Portrait

Meet acclaimed Melbourne novelist and father-of-five Tony Birch. By Jennifer Down.

The literary vision of Stella Prize judge Tony Birch

The first time I meet Tony Birch, it’s at Marios on Brunswick Street. He tells plenty of stories that day. In the one that sticks in my skull, though, he’s a kid on the rooftop of the commission flats in Fitzroy. An older teenage boy asks – or maybe dares – a girl to lift her skirt. She rolls her eyes as she does it. Steaming bitumen, towels spread out, sun-blind kids killing time. Maybe I invented that last part. But to hear Tony tell it is to be able to fill it in.

The next time I see him it’s in a classroom at Melbourne Uni, where he’s taught for some years. He has kicked off his shoes to pace. There are faint tan lines on his feet, left over from summer. He’s talking about small moments, encouraging the students to be attuned to them in their own short fiction. Another story, to illustrate: he’s gone to pick up his teenage daughter from the Brunswick Baths. His wife’s got the car, so he’s on a pushbike. The heat is oppressive. His daughter was “a real nark” when she said goodbye to him that morning. She’s fuming when he arrives on the bike. She climbs on the back, though, and they ride home that way, her arms around his body, her ire battered into submission by the heat. 

He cheerfully agrees for me to sketch his portrait on one proviso: “I’m sick of the ‘bad boy made good’ shit,” he writes in his email.

So we meet again, at another cafe. It’s a month before the winner of the Stella Prize is announced. Tony is one of the five judges, the only man on the panel: “They call me the Stella Fella.” Now in its third year, the award recognises Australian women writers – not just through its annual $50,000 prize, but also through forums, events and its schools program. When executive director Aviva Tuffield got in touch and asked if he’d be interested in judging, Tony had no hesitation. “I think it’s an award with great integrity. The quality of writing by women in Australia is exceptional.”

The creation of such a prize is an inherently political act. Plenty disagree with a women-only prize in principle. Others take exception to elements of this award (for instance, that it does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction). “I’m quite a political person,” Tony says slowly, “but I actually wouldn’t see the judging as political at all.” 

He wears a silver earring in each lobe, and he has a habit of fiddling with one as he speaks. “Clare Wright’s book [2014 winner The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka] – clearly it’s a very important book, filling an enormous gap in the historical narrative, and that in itself is a political act. But it’s not the basis on which we judged the novel. You judge it on the quality.” Both years that he’s judged the award, he’s felt “really satisfied with the consensus decision”. 

The comprehensive nature of the Stella’s reading and judging process means that Tony could pick out patterns among the entries. “I would say that women write about what you might call ‘the domestic’ in much more complex and sophisticated – and sometimes quite abrasive – ways than men do.” 

I ask him why he thinks that might be. He tilts his head, grimaces. “I would imagine it’s partly out of experience, it’s partly out of agency, and it’s partly confidence. It brings up the question of essentialism,” he concedes, “but I think that would be too narrow a way to think about it.” 

He offers an example: “I’ve got five kids, and this writer I know’s got a few kids. She said to me once, ‘Oh, they just give me the shits sometimes. I wish they’d fucking get off me.’ And I would never say that!” He looks sheepish. We’re both laughing. “I’m not saying I don’t think it. But men won’t say that.”

It’s something he’s considered as a reader, a judge and a writer. “I have no qualms about writing men who are arseholes. I find it much more difficult to contemplate that when I’m writing a female character. You might see it as a narrowness in me. In the fiction that I’ve read by women in these two years of the award – I don’t think they have that narrowness.” 

One of Tony’s earliest memories is of going to the women’s underground toilets on Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street with his grandmother. “There were a lot of office ladies – this is the early ’60s – and I was fascinated by watching women do their face. I saw it as really powerful. Some people see make-up on women as disempowering but, to me, it marked them out different from men.” He recalls his childhood ideas of gender roles with stinging clarity. “This might sound odd,” he says, eyes sliding away to the tram tracks, “but until I went to school, I didn’t know I’d ever become a man.” The realisation horrified him. “As a terror, it dissipated, but I was always repulsed by masculinity in the sense of the men that I grew up with. When my father taught me to box, I had this anger. I didn’t want him to teach me to fight.”

After this semester Tony is leaving his teaching post at Melbourne to take up a five-year research fellowship at Victoria University. His new novel, Ghost River, will be published in September, “but as a working writer and researcher, I’ll be looking at climate change, its relationship to storytelling, its relationship to humanities, and in particular, looking at the Indigenous knowledge systems”. He rejects the popular Western “apocalyptic narrative” of climate change, instead drawn to contemporary ‘cli-fi’ works such as Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Ellen van Neerven’s “Water”, which appears in her Stella-shortlisted Heat and Light. “When people talk about what will happen with climate change with people losing their homes, their land, access to food, their culture being destroyed… That’s already happened.”

We keep returning to this idea of thresholds, or tipping points. Tony tells me he delivered his youngest child, now 17, on the floor of his mother’s laundry. “I literally caught her. We have this little byplay – ‘Who caught you?’, and she goes, ‘You caught me, Dad.’ ” 

I ask him about the memory of that hot bike ride with his daughter, the same one. “That day I was just so happy that she needed to be physically close to me,” he says. “She was doing it as a sort of necessity, to not fall off the bike. I was really savouring it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Literary vision". Subscribe here.

Jennifer Down
is the author of Our Magic Hour and the forthcoming Pulse Points.