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How fiction can honour forgotten voices

How fiction can honour forgotten voices

Recovering the voices and experiences of regional women is essential in understanding the influence that past and place has had on North Queensland. In practice, recovering the stories of others is ethically difficult. JCU PhD candidate Louise Henry is embracing the challenge in order to amplify the historical voices of regional women.

In Queensland literature of the early 20th century, the voices and experiences of regional women are quiet at best. Louise is amplifying some of these previously silenced voices.

“I want to recover some of the stories of our own regional past that haven’t previously been focused on,” she said.

Louise is using the creative practice portion of her PhD to write a fictional novel that speaks to the experiences of regional women by using the records her own Grandmothers’ lives.

The choice of fiction as the genre enables Louise to work through some of the ethical considerations that surround the retelling of another person’s life. Of particular difficulty for her was the varied volume of archival records of each Grandmother. Of one – a ward of the state from the age of five – there is only a record of enrolment at the Townville Central School, a newspaper clipping of her marriage, and family stories and memories. Of the other – born into a well-off family – there is substantially more in the form of newspaper clippings of school results, society events, and personal milestones.

Louise is uncovering the lost voices of women in Queensland in the 20th century.

Louise is finding lost voices in the scant records of the Townsville Orphanage where her Grandmother lived as a child. Image:  The Queensland State Archives

Fiction opens a space for Louise to use the threads of her Grandmothers’ lives in an ethical way. Her Grandmothers’ records will inspire a story of regional women’s experiences in general, rather than an attempt to recreate an accurate history for each woman.  This means she can speak to the experiences of her Grandmothers without the risk of misrepresenting them.

“I’m presenting what could have happened rather than assuming, or asking the reader to assume, that it is an accurate representation of what happened,” she said.

Louise is striving to capture the voices of everyday life for women, rather than the larger political brushstrokes of the time. “The few women writers in North Queensland during the early part of the 1900s were writing to enact change for women, so their stories –while valuable – aren’t usually the day-to-day experiences of women, but stories that are ideologically driven”. Of particular interest to her is the recovery of precisely this often-silent perspective of the day-to day lives of regional women. “These are often the stories of women who worked hard and had very little time to write down their thoughts or feelings,” Louise said.

There are very few records available about women of the time.

Often letters like this approval of acceptance into St Vincent’s Orphanage are part of very few archival records for women of the time. Image: Queensland State Archives

The amplification of these quiet voices of historical record is an essential contribution to the tapestry of North Queensland’s history and its present.

“I want to contribute to how we perceive ourselves today, and to do that you need to understand all the elements of how our society developed and grew,” she said. “We are made up of multiple different perspectives, and I think to get a fuller understanding of ourselves we need to understand our past.”

October 15 is the UN International Day of Rural Women, a time to honour the invaluable contribution of rural women to development.

The empowerment of rural women and girls is essential to building a prosperous, equitable and peaceful future for all on a healthy planet.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

Do you have a story to tell? Find your voice with JCU Arts or Social Sciences.

Feature image: Three children posing in front of an iron and timber dwelling in North Queensland [NQ ID 1209] Photographer: Frederic Charles Hall Collection: Reverend Frederic Charles Hall Photographic Collection, James Cook University Library Special Collections Available under Licence – Creative Commons: Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives 4.0

Published 5 Jun 2019