Portland Jones is a beautiful writer—a favourite of mine on the strength of her brilliant debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, which was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. I came late to reading this, but I have been singing its praises ever since, and if you haven’t yet read it I urge you to (as Molly Meldrum used to say) do yourself a favour and seek out a copy.
Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Portland’s second novel was scheduled for 2022, and anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. Only Birds Above is sublime, and I think you’ll get a sense of that from reading her responses to my questions below.
Portland Jones is a writer, lecturer and horse trainer who lives and works in the Swan Valley, near Perth. She has a PhD in Literature, and in addition to her two novels she has co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties. She is currently working on a third novel and another work of non-fiction.
Arthur the blacksmith goes to war with the 10th Light Horse, to care for the horses of his fellow soldiers. When he returns, Arthur’s wife, Helen, and their children bear witness to a man forever damaged by what he has seen and suffered.
As a second war looms, Arthur insists on his son Tom going to work in Sumatra. Tom is taken prisoner by the Japanese, but is sustained by memories of life on the farm at home and a growing understanding of his father.
This big-hearted, beautiful novel captures the deep and mysterious connection between humans and horses—whose very presence lends a sweet, steady counterweight to human frailty, and whose nobility aligns with human courage.
AC: Portland, I’m intrigued that your two novels, although very different, both tell stories of war—the Vietnam War in Seeing the Elephant (2016) and now World Wars I and II in Only Birds Above. What draws you, as a novelist, to these critical historical periods of the twentieth century?
PJ: I think there are two main reasons. The first is because history, or more specifically the history of conflict, has always felt very real to me. When I was growing up my Dutch grandmother would hold us in her lap and tell stories about fighting in the resistance during the war. She used to tell us about hiding my grandfather in their house between the floor of the second storey and the ceiling of the first. They would roll back the rug, prise up the floorboards and then, once he’d squeezed himself into that tight little space, she would nail the boards back down and replace the rug. She told me how German soldiers had come to the house and yelled at her, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And she had pretended she didn’t know, although he was hiding just above their heads.
And some stories become indelible because of their context. I admired my grandmother a great deal and it wasn’t until she had been gone for several years and I started a PhD on learned helplessness in war veterans that I realised that both she and my grandfather had suffered from PTSD. My grandparents belonged to a generation that didn’t speak about trauma. PTSD was only recognised as a disorder in 1980, so people like my grandparents just lived with their responses because they didn’t have the language back then to talk about them. That realisation reframed a lot of my childhood memories of my grandparents. I saw how their lives and the lives of their children had been irredeemably altered by their experiences and I suppose that made me want to understand more.
I was born at the height of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese say). During my childhood I felt like it was a dark secret grown-ups wouldn’t talk about with children and I’ve always been suspicious of those sorts of secrets. Then the Welcome Home March was held in 1987 (the year I left school) and it all felt a bit underhanded. No-one that I asked could give me a coherent answer about the treatment of our Vietnam veterans, so I started to read as widely as I could. Back then, there wasn’t nearly as much material about the Australian soldier’s experience in Vietnam, it was mostly about the American experience. As an example of that, one of the most popular Australian songs about the war (Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’) is about a battle that Australian ground troops didn’t even fight in. They could have written the same song about Long Tan without even changing the rhyme, but perhaps in the late 70s no-one knew anything about Long Tan because it was a specifically Australian battle.
I decided to do a PhD so I could untangle in my own mind this enormously complex, multi-dimensional part of Australian history. When I first started researching, we were on a family holiday to Exmouth and we stopped at the Overlander Roadhouse. I saw a man sitting in a car eating a burger and on his back window a sticker that said AATTV (Australian Army Training Team Vietnam). I knocked on his window and we had a chat about his service and a few weeks later, over a cup of tea, he told me about himself and the terrible price he’d paid for the years he spent in the army. History can be uncomfortably close when you hear it first hand—that was another story made indelible by its context.
The second reason that I write about war is because it frightens me. I have three children, two of them boys, and I can never forget that we’ve had conscription during my lifetime. Once you’re a parent, history happens to sons and daughters. So I write about war as a way to try and understand that.
Custodians of the horse
AC: Arthur is a blacksmith who has grown up and worked with horses all his life, and he carries an intimate knowledge of and love for them into war as an infantryman in the 10th Light Horse. The scenes where Arthur is interacting with his horse are among the most beautiful and moving of the novel, and they clearly come from your own experience and knowledge as a horse trainer. Could you please tell us about this aspect of the novel, and the research you conducted into Australia’s war horses?
PJ: During WWI the horses were usually tethered in a row on long picket lines. At the end of the war, when it was decided that the horses would not be coming home, they shaved their manes and tails, pulled off their shoes and a veterinary officer walked down the line and shot them where they stood. The horses were so habituated to gunfire at that point that they didn’t even try to run away.
I tell that story to my university class and every time I pretend to be objective, though it’s an image that will always haunt me. Not just because of the loss of the horses but also because of what it must have done to the men that had fought alongside them. Nearly 136,000 horses left Australia between 1914 and 1918 and only one returned.
To me, horses are the most beautiful of all our domestic animals. The joy of watching them gallop and play never wears off, even after all these years. When you’re a horse trainer, their lives are tightly woven into yours. There’s this moment, every evening, just before I go inside for the night. The afternoon light is coming sideways through the trees and horses are quietly eating. I know then that I’m just one small link of a chain that stretches back for over five thousand years, all of us custodians of the horse. I’m grateful every single day that I can do what I do. It’s a job but it’s also a privilege. In writing Only Birds Above I really wanted to convey that sense and, in my own small way, to honour the thousands of horses that died during the war.
I really enjoy novel research and I like to think of myself as a method researcher—I want to live and breathe my subject. Luckily there are lots of people who are interested in the history of the Light Horse and I’ve been able to speak to many who are passionate about preserving that history. And people are so kind. When you tell them that you’re interested in their passion, they are incredibly generous with their time. I have been lucky enough to have been shown original equipment, ridden in a replica of a universal pattern saddle (the saddle that was used during WWI) and had many, many long conversations about the tiniest details of gear and equipment with people who have dedicated years of their lives to learning as much as they can about the Light Horses. A friend even gave me an old universal pattern saddle which had been hanging in the rafters of a shed for decades—it’s now been restored and is sitting in my living room. To me these things connect us to our past.
In the presence of death
Joining up was the right thing to do and like everyone says—it’s a chance to see the world.
When Arthur meets Helen, he is already in training at the Blackboy Hill Camp and there is an aching poignancy in his words to her. Is their hasty marriage, emblematic of many of that time, an act of naivety? Desperation? Hope?
PJ: I think the threat of death strips everything bare. All the layers of artifice that we paste between ourselves and the world get ripped away. I have a very dear friend fighting a serious illness and I’m often struck by how the threat of this loss has altered the way we communicate. It’s as though your skin has been rubbed raw—some moments have an almost painful vividness and clarity. It’s sad but it’s also beautiful.
You’re never more alive than when you’re in the presence of death. That’s why risk is so important, it makes you cherish your life. After my father died I sat down to try and write about it and the first thing I wrote was: ‘Why is everything so beautiful since you’ve gone?’ For weeks I’d have to stop and stare at the way the light fell through the leaves or the way the sunset coloured the dust. The sight of a mother lifting her baby from a car seat or a flock of parrots in a marri tree would take my breath.
When I was writing the novel I felt sure that Arthur and Helen’s marriage would have been informed by that same sense. There would have been an urgency to it, a need to hold onto what is real and important in the presence of so much uncertainty. In an era without videos, social media and all those other windows into other people’s experiences, falling in love must have been like exploring new territories. Amazing and yet also terrifying. Our ability to love is the most miraculous and beautiful aspect of life, isn’t it? [A million times yes!]
On the homefront
AC: For all that the novel takes us into theatres of war and the world of men and horses, it also brings us stories of the homefront, of women and children left alone during the war, and then inexplicably alone again when the men who return are morose, insular and unable to communicate with those who love them. Without giving away spoilers, could you talk about the longer term effects of the war on Helen, a new bride when Arthur leaves, and their daughter Ruth?
PJ: One of the things I encountered when I was researching my first novel is the prevalence of families with three generations of soldiers. Many of the Vietnam veterans who I met had grandfathers who served in WWI and fathers who had served in WWII. I am really interested in how this would change the dynamic of the entire family. What happens to intergenerational trauma when it is compounded?
I think it’s the role of historical fiction to fill in the gaps between what is written and the people who lived it. The experiences of women in war are rarely privileged by non-fiction historical narrative, though that is definitely changing. History doesn’t always tell us what ordinary people thought or felt and sometimes the numbers are too big to comprehend. Or maybe your mind won’t let you comprehend them because it’s too much. But having an insight into one person’s experience makes it easier to relate to. Listening to veterans speak about the experiences of their wives and families is often very moving because it takes great courage to love someone whose life has been impacted by war.
‘Almost as if it didn’t happen’
AC: Son Tom, working in Indonesia at the outbreak of World War II, becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and one of the slave workforce building the Pekanbaru Death Railway across Sumatra, which was completed on the day Japan surrendered and subsequently abandoned. Your own great-grandfather was among the thousands who died during its construction, and I noticed he appears briefly in the novel. Was it important to you to explore this terrible tragedy of World War II?
PJ: The novel started out as a story about my great grandfather. He was one of those aspects of the family history that no-one really knew much about other than that he’d died in Indonesia during the war. So a while ago I wrote to the Dutch archives just to see if I could find out anything and within 24 hours I had a copy of his death certificate and a photo of his grave. That was really the start of an absolutely fascinating journey.
My daughter’s Japanese teacher was able to translate the death certificate for me and I learned that Dirk had died very near to Pekanbaru, the start of the infamous Pekanbaru Death Railway built across Sumatra by both POWs and press-ganged Javanese labourers known as Romushas. When I was researching the railway online I came across a website put together by a New Zealander working in Sumatra who was fascinated by the railway. He mapped the length of the line with a drone and a GPS using the little information that he could find. In fact most of his information came from a single text written by a Dutch researcher.
I sent him an email and we started chatting and pretty soon he invited me to come stay with him in Pekanbaru (an experience that went way better than it might have done, in hindsight). The Pekanbaru Death Railway is not very well known. Around the town you can still see rail embankments winding through palm oil plantations and train tracks repurposed as farm fencing. It’s almost as though it didn’t happen, and I think that’s very sad. Standing in the place where my great-grandfather died, listening to the traffic and the call to prayer, was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.
I’m interested in representations of truth in fiction. I wrote my great-grandfather into Only Birds Above knowing only what I’d found out through the archives and the couple of stories and photos from my grandmother. Originally I wanted to include photos in the novel—I have photos of Dirk and I have taken photos of various things in the novel that I thought it would be interesting to include. But in the editing process we decided that the novel was better without them. But it’s that blurring of the line between truth and fiction that really interests me.
Piecing a story together
AC: Only Birds Above is structurally complex, moving between time-frames, generations, characters and places. This has the effect of creating a compelling narrative, with different threads to be drawn together so that the reader can see the whole. But I’m wondering how you managed the process of writing the story—whether you wrote entire strands and wove them together, or worked piece by piece, assembling them into that whole.
PJ: I wrote the first 50,000 words with great confidence but absolutely no plan. I wrote without any sense of continuity or cohesion and in totally random order. And then one day I sat down at my computer and realised with horror that what I had was not a novel but a seething mass of disparate fragments.
I had to call on the assistance of the always amazing Richard Rossiter to try and pull them into some kind of order. It was a bit overwhelming for a while; I thought it would never make any sense at all. But sense emerged in the end.
After that I vowed I would never write a novel with a complex structure again and that I would write in an organised and disciplined way. But maybe my brain is too chaotic for that kind of order because the novel I’m working on now is at least as complex and I’m no more organised. I guess that’s future-Portland’s problem.
AC: I love the novel’s title. Did it come early in the development, or, as so often happens, was it something you and your publisher agonised over?
PJ: I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Georgia Richter as editor on this novel. I learned so much during the process; it was both fascinating and humbling. I’m sure Georgia had many hair-tearing-out moments when we were editing but luckily the title wasn’t one of them. It came to me very early in the writing process as it seemed to be a good way of describing a loss of faith. If there’s only birds above you, there’s nothing else, is there?
Only Birds Above is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Portland via her website