be sent in advance. The seminar organiser emailed me back at 10 pm US time. Trying not to be rude, she wanted to warn me that anyone conservative about such matters might attack the paper rather strongly, and cautioned me to consider leaving out the bit about my own marital history. I thought not. Although the paper was still too rough for my liking, I was happy with its risk-taking.

When I arrived there, she elaborated on why she’d advised me to change the paper. Certain elders weren’t ready for this kind of thing yet, she said protectively. They’d obsess about it. It was not history to them, maybe the end of it. Some were very distinguished and set in their ways. I got an impression that these people, whose names I didn’t know, were not only highly regarded, but untouchable in their prestige and achievement. She tried to brief me about who they were, and warned me of the kind of trouble I could face. To fill in time before the paper, I visited the bookshop, to see row upon row of books by some of the seminar participants about whom I’d just been briefed. Some contained a lot of tabulated data.

As the seminar audience had plenty of time to read in advance, I only had to provide a brief introduction. At the outset I made some joking observations about my journey to the United States, which didn’t seem to go over that well. A leading feminist historian asked the first question, which began surprisingly: ‘I guess I would locate myself as a fairly conservative historian, but I wondered about whether there would be different strategies by which to include a reflexive strand. You could explore how you went about the historical research and the process of history-writing more reflexively.’ And she provided many clever directions. I’d met this historian in Sydney, and she was acting out of friendship and the loyalty of another fellow feminist historian. She later told me this ploy was to ‘locate herself strategically’ so that the whole discussion did not needlessly focus on ‘the problem’ of reflexivity. The astuteness of her political game impressed—the deceptive woman of her leisuretime cowgirl jacket and Akubra hat was in serious mode, heading ‘them’ off at the grand corral. As she was probably seen by many historians as radical and even postmodernist, with her recent interest in street culture as opposed to her earlier Marxist-inspired analyses of class and work relations, she had instantaneously redefined the ground of historical conservatism. After a rich and diverse discussion, the chair intervened by saying that he didn’t see how the reflexive bit about my own marriage assisted the paper and that perhaps it would have been a stronger paper without it. What, if anything, had it achieved? I said its virtue was that we were having this interesting discussion.

The seminar was outstandingly rich, thoughtful, well-informed and helpful. But it was one of the younger, theoretically adventurous, scholars who was more agitated than anyone else. From his dark-skinned perspective, and of African-American politics and history, he said the fact that I’d gone steady with a boy of Asian descent was hardly much of a foray into mixed marriage. How could I personally relate to the topic with such minimal, possibly irrelevant, experience? He had been married and had a child to a white woman. I wasn’t to know this then, but it was obvious he spoke from some personal engagement with, as well as an awareness of, the wider politics of the topic. In the United States, as elsewhere, ‘black’ meant something quite different from Asian.

Afterwards, the historian elder said I was a clever interlocutor, a word I cannot pronounce, which is the best kind of compliment, and I was honoured that she took my work seriously. I didn’t mind ruffling some feathers, and was pleased with the way I’d risen to the challenging questions of an audience who had accorded the paper a very close and careful reading. When I gave a similar paper at New York University, people shared comparative examples from far afield countries like Russia, and remarked on the great policy contrasts between Australia and the US. Only afterwards did a student tell me about her own thesis on race, where she was to explore her personal experience of inter-marriage. For her, it would be an important intellectual and personal journey and she’d enjoyed hearing me articulate questions of inter-marriage, history-writing and reflexivity. Although she had not yet commenced her postgraduate studies, I knew her voice was essentially more ‘author-ised’ than my own.

A day or two after this paper, my friend took me to the home of her colleagues, a couple who’d recently found each other. It was an elegant Baltimore home, with light and space, and posters evoking art and the political. They shared a richly cultured existence, surrounded by great books everywhere. The talk was about their move, a teenage son, their cat and academic gossip. Performances sat on the coffee table. They loved it.

So it wasn’t the reflexivity that was the problem. It was the substance and relevance of the reflexivity. It is only years later that I can see the discomfort was not merely at ‘the new’. It was at some boundary-pushing that hadn’t worked. The lesson I have now learnt is that only if one’s personal experience can truly inform the subject matter at hand, metaphorically or experientially, is it worthy of inclusion. In that paper on marriage, the reflexive section had focussed on my attitude to weddings, my reaction at the moments of the wedding, whereas my paper had been about state surveillance. There was no state surveillance involved in my wedding plans, so I couldn’t say much on that issue. While my fiance was a Pakeha New Zealander, we just had to register at a police station and contact a marriage celebrant in Alice Springs. Some kind of reciprocal national arrangement meant there were no citizenship problems or obstacles of any kind. My 1970s ambivalence to marriage was quite irrelevant to the people I was studying who struggled to marry in frontier Queensland during the 1900s. This section of the paper, although occurring somewhere in the middle, functioned as an atoll, insufficiently related to its historical surroundings, and where connections were made, the bands were at snapping point.

Reflexive insights must involve what you truly know. And they must truly relate to the topic under study, or they are a mere distraction, flotsam better left to float out to sea. The reflexive in history, therefore, should be closely related to the process, or it should open avenues by which the subject matter can be understood in fresh ways. Reflexivity, like other historical tools and equipment, must be functional; it must work.


As well as self-reflexivity, do we have a special obligation to share the journey of scholarship, to be reflexive about the research and writing process? Should we start our chapters by describing our office surroundings, or the sites of our researches? Do our introductory remarks take the reader to the archives, describing the desks and chairs, the demeanour of the staff, the excitement and distractions of the fellow researchers, the unfolding personal histories or research stories that make fascinating eavesdropping? What thoughts float through the researcher’s mind as they reshape themselves, remake themselves via the process of amazing discoveries?

As performers we must draw a crowd, and it’s worth noting that the crowd may have different demands. Some may want to learn about ‘history’; they may not want to share the trip with you, but rather want to get directly to destination B. They may consider a historian’s concern with ‘self’ in a derogatory fashion, as our cultural heritage often uses ‘self’ words as demeaning, for example ‘self-absorbed’, ‘selfish’. Other readers, however, may be keenly interested to share your travels.

Field work, oral history-collecting and going to sites where histories happened offers its own rich stories, those of conflicts and misunderstandings, boredoms, awakenings and disappointments and, perhaps more than anything, the naïve researcher’s misguided insights. The frustrations, the weeds encountered, can sometimes blossom into something grand. From my Northern Territory field work from 1978 and 1979, I have diaries which recount aspects of the process of gathering oral history on northern cattle stations. Between their cardboard covers I found a place to report to my doctoral supervisor, John Hirst, and to reflect to myself about my research experiences. For many years, they have sat on shelves with only other books for company. Once I opened them, found an embarrassing phrase or two, and closed them again. The embarrassment came because I saw myself exposed as a white colonising woman. Hardly surprising, but words can reveal something you were desperately trying to ignore at the time. Leave them in a closed book. If I open these old field notes again, I will try another page, for I would like something more romantic, some wet heat or orange dust, to fly out and settle on my clothing.

Historians’ journeys into the past both bring them away from and towards their self. Each project presents opportunities to struggle not only with distant others, but with old and new selves in a process of recreation. Each project has a different ‘self-line’ and the trick is to find out where it is. You may or may not want to tell that parallel story of your intellectual travels, or reveal your historians’ disguise. You may want to use your voice only in that traditional ‘beginning space’, or somewhere else. Find out for yourself whether it will lead to new vistas, unexpected connections, or disjunctions and unresolved, curiously ‘life-like’, endings.

In 1998, I met up with Greg Dening again at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University. I picture us talking on the concrete stairs above the Lower Ground Floor of the A.D. Hope Building, a sun-dappled, leafy outdoor space, each of us heading in different directions. I told him I’d written a letter to him, but hadn’t sent it. He said he’d like to see the letter. I told him: ‘It wasn’t good enough. It didn’t match your prose.’ His retort: ‘Doesn’t matter, just send it.’ I never did.


1     P. Grimshaw et al., Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Ringwood, 1994, had explored reproductive and birth metaphors. The birth-giving of two Aboriginal women in early Port Jackson had operated as a framing metaphor for that chapter, and, because of its placement, it was said to do so for the book as a whole.

2     G. Dening, Performances, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996. To avoid a narrative approach which is too teleological, I wish to inform the reader in this behind-the-curtains fashion that Performances was not my first encounter with Dening’s histories. It did, however, function as a significant turning point, stimulating my interest in issues of historical style and issues of reflexivity. Nor was Dening’s work my first encounter with the riches of the ‘ethnographic school of history’; I had also been a doctoral student at La Trobe University, with senior historians including Rhys Isaacs and Inga Clendinnen. Sometime earlier I was asked to present a paper on Birthplaces at a Museum of Sydney Conference, ‘Exchanges’, organised by Ross Gibson. Here I not only heard Greg Dening give an amazing paper about ocean navigation, science and the sky, which subtly turned its lens onto big history reflections upon the cosmos; at question time he provided a mini-exposition on the minutiae of an early popular drama of Captain Cook. My paper was about birthplaces of Aboriginal and convict women. I’d also heard Greg Dening speak of Bligh’s bad language at a conference at the University of Sydney. This I was not sure about, for it seemed stilted. This, in contrast to his Exchanges address, was wildly lateral and free in conception.

3     G. Dening, ‘Let My Curiosity Have its Little Day’, Australian Book Review, no. 180, 1996, pp. 38, 40.

4     The best-known works by these authors are P. Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Norton, New York, 1987, and R. White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region 1650–1815, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991.

5     Dening, Performances, p. 3, refers only to ‘self-conceit’ and the point does not seem to be made in as extreme a form as I implied in the letter. However, it emerges at the end of the book, in ‘Soliloquy in San Giacomo’: ‘It is an arrogance and sometimes a bore to begin with oneself. But I do not know where else to begin, where else to find the same, where else to find the different’ (p. 272).

6     Here I was referring to my reading of Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1973, and After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995. Although I thoroughly enjoyed and was inspired by his work, I wondered where we would go from there, that is, if the endpoint was that scholars could only be able to reflect upon ourselves. More recently, Aboriginal historians and other authors have been calling upon white Australians to do just that, to learn their own family histories, about their own distant roots, rather than prying into Aboriginal history.

7     These questions followed the draft letter. I don’t think I intended to integrate them in text, I was just ‘jotting’ down thoughts.

8     A. Oakley, Becoming a Mother, Martin Robinson, Oxford, 1979, p. 20 and passim.

9     ‘Births of a Nation’, AHA Paper, 1996. I explored the issue of ‘selves in history’ more thoroughly, and via reflecting upon my teenage diaries, in an article entitled ‘The Female Eunuch in the Suburbs: Reflections upon Adolescence, Autobiography, and History-Writing’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 33, no. 1, 1999, pp. 177–90. For a philosophical analysis, see G. Lloyd, Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature, Routledge, London and New York, 1993.

Cite this chapter as: McGrath, Ann. 2009. ‘Reflexivity and the self-line’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1–7.11.

© Copyright 2009 Ann McGrath
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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath