So they’re rewriting Roald Dahl. You may have read about it. A few words, here and there, will be erased from the annals of literature in an attempt to make future generations kinder.
One of the articles I read on this topic was by author Kathy Lette. One of Australia’s sassiest exports, Lette started her career by co-writing a novel that caused a sensation at the time: Puberty Blues. In the article, Lette ponders what might happen if someone tried to erase any of the content of Puberty Blues that would now be considered politically incorrect.
This paragraph of Lette’s article really caught my eye:
"Of course, some language is inexcusable. Agatha Christie’s use of the N-word in a title should never have been condoned. And books glorifying colonisation need an urgent factual rewrite from an Indigenous viewpoint."
This hit a nerve with me. As someone who is writing a work of historical fiction, I realised that this is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to shine a different light on a colonial story. And I’m slowly, carefully, including an Aboriginal viewpoint, with input from Aboriginal people who come from the place where my novel is set.
This isn’t easy. But I know it’s right. A different version of history needs to be told. A new version, with current eyes. Because we now know what we didn’t know before. My generation is kinder. We’ve evolved.
I’ve been researching my novel for some time now and, in the course of that work, I’ve come across some grotesque and racist depictions of Aboriginal life. These have been the fodder for the collective imagination here in Australia.
I discovered one colonial author called Mary Gaunt. Mary was unusual for her time because she was an independent woman and made a living from her pen. But she was racist as all get out. Her book Kirkham’s Find is essentially about a young woman’s efforts to establish an independent life. But it also includes the cold and brutal killing of several Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, whom Gaunt portrays as sneaky and evil.
Mary Gaunt told her white colonialist version of the truth.
But there’s a giant gap between that truth and reality. The stories that white people told themselves made it seem alright at the time. But what they were doing was weaving strands of hatred into our social fabric. A legacy remains from this. On average, Aboriginal people live up to nine years less than non-Aboriginal people. And, according to the Australian Law Reform Commission, although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around two percent of the national population, they comprise 27 percent of prisoners in Australia.
Am I saying that these phenomena arise because an entire culture has been depicted poorly in literature? Yes. Because literature represents its milieu. It reflects the attitudes and mores of the time it is written, and these ways of thinking permeate a society. They make their way into minds and hearts and, in so many countries that have been colonised, they’ve crushed souls. These destructive forces have left cultures decimated, with so much to rebuild.
We can’t erase that. We can understand it though. And we can use that knowledge to lead different, better lives – and to help others to do so, too.
This means that the version of history I’m writing in my novel is much more woke. I’m a woman with a way of thinking that’s unapologetically representative of today.
It’s for this reason that I’m not in favour of rewriting anything Dahl wrote. We need to know what it was like back then. We need these records of the time.
This fantastic article by Dennis Glover shows what might happen if we mess with history. In it, he compares the tinkering with Dahl’s books to the work undertaken by Winston and his colleagues in George Orwell’s 1984:
"Let’s recap. It is 1984 and deep underground in the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith is going about his job rewriting back editions of the Party’s official organ, The Times, to 'rectify' old news stories to ensure they reflect Big Brother’s current political needs."
Glover decries this rewriting because it will only lead to further distortion of the truth.
Will there ever be one perfect version of the truth? It’s unlikely. We humans are too disparate, our views so vastly different and our perspectives stained by our own beliefs. So my version of truth will be different to yours and that of every other human, ad infinitum. But can I interpret history differently from those who lived in the past? Yes, I can. That is the nature of art. Can I go back and change the art of another person? No, I can’t. They told their version of the truth. And it is our job to interpret it.
Overworked and overwhelmed parents and teachers everywhere may shudder at the thought of debating Dahl’s work with kids, rather than simply sharing it with them. But as challenging as it is to question the stories many of us grew up with, this is our role. Likewise, I don’t want Mary Gaunt to be erased. I want the evidence to stand. As ugly as her ideas are, we need to examine them, to unpack them, to debate them and to decide what we want for ourselves. Art feeds discussion, which in turn helps us grow.
And, as an artist who is writing a book, I don’t want anyone to come along and change it when I’m dead. I’m carefully choosing every word. I don’t want any of them to be erased.