Australian historian Anna Clark is well-regarded in her chosen field and is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Public History at Sydney’s University of Technology. In the early 2000s, she received the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History and the Queensland Premier’s Prize for Best Literary or Media Work Advancing Public Debate alongside colleague Stuart Macintyre, with whom she wrote The History Wars.
Her latest book, Private Lives, Public History allows readers to question their relationship with Australian history, its influence on Indigenous Australians and immigrants, and how we as a nation appear on an international scale.
Though it may not be as old as other nations, Australia has a long history – one which extends further than the settlement/invasion of the British in 1770. It’s diverse, much like the land in which we live – steeped in a culture that shapes the nation as a whole.
Much favoured by politicians, our “national history” focuses heavily on patriotism and a desire to help others in need, as commemorated in days such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. Our affiliation with the English is celebrated with national holidays including the Queen’s Birthday and Australia Day.
Though these are important to our nation, this appropriation of our history does not really take into account the Indigenous history that existed in this nation long before the British set foot on Australian soil. Nor does it encompass those who have chosen to call Australia home – immigrants who have left their native country in search of a better life, thus enhancing the multiculturalism of our nation that politicians seem to rely when presenting themselves to other nations. And it is this which Clark is most concerned in the writing of Private Lives, Public History.
Speaking to a number of diverse focus groups throughout the country, including Indigenous Australians and immigrants, Clark discusses whether we in fact need a national history, whether the one we have needs updating and Australians’ own relationship with that history and history in general. She asks the hard questions and is not afraid to include opinions that may disagree with the status quo.
From my early schooling, I have had a keen interest in history, devouring history books and historical fiction whenever I can get my hands on it. Private Lives, Public History fulfilled my desire for knowledge and allowed me to question my own opinions on Australian history and my relationship to it.
Admittedly, it is not an easy read; I don’t think it was ever meant to be – the questions posed are designed to get the reader thinking – but Clark’s writing is very readable. She breaks down concepts the average reader might not understand and at no time did I feel I was being preached to. To my recollection, she does not even state her opinion on the subject, merely stating the facts as she found them through her research and allows the reader to make up their own mind.