On Friday August 5, the town of Cowra commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. Within the day’s events, the Mayor Cr Bill West launched my latest novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms. I was grateful to be back on Wiradjuri country at the significant historical POW campsite and to be part of another moment in local history.
I’d like to thank the Mayor for his words about myself and the novel (some can be read in the Cowra Guardian coverage of the launch), and a heartfelt thank you to the Cowra High students Nathan Dixon and Caitlan Howarth (pictured below) for delivering a welcome to country in both the Wiradjuri language and English.
I’d particularly like to thank all the locals who came along to share in the moment, because I wrote Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms for those in Cowra and for anyone who calls Cowra home.
I wrote this novel because I 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 my own family lived with fewer luxuries than the POWs. Paramount to my storytelling was weaving in my mother’s memories, paying tribute to Wiradjuri families of prominence and showing respect to local Aboriginal people who had fought in World Wars.
No story about history is ever owned by one person, and so I need to thank all those who were part of pulling together the many stories that became Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms.
Firstly, my mother Elsie told me her own stories about growing up at Erambie, and that process of sharing made writing this book worthwhile for me personally. What a wonderful project for us to do together. We sat at the dinner table, me with notepad and pen and she loving the opportunity to talk. She tells me she’d like to write book one day, but if she doesn’t, she has this one.
But it was the support from people on the ground here in Cowra that really made this book possible. The knowledge and wisdom and generosity of time of some key people helped me complete the work: local Koori historian Dr Lawrence Bamblett is the author of Our Stories are Our Survival. Laurie advised me from day one when I sent my idea to him. I told him that if he thought 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. His advice kept me on track and I’d like to thank him for sharing the vision of telling the world about Erambie history.
I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to Lawrance Ryan – former President of the Cowra Breakout Association – for touring me around the former camp site. He gave me so much detail about the history and the logistics that the work is richer for his input. Lawrance generously read drafts and did research way beyond what I could have hoped for when I first had the idea to write a story about the Breakout. I know first hand that Laurence Ryan’s passion for history is infectious and Cowra is blessed to have him as an educator and ambassador.
Lawrance also introduced me Graham Apthorpe – the author of A Town at War: Stories from Cowra in World War II Graham rightly asked me, why a novel Anita? Why not a history book? Well, the thing is Graham had already written an outstanding and comprehensive history of the Breakout – it formed the foundation of my knowledge of the history. I wanted anything that 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. I’d like to thank Graham also for his commitment to documenting the stories of Cowra so that others can learn about our town.
Through Laurence Ryan I also met Marc McLeish who introduced me to Aunty Norma Wallace (Newton) and over a couple of meat pies we sat around the kitchen table and I learned about the Newton brothers in World War II, and they have been included in Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms too. I experienced so much generosity from locals wanting to help make this book complete and I am overwhelmingly thankful to them, including Marc and his extended family.
I relied on family to read drafts and to be happy with representations and I thank Anne Weldon (Coe) for reading 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 fortunate enough to travel to Japan also to meet Professor Mami Yamada, (pictured above) – a 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 read drafts and gave valuable feedback particularly on cultural representations of the Japanese in the book.
Collectively, a lot of other experts have helped me weave the facts around the Cowra Breakout and life at Erambie into a love story between Mary and Hiroshi. It is important for me to say that I am not an expert on the Breakout; I am not an expert on Cowra or Erambie. I am just someone who wrote a book because I wanted school students around Australia to be talking about World War II from an Australian perspective, inclusive of Aboriginal people. I wanted book clubs to be reading this novel and discussing the themes within it. I wanted Australians generally to realize that while we treated the POWs here in the 1940s as we were meant to under the Geneva Conventions, we have gone backwards as a nation today where we have the UN Refugee Agency saying we treat those imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru in inhumane conditions and we are torturing young people in detention in the Northern Territory in places like Don Dale. There are lessons to still be learned from the history of Cowra, and I hope that my novel goes some way to being part of the education process.
I also want the world to know that Cowra is a deadly place to be. That it is the home of the UN World Peace Bell as well as the home of past, present and future Aboriginal leaders – like Nathan and Caitlin.
I think this is my 15th book and it is the one that means most to me because it holds the story of where my own story begins. And with that it mind I sincerely thank anyone who chooses to read the work and I hope it speaks to your heart and mind.
Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is currently available from:
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