Tag Archives: The Historian’s Daughter

2016 speeches #2: Rashida Murphy’s The Historian’s Daughter

Here is a second speech from 2016, made on the delightful occasion of the launch of Rashida Murphy’s novel The Historian’s Daughter (UWA Publishing) last August. I decided not to edit out my concluding comments—a few tips on how readers can help books make their way in the world—as people often ask me about this…

Historian_s_Daughter_Cover_grande

The Historian’s Daughter is a special book. First, and most importantly, it is a beautifully written, page-turning, multilayered novel with engaging characters and something worthwhile to say.

Second, it is a debut novel, which always occasions a particular kind of interest, because reviewers, the media, bookshops, readers are not only wondering What story do we have here? but also Who do we have here?

Third, this book started its life as a PhD. It has been loved and laboured over, even cried over, throughout many years and it has been the centre of its writer’s life through all that time. It has jumped through many hoops, been read by many eyes, been critiqued and reviewed and examined and, as a thesis, honoured with the Magdalena Prize for feminist writing.

And speaking of honours… The Historian’s Daughter made the shortlist of an international award for an unpublished manuscript, the Dundee International Book Prize—no small achievement.

And finally, it caught the discerning eye of Terri-ann White, and has found for itself a good match for publication.

The Historian’s Daughter had me hooked from the very first page, which consists of only one sentence: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. Is there a person alive who would not immediately want to know what is this story? Who is this he who seems to have some power and an expectation that what he wants is what will come to pass? And, especially, who is this narrator who is defying that voice?

Hannah is the narrator. I love her, and I think you will too. She comes to us first as a little girl, a daughter, a sister, a sharp observer of all around her, growing up in India in a ramshackle house with too many windows and women—and, drawing on a rich literary image, a madwoman in the attic. It is ruled equally, and unequally, by her father, The Historian, and her mother, The Magician, and overrun by largely unpleasant aunties who remind me of a flock of nasty budgies—Hannah describes them more musically as dervishes with their dusters and dupattas and constant chatter who fill the house like smoke on a winter’s day. Hannah adores her older sister Gloria, who smells of honey, and tolerates her brothers, who are named Clive and Warren after two of the conquering thugs celebrated in a set of ornate books in her father’s library called The English Conquistadors of India.

The uneasy equilibrium of young Hannah’s world is disrupted when a stranger arrives, one of her mother’s strays, and a revolution in Iran strands him in India. These events, and the secrets and lies threaded through the weave of the family, lead to its fragmentation, and by the time we meet Hannah as a young woman in the second part of the novel she has taken a life-changing journey to Australia not of her choosing and is soon to embark on another, more dangerous, one to Iran that is.

I have been skimming across a brilliant surface of plot and relationships and family, a seemingly domestic sphere, but The Historian’s Daughter has depths and layers that resist any attempt to classify it. It is indeed a feminist novel. Hannah’s childhood world is patriarchal, where women’s voices are silenced within the family and within society. It is also post-colonial, portraying an India that bears the traces and the consequences of a most complex colonial past. And the novel reaches into a world where extremism and violence can break from the margins and make a refugee of anyone. The novel is written with great compassion and intelligence, with a sensibility that the personal is political. It reminds us that notions of self and other, home and elsewhere, centre and margin, are always contingent—and what a timely reminder that seems to be in the world we live in now.

Perhaps the things that shine most brightly for me are the great heart of this novel, its hopefulness, the empathy and compassion it has for its flawed and endearing human characters. The first of two short pieces I’d like to read for you is a beautifully realised little childhood portrait of Hannah and Gloria, with a glimmer of the humour that can also be found in the writing:

It was a quiet afternoon. Most of the aunties and cousins were out on mysterious errands, and our brothers were playing badminton outside. They were supposed to be looking after us. The Magician was busy with the tailor all day, measuring the windows for summer curtains. After that, we were going to be measured for new dresses. Gloria was in a dilemma. She wanted new clothes but she couldn’t stand the tailor. Abdul Master was a ratty little man with greasy hair, brown teeth and a leery laugh. The Magician thought he was worth his weight in gold. He raised our arms and circled our bodies with measuring tape, brushing his fingers over our chests and hips and stomachs while coughing up phlegm. He had sour breath and stained fingernails. I didn’t like him either, but reckoned it was a small price to pay once a year for clothes that hadn’t been previously worn by Gloria. We dawdled in the library with Grandpa Billy and his conquistadors, and I gathered up old newspapers to spread under our feet before the toe-painting ritual. These were rare, these moments alone with Gloria, without her noisy friends, without the Magician or the Historian, without the aunties calling us unfortunate half-breeds. Here were were—the two of us.

In the second piece, just a short paragraph, we fast-forward to Australia, where Hannah has just moved in with the man she loves, Gabriel. I love it for its lyrical qualities, its gentle restraint, and the sensory nature of the prose:

Afterwards, in the quickening chill of early winter, we made coffee and sat on the verandah with an open packet of Tim Tams resting on my lap. The garden smelled of crushed peppermint and chocolate. White cockatoos flew past the marri trees, their calls fading as they disappeared over the crest of the hill. The sky glowed briefly before plunging us into a moonless night. Silence then, except for the crickets, cidadas and butcherbirds.

You can tell, can’t you, that Rashida is also a poet.

The Historian’s Daughter deserves to be recognised and discussed and intelligently reviewed. I hope that it finds a very wide readership. And it struck me that, in a gathering of friends and family and well-wishers keen and willing to help out, I could give you a few suggestions on how you can do just that.

Obviously, please buy many copies tonight, and have them signed. But there is more. Talk about the book, recommend it to the readers you know—the good people of the world, as I like to think of them. Make sure your local library has copies and that your local bookshop orders it in and that it’s displayed prominently on their shelves. When you do see it on a shelf, take an ‘in the wild’ photo and post it on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. If you belong to a book club, consider choosing it when your turn comes up next, and you might even be able to persuade the author to visit. If you’re on Goodreads, post a review, even if it’s only a few words. If you have a blog, or write reviews, or take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge or any other reading challenge, please know that whatever attention you choose to focus on this book will make a difference, because genuine enthusiasm and engagement always do, and those of us who write are immensely grateful for it.

Rashida talks about The Historian’s Daughter here

6 Comments

Filed under Australian Women Writers Challenge

2, 2 and 2: Rashida Murphy talks about The Historian’s Daughter

Version 2It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)

I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies, ruled by the Historian but smoothed over by the Magician, whose kindnesses and wisdom bring homely comfort and all-enveloping love to a ramshackle building that seems destined for chaos.

And then one day the Magician is gone, Gloria is gone, and the Historian has spirited Hannah and her brothers away to a new and at first bewildering life in Perth. As Hannah grows and makes her own way through Australian life, an education and friendships, she begins to penetrate to the heart of one of the old house’s greatest secrets—and to the meaning of her own existence.

And now, over to Rashida…

Historian_s_Daughter_Cover_grande

2 things that inspired the book

1 A sentence I wrote in my journal in 2007: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. I thought it would be the start of a short story. I had no idea who ‘he’ was and what the ‘story’ would be. In 2008–09 my husband and I moved to Melbourne and I wrote a few short stories that didn’t go anywhere. I started writing The Historian’s Daughter in 2011 and this sentence began to make sense. Now it’s the first line of my novel.

2 An incomplete memory. I grew up in a fairy chaotic household (in India) with itinerants wandering through, often with little explanation. I remember a group of Iranian students who lived with us at various times and one boy in particular who stayed with my family for several years. I don’t know what happened to him. This bothered me, especially when I made friends with Iranian refugees in Perth, so I imagined (and researched) what life would have been like for a young person caught up in a revolution. The novel is, in part, my attempt at bringing closure to events I cannot inhabit anymore.

2 places connected with the book

1 Iran—in particular, its capital city, Tehran. I’ve never been there but I based some of the action of the novel in the city. It was strange to be ‘writing a place’ I’d never been to and I wondered several times whether I should choose another place. Especially because all ‘good writing’ should come from ‘what you know.’ But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 placed my characters firmly within that history, so it was hard to avoid. I steeped myself in Iranian films and novels and history and drove most of my Iranian friends to distraction by asking them endless questions about food and culture (and eavesdropping on their conversations). I don’t speak Farsi but I can follow some of it.

2 Perth. Funny, for a novel partly set in India and partly in Iran, it’s actually Perth that has the strongest resonance for me. Perth’s sunny disposition provided the perfect background for a novel about darkness and family misdemeanours—in a way that (I hope) West Australians can relate to. And despite the fact that my writing always seems to locate itself in ‘other’ places, Perth is home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Except, maybe, Florence.

2 favourite characters in the book

1 Jarrah the dog. I am not a dog person—most definitely a cat person—so I have no idea why or how Jarrah padded in so firmly, and settled into my writing life so comfortably. Jarrah’s appearance caused us both (me and the main character Hannah) much consternation and surprise. I think Jarrah and his owner, Gabriel, arrived at the same time and I just went with it. But Gabriel has a function as the laconic Australian romantic interest, whereas Jarrah gads about, reclining under kitchen tables, rebuking Hannah, making friends with her sister and generally behaving better than most people in the novel.

2 Gabriel. I chose the name in honour of one of my literary heroes, Farmer Gabriel Oak from Far From The Madding Crowd. ‘My’ Gabriel is a woodworker (which is probably why he has a dog called Jarrah) and volunteer firefighter, a good Aussie salt-of-the-earth type, whose straightforward thinking confuses Hannah, who can’t fathom why he’s so cheerful and confident. Hannah doesn’t have much to be cheerful about. Here’s the first time Gabriel appears in the novel.

Bent over a large plastic bag filled with sawdust and wood shavings, hands and arms plunged into its depths, he muttered small curses and agitated the dust that settled on him like brown snowflakes.

I watched from the door as he straightened up holding a small round object and said, ‘Gotcha little bugger.’ Then, his right hand over his eyes to peer at me, he sneezed loudly again and said, ‘Oh heck. How long have you been there? Come in please. I’d lost a router bit in there somewhere.’

He stamped his feet, whacked his chest with his hands and came towards me, trailing curls of wood and smelling of smoke, a tall man with green eyes and laughter in his voice.

‘What can I do you for?’ He offered me a warm, dusty hand and gripped mine firmly in exchange.

Easy to see why Hannah falls in love with him, right?

Version 2

Speaking at the New Norcia Writers’ Festival, 2016

 

The Historian’s Daughter will be in bookstores in September
Visit Rashida’s website
Find out more at UWA Publishing

27 Comments

Filed under 2 2 and 2 (writers + new books)