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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Deborah Bird Rose

I am speaking from my own efforts at writing place. I hope not to be too abstract, because I want to engage with an experiential process: how my research with Aboriginal people caused me to write about place, and how writing place changed the way I write and think. Aboriginal people in many parts of Australia have taught me to consider that country is sentient. Place is one kind of embodiment of being, and the encounters of living things happen in places. Different cultures, different actions: different traces. Aboriginal cultures link time and place in a way that is neither geometric nor disembodied. There is a kind of contemporaneous time, the time of living things, that unfolds in real and located (not geometric or imagined) places. As well there is the accumulation of history/memory in place. Place become complex in its specific gravity: it is and refers to itself, and it holds and refers to relationships. Its very self, while wondrously dense, is also immensely vulnerable, because the ongoing life of the place happens through the actions and memories of ephemeral living beings.

In my work I have sought to communicate the vitality of the living world in its multiplicity of places. I seek to retain in my writing the life and the sense of place, the vulnerabilities of relationships, and the passion with which living things encounter each other in place.


If an author takes a place-centred approach to research and writing he or she destabilises many of the conventional concepts of twentieth-century western knowledge. This destabilisation is one of the great promises of writing place. It may be useful, therefore, to say why I think destabilising conventional concepts is a good thing to do. The main instrumental reason is that the conventions of the dominant western system of knowledge are taking us deeper and deeper into the ecological and social crises we face today. Destabilising this system is critical to finding ways of thinking and acting that may help us start to face these crises. I want to face crisis and work with it; I hope not to reproduce and aggravate it. A second reason to put positive value on destabilisation is that we are now in a period of rapid social change; global geography is shrinking and becoming ever more connected. Our task as scholars, as I see it, is to pay serious and critical attention to the world as it is becoming, and such attention will necessarily require us to destabilise our given knowledge. Knowledge that looks for structure and permanence must be destabilised in favour of theories of knowledge that work with relationships and motion. Place provides exactly a nexus of analysis that calls for study of relationships and motion.

When I use the term ‘conventional’ here and throughout my chapter, I am referring to academic disciplines as they have existed for much of this century, and using anthropology and history as two prominent examples. I will look briefly at how concepts of social group and concepts of time are challenged by place, but in doing so I do not mean to suggest that these are the only concepts which are challenged by place.

In the discipline of anthropology, social groups have been the focus of analysis for almost all of the twentieth century. The community was a social group that had a geographical location (localised or dispersed), but was defined by social and cultural criteria, many of which have been the subject of on-going debates. In these debates communities, tribes, bands, neighbourhoods, whatever, have all been defined, delimited, perhaps invented, probably deformed; most often they were abstracted from the places and conductivities in which they were embedded. (The move toward cultural ecology is an interesting exception to this generalisation.)

Similarly, in history, the concept of the nation or some community within the nation has been one of the prominent organising configurations. A nation has a geographical location; territory is a key criterion of nationhood. None the less, the only way we can understand so many decades of Australian histories that said little or nothing about Aboriginal people is if we understand the nation as a social event over and above its territorial location. Aborigines have been here the whole time, but they figured only marginally (if at all) in scholarship for long periods. Nations, like communities, can be represented as bounded social groups, and one can study the group without having to consider other people who occupy exactly the same time and place. In contrast to communities and nations, a place-centred study will not let you ignore the people who are there. You will be unable to make sense of a place if you leave out whole groups of peoples or whole sets of processes. A place-centred study is going to be much more holistic than conventional topics of study; place does not pick and choose, the way scholars so often do.

When we look at time we see similar destabilisation. Anthropologists have drawn on western time concepts in their construction of others, as Johannes Fabian shows so eloquently in his study, Time and the Other.1 Simultaneously, however, anthropologists have tended to suppress questions of time within the locus of their study. Many anthropologists examined social groups as if they were outside of time (representing them in an ahistorical present), or as if they were simply a window to an earlier time. The ruthlessness of this latter approach can hardly be overestimated. To value people for the perspective their lives can bring to bear on one’s own questions, and for the documentation of a ‘time’ that is passing, can be callous in the extreme. A clear and relatively recent example is located in A.P. Elkin’s article ‘Before it is Too Late’ (written about the purpose of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies2):

‘Before it is too late’ has been a recurrent challenge to research in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology. Faced by the sure and certain dying out of tribes and by the even quicker breakdown of their culture, George Taplin … [and numerous others] recognised and responded to the challenge. With the help of correspondents near and far, they observed, gleaned and garnered what and where they could … As with search in the mineral and oil fields, so, too, the Institute [of Aboriginal Studies] is observing, surveying, probing, sounding, drilling and extracting. The dividends will be high, though probably not in every project. Some fields are poor.3

Historians, in contrast, cannot ignore time, but they have been remarkably uncritical of their own use of time concepts. Many twentieth-century histories have been organised around chronologies that impose an external frame of bounded units onto flows of events and social relations that are heterogeneous, differentially configured across space, interpenetrating and (often) culturally disjunctive. The imposition of chronology calls for some measure of uniformity, and thus of suppression or elision of events that disrupt the chrono-story. Thus, for example, Vance Palmer’s study of the quickening literary life in Australia during the decade of the 1890s makes no mention of the literary output of Constable Willshire, whose Land of the Dawning, Being Facts Gleaned from Cannibals in the Australian Stone Age was published in this decade.4 During the 1890s Constable Willshire was sent to the Victoria River district in what is now the Northern Territory (then part of South Australia) to ‘settle the natives’. His settlement tactics were about as rough as they could be: massacre, dispersal, capture, sexual terror, and torture. His work was not unique; he employed all the elements of terror that were used elsewhere in Australia to dispossess indigenous people and secure the land for Euro-Australian settlers, or, more accurately, to secure the land for their livestock. And yet, here in the Victoria River district, there were those who were dissatisfied with Willshire’s methods. A contributor to the Northern Territory Times put the case:

There will never be much done towards steadying the Victoria blacks until sufficient police are sent out there, or, in default of that, until the squatters are given carte blanche to disperse the enemy in the old-fashioned pioneering, survival-of-the-fittest way.5

Vance Palmer writes that in this decade the legend that ‘the dumb continent, silent for aeons, began to find voice’ was nurtured.6 A focus on place requires us to look again at this presumption. Not only are Aboriginal people’s voices silenced for all time in Palmer’s encompassing sentence, but so too are the voices of those who actually were killing and otherwise silencing Aboriginal people.7 Constable Willshire distances himself from his own violence by displacing it onto his weapons, and describes events of extreme brutality in the language of the sublime. The various speech moments in this famous passage make a mockery of the idea of a dumb and silent continent: ‘It’s no use mincing matters—the Martini-Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks.’8

Another aspect of scholars’ imposition of Euro-Australian time concepts is the organisation of events within a temporal construct in which events overcome and transform earlier events. This time frame depends on disjunctures, so that any given time can be differentiated from the past, and is (or is about to be) superseded—by new eras, new centuries, new frontiers. This progress-oriented time construct enables moral boundaries at least as readily as it enables temporal ones. We know this kind of thinking best today through the words of politicians who exhort us to forget the past. They point us towards the future, while simultaneously they are disabling the systems that have existed to enable injustices of the past to be overcome. The call to forget the past is accompanied by practices that perpetuate the past, and the link between the two is hidden beneath an illusion of discontinuity generated in the proposition that the past is finished.9

In sum, when you start to do a place-centred study, you find that conventional notions of community or other bounded social groups do not work very well; you find that you cannot predetermine questions of time; and you may find that conventional notions of time do not work very well. Place requires you to be intercultural, inter-temporal, open-minded to the imperatives of the lives that are lived there. If you are going to do a place-centred study, you have to destabilise a lot of boundaries and a lot of conventions. You thus go against the grain of established power as well as established thinking.


This brings me to the first of two perils that I want to talk about. It is one thing to challenge yourself, and you should always do that. It is another thing to challenge those around you, many of whom may not want to be challenged. I will speak from personal experience.

My book, Hidden Histories, was written quite directly as reciprocity to the people of the main communities in which I had done my anthropological research.10 I did not think that my ethnography, Dingo Makes Us Human, was going to be a great contribution to my Aboriginal teachers, mostly because it concerned a lot of things that they took for granted. However, they did not take for granted the stories of their own past. They wanted a lot of these stories published: for white Australians who didn’t know, for Americans and others who might want to know, and for their own future generations who, they feared, might forget.

One of the things I hoped to accomplish in this book was a complex weaving of voices and subject positions. I wanted to keep my own subject position dialogical and open-ended, and I had two reasons for this: one is that this is, I believe, the most ethically appropriate position for a scholar who conducts research with human beings. The second reason concerns the nature of the time, place and intercultural relations I was dealing with. I was writing out of the North Australian frontier, and it seems to me that one of the outstanding features of frontiers is the gap between an event and one’s ability to comprehend it. The Victoria River district was a long and violent frontier, in many ways it still is. I did not want to position myself on an intellectual height where all was made comprehensible. I cannot comprehend that violence, and neither can you. We show respect for the dead as well as for the survivors, and for the enormity of their experience, by refusing to provide resolution in the sense of settling the meaning of the experience. I wanted to communicate the non-resolvable quality of many of the events about which people told me, and I believe that I could do that best from a position of open-ended dialogue.

Now, I also wanted to communicate the fact that there was a logic that informed Aboriginal people’s stories. It was not a logic of time or resolution, nor for the most part about how things get superseded. Rather it was a logic of place. People told stories that they had a right to tell because they happened in their own country or country to which they had rights. Often these were stories that had happened to their forebears. The place, the person and the story: all were part of the place-centred logic that made that story memorable, and tellable.

I thought hard about how to communicate it. This logic is obviously a crucial point, and in the end I decided against presenting a theoretical analysis of place in Aboriginal concepts of story and history. I felt that to do that would subvert my dialogical subject position; it just did not seem appropriate to the ethical foundations of this book for me to engage in my own little tap dance about place and story. The point had to be made, and could most ethically be made in respect of every speaker, so I decided to make it structurally. Every story would be accompanied by a map showing exactly where the place was. Places would not be abstract names, but would be actual locations. Every story and map would be accompanied by a photo that showed the story-teller or one of his or her countrymen. Story-tellers would not be just names or voices, but would have faces and places. And most stories would also be accompanied by a photo that showed the place, either historically or contemporaneously, or some aspect of the event that was being told about. This required a complex structure, and in order for the reader to get the sense of it all in the text presented to the publisher, I indicated exactly where I thought these photos and maps would have to go.

I do not know if my structural strategy would have successfully communicated all that I hoped for it, and I guess I will never know, because in the process of publication my whole structure was unmade, jumbled up, and, in effect, ruined. The book was raced off to the printer before I saw the page proofs. One minute I was waiting for the page proofs and still arguing about an index, the next minute I had a copy of the book in my hand.

I couldn’t begin to tell you how traumatic this was. Later the book won a prize, and that helped overcome my anguish to some degree. The prize had a cash award, and that money paid the lawyer who I had had to employ in order simply to press the publisher to include an errata so that interested readers could make some sense of it.

My point is that when you stretch yourself, you are asking others to stretch themselves too. One of the perils of working beyond the established tried and true is that you carry a huge burden of trying to ensure that your work lives up to its potential. There will be people who don’t understand its potential and who try to pull it back into established norms. There will be people who don’t understand its potential and therefore don’t take it seriously.

If you choose to work at the edges your strength rests with the people who are also at the edge. If you are working on the edge, you know that it is the most interesting place to be. Cherishing the people with whom you share this cutting edge zone is a very important way of affirming your commitment to certain kinds of disruptive and enabling knowledge.

Another peril that relates to place is this: almost anything that is written in Australia today that says anything about Aboriginal people has the potential to end up in court as part of a native title case. (This is also true of some non-place-centred studies.) You have a non-negotiable ethical obligation to be extremely accurate in your writing on these matters. Flights of imagination, judiciously managed, can contribute a great deal to scholarship, but they have no place in pronouncements on matters concerning other people’s lives. One cannot predict how one’s words will be used, and for that reason one has a deep ethical obligation to be accurate and restrained. I am not in any way advocating that you refrain from working with Aboriginal people, or that you refrain from making statements about Aboriginal people. We need good histories, good cultural accounts, the more the better. Nor am I suggesting that scholarship should be deflected away from tough issues. Rigorous scholarship is more necessary now than perhaps ever before. The possibility of hostile scrutiny in court challenges us to be doubly or triply clear, concise and consistent with the evidence. You should know that, if required, you can get into the witness box with confidence that your words say exactly what you mean, that your meaning does not exceed the limits of the evidence, and that your meaning does not foreclose on the future which is, we should all remember, unknown.


There are more cheerful topics. I will discuss a few segments from my book Country of the Heart: An Indigenous Australian Homeland.11 The book is a photo-essay. It aims to communicate a portrait of the relationship between an Aboriginal group of people and their land. The group is called the MakMak clan, or clan of the white breasted sea eagle. This study is place-centred, and also people-centred, and most specifically it is centred on the relationships between people and place. In this Aboriginal context, the relationships between people and place consist of connections and communications. This means that I am treating place as a conscious entity with agency.

You see, if I take my MakMak teachers seriously, and I do, then, like them, I have to start engaging with a sentient landscape. Such an approach destabilises the whole system of subject-object dichotomies on which the conventional western knowledge system depends, so it is perhaps not surprising that it encounters a measure of backlash. In this book I seek to communicate something of the quality of relationships between and among specific embodied people, animals, plants and places. These relationships are sustained by all the senses, and by memory and other intellectual work. They are emotional, experienced right down in the gut, and they are intellectual: talked about, narrated, sung, laughed over. And they are emplaced, located not on a Cartesian grid, but embodied in the place.

In Country of the Heart I am working with four strands of narrative: there is my own textual strand, the textual strand of the Aboriginal countrymen with whom I am co-authoring this work, the visual strand produced by Sharon D’Amico, a professional eco-photographer, and the structure of the book itself which, I believe, constitutes a narrative strand in itself.

I will share with you the opening sequence. The first question, of course, is how to get readers into the place, in what attitude, and with what perspectives. I wanted to use this sequence to allude to and at the same time to subvert the dominant colonising gaze. I have chosen to start with the elevated gaze described so well by Simon Ryan in his book, The Cartographic Eye.12 I unsettle this gaze; in the first instance I set you above but will not let you look down. Your gaze is elevated, but not totalising, and the text works with this position. I bring you in as a tourist, and in this opening sequence I mimic explorer writing (which is itself also mimicked or reflected in tourist promotion writing).

Fly to Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, and rent a four wheel drive vehicle. Drive south-west to Litchfield National Park, going through the little bush town of Batchelor. As you near the park you leave the flat scrub of the Darwin hinterland and begin to climb the Table Top Range. There comes a moment when you cross the watershed and catch a glimpse of the enormous western sky. The traces of smoke will tell you that there is land over there, and that the country is being fired. The dense manner in which the light hangs in the air on the far horizon will tell you that the sea is there beyond. You feel transfixed, and yet, nothing in these densities and opacities of light, air, water, and fire tells you of the violence and the love that are connected to this place.

You are seeing the sky that rests over one of the most contested areas in Australia.

From here I let readers look down at the ground, and, through a series of aerial shots and large-scale landscape photos, I bring them to the hill country where the rivers start up. From there we follow the rivers to the floodplains: ‘these are northern rivers, huge in the wet season, smaller in the dry, roaring down off the hills and meandering across the plains.’ Out on the floodplains swamps and billabongs hold the water. Here we will see a small rainforest, and we go inside to look at it. Once inside the jungle we see a place within the spring where the water actually bubbles up out of the ground. The Aboriginal traditional owners of this country call this the ‘eye’—the ‘eye’ of the spring.

So I bring you from the sky down to the ground. I use the fluidity of water to accomplish this motion, and bring you down almost into the ground. From the elevated eye of the explorer, who imagines himself to be encompassing all that he sees, I bring you face to face with another eye. This eye is part of the place, and it is looking back at you.

Here I pause to tell you:

There are ‘eyes’ all over this country; this is a place where living things take notice of each other. People travel across the land, and they watch, observe, remember, think about, and tell stories. Other living things—birds, Dreamings, ordinary animals—they all watch, observe, think, and tell stories. This place is sentient.

And from there the book opens out into a sentient and intersubjective world. The next photo you see is (finally) a person. The person is one of the senior traditional owners, Kathy Deveraux. The text voice that accompanies this photo is hers:


Place-centred stories tie in associatively around the place. One could imagine stories strung together by time, or by focus on a central character, or by the logic of cause and effect as construed in western reason. Aboriginal place-centred stories are most regularly strung together by sites and tracks, by memories, permanencies and linked contingencies, as well as by a way of life that keeps people returning to places and telling stories for places.

Throughout the book the analysis requires linking place with time. I try to hold to a place-oriented perspective as I do this. If one were to take a time-oriented view of this place, at least as time is conventionally understood in the western academy, one might seek to sort out layers of events. One might take an archaeological approach and, through digging into meaning, one would find differences (technological, ecological, perhaps even ontological), and one would sort those differences into a sequence. If you look at a lot of texts and notice how many of them begin with sacred origins, then move to secular sequences, beginning with the earliest and ending with the most recent, you will see a time-oriented approach at work. A place-oriented approach does not require any particular notion of time; we do not see layers so much as webs. A great deal of what can be thought of as sequence is actually located right there on the ground. People walk across, live with it, and interact with it. The ‘past’ both is and is not past. Present in the land, interactive in memory, and alive to the happenings of the present, the so-called past lives in the present in the most vivid ways. And so I have written:

Webs are connections, and the heart of these connections is the concept of the return. Aboriginal peoples move from place to place, from waterhole to waterhole, called by the seasons, the resources, the global economy, the Dreaming tracks, and the Law. Their movement is predicated upon their return. The tracks are recursive, and the country holds the signs which constitute the evidence of their presence, along with the evidence of the presence of Dreamings and of previous generations of people, as well as many non-human events.

A brief look at one particular billabong makes this point. This is a Dreaming place for the Rainbow Snake. He tried to steal the fire, and carry it away across the floodplains to the sea. He went this way and that, twisting across the land trying to get to the sea, and when he failed he came back and died right here. The evidence of his activities across the floodplains and here at this billabong is completely explicit: it can be seen in the sandy bottom of the billabong, the great meanders of the rivers, and the old river beds that no longer carry water.

At this same billabong one sees graded fence lines where paddocks have been enclosed; one sees a little hill where unexplained lights appear from time to time. There is a ridge where people lived only a few years ago, old river beds, old bull-catching camps, the traces of a bush fire from a few years ago, the encroaching mimosa pigra, a noxious weed that will destroy the country if it cannot be stopped. There is a site where there used to be a jungle. All of this is here and visible (except the vanished jungle). When the traditional owners of this place interact with it they bring all this knowledge and memory to bear. They know of the former jungle because their forebears told them so, and nearby are the graves of some of the old people. Memory, or history, lies in the land, and is carried through stories.

I will conclude with a few words about the senses. Every study has its own imperatives. This study has demanded of me a much greater engagement with all the senses than I have hitherto accomplished. I have sought to communicate that engagement in many of my own words. The emphasis on the full sensorium is not my invention: my Aboriginal teachers engage with country this way, and if one is to learn to understand the communicative dimension of the relationships between people and country this is how one has to pay attention.

‘You don’t stay away for very long, do you?’ [Kathy said to her mother Nancy Daiyi. Nancy replied:]

‘No. I can never stay too long. Otherwise I will get properly homesick. I mean really sick. I miss the smell and the sound of the swamp and all the activities and characteristics of the animals. I can picture them. My senses taste the sweet smell of the [floating grass] on the billabongs when it gets burnt and starts shooting again. The fat from our turtle, geese and barramundi is not the same anywhere else in the world.’13


Many authors suggest that we distinguish space—the abstract, geometric and plottable—from place. Place is the domain of the real, a nexus of space/time, a site with specific presence and with a history. Whether it is a swamp or a high rise, an urban jungle or a tropical rainforest, place is a nexus of living things. People’s actions become, and are formed by, the locale. Two streams of western thought work to bolster this distinction. Science, as David Abram (like others) notes, privileges a sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience.14 Concurrent with this thinking about science, we also have an interesting literature about reading, and the disembodiment of the eye.15 I would like to suggest that as science is to sensorial experience, so reading is to knowing, and space is to place. Reading potentially detaches the eye from the body, just as space potentially detaches the body from the world. If reading reduces the sensorium to the purely/merely visual, mapping flattens and silences the land as Paul Carter demonstrates so brilliantly.16 The body is displaced to become an appendage to the eye; the living world is displaced to become an appendage to the text/map/GIS. In the extreme, reading/mapping could be thought to struggle toward relationship between a disembodied eye and a displaced world.

These dis-placements, or perhaps more properly mis-placements, were key moves in the development of the dominant western knowledge system. An emphasis on place, on real place as experienced by people whose lives are embedded in those places, thus destabilises this knowledge system. Such an emphasis calls on researchers to open themselves methodologically to the fullest possible sensuous engagement. It calls researchers into ethical engagements with place and people: there is no unconnected relationship to place. Place-oriented research calls for writing that seeks to do justice, ethically and methodologically, to the richness of time, human endeavour, and the multiplicities of living things whose tracks cross a given place. As well, it asks one to find ways seriously to engage with non-human endeavour, to enlarge one’s concept of agency, and to write about matters that are often disregarded within the academy.

The word ‘love’ comes to mind. Love is so central to place that it shimmers on the horizons of much of our writing. How we would bring love into the heart of writing place I do not exactly know. For ethical reasons and for the future of scholarship and the future of places, I believe that we must do so.


1     J. Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, Columbia University Press, New York, 1983.

2     Now known as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

3     A.P. Elkin, ‘Before it is Too Late’, in R. Berndt (ed.), Australian Aboriginal Anthropology, AIAS and University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1970, p. 19.

4     W. Willshire, The Land of the Dawning, Being Facts Gleaned From Cannibals in the Australian Stone Age, W.K. Thomas Co, Adelaide, 1896.

5     Northern Territory Times, 10 June 1898.

6     V. Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1954, p. 9.

7     Discussed further in D. Rose, Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1991, chapters 2 and 3.

8     Willshire, The Land of the Dawning, pp. 40–41.

9     D. Rose, ‘Dark Times and Excluded Bodies in the Colonisation of Australia’, in G. Gray and C. Winter (eds), The Resurgence of Racism: Howard, Hanson and the Race Debate, Monash Publications in History, Clayton, 1997, pp. 97–116.

10    The book was written in 1989.

11    This was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 2002.

12    S. Ryan, The Cartographic Eye, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

13    K. Deveraux, ‘Looking at Country From the Heart’, in D. Rose and A. Clarke (eds), Tracking Knowledge in North Australian Landscapes: Studies in Indigenous and Settler Ecological Knowledge Systems, North Australian Research Unit, Darwin, 1998, p. 74.

14    D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p. 66.

15    For example see M. Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.

16    P. Carter, The Lie of the Land, Faber and Faber, London, 1996.

Cite this chapter as: Bird Rose, Deborah. 2009. ‘Writing Place’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 8.1–8.13.

© Copyright 2009 Deborah Bird Rose
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath