History repeats

How two generations of La Trobe graduates share their passion for history with others.

La Trobe Journalism grad Harriet Edmund talks to fellow alum award-winning novelist Katherine Brabon and her father Martin about their quest for collective memory.

If it wasn’t for her father’s passion for history, Katherine Brabon says she may never have won the 2016 Vogel Prize for Literature for her first novel The Memory Artist. “Dad always had an interest in family history. I remember growing up in Woodend and he was always bringing books, antiques and old paintings into the house,” recalls Katherine, 29.

Her father Martin, a retired high school legal studies teacher, says he and wife Nina also regularly read to Katherine and her two sisters. “We made a conscious effort to give books and reading precedence over everything else,” says Martin.

And so, it seemed only natural when Katherine developed an academic interest in both history and literature.

She adds, it was Martin’s study of a Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University during the late 1970s that paved the way for her to follow suit 30 years later. “My dad was the first person in his family to go to university, and his passive encouragement made it feel quite easy, and achievable, to do the same,” says Katherine.

While the pair both relished Honorary Associate John Willis’ Legal Studies subjects, Katherine also drew inspiration from Dr Adrian Jones OAM,Associate Professor of History. In fact, she acknowledges Dr Jones in her novel for helping to the create her foundation of knowledge about Russian history upon which her book is built. “Adrian had an infectious enthusiasm for Russian – and European – history. I followed his subjects and often thought it would be great to study more in depth and overseas like he has,” says Katherine.

And she did. In 2013, Katherine attained her Masters in History at Oxford University. There she explored the collective memory of Russia, particularly how the country commemorated and remembered the violent Stalin years.

Returning to Melbourne in 2014, Katherine then began her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University, where she wrote her novel along side a research thesis. “For me it was great because the research thesis contains the general ideas plus my mind is always thinking in that analytical or even philosophical way, but then that all fed into the book.”

The Memory Artist follows the journey of its central character, Pasha Ivanov, across the sites of political and artistic struggle in recent Russian history.

His journey is triggered by the death of his mother, and Gorbachev’s promises of a new era of freedom. As he travels across Russia he retreats into his own memories and the country's troubled past.

Of winning the manuscript prize, which included publication by Allen and Unwin and $20,000 prize money, Katherine says she is grateful. “I was so grateful they had taken on this book because I felt it was a Russia that needed to be seen. It was also a positive sign that Australian literature can resonate regardless of where it’s set.” Previous winners Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and Gillian Mears were all recognised for writing with strong ties to Australia.

With one year left of her PhD, Katherine has shifted her focus to Japanese history with plans to write another novel. She is also about to embark on a trip to America to study a short course in long form essay writing.

Martin concludes, it’s the way his daughter has her feet flat on the ground that he most admires. “She is very pragmatic about it. Her attitude is: ‘I’ve got more to learn and there are other things to learn’.”

To find out more visit The Memory Artist.

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