In my six years at uni, Tony stood out from other teachers. He was interested in his students. He was honest. And he had a palpable desire to share his passion for language and storytelling. Fast forward fifteen years and I stumbled across his face on The Age homepage — he had won the 2017 Patrick White Literary Award for his ongoing contribution to Australian literature. A quick google search showed this wasn’t Tony’s first accolade — his list of awards was long. And not only is he a highly celebrated author but a respected community activist and distinguished public intellectual. I feel incredibly lucky to have been in Tony’s creative writing class not once, but twice, and so grateful that he took the time to meet up with an old student on a near 40 degree day.
“I didn’t finish high school until I was an adult.
As a kid, I was always interested in ideas, reading and writing, and as I grew up, I had a lingering sense that I could have done well at school. At the age of 29, with encouragement from my wife (she told me to stop talking and just go and do it), I went to Broadie TAFE night school and completed my HSC.
My career had started with 10 years in the fire brigade, but I really enjoyed studying and soon found myself doing a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University.
I had planned to finish my degree and then teach in a high school, but I wound up staying at Melbourne University for almost 25 years. I did a Master of Arts in Creative Writing, then a PhD in post-war welfarism, and I taught both history and writing.
My PhD looked at the way that inner city Melbourne was impacted by different welfare measures, and the way that the poor were targeted in both a positive and negative sense. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my forties, and there are definitely things that I learnt throughout my PhD that linger in my work. Disadvantaged and marginalised groups are key to my writing.
My first novel, Shadowboxing, features ten interlinked stories around the life of a boy growing up in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs in the sixties. It was inspired by Drown, a collection of short stories about Dominican immigrants settling in America.
While I don’t like to pre-empt how readers receive my work, I am trying to highlight that inequality is often caused by external circumstances and that our judgements of people can often be very hasty.
Through my own experiences growing up and through my teaching, I have learnt that anyone can very quickly find themselves in a difficult situation. For example, as part of a City of Port Phillip project called Rumours, I’ve been working with people who are living in rooming houses or on the streets, and while I’ve never written about their stories per se, I’ve learnt how easily anyone can find themselves facing homelessness. I’ve taught people who were very secure in their lives until a relationship broke down or a child passed, and they lost sense of themselves. I’ve taught other groups facing disadvantage such as kids in juvenile detention and aboriginal elders. With this in mind, I try to write about people in a way that gives depth to their experience.
I left Melbourne University three years ago after becoming the inaugural recipient of the Dr Bruce McGuinness Indigenous Research Fellowship at Victoria University. Over five years, I am looking at the relationship between climate change, climate justice, inequality and indigenous ecological knowledge. This has involved writing research essays, opinion pieces and grants and presenting keynote addresses and guest lectures.
There are two major ideas I’m exploring through my fellowship.
The first is that indigenous communities globally, but particularly in Australia, North America and the Pacific, are being impacted more immediately and more drastically by climate change than other communities. We need to look at ways of ensuring these communities can survive on their own country. This issue of climate justice also flows into the experience of disadvantage in a more general sense – the poorer you are, the more you are impacted by things like extreme weather and natural disaster.
The second idea is around knowledge systems that can help the west understand climate change differently. Many communities have knowledge systems that encourage us to see that the environment is not separate to people. We need to start thinking more philosophically about our relationship to land, and traditional communities have such a lot to offer in this regard – but these voices are not being heard.
My interest in this area stemmed largely from a project I had previously done with a group of disadvantaged 15-year-olds from all around the world. We explored the relationship between creativity and climate change, and I found that kids are a lot more invested in the issue than we assume. A lot of them were deeply passionate and very frustrated with adults who they felt weren’t doing enough.
It got me thinking about the way we communicate about climate change. Although it is steeped in science, there needs to be different ways for people to interact with the climate change discussion. We can engage diverse groups of people in this difficult conversation through writing, film and photography.
I’ve got two and a half years left of the fellowship and ideally, I’d like to come up with a model for talking to different groups about climate change and bringing them together. We’re working out at Laverton Community Centre, we’re working with aboriginal elders, and we’re going to state high schools and community meetings. Getting people who don’t necessarily agree to talk to each other without getting defensive is critical. I think everyone has to give something up. And for disadvantaged groups who don’t have material things to sacrifice, they may need to give up their distrust.
There is work being done, but it’s not enough. There are a lot of people doing the work that governments should do. Things can tip very quickly with the right leadership. If you legislate in the right way and encourage sensible discussion you can speed up a change of behaviour.
I think that in the next ten years we will see some changes. Coal as an investment economy will be dead. I think renewables will be on the rise as they become more efficient and affordable. And as soon as there is more widespread battery storage for both cars and domestic use, it will take over.
But, in the long term, the real challenge is about whether people can adapt philosophically and culturally. I was walking in the Dandenongs recently and there was rubbish all over the roadside. I found it so surprising that families are going for a weekend drive to enjoy nature, but throw tin cans, paper cups, tissues and disposable nappies out of their car.
These attitudes need to change. People need to think that they are part of country not conquerors of it.”