How storytelling brings history to life | Interview with Dr. Henry Reynolds

We met with notable historian and Honorary Research Professor of Aboriginal Studies Global Cultures & Languages from the University of Tasmania, Dr. Henry Reynolds, to talk about how the past informs the present, the synergy of narrative and history, and so much more. Enjoy!

How storytelling brings history to life | Interview with Dr. Henry Reynolds

Influential historian Dr. Henry Reynolds explores the synergy of narrative writing and history, the view through the eyes of the aboriginal people of Australia, the impact of colonialism, and how the past informs the present. Honorary Research Professor of Aboriginal Studies Global Cultures & Languages, Dr. Reynolds talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Historian Dr. Henry Reynolds

Interview Transcript

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00:01 HR: If there’s one thing, it is having the imagination and the empathy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And in a way, that I think is the most important thing that history can do.

00:21 JM: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University in North Carolina. And today on my show, I have a special guest, Professor Henry Reynolds, coming all the way from Tasmania, to talk about how he got interested in studying history when he was much younger. So, Professor Henry, can you remember back when you were a teenager? How did you start getting interested in history?

00:46 HR: Well, I think got interested even before being a teenager. My father was an amateur historian. We lived in a place which is immersed in history because Tasmania was the site of one of the great convict settlements so it has a great many buildings built before 1850. And so history was all around me. Now, the other thing is that in days before television, one of my favorite things to do when I was quite young was to look at the volumes of An Illustrated History of the World, which had many, many paintings basically, and I was fascinated by them and so I think my interest in history… But the sense that there was a past and the past was interesting, I think this goes right back probably to even before I could read. I used to pore over these pictures because we didn’t… As I said, we didn’t have television, and the colored pictures in this multi-volume history of the world was quite fascinating.

02:00 JM: That’s great. And so what did you do when you went off to college? Did you immediately start studying history or did you try different other things?

02:07 HR: Well, I began a generalized degree, as we did, which included geography, history, politics, and literature. And when I got to the end of my third year when you had to choose to specialize for an honors year I was torn between history and literature but ultimately decided upon history, even though I probably found literature and poetry more fascinating. But I think that was a wonderful grounding for a prose writer, which is what I think I am, as much as an historian.

02:47 JM: And how did that come about? Did you become a prose writer right after college or did you first become a scholar of history and then become a prose writer?

02:57 HR: Well, it’s an interesting question. I certainly think I always had an interest in language and words. And I had an interest in… Clearly, from poetry and metaphor and simile, and above all, the rhythm of prose. So I probably tried from the very beginning, but I think the next major influence was when, as a result of teaching, and I’d been a school teacher for several years before I went into a university… And I, in a sense, through lecturing, you… If you’re going to do it well, you have to be able to respond to your audience. You have to have that sense that your audience is with you, which you gain in school teaching. If you don’t do that in school teaching, you’re gonna have a terrible time.

03:57 HR: So I, in a sense, I learned how to address young undergraduates and to tell stories. I think narrative is very important and telling stories in language which was easy to understand. And from the beginning of my writing career, I felt I should address the general reader. And that’s a critical decision to make because most academics write for a selective audience, they write in journals for their peers. And I, from the start, began to write for the general reader.

04:43 HR: Now, at times, that creates the impression that you’re lightweight, you’re not a serious, earnest historian; you are writing for the populace. But I continued to do that, and after about 10 years I gave up writing for academic journals. Because I believe that they, in a way, they get all this information and they lock it up and only a very few people actually read it. So in a way, that… All those influences came together to make me, as I say, a prose writer who had a great belief in writing clear, direct prose that is accessible to a general reader.

05:36 JM: And what would you say would be your most famous work that you wrote?

05:42 HR: Well, I think it was a book called “The Other Side of the Frontier.” Now, this was the result of 10 years of research all around Australia and also in Britain, in the archives. I spent a long, long time doing this research. And I sat down to, in a way, write a general history. And I was grappling with the problem of, how do you deal with two sides of the story? How do you deal with the settlers, or the invaders, whatever word you wish to use, and the indigenous people, the First Nations? And I spent some time grappling with it; do you do a chapter here and a chapter there? And then I suddenly decided, I wonder if I could write a book from the indigenous side, from the other side of the frontier, and frontier is something that Americans are very familiar with. That is, to reverse Fredrick Jackson Turner’s idea that the frontier was the frontier of the Europeans and turn it round and write it from the other side. Now, I had no idea when I began whether I had enough information. This was long before there were computers, I just had great piles of notes from all over the place, different size bits of paper. And I didn’t… And I had been collecting, just as I went along, collecting every bit of information where people actually talked about what the indigenous people, what the aborigines were doing?

07:22 HR: And once I started going, I realized that there was enough to write a whole book. Now I’d had help because I had begun doing oral history in counsel in North Queensland, way like your far west, our far north. And that had allowed me to begin to see the story from the other side of the frontier. Now, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll just give you the one, perhaps the most important occasion. With a couple of friends, including the Torres Strait Islander man Eddie Mabo, we were interviewing very old Torres Strait Islanders who were living in Townsville. And one night we were talking to this silver-haired old gentleman, and he was orating in the way that the Islanders do about the time when they saw a ship off their island, ’cause they come from the islands in the Torres Strait. And he was saying, “We were looking out and we could see them and we didn’t know what they were doing, and we could see that they were looking at us with their, what do you call it, white man’s eyes.” And he said, “Oh yes, telescope.” [chuckle]

08:38 HR: So there we were, in a sense, vicariously seeing the white people on the deck of the ship looking at the Islanders with a white man’s eye. And in a sense, that really clicked and gave me the idea of writing a book with this distinctive perspective. So it was absolutely, no one had seen anything like it. And I was amazed that I had gathered so much material almost inadvertently, and I was able to write this book. Which is still in print, it’s still widely read. It’s probably sold 150,000 copies, which in Australia is a lot of books, maybe not in America. And in a sense, I think that was the most significant book of all.

09:36 JM: And did it open doors for you to get to know people from the First Nations? Would they write letters to you or come visit you or ask you to speak, or how did that all work out after you finished writing the book and it became more widely known?

09:52 HR: Yes, it obviously sold wide mainly amongst white Australians, but once again I can give you an anecdote. I was visiting an aboriginal settlement, which had been an Anglican mission called Yarrabah up in the rainforest. And I was talking to people. And one of the old chaps came along with a copy of The Other Side of the Frontier, and he said, “Oh,” he said, “everyone’s read this book.” [chuckle] And I’ve never seen a book in such a terrible state. You couldn’t close it, because it had been read by so many people that it sort of spread out like a fan because it had been handed around. Now, although that was only one copy, it may have been read by 100 people. So that was the sort of feedback that was so important, and they indeed… I think what they said, “We didn’t know white fellas could talk like that.”

10:58 JM: So they felt like you had really found their voice and it was surprising to them that you were white and you were able to talk from their point of view.

11:07 HR: Yes, yes, yes. “We’ve never heard white fellas talk like that,” so…

[chuckle]

11:13 JM: Now, do you find your influence in writing prose from any particular authors that you read when you were growing up, or that you find your own voice sounding like, or is it completely unique because here you are a white person trying to speak from the standpoint of an aborigine?

11:31 HR: Yes, no, I’d say it’s general. I mean, one of the people whose prose I was always… In some ways, some of the American novelists, like Steinbeck and Hemingway. You know, that direct, almost democratic prose, that is direct and short and punchy. I think that was one of the major influences. I can remember saying to a young post-graduate who was struggling with writing and, like many post-graduates, he felt that the heavier the prose, the more earnest the thoughts. That if you have important thoughts, you have to have long complex sentences. And I said to him, “Look, you’re a very vigorous young man, you go mountain climbing, why are you writing old men’s prose?”

[chuckle]

12:26 HR: “A good sentence should be like a punch, straight from the shoulder.” [chuckle]

12:32 JM: Mm-hmm. Kind of a Hemingway. Boom. [chuckle]

12:34 HR: Well, you have to learn to write a good sentence and you must start with short sentences.

12:43 JM: Yes. That’s good.

12:44 HR: And that was my… That sort of American journalism and I’m still very impressed by American journalism, in the sense of wanting to communicate with a wide audience. And I don’t think this is true of British prose, journalism. So yes, a lot of things came together. I’m almost going back to Wordsworth, you know, in Lyrical Ballads, when he said that he wanted to use the language ordinarily used by men. So, yes, in that sense there is a demotic quality about it, of writing for as wide a readership as you can get.

13:29 JM: Wonderful. So were you a bit surprised to see any of the other names on a list of famous historians and to see your name right there in the midst, or was…

13:42 HR: Oh yes, I was quite astonished. I mean, I didn’t know them all, I had to go back and actually read some of them I hadn’t heard of, but of course, some of them are very famous indeed. So I thought, “What am I doing in this company?” But of course, it was… I was delighted.

14:02 JM: And has it been hard for you to pass up opportunities to leave Tasmania, to perhaps teach in Sydney or Melbourne or the UK or United States of America, or… So how was that? When were the opportunities that you had to permanently leave? Have you taken sabbatical time away from Tasmania? Tell us a little bit about your travels.

14:26 HR: Yes. Well, I spent 30 years in North Queensland.

14:31 JM: Oh, wow.

14:31 HR: Now I went there as a very young person to a very, very, very small, the least prestigious university college in the country. It had just started in redneck country in far North Queensland, latitude 19.

14:46 JM: So do they call them rednecks in Australia, same as they do…

14:54 HR: Oh yes, oh yes.

[chuckle]

14:54 HR: So it was a racist redneck society.

14:56 JM: So this is kind of like where Crocodile Dundee would hang out with his friends?

15:01 HR: Absolutely, absolutely. And those sort of characters really did exist.

15:06 JM: Wow.

15:07 HR: And the university was an amazing thing to do, to put a university college, and it was one of the first that was put in provincial Australia. And so most people went for a short time, and this included quite a few Americans who passed through three or four years and then worked their way up. But we in a sense got caught because my wife Margaret first became a counselor on the City Council and then for 16 years she was in the Senate, the Australian Senate as a Senator from Queensland. So in a way that kept us in North Queensland. And by the time that I had established a name for myself, we really were stuck there.

16:02 HR: But I mean we were very involved. It’s not that I regretted that, neither of us because we really made our careers from that place. And in a sense, why my viewpoint was often different was that I was looking at Australia from the North down. And almost all the other writers coming from Melbourne and Sydney, and even Brisbane and Canberra, Perth, Adelaide, looked at Australia from the South up. And in a way that made what I was often saying very distinctive.

16:39 JM: Wow, that’s amazing. Well, what brought you back to Tasmania in your retirement? Was it family ties or…

16:45 HR: Yes. Well, we’d always intended to go back. Tasmanians… You know, Tasmania has a hold on people. You become very much committed to Tasmania as a place, and it is a very distinctive place. So that we were always intended to return and… As we did when Margaret… The minute that Margaret finished in the Senate, we said, “Well, pack up the car and we’ll go back to Tasmania,” where we had family. And that’s why we ended up back here. So I’ve never actually worked in the capital cities. We travelled there a lot, we travelled, spent a lot of time in Britain, we’ve been all over Europe and America. And we’ve now got a family in New York, so we… Until the recent developments, we’d spend quite a bit of time every year in Manhattan where my daughter lives and works at the UN. So we haven’t felt locked in provincialism. We have made provincialism a virtue, in a sense.

18:02 JM: Well, as we close out this interview, what could you say that we, as the 2020 group of people that we are, in this sort of strange world we live in right now, can take home from the perspective that you brought to the other side of the frontier? So this very different perspective about a historical event that happened in the past, as people were coming from Europe to Australia, is there anything that we can sort of take home the lessons from that book and from your research in the history of that time period that would be important as we move forward in the next decades?

18:43 HR: Well, I have to think that it is a very small part of the whole turning around of the world. I mean, first with decoloniz ation, the rapid decolonization, political decolonization, and all the changes that that brought. And in particular, the sense that the white man… One of the books I wrote that was widely read in America is ____ which was indeed about the way in which the white man whilst in Australia and New Zealand and Canada, and the Western… I think you call it the Pacific Slope, don’t you? These places were the places that faced the problem of dealing with Asia and Japan and China. And of course, as you know, they shared a lot in common, of discrimination and immigration restriction and all of these things, a very, very common.

19:57 HR: And in some ways, these ideas became significant all over certainly the Anglo-sphere, so that in a sense it’s trying to take the story back, even take the camera back to the other side of the white man’s spread throughout the world. And in a way we are still dealing with that, as you find every day in the United States. And it is, I think if there’s one thing, it is having the imagination and the empathy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And in a way that, I think, is the most important thing that history can do. It can take us out of our own ambience and put us in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes. And that I think is a very worthy thing and politically important thing to do.

21:08 JM: Well, thank you so much, Professor Reynolds. It was just really a pleasure to get to know you and to hear your story. Thank you for taking the time today to spend with us.

21:18 HR: Well, thank you for showing an interest in this old chap at the far end of the world.

21:27 JM: You’re welcome. It was truly a pleasure. Thank you.

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