‘Australian Lives: An Intimate History’ by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson

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2017, 425 p.

It’s hard to know how to review this book and, indeed, it was hard to know quite how to read it, too. It is the print-based outcome of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash and La Trobe Universities, the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National. It has been well-mined by the various partners, with the ABC producing five episodes on their much-missed Hindsight program and a rich page produced on Monash University’s Arts Online portal.  Much of the base material can be accessed through the National Library of Australia site, where by accessing the ‘Related Records’ field of the catalogue entry, you can listen to the original oral histories and read the entire transcripts, subject to the access conditions stipulated by each interviewee.

So why then would you bother to read the book, if it’s all online? Well, apart from the portability of a book, the 300 life histories produced as part of the project have been curated here into a more manageable 50, all of which have permissions allowing access to the sound file and transcript now (rather than at some future date) on the NLA site. They are arranged in chapters of two types. The first type are life course chapters (Ancestry, Childhood, Youth, Midlife and Laterlife) and the other chapters are thematic (Faith, Migrants, Activism and Telling My Story). Within each chapter, there are further subdivisions that group oral histories by topic.

There is a chronological spread of interviewees, spanning from one born in  1923 through to participants born in 1989. There are indigenous respondents, Australian-born respondents and participants from many other places: Bosnia, Batavia, Cairo, Malta and Sudan.

The interviews are arranged chronologically within each chapter, but it’s not always the same subject.  It is possible to follow through the same character by looking them up in the Narrator Index, where there is a very brief synopsis of the character and a list of the pages of the book where you can find their interviews. However, I read the book straight through, in the order in which it is published. At first I wondered how I was going to keep all these people straight, but fortunately each extract has a small italicized prompt, providing brief contextualizing information.

Each chapter starts with an overview, written by the authors, which provides a twentieth-century historical context and points towards the salient contributions in the interviews.  I enjoyed these as a way of giving shape to the volume.  Alistair Thomson is well-known as one of Australia’s pre-eminent oral historians, and Anisa Puri is President of Oral History NSW and a PhD candidate.  In the acknowledgements you can see the wide range of historians who have participated in the project.

If you’re the sort of person who likes listening to people tell their stories, then this book may well appeal. It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and put down quite easily. There is no overarching argument, beyond the diversity and uniqueness of each person’s story and the  interactions between individuals and society.  This comes through the extracts that they have selected:

…we selected extracts that illuminate change and continuity and how individuals lived with and against the economic forces, cultural expectations and legal constraints of their times.  We also chose extracts that highlight how different types of Australians – male or female, city or country, poor or prosperous – have managed their lives and faced distinctive challenges and opportunities.  And, of course, we picked stories that evoke the humour, drama and pathos of human life. (p.xii)

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

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I have recorded this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

 

 

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