Journalist Kate Evans reveals the influence that achieving a Ph.D. in history has had on her working life.
Last week I was interviewed about my 2001 Ph.D., a cultural history of press photography in Australia. It was the first time in a long time I was both on the ‘other’ side of the microphone and able to think about that research and analysis. Newsworkers, industrial conditions, the production of images, the weight of cameras, the idea of all the work done outside and around the frame of any image. The pleasure of revisiting that was immense – as was the ongoing fear I may have ‘got it wrong’, fudged a detail, or entirely misrepresented the archive or indeed the people, in a context where media specialisation is being transformed. Again.
Usually, my historical work – and identity – is enacted in different ways.
It has, in the past, been more directly ‘historical’ – working on both radio and TV history programs, including original archival research and engagement with the ABC’s own considerable archive, as well as working on programs where history serves the current affairs agenda (which changes the questions and the ‘hook’).
But I thought I’d talk more about what it means to take a historical identity – that self I hold onto deep down, even though I no longer feel I have the right to use the label ‘historian’ on census forms – and apply it more laterally. I currently work part time on a daily arts program on ABC RN (Books and Arts on RN previously known as Radio National), and also present a weekly fiction program (Books Plus).
Coming from a background in ‘newsworker’ history means the labels and inhouse terminology of work will intrude on this reflection – not in any high-minded way, I should add. I spent years resisting the term ‘journalist’, feeling it didn’t apply to someone who’d never worked in a newsroom. There are many strategic, industrial and political reasons why now, in an era when specialisation is diminishing across the whole industry, that I do sometimes call myself an Arts Journalist. Some of this goes back to the whole question of cultural production and knowing those production processes have a history: I work on a ‘daily’. Everything I do is shaped by short deadlines.
And then there’s the language of the media, including its clichés. The publicly acceptable ones include the idea that daily radio is a ‘hungry beast’. Another entirely relevant approach to what we do is the line, often used by one of my colleagues, that we’re expected to ‘pull it out our arses’. Vivid – and entirely relevant to this piece, I think. This is all about the knowledge and context and skill that we rely on.
How might this play out as an arts broadcaster for whom historical knowledge informs what I do? As a daily producer I set up stories and write briefs for other presenters, prep and record my own interviews (both in studio and at events like writers festivals), edit and mix them, and write the online versions of the story. Every interview is submitted at two durations, with a grab, a music track, a précis, an on-air script and an online story version. It’s probably easiest to concentrate on the book stories I record myself.
Here are some examples. Although I do cover all genres of fiction (900 page fantasy novel, anyone?), I am particularly interested in the ways in which history and fiction work together. Recently I interviewed English writer Michéle Roberts about her novel The Walworth Beauty: such a clever interplay of the nineteenth and twenty-first century, drawing explicitly on the work of Henry Mayhew. She’s also a feminist writer, well aware of the debates in feminist history and in the ways in which cities are being rethought. Her streets seethe with an awareness of a cosmopolitan London, and so a black woman runs a boarding house in a part of South London defined by poverty and sex workers. One of Mayhew’s researchers meets and at first misunderstands the life of this woman.
The novel led me to read London Labour and the London Poor before interviewing her. (How had I not read it before? It’s fabulous!)
While Roberts’ fiction is sophisticated and interesting, she allows the research to shape the streets she writes. American writer Colson Whitehead does something different, and I was lucky enough to speak to him just after his novel the Underground Railroad was published, and before he started winning every possible award including the Pulitzer. He starts with (real) examples of ads for runaway slaves, but extends his imagination into making the underground railroad literal, puffing its way through many possible American states, including an (out-of-time) Eugenicist state and an all-too-real state in which lynching was a form of entertainment. For that, I also read the accounts of slavery collected by the New Deal Federal Writers Project, in which oral history is interpreted and written in so many different ways. Interviewing Whitehead then raised many questions: What does it mean to write a brutal account of slavery that plays with history with such delicacy? That does not pretend to be literal?
For Rachel Seiffert, her novel A Boy in Winter wants to make sense of how history ‘rolls over’ characters, in times of crisis. Her story is set across three days in 1941, in a small Ukrainian town, as some of the first actions of the Holocaust play out. It’s before a ‘Final Solution’ was articulated. The Jewish residents of the surrounding town are marshalled together, told to bring supplies for a three-day journey, then they’re taken to a field and shot. Two small boys don’t follow the orders; a young country girl from out of town meets them; a German engineer opposed to the regime witnesses some of this. The engineer was based on a real person Seiffert had researched; the idea of a small slice of action without hindsight or prescience was explicit; and her personal impulse related to making sense of memory and complicity, as her grandparents were members of the Nazi party. Any reader and interviewer might pick up these things; a sense of history adds other questions, including that ongoing question of what fiction does, or does not, add to our understanding of the past.
Behind so much of this work is the lure of the archive. Never fear, I’m not about to romanticise the hard slog of it. But within the heart-in-mouth urgency of daily deadlines, I do sometimes long for that reflective space, the ways in which it is both calm and then dramatically filled with blood and tears and surprises as well.
A few years ago, while living in Brisbane and working for RN there, I had a very part-time partnership with the State Library of Queensland, spending about a day a fortnight in their original manuscript collection. Without the time for a large or systemic project, they gave me the space to be idiosyncratic and to find stories in the interest of promoting their original materials. And so I just puddled away in archive boxes, pursuing the Parks and Playground programs in Brisbane, and kept finding the same women activists in the 1910s changing their city. There were fragmented diaries from a woman on the land in the mid nineteenth century, suddenly watching her young son get sick and die, even though she killed a chicken for him in the hope of finding something he would eat. An illustrated diary from an Englishwoman told how she travelled the state staying at properties, killing the odd koala for sport and regularly finding evening entertainment in visiting the Aboriginal settlements at the edge of properties. In those document boxes I met sex workers in velvet and lace on the streets; women doctors travelling to the Endell Street hospital in London during the First World War; a member of the women’s land army explaining that she was a ‘genuine smoker’ and entitled to her ration of 120 ciggies (240 for men).
And right now? In the next few weeks I need to write briefs about the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, about an art exhibitions on the Great Strike of 1917 (a panel of a historian, a curator and an artist) and a new book of advice for young writers by Irish writer Colm McCann (‘don’t be a dick’ is the title of one of his sections). I have two interviews ‘in the can’ to edit – the fantasy writer on her 900 page novel and an Australian author whose historical novel imagines life for the families left behind by convict transportation. There’s a panel on ‘Nordic noir’ to record in front of an audience, and another that combines three wildly different writers on the idea of ‘adventure and misadventure’ (a crime writer, an Indian-Australian writer on migration, a historical novelist).
And as all this has to be done and written with urgent deadlines – in a way that feeds into that other historical fantasy we entertain. If I could go back and write that damn PhD now, wouldn’t it be better?
Kate Evans works for ABC RN’s Books and Arts and Books Plus programs. She has also worked on Hindsight, Rear Vision, Life Matters – and a number of ABC TV history programs including One Hundred Years: The Australian Story. She has a PhD on the history of press photography and an MA in public history.
Follow Kate on Twitter @HistoryGirlKate.
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