When Clem, the ever optimistic Penguin editorial assistant who shepherds the Penguin stable of books into awards, contacted me to suggest The Old School should be put forward for The Asher Literary Award my reaction was curious, closely followed by dubious.
Curious came first, as I'd not heard about this particular award, but dubious soon followed when I saw that tag "literary" and learnt that I'd need to provide a 500 word "artist's statement."
Just goes to show how you can be totally wrong about just about everything.
I read up about The Asher, and discovered the story of Helen Waltraud Rosalie Asher, a German refugee to Australia in the wake of World War Two, who established an award to recognise women writing on an anti-war theme or issue.
So, I set about preparing an artist's statement and found that instead of the process being a drag, the opportunity to write about themes and ideas and how the story and plot informed those themes was actually liberating.
The Old School is a crime novel. It sits firmly within the genre of crime, but when I wrote it I also had many ideas and concerns on my mind beyond just providing a murder plot.
Creating an artist's statement suddenly gave me a chance to explicitly articulate the political and cultural questions I had discovered throughout the journey of researching and writing the book.
So, when I was contacted by the chair of the judging panel Professor Kate Darian Smith and told that The Old School had been declared joint winner with Roberta Lowing's poetry collection Ruin (Interactive Press), well, thrilled, doesn't come close.
And so it came to pass that a crime writer and a poet walked into the Melbourne Writers Festival and walked out sharing an award for literature by women writing on an anti-war theme or issue.
Thank you Helen Asher for your decision to create such a unique award.
As writing an artist's statement is not something that you are asked to do everyday, I thought it might be interesting for any future entrants to this particular award to see the approach I took: -
The Old School is a crime novel that bears witness to the enduring wounds of war. My vision for this work was to use the accessible genre of crime fiction to interrogate Australia’s contradictory, and politically malleable, myth making about war. In recent years we have adopted as our national foundation narrative an act of war that occurred nearly a century ago on the other side of the world. We celebrate the sacrifice that took place on the beaches of the Turkish peninsula, whilst comforting ourselves that such slaughter has never bloodied our land.
My ambition in the novel was to demonstrate that this national myth is dishonest and destructive. It elevates tales of heroism and mateship in order to sanctify the brutal truth of war while denying the violence of white settlement. It is remembrance without reflection.
The Old School challenges the nature of our chosen foundation myth through story and characters. Central to the novel are women, immigrants and Aboriginal Australians; characters who defy the national identity constructed by a male military narrative based on an imperial war. The Old School is an account of seeking the truth about murder, about the past and about war. It is fitting to approach these subjects through crime fiction. It is a genre that honours those who seek the truth about the most serious crime imaginable – murder. And after all, what is war but state-sanctioned murder perpetrated on an industrial scale?
Unlike the national myth in which the foreign dead are but a rumour, The Old School tracks the tragedy of a Vietnamese family through decades of war. It is told through the eyes of a young Australian-Vietnamese police detective, Nhu “Ned” Kelly, who discovers the truth of her family history; of three sisters who made three choices on how to survive in war. A Buddhist nun who joins the ranks of the martyrs who self-immolated for peace, another who joins the North Vietnamese to fight for independence and resolve the shame of a father who collaborated, and the third, Nhu’s mother, who chooses to leave and start afresh in a new land with an Australian soldier who can longer bear to do his duty.
This modern war is interwoven with an investigation into the discovery of two bodies buried in the footings of a building in Bankstown. It is 1992, the year of the Mabo High Court ruling and Paul Keating’s Redfern park speech. As the excavation at the crime scene burrows deeper into the past, a son discovers his mother, a 1970s Aboriginal Land Rights activist, was murdered over of a piece of land already stained with Aboriginal blood. When Aboriginal bones dating from a white-settlement era massacre are discovered The Prime Minister’s words, “We committed the murders” take physical form.
Society demands each act of murder is investigated, the guilty punished, justice served. The Old School demands the same of Australia’s sentimental attachment to its stories of war.