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Australia, the magazine : Australia, the magazine
In January 2010, omas Keneally was delighted to nd himself in a spot where once, only the Queen could go. e Booker Prize winning author and Australian National Living Treasure was one of six Australian writers featured on a set of postage stamps. Others to be honoured were Bryce Courtenay, Colleen McCullough, Peter Carey, Tim Winton and David Malouf. e stamps may be small, but to Keneally they're a monumental symbol of a brave new Australia: a country which celebrates thinkers, innovators and artists, and a nation breaking old ties with a vanished empire to embrace its place in modern Asia. " e stamps are an exceptional event," says the 75-year-old author of Schindler's Ark, which was adapted into the Oscar-winning movie Schindler's List. "When I was a young writer, the idea of any Australian writer on a stamp -- even the Nobel Prize winner Patrick White - would have been unthinkable because the only thing on our stamps was the monarch and the kangaroo." Keneally believes it's also one of many encouraging signs that Australia is ready to discard the last traces of a colonial past to become a fully integrated member of the Asian region. "We began by being rather timid about our geographic location and threatened by Asia because we were a dominion of a far- ung empire," he says. "But now we've come to terms with our place on earth. Our world is an Asian world. Our most important relationship, culturally and commercially, is with China, and also with Japan and Indonesia." is signi cant change is also happening from within, says Keneally, as Australia becomes a genuinely multi-cultural society. "We're welcoming more Asian immigration," he says. " ere is a great deal of intermarriage. Chinatown is picturesque, not a ghe o." Keneally's great love is history. e bulk of his 40-plus books, both ction and non- ction, are historical stories. His latest, Australia: Origins to Eureka (2009), returns the focus to his home country, telling the national story through its characters from the earliest Aboriginal forefathers to the Irish radicals who helped lay the foundations of social justice. " e wonderful thing about living in Australia is that you know from history that change will happen fast, drastically and nearly always drastically for the be er," he says. Keneally chuckles when he remembers an English friend once asking him why Australia needed an opera house. Now, he says, no-one would dream of asking that question about a venue for world-class live music and theatre. " ere were no literary festivals when I was a kid and now there are so many here that a writer who is so inclined could go for a year from one to another, non-stop," he says Australia has a complex relationship with its past. But Keneally sees Australia's convict past as a key factor in the country's optimistic future. "I am interested in the fact that ours is the only sophisticated society on earth that began as a penal colony. It should have been a catastrophe and it wasn't," he says. "My favourite characters in Origins to Eureka are the men and women who were born of convicts. ey were supposed to be the detritus of the empire and were damned by the 'be er' classes of free immigrants trying to create a divided society. " e impetus to alter that came from a number of brilliant children of convicts including William Charles Wentworth, Daniel Dennehy and our rst major poet Charles Harpur. ey were seen as crass and partaking of their parents' criminality but their records in the law, politics and the arts shows other wise. And so they were engines of democracy in 19th century Australia and they saved us from a two tier system which - as apartheid showed - is not the way to live." e legacy of these pioneers, says Keneally, is a nation built upon the bedrock of social justice. " ere is an Australian belief that every citizen should live with a certain level of human dignity," he says. "Part of the success of Australia is that everyone wants good telecommunications, everyone wants good public schooling, everyone wants good public health and there is no anathema, no heresy in expecting the state to deliver these things." Australia's most beloved storyteller sees the coming decades as the most exciting and positive chapter in a remarkable tale he's followed from the very beginning. "We are now saying to the world: 'Here we are, here we live and from here we go forward with our close neighbours,' he says. " ese are new directions in a new Australia." Now we've come to terms with our place on earth. Ours is an Asian world. subject: thomas keneally 73 Steve Baccon /Fairfax Photos