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Written by

Stephanie Schierhuber


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

5 June 2019

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A mission to preserve and present

Recovering the voices and experiences of regional women is essential in understanding the influence that past and place has had on North Queensland.

As we enter Australian Women's History Month, read about JCU PhD candidate Louise Henry, who is embracing the challenge of amplifying 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. In order to recover these quiet and infrequent voices of history Louise is carefully weaving the archival fragments together using fiction.

“I want to recover some of the stories of our own regional past that haven’t previously been focused on,” she says. In doing so, Louise's work will contribute to illustrating the diverse history of North Queensland.

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

"In the novel I have a main character who is looking into the lives of her grandmothers and in doing so collects historical artefacts that have some connection to them," Louise says. "These artefacts don't always have a direct connection to her grandmothers but tell her something about the past place and time that her grandmothers lived in and something of the lives of women living there at the time."

Archival record from St Vincent's Orphanage
Black and white photo of colonial era houses

Using fiction to preserve history

Using fiction as the genre of her work 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.

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 says.

This unique use of fiction places Louise's novel in the category of 'memory text', a term used by academic Kate Mitchell to convey what historical fiction can contribute to our understanding of the past. Reading a text as a memory text situates the historical novel as an act of memory and puts the reader in an active role in the production of meaning.

“This approach to writing women’s stories in historical fiction recognises that the meaning of the past is produced by those who reimagine it, recreate it, and represent it.”

PhD Candidate Louise Henry

“Given the limitations in historical evidence of women’s lives that can occur, developing the scope for memory texts such as novels like mine expands the presence of women in our collective imaginary,” Louise says.

Beauty in the mundane

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 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 says.

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 says. “We are made up of multiple different perspectives, and I think to get a fuller understanding of ourselves we need to understand our past.”

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Louise Henry

PhD Student

Louise Henry is a resident of Far North Queensland and grew up surrounded by the rainforest and cane fields of the area. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at JCU Cairns. Louise also works as a tutor at the university part-time.

Louise’s research interests encompass narrative ways to ethically tell the stories of others such as family members. She is concerned with historiography and representations of the past in fiction. Louise also seeks to foreground the stories of regional women whose lives and experiences receive little coverage or attention.