July 2021


To be free

By Richard Flanagan
Image of Richard Flanagan

Photograph by Rémi Chauvin

The Booker Prize–winning author on the need to write against the dogmas of conformity

It is strange to have as my subject the freedom to write, coming from an island that, for a quarter of its modern history, was a slave society. Though there were major differences, the literature of the era abounds with comparisons between the convict society of Van Diemen’s Land and the slave societies of the Americas.

My forebears were transported as convicts from Ireland, frequently in the same ships and similar conditions to those which had transported Africans into American slavery, now plying the same trade with a different coloured cargo and a new destination where many of the same practices and even administrators of Caribbean slave colonies were deployed.

My island’s founding stigmata has a second wound: the near successful genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. To this day most Tasmanians are the descendants of the survivors of this twin trauma. With Conradian exactitude, the war was called at the time a war of extermination. And this extermination, as many noted then and later, extended to others – the Tasmanian emu, the Tasmanian tiger – as if it were necessary that some universe of wonder had to be obliterated to cloak the crime. And with it, memory was to be extirpated, enforced by silence. Things became unsayable, so many things.

It may be as a species we are defined by our ability to forget, yet freedom exists only in the space of memory.

I was born less than a mile from the plantation my great-great-grandfather was sent to work on as a convict labourer. Freedom to write was at the first step a freedom to think, to conceive of oneself as a free being, a thought over a century in forming. The freedom to write is the freedom to say the unsayable, and to say it I had to squeeze the convict blood out of myself drop by drop, word by sentence by book.

In imagining how to do that it was often to African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison I turned. I discovered my island in their world, I discovered I belonged both to my small island and to the universe of literature, and I learnt that I could not deny either without denying myself.

To write I had to be free and to be free I had to write.

That, for a writer, is the task, the only task.

To be free.

A writer’s freedom is challenged by many things. In my country of Australia, as our society grows more unequal, the richest and most powerful have the money to leverage grotesque libel laws to silence others, while the state has increasingly repressive “national security” laws that significantly encroach on freedom of speech, to the extent of raiding both journalists’ homes and the national headquarters of the public broadcaster in response to their investigation of major war crimes by Australian soldiers, and then prosecuting them.

The practise of journalism in Australia is further chilled by our former attorney-general – the man in charge of the department raiding and prosecuting journalists – suing a reporter and our public broadcaster for a report about the alleged anal rape of a minor by a senior unnamed politician, after he had self-identified as the accused and denied the allegations. He settled the case after months of costly legal wrangling.

But I want to talk here about another aspect of a writer’s freedom.

The idea of the freedom to write is really a question masquerading as an unremarkable truth. The freedom to write – but write what? Because what is at stake – what is always at stake – is finally not being free to write but being free to write the unsayable, the thing not allowed to be said, to tear aside the shrouds of power and wealth and their accompanying conventions and orthodoxies, to describe what is.

Because in most places at most times writers are free to write. We should not forget that tyrannies frequently reserve a higher, more privileged place for writers than democracies, a velvet prison that writers, for the most part, are happy to inhabit. They are free to write anything they like, as long as what they like to write is what power wants written, and contents itself with saying the sayable.

And therein lies the rub.

Of the many pernicious fictions writers retail to themselves and, given the chance, to others, perhaps the most ludicrous is that writers wish to write the truth.

Of course, nothing is farther from the truth than this lie.

Encrusting the lie are comforting nonsenses. One of which writers are fond is that the truth carries all before it. But truth mostly serves only to carry the truth-teller to the abyss, personally – and quickly.

Much as they may pretend otherwise, writers, as a rule, are not such fools as to not know this.

The fatal problem of Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger isn’t that he killed another man but that having killed another man he can’t lie about his reasons why – and so he is executed. For telling the truth. This is both moving and comic, and therefore deeply moving. It is also profoundly unrealistic.

We all lie about our reasons in order that we might live, and, when the going gets rough, writers and artists generally roll over quicker than most. William Hazlitt once observed that for every tyrant born so too are a thousand men willing to be enslaved. We might add that of that thousand, a disproportionate number will always be the artists and writers.

And how can it be otherwise? Each of our lives is a war between, on the one hand, our need to conform so that we might have shelter, food and security, and on the other, the desire of our soul to be free. We understand both are necessary to us but that they are frequently also irreconcilable. Our lives are a walk through the rubble that results, our character the map of our journey.

Another illusion writers have is that they are the voice of their people. This idea has a long history given glorious tongue by Shelley, with his injunction that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. A hundred years later, as nationalism became the new social organising principle, beckoning in a century of horror, Shelley’s post–French Revolution global hopes had somewhat narrowed to Joyce’s declaration that he would “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”. Such monomania hides hubris: the unacknowledged legislator ends up purchased by power’s lobbyist, while what emerges from the smithy is too often ideology’s apologist.

And for that reason, artists and writers are mostly not their people’s heroes or heroines. Mostly they rub along with whatever is the new order, free to write as long as they write in certain ways about certain things. If seeking direction in a corrupted society, the hairdresser and plumber are more likely to serve as moral exemplars than the novelist and playwright.

Klaus Mann, who in 1936 published Mephisto, an instructive novel on this theme, observed a few years earlier, as the Nazis’ rise to power became irresistible, how many intellectuals and artists were crossing over to the Nazi side, not because they were sympathetic to Nazism, but because that’s where the energy and the future were.

In an essay written in 1999, Roberto Bolaño describes how in Pinochet’s Chile, a young woman with literary ambitions and her American husband, who worked for the Chilean secret police and perhaps the CIA, had a large house where she held literary soirées upstairs and he tortured political prisoners downstairs. Bolaño wonders if the writers who regularly visited “remember the annoyance of the flickering current that made lamps blink and music stop, interrupting the dancing. Just as surely, they knew nothing about another parallel dance, in which the jab of the prod tensed the tortured back of the knee in a voltaic arc.”

And this, concludes, Bolaño, is how the literature of every country is built.

The word “literature” – which, with Bolaño, often carries an ambiguous, even pejorative sense – here means writing that supports the parallel dance of horror; the literature that doesn’t question, the literature of accepted orthodoxies.

America has its parallel dancers as we do in Australia – we, the Aboriginals who die in overwhelming numbers in custody, the refugees who we incarcerated in theatres of cruelty on remote Pacific islands.

But acknowledging the parallel dancers does not immediately mean writing only about them, for them, of them. To oppose the parallel dance is to oppose the orthodoxies of the age. It is the freedom to write not what we are told, but what we experience, and in that realm of experience must be the imagination and its capacious inventions. There must be fancy, the experience that is not authenticated in or by experience. There must be the tearing down of the border walls between I and you, me and us, a breach in the razor wire that separates one soul from the next.

PEN’s noble, necessary work over the best part of a century has been to battle the external constraints that stop a writer writing – and worse, those that imprison and kill writers for what they have written and may yet write.

But we live in a new age.

We need to recognise new forms and new ways of censorship. The inner freedom to write what you think and what you feel, what you know and what you experience, is always hard and is frequently the most difficult battle. But it grows harder. We live once more in censoring times and what is confusing is that the new censors are not the state or state bodies. They are us.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, we wrongly believed that material progress and human freedom were twins, that the former necessarily led to the latter. But, as China so stunningly shows, you can have ever more material progress and ever less freedom. And we were blind to the erosion of our own freedom that our material progress and technological triumphs had brought in their wake.

For a few short decades after 1989 we in the West thought we could now expect no censorship. But as we grew more unequal, as we found it within ourselves to see torture as acceptable, the persecution of refugees as necessary, that silence was a precondition of tolerance, we could not see that a corrosion of something fundamental was taking place.

What is acceptable now is not ordered but understood, conveyed by the nuance of new social proscriptions, enforced by a roll call of new profanities, new obscenities, new urgencies, new blasphemies, which we absorb as if by osmosis and call common sense, decency, respect, responsibility.

Writing, though, should never pretend to respect or responsibility. Ever since the man from La Mancha put a toilet bowl on his head and strode out into the world in emulation of higher things, great literature has not been serious about the pieties and verities of its age. It has confronted cant and dogma with the absurdity of existence and laughed, questioning and upending them. Posterity, the blindest of fools, condescends to all who have gone before. Yet Cervantes, like Voltaire, laughed at religious faith and mocked rigidly held beliefs.

Do we?

The new proscriptions arise out of important and necessary social struggles. But in prosecuting causes and politics, writers are sometimes told to stay in their lanes. Writers who offer nuanced positions are attacked as the enemy they are not. Those who fail to observe the new road rules suffer opprobrium and shaming, and are sometimes called on to publicly repent.

Of course, we have always wanted work that flatters our own stupidities. But this human weakness is vastly amplified and empowered by new technologies that are, in the final instance, unaccountable except to profit-and-loss spreadsheets of the richest and most powerful corporations in human history.

Many writers are, of course, happy to conform, and in conforming, condemn those who won’t conform. They would, as Seamus Heaney had it about one of his millennia-old bog people:


in civilized outrage

yet understand the exact

and tribal, intimate revenge.

This, too, is deeply human.

And yet the exact and tribal, intimate revenge turbocharged by the algorithms of greed should not determine the fate of writers, nor should they be the metric by which writing is judged or created.

A deeper damage is to the idea of writing itself – its capacity and desire for necessary invention, for the necessity of story and fancy, of its ability to encompass worlds to which neither the writer nor reader belong, and yet to which they find themselves profoundly joined. In this sense the freedom to write is finally not so much a battle with the external forces but the internal. It becomes a question of what was once called character, or the soul. It would not be presumptuous to call it a spiritual battle.

And in that battle, it constantly comes up against the dogmas of conformity.

It is no revelation that nationalism led to many of the great disasters of the 20th century – and not just in literature. Before the genocidal Balkan Wars, the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun famously wrote: “I got tired of the image of my tribe / and moved out”. These days though, writers once again search for an image of a tribe to move in with, as they once did with religion, and then empires, and then nations, and now identity. This change has deep and profound historical roots and consequences, perhaps the least, but for us the most, that of the great national novel giving way to the great identity novel. But if the tribes change, all tribes still finally demand tribal allegiances to belief and dogma that can leave a writer unfree to write what they believe.

Šalamun’s point of view was, of course, doubly heretical, speaking out against both nationalism and the ruling Titoist ideology of his day.

But it wasn’t without antecedent.

In post-revolutionary Russia, 1921, the first book to be banned in a pique of tribal dogma was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the ur-novel, from Orwell’s 1984 on, for all the dystopias that followed and now litter bookshops.

Before he had started We, Zamyatin observed: “He who has found his ideal today is, like Lot’s wife, already turned to a pillar of salt, has already sunk into the earth and does not move ahead. The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy …” The fate of heretics is not, however, an easy one, as Zamyatin recognised two years after We was banned: Heretics, he wrote, “are justly exterminated by fire, by axes, by words … It is just to chop off the head of a heretical literature which challenges dogma; this literature is harmful. But harmful literature is more useful than useful literature …”

Soon all that would be possible in Russia was to dedicate oneself, as Isaac Babel, in one of his best black jokes, told the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, to the “literature of silence”.

And then, head after head fell to Stalin’s bullets, the heretic Isaac Babel’s among them.

We all write in the nightmare of the dark. We cannot escape our tribal impulse, our desire to conform, for their sources lie as deep in our hearts as love and goodness, perhaps even deeper. But a novel, when it succeeds, takes the writer beyond their own history and character, escapes the shackles of their politics and opinions, and in the alchemy of story makes of the writer’s soul that which joins one human being with all.

In the end, novels, the great subversive medium, subvert not only what society thinks is right but what the writer intends to write.

Heresy allows a writer to write freely, for writing to be an act of joy that arises from the same deep place where laughter lives, countering the farce of dogma with the reality of life. And that joy, that laughter, that irreverence, that heretical impulse that begins with a toilet bowl astride a mad head, is the only way to write when faced with even the most disturbing aspects of that reality, which today appear before us as the existential crisis of climate. The writer’s challenge in the Anthropocene is finding a language that encompasses hope as well as grief. In meeting that challenge, writing must be the rising note heard over the long silence of orthodoxy; the single, unsilenceable note that ascends.

Such language needs to encompass hope not because of any earnest or worthy considerations – not as a morale booster in a dark time – but because as a species it is hope that propels us forward, as individuals it is hope that keeps us alive. Even in the laager, the inmates who lost hope were the despised. Any literature about such darkness as the climate crisis has to admit to that most human trait of life, or it is untrue to this most fundamental truth of human beings.

Even that gloomiest of poets, Philip Larkin, wrote in his most enduring line, “What will survive of us is love”. It was a line Larkin felt weak and which he rued writing.

Perhaps, for Larkin, the line suggested a mawkishness or sentimentality. Perhaps he felt it heretical to his harder, ossified aesthetics. But the line nevertheless outlived him, and it may ultimately be all that remains of his life’s works. That what will survive of Larkin is a line that reads “What will survive of us is love”.

Perhaps for any of us to write of hope, to write of love, we must learn once more to be free and embrace heresy. And for that to happen we must every day write ourselves out of the literature of silence.

We all come from something and, equally, need to be liberated from that same thing. That to me is the promise of literature.

That I am not one. That I am not alone. That I am free.


A version of this essay was delivered as the 2021 PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (NYC).

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan is the author of The Living Sea of Waking DreamsThe Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. His new book, Question 7, will be published in November.

From the front page

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

Image of Midfield Meat International, Warrnambool, May 2021

On the chain

A Victorian abattoir dispute shone a light on a system designed to exploit migrant workers’ hopes and ambitions

Image of Daniel Tadese and his wife

Blood lies

An African Australian’s DNA nightmare as faulty science keeps his family separated

Image of Briohny Doyle

The coast road

A daughter’s cross-border journey of memories and grief during the pandemic

Image of fish traps, Darling River, NSW, 1938

Transforming the national imagination: The ‘Dark Emu’ debate

Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s ‘Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?’ challenges ideas of progress championed by Bruce Pascoe

More in The Monthly Essays

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Kakadu National Park

Park of the covenant

With the Ranger Uranium Mine now closed, Kakadu’s traditional owners want the government to make good on the original promise of a national park in their care

Ningaloo, Western Australia

Writing in nature

The laureate of the Western Australian surf break sees a task ahead for our essayists, our novelists and our poets alike in the fight against climate catastrophe

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence