‘This is clearly an important subject, but – and I don’t mean to be rude – why does your particular project matter?’ asked Professor McCombe, the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities. Her fluorescent-purple glasses, skunk-like streaks, and ludicrous dotted dress did nothing to compromise her authority; her stare made Verity sweat.
‘That’s a good question,’ simpered Verity. Professor McCombe did not reflect Verity’s smile. Instead, she squinted at her concluding PowerPoint slide as though it were an autostereogram that might divulge a three-dimensional answer. Verity combed her frizzy hair with her fingers, as if to the give the impression of order, before continuing. ‘The Black War has been heavily researched, as my lit review shows. No one, however, has looked seriously at the social histories. The ethical and legal questions were not in the minds of those involved. I want to find out what was by examining the experiences of the colonists and the Indigenous Tasmanians in parallel. I intend to challenge both the colonial-centered vision that excuses, as well as the guilt-driven approach that victimises and blames. In other words, I will perform an objective reevaluation to correct previous imbalances.’ With an ember of ferocity in her voice, Verity added, ‘I believe that matters’.
Professor McCombe thanked Verity for her answer and said nothing further. When there were no other questions, the small crowd of academics and fellow postgrads applauded, interrupting the chair’s concluding words. Verity Gaffy’s doctoral candidature was, officially, confirmed; her three-year scholarship was justified.
Throughout August, Verity combed the Launceston newspaper archives for references to the Black War. Any hobbies or interests she had prior to her candidature withered; any invitations from friends to go out to cocktail bars or pop-up restaurants were rejected; what little male interest that existed was ignored.
In October she presented her work-in-progress findings at the Indigenous Studies Conference in Geelong, and even had a paper – ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Representing Indigenous Social History through Colonial Accounts’ – accepted for publication in the Journal of Australian Indigenous Studies (no. 382, 2016, pp. 43-56). She was so autonomous and productive that her academic supervisor, Professor Jørgensen, was content to leave her to her own devices while he undertook a six-month research fellowship at the Universität Zürich. ‘You clearly know what you’re doing, and don’t need me getting in the way.’
In April of her second year of candidature, Verity’s father, Dr Victor Gaffy, was killed in a two-car crash. A 4WD had, according to the police officer that filled out the report, swerved into Victor’s lane, causing a head-on collision that instantly killed both drivers.
The funeral was held at a private boys’ school chapel. It was a sandstone building that retained heat, causing Verity’s hair to frizz and make-up to smear. She declined to speak, leaving eulogy duty to her Aunt Heidi. Heidi’s words were summative and sweet. She recalled six-year old Victor stealing and sharing cake; Victor’s exhaustive medical study funded by late-night taxi shifts; Victor’s loving and inspirational role as a husband, father, and brother; Victor’s quiet yet heroic endurance in the face of his wife’s early death to leukemia; and Victor’s professional accomplishments, specifically his research into breast cancer screening. ‘Despite the irrationality of his death, Victor’s life contributed so much to so many.’ Heidi paused for impact before leaving the brass, eagle-shaped lectern.
Verity held up her order of service to hide her tearless face. Printed on the cover was a youthful photograph of Victor. He had been a handsome man with a slender neck and dainty nose, neither of which had been passed on. Verity struggled to recall her father’s face when they last spoke. Her dry eyes and the murkiness of her memories made her feel heartless.
At the lunch that followed, Verity kept to herself. As she gnawed at the corner of a crustless sandwich, Heidi approached and insisted on making conversation. ‘You must come back next week to watch your cousin march with the Air Force cadets in the ANZAC Day parade. It would mean so much to him if you were there.’ Verity doubted her thirteen year-old cousin would care if she was present or not, but as her aunt was an aggressively considerate woman it was difficult to say no.
Well before nine o’clock, foreheads were shining. Heavy, salty droplets rolled down the cheeks and arms of those unfortunate enough not to be seated in shade. The ceremonial words were typical (…a day for all Australians to commemorate the self-sacrifice of past and present generations….), lifted directly from the Australian Army Website’s easy-to-follow script for secondary schools. None of the deceased were named, merely referred to in the collective as all those men and women who paid the supreme price. The marching was uncomplicated and repetitive. The school orchestra’s string section was off-key; instruments struggled to stay tuned in the expansive heat. Halfway through a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, a tiny naval cadet fainted from exhaustion. His knees buckled, his torso planted into the grass, and his round white hat rolled away a considerable distance. As the boy was retrieved and carried off on a stretcher, a seismic chuckle spread among the observing non-cadet schoolboys.
When the service concluded and the cadets marched off, a chubby boy in a faded Akubra turned to his mother and asked if they could get McDonald’s for lunch. She nodded and, upon catching Verity’s gaze, told him to ‘shush’. The boy clutched his fist and whispered, ‘yes’, extending the ‘s’ like a snake’s hiss.
Following the ceremony, Verity declined Heidi’s request to join her for ANZAC Day lunch. Instead, she drove home and, after a shower to wash off the sweat, returned to her research. Doubt, however, disrupted. Elusive grief for her father felt petty in contrast to her study of raped Aboriginal girls, burnt children, and servants forced to be soldiers whose throats were eventually slit. Verity tried to remain objective and persist, but the kaleidoscope of unknown horror shattered the stability of her plan and state. She worked well past her usual bedtime, fueled by coffee and anxiety, reading and rereading the opening sentence of the second chapter of her draft thesis: The legality of killing Aborigines was unclear to colonists. Her voice felt imprecise, her language and aspect deficient. She was drawing vague conclusions, illustrating only the borders of an enigmatic history. She took a chewed biro and fresh notebook, and with a strained wrist filled page after page with unbroken, imagined thoughts of a shot member of the Leetermairremener band whose death at Oyster Bay was alluded to in Hugh Hull’s memoirs:
…my slit ear waggles, the buzz of bees, barks and howls, pale-faced snarls, absorbent ground swelling beneath…
Verity believed this imaginative attempt, as fickle as it was, better grasped the slipperiness of this particular social history. She continued to write well into the night.
At the university’s end-of-year colloquium, Verity delivered a presentation on The Inadequacy of Collective Representation in Historical Studies. ‘The notion that we are simply in a time of redundant entities, of collective groups, of administrative numbers must be rejected. The individual experience must be treated not simply as worthy, but requisite.’
When Verity concluded her presentation, there was tepid applause. Professor McCombe’s hand shot up before the chair had even asked for questions. Today Professor McCombe wore a fuzzy jumper that matched her fluorescent-purple spectacles. ‘There are, presumably, hundreds who died in this genocide, or war as you have called it.’
‘It is estimated that there were over a thousand killed. Approximately two hundred colonists and well over eight hundred Tasmanians,’ said Verity. She faltered for a moment, feeling uneasy discussing such a sombre topic wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. ‘Some argue that the numbers were higher, others lower.’
‘In any case, even if you could hope to represent each individual narrative, why would you want to?’ asked Professor McCombe.
‘My initial intention was to take a two-sided approach, but that still felt like an oversimplification. This is a fundamental problem in representing Australian history: there is too much silence.’
Professor McCombe nodded. ‘And how does this theory impact on your research?’
‘This is my research,’ said Verity.
‘I assumed what you presented today was simply a theoretical possibility. This project – this impossible project – is not the one you proposed.’ Professor McCombe folded her arms.
Among the audience, Verity sensed multiple buttocks shuffle. ‘My project has changed.’
‘And your supervisor has agreed to this?’
When Professor Jørgensen returned from Universität Zürich, he addressed Professor McCombe’s concerns. ‘This is a creative project, not a historical one.’ This was not criticism. Professor Jørgensen was not opposed to novel methodological approaches provided they utilised appropriate theoretical frameworks. ‘It is an ambitious, interdisciplinary project.’ He scratched his blonde beard, causing a tiny flake of dead skin to fall to the ground. ‘I fear, however, that I am not equipped to supervise such a thesis. I can stay on as a co-supervisor only.’
Verity’s revised proposal required a departmental change and the sacrifice of her remaining scholarship. She was transferred to the supervisory hands of Dr Gabriella Righi, the university’s Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. An author of four novels and a collection of essays, Dr Righi was best known for Caricatures, an experimental multi-voiced text that depicted the creation and resulting controversy of William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith. Verity read it in preparation for their first meeting. She found Caricatures to be an imprecise novel. Its historical accuracy was convincing, yet it seemed to encourage the uncertainty of the characters’ motivations, which left Verity feeling cold and confused. She was not certain if this was a good thing or not.
When Verity entered her office, Dr Righi was wiping grime from her windows. ‘You have an extremely claustrophobic sense of perspective,’ said Dr Righi. She did not cease her cleaning or bother to say hello. Verity suspected she was contemptuous of small talk and made a note not to bring up personal matters. ‘You are too deep in your characters’ heads,’ continued Dr Righi. ‘Even if you are attempting a sort of Faulknerian “unbroken surfaced-confusion,” it should still add up to something.’ Dr Righi threw out the grimy tissue she had used to clean the window before picking up a printout of Verity’s work; her fingers left smudges on the paper. ‘It should also not be so repetitive. For example, four of these dying colonists’ voices are almost identical. Here you write …blood dripped, his voice croaked, eyelids squeezed… and then,’ Dr Righi flicked through Verity’s pages, ‘here you write …lids clutched, guttural utterances escaped, blood poured like cream’. She handed Verity back her reams, freshly chicken-pocked with red-pen corrections. ‘Your characters need to justify their existence and assert themselves as individuals. But before you come to that, you’re going to have to think about wider structure. You cannot, in this thesis or anywhere else, hope to represent every single person for the simple reason that you cannot know every single person. You’re lucky if you understand half a dozen. You’re lucky if you understand yourself. And this has been a constant problem throughout the history of fiction. In An Unwritten Novel, for example, Virginia Woolf sees passengers on the train and imagines what their life is like.’
Verity opened a notebook and jotted down ‘Unwritten Novel’.
‘When the narrator’s imagination is revealed to be completely wrong,’ Dr Righi continued, ‘she acknowledges the failure of the whole enterprise, yet finds consolation in her perseverance’. Dr Righi ran her fingers through her mould-grey curls. ‘I guess what I’m trying to say is, you’ve got your work cut out for you.’
Verity thanked Dr Righi and left, feeling as confused as she did when she had completed Caricatures.
She decided to read as much fiction as possible in order to find a structural alternative. Verity read the encyclopedic novels of the Oulipo group, the hypothetical fictions of Borges that depicted models of the infinite, and the network fictions of hypertext writers that offered webs of possibilities. She even watched the films of Eisenstein that depicted collective protagonists through carefully chosen images. All of these, however, practiced avoidance or disparity or both, and it was this avoidance and disparity that was the problem she was trying to resolve in the first place. Verity maintained it was not absurd to know a thousand people. A President, or Prime Minister, or even low-level celebrity easily met that many people in a year. A Facebook friend of hers had, supposedly, 2,307 ‘friends’.
The Launceston newspaper archives, however, were an insufficient resource. Research into the particularities of the various tribal, band, and human histories took her only so far. Much of Tasmania’s Indigenous culture and oral history left no trace, at least no trace Verity could hope to comprehend. There were just so many dead languages, dead histories, dead.
Her solution came from a collective of Dutch poets, Poule des doods, who wrote poems for those citizens who pass away without friends or family, which they then performed at empty funerals. Verity wrote three poems in this fashion, quickly, without self-censoring:
No record is worthy of respect.
No age, gender, birth. Nationality?
What did you call it?
Did you call it? Did you identify with that beneath your feet?
You had feet. Of that I am certain.
I can picture only a single hair upon a single knuckle,
yet could fill whole continents with that which I do not know:
your eternal secret.
DNA is traceable, you are not.
Your voice is not.
Your language is not.
Your last exhale, huff, sigh
floats on these winds.
I feel it on my neck.
White of eye.
A digit in an approximate number,
long-since dissolved by waters long-since evaporated.
Let me imagine your bygone palate.
Let me taste the juice of extinct fruits
on your opaque tongue.
‘Her work shows no improvement, and I fear she is not capable of producing a final product,’ said Dr Righi, incapable of sugarcoating. ‘We’re now over four and a half years into her candidature and what she’s produced is largely indecipherable. It’s attempting to be high modernist, but it’s simply disjointed and repetitive and, quite frankly, dull.’
‘I think a theoretical position on this wider potential project and the beginnings of the project itself would suffice,’ said Professor Jørgensen, smiling in an attempt to inject the meeting with reassurance.
‘We simply don’t have time,’ said Professor McCombe, who had been asked to chair the meeting to ensure a conclusion was reached. She perched at the head of the rectangular table, peering over her purple glasses. ‘All of us admire your ambitions, Verity. And we hope that you will go on and become successful. But, as an institution, we have put a lot of resources into you and we expect something out of it. I know it sounds crass, but that’s the reality.’
As Verity absorbed these criticisms, she steadied her breathing so as to prevent her face appearing too pink.
‘What we need, by the end of the week, is a clear schedule and plan for completion,’ said Professor McCombe. ‘Your project at the moment is simply too large. You need to set stricter borders.’
‘But setting borders is the problem I wish to resolve. That is the project,’ said Verity, trying to remove any sense of complaint or upset from her tone.
‘Then you need to amend your project,’ said Professor McCombe.
Verity wished to debate further, but Professor McCombe, Dr Righi, and Professor Jørgensen all had other commitments. Given recent cutbacks, they were all juggling far too many teaching, research, and administrative duties; their worlds were incapable of standing still for too long. This incapacity to devote time and consideration, Verity wished to point out, was a large part of the problem.
When she provided no alternative, Verity’s candidacy was, as warned, withdrawn.
She took up a position with Write Now!, a state-funded literacy program that helped unemployed adults and recent immigrants. This job was the complete opposite of the isolation of doctoral research. Every day, from nine to three, in room 1.07 of Community building C, she taught a class of ten: Haya, an elderly Syrian refugee who had lived in Australia for only a month; Faisal and Mohammad, two Pakistani brothers whose mother did not wish to send them to public school; Jean, a Frenchman who Verity suspected had recently divorced his Australian wife; Khadija, an elderly Afghan woman who could not identify Australia on a map; Laarni and Tala, two Filipino women who always stuck to themselves and chatted with ferocity; Jacob and Kai, two Australian dropouts who Verity wished had stuck out high school; and Tuan, a Vietnamese man who had lost his job as a bus driver due to poor pronunciation. Verity devoted multiple unpaid hours to tailoring materials that took into consideration the cultural differences of each individual student. The students, who were required to attend in order to receive Centrelink payments, however, showed little improvement or gratitude. Vocabulary and grammatical patterns were rarely retained for more than a day. Never once did Verity receive a thank you for her efforts.
Her class plans quickly became generic. Neither teacher nor student wished to spend longer than required in room 1.07. When class ended at 3 o’clock, books were slammed, seats were scraped, and sighs of exasperation were so harsh they raised the temperature of the room several degrees. Verity regarded her students with equal apathy, as simply a class of ten, as an administrative number.
Yet on the weekends she persisted with her incomplete thesis. She did not work with a view to publication, but simply pursued the personal satisfaction of finishing what she had started. There was no hurry. History was going nowhere.
Seven years since beginning her thesis, Verity had completed 183 dying thoughts and 896 poems. She printed all 6,418 pages. Printing services charged $419. The pile was nearly half as tall as she: twice as long as Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, though shorter than the alleged length of Artamène.
After learning that Verity had finally completed her thesis, Aunt Heidi invited her to the dinner party of a friend who worked with Au.Ink, an independent publishing house. Margaret, an editor who claimed to have predilections for experimental fiction, appeared curious. ‘From what Heidi has told me, this sounds like a very important work.’ Margaret had short red hair and reminded Verity of a matchstick. As soon as Verity revealed that her thesis was over six thousand pages, however, Margaret’s enthusiasm shriveled. She maintained a smile, but her glances moved elsewhere, seeking out alternate conversational possibilities. When she told Verity, ‘Well, good luck with everything,’ there was a shimmer of sarcastic pity in her voice.
Verity bought the domain name www.theblackwar.com.au and uploaded her entire work. She tried to advertise it on link-sharing websites and social media, but as months went by the number of visitors never exceeded one hundred. To what extent those visitors engaged with her work, Verity did not know, but she was quite certain no one had come close to reading it in its entirety.
One Friday evening, after declining yet another of Aunt Heidi’s dinner invitations where she would no doubt insist Verity try the latest on-line dating service, Verity opted to reread the whole thing in one go. She absorbed it quickly, fueled by mugs of instant coffee. When focus fluttered, she took a powernap, and then as soon as she woke resumed reading. Its size was overwhelming. It had no temporal sense and much of her poetry, Verity conceded, was quite poor. Yet there were moments when, in a dreary state, the dying voices seemed to meld together. Amongst this paralytic, throbbing discord, hints of a vague harmony produced a fleeting, ancient ache.
As sunlight spilled through her window, she finished the final page, which she placed atop the pile. It teetered over; thousands of pages scattered across the floor. Verity did not pick them up. Instead, she showered, ate muesli, drank a triple-scooped cup of instant coffee, stepped over the manuscript, and left for work.
That morning the train station, despite crowds, felt uncongested. Verity caught glimpses of so many strange individuals. She buzzed from her binge reading. It was as though her empathetic muscles had been toned. As she boarded the train, she felt breath on her neck. Without turning, Verity imagined this unseen person. She had no idea who or what she or he was. They were probably so unlike the hundreds she had attempted to represent in her manuscript. Verity closed her eyes and listened to the pulsing multitude of ambiguities.
‘Why on earth are you crying?’ asked the woman behind her.
David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly and Seizure. He was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards’ inaugural Digital Literature Award, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Viva La Novella Award, and the Overland VU Short Story Prize. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. He co-edited Westerly: New Creative, and is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch. On occasion, he writes reviews for ABR and Verity La. For more visit David’s website.