Cover Reveal & Author Interview: Benevolence by Julie Janson

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Benevolence by Julie Janson
Released: 1st May 2020
Published by: Magabala Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Publisher
Pages: 345
For perhaps the first time in novel form, Benevolence presents an important era in Australia’s history from an Aboriginal perspective.

Told through the fictional characterisation of Darug woman Muraging (Mary James), Benevolence is a compelling story of first contact. Born around 1813, Muraging is among the earliest Darug generations to experience the impact of British colonisation – a time of cataclysmic change and violence, but also remarkable survival and resistance. At an early age Muraging is given over to the Parramatta Native School by her Darug father.

Fleeing the school in pursuit of love, she embarks on a journey of discovery and a search for a safe place to make her home. Spanning the years 1816–35, Benevolence is set around the Hawkesbury River area, the home of the Darug people, in Parramatta and Sydney. Julie Janson’s intensely visual prose interweaves historical events with detailed characterisation – she shatters stereotypes and gives voice to an Aboriginal experience of early-settlement.
Australian historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and Benevolence looks set to be a fascinating read that investigates what happened during this time from an Aboriginal perspective.

What sort of research process did you go through looking into your Great-Great Grandmother’s history and what happened at the time the story was set?

The research process for basing 'Benevolence' on my great great grandmother took many years. Originally, I was just curious to find out about the hidden history and secrets of my father's family. My father Neville Janson never talked about the Aboriginal blood in his family, but he said that he felt out of place in the mostly white suburb of Boronia Park in Sydney. He was at home in the bush, catching fish or taking us kids to gather mud oysters along the Lane Cove River.  All his mates called him Jedda, because he was obviously Aboriginal in appearance and behaviour.

I was determined to find out the truth, so I started ordering birth and death certificates. Soon I traced his family to Freemans Reach near Wilberforce in Western Sydney. One side of his mother Ruby's family were descended from convicts of the third fleet and were early settlers along the Hawkesbury River. However, Neville's grandmother had a lost story. She was born in Windsor and her mother was Mary Thomas born at Freeman's Reach Blacks camp. There were missing birth certificates and names missing from certificates. The story had to be pieced together from interviews with elders in western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. I was lucky to have a job as a researcher on I found out many stories and some fitted our family and others didn't.

My creative imagination filled in the gaps. I decided to change the family names so I had more freedom to imagine the details of my protagonist's life.

Without giving too much away, is there a particular moment or quote in Benevolence which holds a special significance for you?

The more significant scenes for me are when I am able to use my playwrights voice and bring the characters to life as though they are on stage. The jealousy scenes when Mary is confronted by her Reverend lover's wife are some of my favourites. The chapter is called 1830 The New Bride. Anyone who has experienced sexual jealousy and feelings of betrayal will identify with these few scenes! And such fun to write! On a more serious note, I feel connected and confronted by the scenes where Mary is forced to take soldiers up a mountain where a battle takes place and many Aboriginal men are murdered. The terrible truth of this country's history is difficult to read, but essential for reconciliation and facing how the country was stolen. 

Where would you recommend readers go for more information about the Darug nation and history of colonial era Sydney to gain a better understanding from an Aboriginal perspective?

I would recommend the best place for readers to learn about Sydney region's Aboriginal  history is the University of Western Sydney website

Also and books like "The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town" by J Brook and JL Kohen.

Another good one is "Koori Will to Win" by James Miller. 

Are there any other writers or people in your family which inspired you to pen this story?

My mother Jovanna wrote a novel when I was a child. She put it in the bin when it was rejected. She also wrote articles for the Fire Brigade newsletter as Dad was a fireman. Mum is also still a fabulous costume designer and maker and porcelain artist. My artistic talent comes from her English theatre family side, but the story telling is from my dad Neville who was a brilliant storyteller.

How did the experience of writing Benevolence differ from your previous works The Crocodile Hotel and The Light Horse Ghost?

Writing Benevolence was a long tortuous process. I was trying to weave actual history into a creative story and keep faith to my Aboriginal roots.

I could feel the critics saying, “She got the dates wrong!”  Writing 'The Crocodile Hotel' was easier because like many a novelist, that first novel was largely autobiographical. But as my dear mother said: "That novel is true except for the sex. She was a respectable married women at the time. Ha!

The novel 'The Light Horse Ghost' was written very quickly, in six months after a journey to trace my husband's Irish/ English family in Kalgoorlie WA. I loved writing it because I was able to draw on my experience of growing up in a house with my Dad as a returned WW2 soldier. But this novel is set in 1920. Writing fast can make you manic, don't do it. I went a bit mad for a while.

After reading Benevolence, what are some of the main messages you hope readers will be thinking about after turning the last page?

I hope readers realise that Aboriginal people in the Sydney region are often fair skinned but we still carry the blood of our Darug ancestors. 

I want readers to see Aboriginal people as courageous survivors and that people such as my three times great grandmother had to experience the total destruction of her world and the utter dispossession of her rightful country.

Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on next?

I am working on a new novel 'Wilga' about the death of the Darling river, climate change, Aboriginal spirit and death in custody. It is based on my award-winning play 'Gunjies'. I travelled to the Barka river on the Yaama Ngunna Barka corroboree project with Bruce Shillingsworth and was further inspired to write a contemporary novel about North Western NSW.

Photo collection

We were told that we were Hawkesbury River people. This is why I wrote Benevolence. I wanted to recreate that family story.

Julie also kindly shared these photos which are relevant to key aspects of the book:

a. Drawing of the Native Feast with Gov Lachlan Macquarie in Parramatta  depicted in Benevolence
b. Gundungurra mob in Liverpool when Mary is thrown out of Rev Smythe's house
c. Julie at age 12, with her father Neville in the Hawkesbury region
d. Parramatta Native school

About the author

Julie Janson's career as a playwright began when she wrote and directed plays in remote Australian Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. She is now a novelist and award-winning poet. Julie is a Burruberongal woman of Darug Aboriginal Nation. She is co-recipient of the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize, 2016 and winner of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, 2019.

Her novels include, The Crocodile Hotel, Cyclops Press 2015 and The Light Horse Ghost, Nibago 2018. Julie has written and produced plays, including two at Belvoir St Theatre – Black Mary and Gunjies and Two Plays, published by Aboriginal Studies Press 1996.