Read about how the launch of Ann McGrath’s new book on interracial relationships caused her to reflect on her own connections to a diverse scholarly community, and re-affirmed the importance of the book launch.
This is the story of three book launches. My new book Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia is finally out and about. But it is not easy for anyone to find in a shop. For Australian readers, let me warn you that although an overseas publisher may be great in many ways, it can make marketing your book somewhat tricky. Based in London, the ‘world distributor’ of the series is targeting only libraries. Although readily available to order online and as an e-book, in Australian bookstores, the hardback lacks any physical presence.
So, given the tyranny of distance, I had almost shelved the prospect of a book launch. Thanks to various accomplices, however, in the month of June three Australian book launches were held. The first official launch was at the State Library of Queensland on Brisbane’s South Bank, the second at Gleebooks in Sydney and the third at Hill of Content Bookshop in Bourke Street, Melbourne. Back home at ANU, The Gender Institute and the Australian Centre of Indigenous History joined forces to organise a smaller ‘book discussion’ event, where historian Philippa Levine, law Professor Kim Rubenstein and Ph.D. student Shauna Bostock Smith offered learned commentary.
Illicit Love is a transnational and transgenerational story. It deals with emotion and family, narrating the colonising dramas that arose out of intimate connections involving Indigenous Australians and Native Americans. Juxtaposed against the official interventions and restraints imposed by two settler coloniser nations, it tells of the love, marriages, relationships, and children that meant that many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people became family.
This project took me on many long journeys across the date line. And it took an age to write. Marilyn Lake aptly described it as a ‘life’s work’, for it continues my interest in birth, children and nation narrated in our co-authored Creating a Nation. Indeed, Illicit Love embodies research interests sustained over my career.
Fittingly, the launches brought together a supportive community from different parts and eras of my life: a scholarly friendship group that felt more like an extended family, including people from several generations and whose own family roots crossed many historical borders. The stories of these book launches reflect the intertwined lives in Illicit Love.
The first ‘real launch’ was everything I could have hoped for, and more. Brisbane is my natal city, and some of my new book’s richest narratives draw upon Queensland stories.
In an institution which now leads and hosts impressive Indigenous programs, the event brought together my family with our neighbours and members of my scholarly family, particularly from my alma mater University of Queensland.
An unforeseen chain of events made this book launch happen. It started with Jackie Huggins. She reunited me with my Honours supervisor from the University of Queensland, Emeritus Professor Kay Saunders. Jackie is the distinguished historian and Aboriginal leader who is currently Co-Chair of the Aboriginal Congress. Both Jackie and I were formerly Kay’s students and Jackie serves on the Advisory Board of our Centre for Indigenous History. Kay and I were honoured to be invited as her guests for her distinguished Remembrance Day oration at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, 2015. In her speech, Jackie talked about the history of Indigenous people who served in the military, bringing together her historical training with poignant reflections upon how military service affected her intimate family life. Despite the heavy rain drenching their fineries, Prince Charles and Camilla were also well positioned to listen intently. It was the first such address by an Indigenous woman, and a landmark in many other respects too.
This was a reunion that would bring Kay and I together in profound ways. Kay had lost her husband Donald not long ago, and she needed to talk about deep love, finding herself, dying and death. I was pleased to present her with a gift of the new book, hot off the press, which dealt with the joy and suffering of other kinds of interrupted love.
When she returned to Brisbane, Kay immediately started reading. Racing through each chapter, she started texting me: “it’s a real page turner…I love the story of Elias and Harriett. So brave. Dying to know what happened later!!” (Memory flashes of frightened young student awestruck by Dr Kay. Great excitement in yours truly to read such words.) Now she wanted to know what happened to Harriett and Elias after they reached the Cherokee Nation and she started to worry about Harriet having no clan relatives in a matrilineal society. “Read on!” I urged. But Kay soon realised that she could cheat by reading the index.
When speaking with a senior figure in the State Library of Queensland, Kay floated a proposal to stage my book launch there. They agreed. Floods of memories came to me about my schoolgirl encounters with the State Library of Queensland. It was the place where I became truly fascinated by ideas.
I gave Kay free rein to organise the invitations. Whereas normally I would have focused on the University email lists, Kay demonstrated her superior networking skills. She included senior members of the judiciary – judges and senior lawyers, whom, she explained, wanted to be better informed about the historical background and laws that had been implemented for Aboriginal Australians. Plus she asked a former politician and members of the Royal Queensland Historical Society. As Christian mission stories are threaded through the book, and because certain churches are active in Indigenous social justice and education, she asked senior members of various churches. She also invited school principals, police commissioners, and the list of Brisbane influencers went on, including her diverse ZONTA group. Kay invited Indigenous students, staff and scholarship holders, librarians and academics.
When I asked Kay to be the official launcher, she was chuffed, protesting: “I thought I was just the facilitator.” But I loved the idea of having my former honours supervisor do ‘the honours’. She was brilliant. In her talk, Kay retold some of the book’s most intriguing stories, delighting in the terrible hypocrisy and crazy humanity of some of the key European protagonists and the stories the Yarrabah people told about them. She understood the bits that were about love, too, and its raw pain, which came out in her moving speech.
Adjunct Professor Val Cooms, a Nunukal elder and one of my former Ph.D. students, also spoke at the launch. Val is part of the Quandamooka Yoolooburabee Aboriginal Corporation and serves as a full time Member of the Native Title Tribunal. Her gritty, meticulously researched launch talk outlined the impact of the Queensland Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the sale of Opium Act on her community at reserves such as Cherbourg and elsewhere, and she spoke of her family’s toughness and courage amidst state-enforced separation and segregation.
My sister, brother and two aunties from Brisbane attended, as did my parents, Betty and Brian, both in their eighties, who travelled in the car with me. We arrived at precisely the same time as Eve Fesl, one of our former neighbours from across the road in suburban Bardon. Another of the Serico children, Nurdon, was Dad’s main playmate as a young boy in the 1930s. Dad asked him to teach me some athletics skills for a school carnival.
The preface to Illicit Love talks about how, when I was growing up in the suburb of Bardon, people descended of Aboriginal ‘blood’ were talked about in whispers – and how the imperial term ‘having a touch of the tarbrush’ was used for people of mixed Aboriginal-European descent. With families like the Sericos who did not readily obscure their Aboriginality, neighbours speculated that they must be something else – ‘Islanders’ or ‘French’.
Although across the road from each other, our streets had different names – Empress Terrace and Crown Street – pointed imperial assertions of the British sovereignty around the time of the new Queen’s coronation. And, as Eve pointed out, her side of the street was the Protestants and the other side the Catholics. Moreover, when my generation played cowboys and Indians, we had little inkling that we were playing on Aboriginal land.
In glorious costume and ceremonial paint, the opera singer Maroochy Barambah opened the Queensland State Library event with a song that welcomed us to country in her language. After the talks, Maroochy told me how Nurdon helped her with the words of the song.
I had heard that Nurdon, as a Gubbi Gubbi elder, conducted official Welcomes to Country. I had re-encountered his sister Dr Eve Fesl, née Serico, during my Monash days. She was the first Aboriginal woman to get a Ph.D. in linguistics. She had invited me to lecture at Monash’s Aboriginal Centre when she was its Director.
Both Nurdon and Eve agreed to play official roles in the launch. They talked of growing up in Bardon, of their family history and their powerful links to Gubbi Gubbi country. The ties between my father and the Sericos remain. Dad and Nurdon recall stories of playing down the creek, making a dam and chasing an escaped elephant from the circus.
At the launch, Eve was surprised to see a lovely young woman whom she had met on planes when travelling interstate and who showered her with gifts of complementary bottles of champagne. The former airhostess was the Doctoral student Shauna Bostock Smith.
In the academy and in the wider community, Eve has devoted much of her life to the preservation of Indigenous languages. At school I learnt nothing about Aboriginal culture or history and I spoke not a word of Gubbi Gubbi or any Aboriginal language. And here was I, ever wondering where the Aboriginal people had gone. As a child, ‘common sense’ held that ‘they all just disappeared’. This telling not only lacked magic, it left me unsatisfied, and curious.
I relished the honour of having the Sericos as witnesses to my later history journey – prompted in part by the seeds that they had planted in my young mind. It was a wide road that separated Crown Street and Empress Terrace. A road that my generation crossed belatedly.
Another aspect of the Queensland launch story was that my daughter’s fabulous partner, brother and aunty came along, bringing their own intermarriage stories, involving a Yawuru grandmother, a Malaysian husband, Adelaide River childhoods and other intriguing family sagas. Their past was rich in unions that would shape Australia and contribute to its future generations. Yet as late as the 1950s, such unions were inhumanely prohibited, policed and often hidden.
As a book is not a rocket, fortunately you can launch it as many times as you like. Generally it’s best to choose a different location or people may have cause to complain. The second launch – at Gleebooks – featured Penny Russell as a well-organised MC, along with Professors John Maynard and Ann Curthoys.
John Maynard offered comments on the book’s key themes, along with insights into his own family’s story, with its succession of Aboriginal men who married white women. Bringing the history of intermarriage right up to the present, John offered some amusing remarks on Aboriginal men’s observations of white women’s changing attitudes. As official launcher, Ann Curthoys offered a meticulous and thorough summary of the book, using the precepts of our jointly authored How to Write History that People Want to Read to measure whether my new book had followed our joint advice. She noted sternly that I’d broken the rules that we laid out for maximum chapter length. I breathed a sigh of relief when she applied our criteria for effective narration to judge that the chapters worked well.
The Sydney audience consisted of a bevy of old friends, colleagues, my brother and sister-in-law, a cousin, and several new acquaintances. It was special to be joined by a former student at the University of New South Wales, Darlene Hoskins Mackenzie, who brought a group of interested friends and relatives. Other people came because they wanted to learn some history in inform their social justice activism.
Many of us ventured off to dinner afterwards at the Himalayan, where we stretched out into extended L-shape tables in the upper floor space, which fittingly required an ascent of many flights of steep steps. Richard Waterhouse and an old family friend realized they were related to each other, so duly descended the summit to buy wine for the table.
Hill of Content is one of Australia’s most welcoming bookshops. Cosy, full of books by acclaimed international authors, and young and established Australian writers of quality, it was a pleasure to enjoy its elegant ambiance.
The third launch was very much a family affair, as my niece Cosima McGrath works there as Marketing and Communications Officer for Collins Booksellers. A second niece, who is an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, also came along, and a long-lost cousin turned up unannounced.
Professor Lynette Russell, the current director of the Monash Indigenous Centre, opened the event with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the Kulin people, the traditional custodians of the land. Just returned from a much deserved resort holiday, I was especially appreciative that she joined us in the cold, rainy weather.
The launcher, Marilyn Lake, pointed out another layer of scholarly lineage – for she had been the supervisor of the MC, Liz Conor. Now an ARC Future Fellow, Liz made an engaging MC. She started with an intriguing story told by Daisy Bates of a comedic wedding re-enactment, in which local Aboriginal people mocked the earnestness of a mission wedding, using makeshift veils made of paperbark. Liz also talked very generously about my book – even using the mellifluous word ‘luminosity’.
Marilyn Lake gave a brilliant speech that was itself luminous. Her mastery of transnational and feminist history stretched the book’s analysis further. She noted how the book built upon Nancy Cott’s work on marriage, which ensured it was no longer a niche concern, but deserving its rightful place in the making of nations. She liked my book’s reconceptualisation of the ‘transnational’ in the layered context of colonialism, where marriage negotiations became transactions of sovereignty between competing nations. Marilyn discussed the book’s articulation of ‘marital middle ground’ and ‘polygamous frontiers’.
It was deeply moving to witness this scholarly engagement. The enthusiastic support of this shared community of warm-hearted historians and friends made this often arduous book marathon seem worth the effort and the angst. Hearing complimentary comments in real time is absolutely lovely, though humbling and embarrassing too.
In defence of the book launch
Overall, my three book launches remind me of that pioneering TV program ‘This is your life’. In that now-antique reality show, the producers would target a reasonably well-known personality, then organise a host of people to fly in and deliver a surprise on-camera reunion. Brought face to face with loved ones unseen for decades, inevitably the individual would be shocked and emotional.
In this Facebook era – and I used FB to send out a lot of the invitations – my book launches gave me the pleasure of meeting people who I had only previously met online. In that community, we had shared what it is like to be an author, mother, daughter and historian. Now here was the person in 3D. Tears and hugs. I also enjoyed some gratifying exchanges with several people unable to attend for family reasons. Stan Grant, the luminous NITV/SBS senior editor sent me a heart-warming apology, as did the multi-talented activist/actor/historian Gary Foley. Others proffered Google-map evidence of being in a distant latitude and longitude.
Beyond the acknowledgements section in the book, the launch becomes a more personal way of celebrating the many people who walked alongside us on the book-writing marathon. Then there is the future audience – the new generation of undergraduates, postgraduates, and interested members of the public, including community decision makers yet to read it. These people research, teach or use history and they play a vital role in engendering new conversations.
For both the book and its author, I view the book launch as a key element of the historical life cycle – a culmination, a coming out, a public debut. It can reconnect you with the people who helped make you the historian you are. These fellow travellers in history are your luminaries, shining their brilliant light on your path.
Plus, at the Brisbane launch, I met Alana, co-editor of VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network.
There are of course reasons not to have a book launch. Publishers aren’t keen on them, they often cost the author time and money, a lot of people only come for the free wine and cheese, and you have to be nice to people who tell you that they already have an e-copy.
Nevertheless, as someone who has recently enjoyed a series of thoroughly delightful book launches in three different states, I admit to a strong bias towards the affirmative. Indeed, I have not strayed from the view pre-empted by Ann Curthoys and myself in How to Write History that People Want to Read. When it comes to the launch, we are true believers.
Ann McGrath is the Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. She has been the recipient of many awards during her exalted career, including the John Douglas Kerr Medal of Distinction, Inaugural W.K. Hancock prize, the Human Rights Award for non-fiction, the John Barrett Prize and Yale’s Archibald Hannah Junior Fellowship. In her consultancy work, Ann co-ordinated the history project of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and has appeared as a witness in the Gunner & Cubillo case and in various Northern Territory land claims. McGrath’s Illicit Love: Interracial Sex and Marriage in the United States and Australia was published by University of Nebraska Press in December 2015. If you would like to be able to write history as compellingly as Ann, you should also check out Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath’s How to Write History that People Want to Read (2009).
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