Place, History and Story: Tony Birch and the Yarra River



This essay examines the three Yarra River stories in Tony Birch’s short fiction collections. ‘The Sea of Tranquillity’ ‘The Chocolate Empire’ and ‘The Toecutters’ all question the historical inscription of the Yarra that favours the culturally dominant account by placing it in relation to alternative stories. The torsion engendered by this questioning is apparent in the stories themselves. They are simultaneously discussions of class-based social exclusion and counter-stories of settlement; settled places are re-inscribed with meanings and histories obscured by the dominant account of ‘settlement’, which it thus critiques. The structure of the contemporary short story, to reveal a truth buried under the mundane details of life, aids Birch’s purpose. The form enacts a propensity to doubling, twinning and contrasting the familiar and the strange, or being at once in the dominant reality of the settler-colonial culture and, by social imposition, in the situation of the other. Hence, Birch’s stories open into narratives drawn from a number of socially marginalised groups, according to class, gender, geography or age. In Birch’s own account of his disillusionment with the institutionally-based academic writing of the post-history wars environment he speaks of embarking on an alternative project to ‘put meat on the bones of history’, a project which involves turning from the Historian’s history to ‘the way that fiction deals with the past and its role in documenting history’: to bring history and story together (‘Trouble’ 235, 241). This essay traces that process in the three Yarra stories.

Tony Birch returns consistently to the Yarra River in his short fiction. In these Yarra stories there is a tension between the river as image and the river as particular locale, between an idealised evocation of a place and the sets of contending stories that might inhabit it. This essay considers the configurations of place and story as they appear in Birch’s short fiction about the river. This is terrain Birch has covered also in his recent novel, Ghost River, but here we restrict ourselves to the Yarra stories that preceded this long-form treatment of the topic. Key to our consideration is the way in which Birch uses qualities inherent to the short story form to combine multiple social narratives in a single setting. As image, the river connotes continuity, but as place it is often a site of disruption or contention: a neighbourhood boundary, a marginal hideout, a…

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Published 5 May 2016 in Volume 31 No. 2. Subjects: Aboriginal literature, Melbourne, Short stories, Tony Birch.

Cite as: Masel, Carolyn and Matthew Ryan. ‘Place, History and Story: Tony Birch and the Yarra River.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.00776e89d0.