“one should never go back”: history writing and historical justice in Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup

Ellen Smith



This essay situates Thea Astley’s 1975 novel of the Queensland frontier, A Kindness Cup in relation to the rise of projects of postcolonial revisionist history writing in Australia. I argue that we can read Astley’s novel as reflecting upon the political and affective uses and limits of history writing for the redress of violence at a moment when history writing was undergoing major shifts in Australia. Much Australian left wing revisionist history embodies the optimistic liberal political belief that uncovering and representing the unacknowledged violence of the frontier might act to redress violence and injustice. Astley’s novel, by contrast, offers a critique of what I call  ‘the politics of exposure’—that is a politics that works from the assumption that violence, inequality and injustice are mostly the result of ignorance and that therefore better knowledge will help prevent them. The novel asks what fantasies and blind spots inhabit an uncritical investment in the politics of the exposé and suggests some of the ways that the desire to expose violence might itself be a form of violence.



Thea Astley, history and literature, Aboriginal history.

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