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Bridging histories: In conversation with Tony Birch

  • 23 June 2023
  Renowned author and academic Tony Birch is known for his insightful and compelling narrative explorations into societal issues like marginalisation, Aboriginal identity and racial struggles. In conversation with Paul Mitchell, Birch discusses his work, the unique intersection of academia and creative writing, and the profound impact of historical dispossession.

Paul Mitchell: For readers who might not be familiar with you and your work, let’s start with your debut collection of stories, Shadowboxing (2006). It was semi-autobiographical fiction that touched on your upbringing. You've talked about that work being emotionally rather than literally true so what can you tell us about your upbringing?

Tony Birch: I was born in Carlton, spent a lot of my childhood in Fitzroy, and then we moved to a housing, commission estate in Richmond – a high-rise estate with a lot of other working-class kids. And then we moved to Collingwood when I was about 15. And that's probably my most formative time because I lived really close to the Yarra River and the falls and they’ve been with me ever since.

I come from a really big family and ethnically I’m the ultimate melting pot. One of my direct forebears is Aboriginal, my great, great-great-grandfather, Prince Moody, came from Barbados as a slave, essentially. I have strong Indian heritage from my great-grandmother, and I have Indian-Anglo cousins, aunties, and uncles. My grandmother was married several times, once to a Maltese fella. So my mother’s older brother and sister are strict Maltese Catholics. And the strand that was probably most influential during my childhood was my Irish Catholic grandfather.

Oddly, none of it made me feel fragmented. I feel very secure in my identity now as I did when I was a kid. The way people think about identity now is you have to be just one thing. To be all those things wasn't an oxymoron, and it wasn't to say because you're all those things you weren't at the same time an Aboriginal kid.

When we lived in Fitzroy, we had about seven households of family in two streets. Both my great-grandmothers were alive, along with my great-uncle who was a boxer and died in his nineties. So there were a lot of older people in my family who held onto the family stories. I got to know the lives of my forebears really well. I knew stories about Prince Moody, stories of Buta Khan taking my great grandmother over