The transformative power of family history literature : ‘reckoning with the past’ through biography, fiction and memoir

  • Corinne Vale

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    Since time immemorial, our origin stories have shaped our understanding of who we are. In settler colonial societies, said to be characterised by ‘anxieties of unbelonging’ (Nile, 1994), one of the most significant origin stories for non-Indigenous families is the story of how their foundational ancestors first arrived in their home country — the story of where they came from and why they came (Basu, 2005). The digitisation and democratisation of the archives has given us new power to test the historical validity of our origin stories and to reconstruct them to include newly discovered aspects that have been repressed for generations. Barnwell and Cummins’ (2019) claim that a new genre of ‘family historiography’ has emerged in Australian literature which ‘uncovers, confronts and revises national mythologies, particularly the lingering, haunting aftermath of colonial injustice’.
    A family historiography is characterised by a multi-layered narrative structure, where narratives of ancestral lives are interwoven with the narrative of the family historiographer’s (autobiographical) journey in uncovering those stories, and where imagination (fiction) is used to gain insight into what ancestral thoughts, feelings and motivations may have been. Through a dual methodology of textual analysis and practice-based research, this project explores how that multi-layered narrative structure facilitates a transformational ‘reckoning with the past’ (Barnwell and Cummins, 2019) for both writer and reader. The first stage of my practice-based research was creating my written artefact, in which narratives about my convict ancestry, written in all three genres of non-fiction (biography), historical fiction and autobiography, are co-presented with extracts from the archival records on which those narratives are based. My exegesis reflects upon the process of reckoning that occurred through the creation of that artefact, concluding that it was through the symbiotic evolution of each of the three different genres of narrative in my text that I grappled with the uncertainties inherent in unearthing a long forgotten past. The exegesis also considers the extent to which it is possible, when writing about the past, to be transparent about the boundaries between research, interpretation, imagination and authorial presence, and how such transparency gives agency to the reader to reckon with the past too.
    Date of Award2020
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJennifer Crawford (Supervisor), Jordan Williams (Supervisor) & Tim Sherratt (Supervisor)

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