AUTHOR OF THE MONTH with Anita Heiss
A warm welcome to our Author of the Month, Dr Anita Heiss. Anita’s latest release, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is out now and focuses on the Cowra Breakout of 1944 where over 1000 Japanese soldiers being held as prisoners of war broke free of the compound they were being held at on the fringes of Cowra. One soldier, Hiroshi, managed to escape and was discovered by local Indigenous man, Banjo Williams who offered Hiroshi refuge. While the themes of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms cover racial segregation, the White Australia Policy, and wartime hardships it is a story ultimately of friendship, love, hope, and the redemptive power of compassion.
Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is a story that focuses on the aftermath of the Cowra Breakout through the eyes of Japanese POW, Hiroshi, who is subsequently rescued and hidden for his own safety by Aboriginal man, Banjo Williams. William’s daughter, Mary, and Hiroshi form a lovely friendship based upon their similar life experiences and ultimately fall in love. What inspired your choice to use Cowra and most particularly the Cowra Breakout of 1944 as the historical setting of the novel?
I had the idea for this story while at Pearl Harbour in 2014. I was intrigued by the interest Japanese tourists demonstrated in military history as portrayed by the Americans. My mind quickly reverted back to Cowra, the prisoner of war camp, the Japanese breakout and how history around that war had been documented by the Australians rather than Japanese. And I didn’t recall much, if any of the history of World War II mentioning the local Aboriginal community at Erambie where my mother was raised as a child. I immediately felt compelled to write the shared history of Cowra during the war, so that Australians understood there were two ‘camps’ at the time, one where her my own family lived with fewer luxuries than the POWs.
The timing of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms—at a time where Australian Indigenous peoples were living under quite treacherous conditions owing to the White Australia policy and general ignorance in Australia—offers pivotal story arcs for the novel. How important was the weaving in of what is essentially a blight on Australia’s history to the novel, and did you feel pressure in how you presented/portrayed this?
I wouldn’t say I felt pressure in anything, just an overwhelming responsibility and accountability to write a local Aboriginal version of the story into the literary landscape. Paramount to my storytelling was weaving in my mother’s memories of life at Erambie living under the Act of Protection living an imprisoned life as it were. It was also important for me to pay tribute and respect to Wiradjuri families of prominence in Cowra and to show respect to local Aboriginal people who had fought in World Wars. My mother came from a loving family. I too grew up in a house with two parents who loved each other deeply. I knew from the outset my historical novel would need a love story to bind the two campsite stories as one. So this is a love story, but it is so much more.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms?
At all times, I just wanted an authentic story to be told, for those in Cowra in particular. I wanted locals to feel I had captured the history of the town and the people accurately at the time of the Breakout. I wrote the book for those who call Cowra home, so I guess the challenge remains that all those who do that, find the novel a valuable addition to the collective memory of the place.
What kind of research was involved in the planning of the novel? Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research process?
Research – more than the actual writing – plays the largest role in any of my novels, but Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms required extra care in terms of getting the historical references spot on, and the retelling of my mother’s stories growing up recorded in the most effective way.
A key point of reference was my mum who told me her own stories about growing up at Erambie, and just that process of sharing made writing this book worthwhile for me personally. Her memories and the research done by local Koori historian Dr Lawrance Bamblett (author of Our Stories are Our Survival) gave me a strong foundation in relation to the portrayal of characters and life on Erambie. Laurie advised me from day one when I sent my idea to him. I told him, that if he though it was a bad idea I’d bin it straight away. I trusted his judgment living and working on country, when I was so far away.
I relied heavily on (and owe an enormous amount of gratitude to) Lawrence Ryan – former President of the Cowra Breakout Association who toured me around the site, and gave me so much detail about logistics, that the work is richer for his generous input. Lawrence introduced me to the author of A Town at War and current President of the Break Out Association Graham Apthorpe. Graham rightly asked me, why a novel? Why not a history book? Well, the thing is Graham has written an outstanding history of the Breakout – it formed the foundation of my knowledge of the history. I want anything I did to complement his work and that of Laurie Bamblett’s. I also wanted to capture an audience that might not pick up a non-fiction text to read about war, but might pick up something like Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms. I think there are many stories and many ways in which to tell them, so I see my novel working in tandem with others.
Laurence Ryan also introduced me to Marc McLeish who introduced me to Aunty Norma Wallace (Newton) and I learned about the Doolan brothers in World War II. It’s amazing the generosity of people who learn you are writing a story that might include them, and the desire to help. Again, the story is richer for including the Doolan’s and
In Sydney, a relation Claude Williams connected me with his mother Aunty Hazel in Queensland and I then spoke to her over the phone. She gave me a fabulously funny story about her late husband and a scary horse. You’ll have to read the book to find out what the story was.
I sent drafts to people to read, especially family mentioned in the book. Anne Weldon (Coe) read pages on behalf of the Coe family who I wanted to recognize in the story for their contribution to the Australian war efforts throughout history but also as a respected family at Erambie.
I was also very fortunate to meet Professor Mami Yamada, Japanese historian and author who had done comprehensive research on the Cowra Breakout, interviewing many former POWs. She gave me an insight into some stories that had never been told publicly, and unfortunately are not published in English. She also read draft pages of the novel and advise me on cultural nuances as well, things I simply would not have known without her impact.
What’s next for you?
I’m hoping to work on a novel / project with the wonderful Valerie Parv in the near future. Could you imagine how much fun that researching and writing process might be? Tiaras and cocktails at the ready and storytelling that would engage, entertain and hopefully inspire!
WIN A PAPERBACK COPY OF ANITA HEISS’ Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms
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