A Brief Tribute to My Mother

In November 2012 I was awarded a Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa from the University of Sydney, along with Cate Blanchett, Martin Rees, Robin Warren and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.  We were all asked to make a brief response, and this was mine. 

I may seem to be the only person standing at this lectern today, but I’m here with a huge crowd of others. They’re all the people who enabled me to do the things just mentioned and to be the person receiving this great honour.

Out of that crowd I’m just going to pick one for special mention: my mother. (If you can't thank your mother on such an occasion, when can you?). She gave me the great gift of a free-form childhood. She knew that for creativity to flourish, a person has to know to trust some of the no-nos in our culture: daydreaming, wasting time, breaking the rules.

She believed that if a child didn’t get dirty when they played then they weren’t playing properly. 'Good clean dirt' was the sign of a proper childhood. She believed that because she knew that the work of creativity can be mucky. To get anything creative done, you have to not be stopped by the tyrannical idea of perfection.

The kindergarten teacher told me that I couldn’t play the drums because boys played the drums. Instead I was given that most vapid of all musical instruments, the triangle. At age four, I was getting the message: boys had all the fun. I went home and told Mum, and next day she saw the teacher. I couldn’t hear what they were saying and my mother certainly wasn’t shouting. But I could see the teacher tilting backwards from the force of Mum’s words. Yes, girls can play the drums. 

Above all my mother gave me the stories to fuel my imagination. Thanks to the family history she told me, I finally woke up to the reality of what it means to be a white Australian. Her example taught me not to turn away from the darkness in our national past. Her encouragement made me keep exploring it, and trying to present it in a way that would take readers on the same journey I’d embarked on.

I was lucky with a whole string of teachers. I thank them all. Mrs Linney of North Sydney Demonstration School, for appreciating my first efforts at creative writing.  A koala stamp for 'Trapped by the Tide'!  A gold star for 'My Life as a Penny'! Mrs Armstrong of Cremorne Girls' High School, who didn’t just turn a blind eye to me reading under the desk in English lessons, but gave me suggestions as to what I should be reading under there. Don Anderson of this university for not laughing when I told him that what I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. Ron Sukenick of the University of Colorado at Boulder, for putting the poetry back into prose and the play back into the work of writing. Glenda Adams at UTS for asking all the right questions about a not-especially-promising doctoral thesis that, with her help, finally became The Secret River.

I owe a great debt of thanks to this welcoming place of learning. For the last decade I've had the privilege of being an Honorary Associate of the Department of English, and when I desperately needed a room out of the house in which to work, that department – although tight on space – gave me the use of one. It was a sanity-saver, and I thank you. 

That crowd of people and many more is with me here today. I share this great honour with them. On behalf of those others as well as myself, I thank the University for honouring and acknowledging all of us.