No fire without fuel: how conflict creates narrative tension.

Pam Swanborough
Published in
3 min readSep 22, 2020


A response to Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

My reading room: Bushland Reserve H22

I have native grains in my field, myrnong in my vegetable garden. I want to know Dark Emu’s story.

A difficulty arises: Can I asses the use of landscape for surely it’s fixed in landscape? Can I assess the use of chronology for surely a history demands chronology? Metaphor is embedded like buckshot in a rabbit: ‘unpick the threads of Australia’s Bayeux tapestry to reveal what the victors want to hide’ — but none of these feels right.

So with book and facemask I walk into old native forest, where the great snake of the Carringum balug clan carved the creek-bed, to a disturbing peace beside water, beside old roo bones. Kookaburras negotiate their boundaries, grebe gossip on the dam. Old white men convinced us that animals were insentient. All my childhood stories were Old Whitefella’s.

The tension in my forehead increases. How we have lied, been lied to.

The Brewarrina fish traps are possibly the earliest human constructions. Engineered stones fix the traps in place, and keystones and arches provide strength. Block by block, the structures have been in place for up to 19000 years. This is Pascoe’s method: steadily locking facts in place. ‘Collecting such a welter of evidence’ he concedes, ‘might seem a tedious excess to some, but [the true story] is so remote from the Australian consciousness that, on reading of one or two examples, people might be encouraged to see them as aberrations’.

He builds his arguments and assaults like a fish-trap withstanding a flood. As discussed in “Taking Sides Over Dark Emu[i]” some of his statements are questionable, but he has a store of verifiable evidence.

Further evidence is regularly revealed by historians, locals, bushfires. The sheer amount of underexposed material is a unique opportunity for compelling narration, and Pascoe only needs to display the facts, of both sides of the issue, to hold our attention. But he locks his arguments in place, drops in the conflicting keystones: deliberate destruction.

‘A story is a war’ Mel McKee[ii] affirms; conflict is the heart of all good stories. Pascoe uses conflict by counterpoise: having built his trap for our attention, using source material in a solid structure, he fixes it in place, with the whitefella’s boot, or gun, or flaming brand. Indigenous buildings smashed, then used as fencing: ‘Ironically those fences are now the subject of heritage protection.’ Massacres of indigenous villagers: ‘Bourke ordered that the reference be deleted from the gazette’. On the ground before me, he lays out the whitefella weapons, wielded in ‘the urge to legitimise occupation’.

Clare Wright[iii] says ‘a good historian will put you in the mind of being there’. Pascoe is not a historian, he is a storyteller, but we are there: ‘Perhaps an explanation of the required techniques [to make nardoo edible] may have been forthcoming to Burke’s doomed party if he had refrained from firing his pistol at the people who were trying to keep him alive’.

A Heinemann Blog post states: ‘Establish a conflict between Group A and Group B from the beginning […], the drama between the two opposing groups naturally serves the engagement’[iv]. Dark Emu has conflict at the heart and bones of the matter.

The primary response I had to this book was to scream with indignation. But the process of steady structured conflict, stone weighted against engineered stone to catch that glittering fish, the reader’s attention, has been effectively exemplified here and I have learnt a lot about playing the quiet hunter’s game.

I am, however, still screaming, under the fragrant acacia.


Pascoe, Bruce (2014) Dark Emu, Magabala Books, Broome, WA

Hart, Jack (2011) Storycraft, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Podcast: Past Imperfect: Writing Australian History ‘writing history 4.11.19 accessed 15th August 2020

Marks, Russell (5th Feb. 2020) ‘Taking Sides Over Dark Emu’ accessed 15th August 2020

Heinemann Blog ‘Creating tension in nonfiction’ — a review of Story Matters by Liz Prather

[i] Marks, R,‘Taking Sides Over Dark Emu’ The Monthly

[ii] Hart, J Storycraft pg 93

[iii] Taken from ‘Past Imperfect’ podcast

[iv] Heinemann Blog