Private Lives, Public History by Anna Clark

This book is written about Australian history, but I think its application is broader.  What does history mean?

Private Lives, Public History by Anna Clark

‘What does Australian history mean?  How does it function in our lives?  Does it matter?  We know it matters for Australia because its contested narratives are publicly debated all around us.’

And what is Australian history?  Is it the history of this country since 1901? Is it the history since European settlement in 1788?  Or is it the history encompassing the many thousands of years since Indigenous peoples first migrated to Australia?  How many histories does Australia have?

I don’t usually start a book review by listing questions, but reading this book made me think about what history is important to individuals ( as well as why and how).  Mostly, when I think of history I think of big events, of the well-known figures that influenced those events, and of how interpretation of events is so varied.  About how individual perception can be coloured by background, culture and the impact of events in the past on family.

‘We need to understand what ties us to the past, as well as encourage the capacity to critique it.’

But this book invites me to also consider why some histories are passed on, while others are not.  Why?  Because this is so often a factor in what becomes seen as important, or as justification for particular actions.  How many of us are now discovering that we had convict ancestors, after almost a century of such detail being ‘forgotten’ or withheld?  How many of us now question policies of taking Indigenous children from their parents?  How many of us are (or were) divided over the question of apology to those who are members of Australia’s Stolen Generations?

‘After all, the act of passing on is also an act of reception.’

In this book, historian Anna Clark explores how our individual personal pasts intersect with broader historical questions.  She has done this by drawing on interviews with Australians from five different communities: Marrickville, Chatswood (both in Sydney), Brimbank in outer-western Melbourne, Rockhampton (a regional hub in Central Queensland) and Derby (a remote town in far north-western Australia with a large Indigenous population).  These interviews provided her with some insight into how the individuals interviewed think about the past, how it relates to their communities and themselves, and the role that history plays in their lives.  In total, she spoke with 100 people.  Indigenous people made up 10% of all the participants.

I found Anna Clark’s conclusions interesting rather than surprising.  It seems that official narratives (such as about Australia Day) are less important to individuals than personal connections and memories are.  But, as Anna Clark acknowledges, her project was limited in time and scope and it is possible that individuals from different backgrounds may have responded differently.  For me, this book is a starting point for a conversation about history and its importance rather than an end point.  To whom outside academic and political circles are the ‘history wars’ important?  How important is the (at times heated) political debate about our history?

This book didn’t provide me with any answers, but it did invite me to think about what is important to whom, and why.  How important is history, really?  One question, many different answers.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Melbourne University Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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