Interview with Maraglindi author Bob Rich

Australian author Bob Rich writes both fiction and non-fiction and sends out a delightful newsletter once a month with bits of advice, philosophy, and writing news. I had the honour of endorsing his novel Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit. Today he’s answering questions about his writing and this novel in particular and offering a giveaway for someone who leaves a comment.

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Mary, thank you for the honor of featuring me on your wonderful blog. May I refer to it as the global hub of historical fiction? [So kind of you to say this, Bob.]

Having read the list of questions you emailed to me, I thought, “Hey, I really want to know the answers!” I hope I am not alone in this. But, I thought, first I’ll discuss the way my book, Maraglindi: Guardian spirit came to be written.

I used to work as a counselor at an (Australian) Aboriginal health center, and also, where I live has a substantial First Nations community, and I was able to be of service to them. I woke one morning, and a young Aboriginal girl spoke to me. No, she hadn’t entered the house, only my head. She demanded I write her story, and instantly, I had three facts: who she really was, how she was born, and how she died.

I said, “No, I’m not qualified. Aboriginal people get very upset when an outsider claims to write from their point of view. Anyway, where are you from?”

“What you people call the Hunter River. Worimi people.”

“Fair go! I have some familiarity with the Bunurong and Wurundjeri. That’s like knowing a little about the English and French, and being told to write about Romanians. Same continent is about the only commonality.”

All the same, like all the characters in my stories, she insisted on being the boss. After all, she is a Superior Spirit, and who am I to argue?

I had to do a lot of research, and also I tried to find a co-author: a Worimi person who could provide the internal details and therefore give the story legitimacy. While that hasn’t happened, I did find some very knowledgeable and helpful advisors. The strange things is, much of what Maraglindi told turned out to be correct.

It was necessary for me to include a creation story, and at the time I couldn’t find one, so used a combination of several from other Aboriginal nations. This was one of the details that proved to be false, and my advisor pointed me to the correct one. And you know what? It is uncannily similar to the Christian one, (well, Jewish one) given the cultural differences.

Maraglindi hasn’t stopped bossing me around, only now she is born the second time around, and is Florence Kline. “My name is Flossy, so I can be bossy!”

  • MARY: Indigenous people around the world have suffered trauma at the hands of settlers and colonizers. What insights about the relationships between them did you want Maraglindi’s story to provide?

Conquerors write history, so history glorifies conquerors… except when they are consigned to history. Few people say good things about Genghis Khan’s hordes, the Huns, the Vandals. All the same, there is admiration for Alexander from Macedonia, the Romans, the Vikings, and of course the various European cultures that stole from all over the planet.

To my mind, any colonial power is inherently barbaric. (The dictionary definition is “savagely cruel.”) Empire is robbery. When Queen Victoria’s empire considered itself to be the pinnacle of civilization, it was actually the nadir of inhumanity.

Everything you write is colored by your philosophy, even a shopping list. So, this attitude comes through in all my historical writing. It is just as strong in my fictionalized autobiography, Ascending Spiral, as in Maraglindi. You see, my life can only be understood by looking at the past lives I have recalled, which includes Viking raids, the Irish rebellion of 1798, and the terrible treatment of both convicts and Aborigines in what later became Australia. And in two of these past lives, I had very strong emotional bonds with Aboriginal people, although not Maraglindi’s nation.

My aim in life, the reason for everything I do, is to work to provide a future for the young people of the present, and to ensure this future is worth living in. Maraglindi’s story addresses the second part. In order to have a good world to live in, we need to learn from guardian spirits like Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius—and Maraglindi.

Every sentient being on this planet is an apprentice Jesus, an apprentice Buddha. Well, the ones who are already there are not apprentices. We do have a few. The Dalai Lama is one, and in my opinion Pope Francis another. (Mind you, I am not a Catholic, and not even a Christian.) We certainly need more!

In the mid-19th Century, the arrogant British aristocracy considered themselves to be the crown of creation. The colonials in America were beneath contempt, the Irish were animals to be either exterminated or enslaved, and when they invaded noble ancient cultures like in India and China, they treated the locals as if they were primitive. This is not even to mention the crime against humanity of enslaving Africans.

And, as you say, Mary, the treatment of indigenous people was approximately abysmal, give or take a little. OK, the Brits were no worse than the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, the French, Belgians and Dutch and later Germans—it was an European disease of the soul.

I didn’t particularly set out to highlight this in Maraglindi, but, like the English version of religion, it was part of the framework the story was set in. You see, when I first met this amazing person, She told me she would need to live three human lives in order to be fully competent at understanding us. The first was Maraglindi, the second Florence, who is born at the very end of this book and features in the sequel, and then we need a third one in the present.

  • MARY: What aspects of Australia’s aboriginal culture do you admire most? Are there lessons that ‘white people’ can and should learn from this culture?

Mary, this is a wonderful question about a wonderful family of cultures. Before the white invasion, there were approximately 700 different nations, each with its language, culture, customs, myths, but also they had things in common.

People interested in history probably like nonfiction about it too. One of my favorite books is The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery. He sets out evidence that a long time ago, when I was very young (a minimum of 60,000 years, but maybe 100,000 years ago), people managed to cross the Wallace Line. This is a divide of animals. One side has Asiatic fauna, the other Australian. Once across, hunting became ridiculously easy, because animals did not fear humans. So, they developed a locust culture that killed everything in its path then moved on.

Until then, humans were just one hunter species, and also being hunted. But when people returned north, they took these destructive attitudes with them. Or so Tim Flannery says. Then as the great ice sheets melted and land became exposed, weed plants moved in, and rapidly breeding animals came to eat them, and humans followed with a weed culture.

We are the fruit of that weed culture, which has now eaten the planet.

But in what became Australia, the weed culture faltered. When people drove the big herbivores to extinction, vegetation built up and this resulted in megafires. It was so severe that it changed the very nature of the continent, with plants that do well in fire like eucalypts and wattles replacing the ancient forests. The humans also adapted, and learned to become parts of the land.

We are now doing to the whole planet what those ancient arrivals did to Australia. In order to survive, we need to learn how they survived, and to copy their attitudes. In another of my books, an Aboriginal elder says, “All living beings are my family.”

  • MARY: Magic—or perhaps the better description is the spirit world—plays a role in Maraglindi. Why did you choose to incorporate that aspect into the novel?

Me choose? I did no such thing.

First, I have found evidence that each hunting band in the old days had a “magic man,” and they communicated with each other by telepathy, and that’s how things were coordinated over long distances.

But also, the first thing Maraglindi told me about herself was that She is a Superior Person, an enlightened spirit, Who has learnt the ultimate lesson of unconditional love for all, and that She has been assigned as a guide to us little humans. Try and tell that story without invoking the spirit world.

  • MARY: You talk of a ‘white person truth’ and a ‘blackfella truth’—is there a message for readers to take away from this?

I do love your questions. The force me to think. One of my hobbies is comparative religion, and you know what? Every religion I have studied carries the same set of underlying messages. Because I am a secular Buddhist (follow the philosophy without doing any ritual), I use the Buddhist term “metta” for it. You can read what that means at http://bobswriting.com/bill/metta.html

So, as Maraglindi has said in the book, both the whitefella truth and the blackfella truth can be true. So is Chinese truth, and Jewish truth, and Muslim truth—they are all the one Truth.

  • MARY: Do you have hope for the future relationship between indigenous Australians and those who took over the country?

Instead of answering myself, I will quote Aunty Lil, who is a Wurundjeri elder:

“In old times, there were 700 different nations in this land, each with their own language, each looking after their own country that was their mother and their being. Now, there is a need for one people, looking after one land that is our mother and our being. This whole planet is my mother. The land is my mother; the trees and grasses and mosses and kangaroos and elephants and wolves and rabbits and snails my brothers and sisters. The ocean is my mother; the whales and dolphins and sharks and salmon and herring and jellyfish and krill my brothers and sisters.

“And so are you, and so it is for you.

“And so, I welcome you to my country, which is your country, to my planet, which is your planet, and I invite you to stop killing my mother, which is your mother; my brothers and sisters, which are your brothers and sisters.”

Aunty Lil only lives inside my computer at the moment. She is an important secondary character in the Doom Healer series, which is doing its best to burst onto the world stage. But she does set out what humanity needs to do to survive: adopt the Australian Aboriginal attitude to nature so it fits our circumstances.

This is one of the important reasons I am a very active member of the Australian Greens political party. A Federal election is approaching, and we have a 15 point platform. Top of the list is “Treaty with First Nations.”

Mary, once again thank you for featuring me on your blog. One week after this interview goes live, I will visit random.org, and select one commenter, who will receive a free electronic copy of Maraglindi: Guardian spirit.

Many thanks, Bob. Your thoughts from Aunty Lil echo some of the philosophy articulated in a memoir I’m reading – Indian in the Cabinet by Jody Wilson-Raybould. An indigenous Canadian, Jody Wilson-Raybould says: ‘our culture, worldview, spirituality, and way of life are integrally related to the natural world … this is our religion’.

Best wishes for Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit.

Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit by Dr. Bob Rich ~~ 1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love.
During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart.

Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Line Between Fiction and Non-fiction

Have you ever read a novel and wondered what was fact and what was fiction? Greg Johnston, author of Sweet Bitter Cane brings that perspective to today’s blog post. Welcome, Greg.

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I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms.  The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right.  The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room.  I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.

Real life is rarely a novel.  Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader.  I liken it to making bread.  The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.

Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact.  Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story.  While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.

I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia.  But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.

These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia.  But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.

The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable.  And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded.  But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter.  How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release.  But even this had limits.  Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother. 

I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts.  But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader.  I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results.  I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same.  I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew?  I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.

At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine.  I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination.  The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments.  These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her.  And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.

But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary.  In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.

I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries.  But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks.  Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought.  And a mess.  This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.

But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play?  Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire. 

An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such.  It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.

It takes courage to enjoy it

The hardcore and the gentle

Big time sensuality

Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.