Prise open the crypt

Friday, April 21, 2017
Liz Conor

A portrait of Liz Conor
Liz Conor

Writing historical non-fiction is daunting, but also thrilling, says Dr Liz Conor. Ahead of her workshop, part of our Having a Voice: Writing Women series, Liz gave WV an insight into her writing process, uncovering untold stories, and the pleasures of the archive.

What sorts of things are you wary of when approaching a historical non-fiction project?

The Long March. Historical non-fiction is protracted, dedicated work of research, both primary and secondary. While digitisation has revolutionised research it can nevertheless be finding a needle in a haystack, and you might find yourself obsessing over what an illegible nineteenth-century Italian word means in order to know the exact date of a shipment which will lead to another paper trail. And there may be thousands of such leads in a projects. Funding therefore is critical to sustaining this kind of immersion as is feeling confident about new databases and resources that are coming online all the time. Being collegial by acknowledging the research that has come before you is also important and usually involves reading at least 2 long shelves of books and papers. Setting up the best way to manage all this data so that your own archive is malleable and accessible is also critical. Starting out, as I am, on a big project, is daunting but also thrilling.

You’ve talked about the ‘pleasures of archival entombing’. What does this mean?

The physicality of an archive can feel crypt-like. As you gain access to the gated rooms or rare books, or the collections kept behind closed doors your immediately struck by the vacuum of sound and the rarity of light. Archives are usually windowless and sometimes refrigerated to fend of humidity. When the box is delivered to the desk and you gingerly prise it open you're entering a time capsule where the remnants of people's lives are lifted out and spread before you into quiet. People around you are also deep in thought and scratching away with blunt pencils in white gloves, corralled in their own investigations, or propped over weighted pages holding their breath as they snap page after page on their muted smartphones. There is a reverence to the archives that is ancient and monk-like. It is a meditative state in which the acquisitive impulse is harnessed to curiosity and contemplation.     

Why are stories by and about women important?

Because until relatively recently women's voices were actively suppressed as authors and in public letters. My own grandmother wrote under her male employer's name as a court reporter. This asymmetry in the public record, overwhelmingly authored by European men, has meant our experiences, our specific needs and demands and our intelligence, insight, imagination and contribution have been muted. When women's life stories came to light, through women historians and scholars, they challenged accepted norms that have been oppressive to both men and women. They revolutionised relationships between men and women, between all people and their bodies and sexuality, and between citizens and the state. No area of life has been left untouched the revelations of women's voices and stories. We are all indebted to them.

Does writing by women have a specific history, and is this still relevant today?

Yes, women were limited as authors, and often wrote under male pseudonyms, or went unpublished. This is relevant today as so much of our history, our understanding of a past that in many ways persists into and shapes the present and future, was authored by European men. Their desires, their privileges and dreams were presented as the norm and often their sense of entitlement to other peoples' lands and bodies still pervades their writing and commentary, in which they still numerically dominate. Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be the primary carers for the children they bring into the world with men. Mothers are still not integrated into the workplace, indeed most carers find it impossible to 'juggle'. For many women writers this places an ongoing constraint on the capacity to write and leaves our public record lopsided and myopic. 

About Liz Conor

Dr Liz Conor is an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of ‘Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women’ and ‘The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s’. She is the editor of ‘Aboriginal History’, a columnist at ‘New Matilda’, has published widely in academic and mainstream press, as well as campaigned as a community advocate and commentator, on gender, race and representation.