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The Booker-prize winning writer discusses BULLIE'S HOUSE with Michael Walling - before the start of rehearsals for the Border Crossings production

Thomas Keneally

MW: Tom, I'm asking you to think back quite a long time to discuss BULLIE'S HOUSE, since the play dates from 1980. I wonder why you think it's arousing such interest now - we're doing it on tour in England, and there are plans for a production in New York.....  

TK: I think it’s a timeless story. It shows that almost without ill-will, one culture can be a virus on another. And the adjustment Bullie tries to make itself makes absolute sense in a situation where his culture is under threat of another, but brings only a tragedy of misunderstanding and a tragedy of clashing laws. This is a story which is occurring all over the world at the moment. Given that Western culture has achieved an extraordinary level of technological stridency, it is a daily phenomenon, and on both sides of the cultural border, those who try to make an honest accommodation often suffer Bullie’s fate. 

MW: You'd engaged with Aboriginal culture before BULLIE'S HOUSE - in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for example: was it a different experience to work with Indigenous Australian performers in the theatre as opposed to writing a novel about the culture?  

TK: The actors who played in BULLIE'S HOUSE were accomplished, and some of them more tribalised (to use that terrible term) than others. In their culture, as one of them pointed out to me, it is considered any fool can be an actor. For the elders the important question is not whether you can act and dance - being able to do so is a tribal given - but whether you have performed your ceremonial duties as one of the people; whether, that is, you have performed your earth-renewing dreaming. 

The other thing I noticed about the actors was that they did not say, "Wow, here we are at the Long Wharf." To them the centre of things was Australian, and the United States got points in their minds only when it took the trouble to be like Australia. 

Otherwise it was the Netherworld. 

MW: The Berndt monograph about the Elcho Island memorial is a very clear source for the play, and it's one from which you've taken some really detailed information: the diving kit for example, and the film made by the American anthropologists. On the other hand, the whole character of Doolie, the end of the play and so on - that's all your own invention. Can you tell me about the process by which you chose to fictionalise these events, and why you made the decisions you did? 

TK: About the monograph, it was the departure point. I wanted to write a credible story of cultural dispossession on my own bat. I suppose the progress of the latter part of the story is explained under the general heading of dramatic effect. I did not want people to see it as merely a regional tale, a tale of one island, but a tale of many islands, coasts and hinterlands. As to the decisions I made, I’m afraid these having been taken more than twenty years back, I can’t quite remember my conscious intentions, except to say, I was aware culture-clash is a potent and explosive matter, and its victims do not merely lose an icons or two - they also perish through making decisions which are rational within their understanding of the new culture but which are doomed to destroy them. 

If you consider Montezuma, or the King of the Incas, or Bennelong, the famed Sydney aboriginal, you see that force at work in the destruction of all these men. 

Simply by trying to work out what the other culture means and so relate to it, till a man or woman can become a heretic and a perceived traitor to both sides. 

MW: I understand that, when you wrote the play, you were unaware that Buramara and Willy - the real-life prototypes for Bullie and Jimmie - were still alive. Do you think the play might have been in some way different had you known this? 

TK: With an increasing sensitivity to the rights of Aboriginals to their own tales, I don’t think I would write this play now, purely because of the risk of any anguish it might have for those still living. Given, however, the existence of the play, and the fact that Aboriginal peoples of a range of tribal backgrounds have acted in it, I suppose I should not take it back, especially since I never intended to take a story from the Elcho Island people - the story had already been specifically told in the monograph, anyhow. And again, I did not intend the play to refer to any living or dead person, or to any specific island. 

MW: To your mind, is Bullie's plan to bring out the ranga primarily a means to access the perceived wealth of the white world, or is it more by way of a spiritual rapprochement? 

TK: Bullie’s plan may have material elements, but it is above all - to use your term - an attempt at spiritual and cultural rapprochement. With all revealed, the pestering ends. Christ and the Hero Ancestors inhabit the same ether. Peace exists, magisterium is shared. Thus Bullie is killed for the same reason as the Inquisition killed the priest Giordano Bruno - because he believed in more than one orthodoxy and tried to make peace between one mental planet and another. 

MW: I'm fascinated by the forms of English you employ for the Aboriginal characters. Did you make a conscious effort to write a hybrid English, with the colloquial poetry that you find in a lot of post-colonial literatures and oratures? I'm reminded at times of Synge, or Soyinka....... 

TK: This is based on talking to Aboriginal peoples around Australia. I imagine the characters speaking English with whites, but carrying an English-influenced argot in their own language. If you think of Synge or Soyinka, I have no objection at all, as you could imagine! 

MW: You say that Doolie's djarada chants didn't work at all when you tried them in English......  

TK: Djarada are like most enhancing rituals - they work best if the person involved has charm.  

MW: Was it your intention in the final scene to imply that Jimmie would die in custody? Were you deliberately engaging with the deaths in custody issue?  

TK: One had merely to talk to Aboriginals and others to find that prison was lethal to them. One of the cast at the Long Wharf who later "borrowed" a friend’s car hanged himself rather than face arrest, and the horror of confinement and its danger to Aboriginals has in recent times meant that Aboriginal offenders are turned over to a victim’s family for ritual blood punishment rather than locked in jail. The deaths in custody were so numerous even before the issue became public that magistrates and judges in remote places became willing to countenance Grievous Bodily Harm as a punishment rather than lock up a tribal Aboriginal.  

Heath Bergersen and Natasha Wanganeen in BULLIE'S HOUSE


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