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Telling Our Stories: Q&A with PM Literary Awards Shortlisted Author Jayne Persian

December 4, 2018

1. Beautiful Balts tells the extraordinary tale of the 170,000 displaced persons who arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952, and who transformed not only Australia’s immigration policy, but the country as a whole. What inspired you to write this book?

I met three of my husband’s grandparents in 2000; they were all Ukrainian displaced persons who had arrived in Australia in the post-war era. I wanted to read a book about their story but couldn’t find a good general history. When I decided to continue my university studies with a PhD in history, I knew that there was a gap to be filled, both in the academic literature and in material for the general public.

2. This book provides a detailed history of post-war refugees and resettlement in a time where prejudice, parochialism, and strident anti-communism were rife. What was the research process like when writing Beautiful Balts?

My historical research so far has very much dabbled around the edges of the Second World War, both in Australia and in Europe and Asia, and focused on the beginning of the Cold War period. It was an exciting time, with so much human movement: clashes of ideology competed in various instances with pragmatic considerations. It was fascinating to find, for example, that Nazi affiliations were soon seen as less important to immigration selection committees than professing anti-communist attitudes. It was also sobering to realise how much the Australian selection officers privileged youth, fitness and whiteness than any concern with humanitarian motivations; Holocaust survivors were still not wanted in Australia, and neither were the aged or the disabled.

3. The book offers a vivid glimpse into the historical and political context of Australia in the mid 20th century, but it also details individual lives in upheaval. How did you uncover these personal stories, and why did you choose to include them in the book?

I was very fortunate to have access to my husband’s family stories, and particularly those of his paternal grandmother, whose dramatic wartime journey introduces the book. I also interviewed over thirty displaced persons or their children, as well as benefiting from oral histories collected by others. I do think that the intimacy of personal stories can make history relatable; nothing really beats hearing about what happened from the people who experienced those times. My job as a historian is to contextualise and analyse those memories, to make a somewhat cohesive but textured narrative.

4. You hold a PhD in history from the University of Sydney, and are currently a lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland. Why do you think it is important for people to read and write about history?

History is really all about stories: our personal and family stories that we tell ourselves, and the wider, national or global stories that we are told. Reading and/or writing good history is a way in which we can interrogate simple stories in order to add complexity and ambiguity to, say, national ‘myths’ such as Australia’s ‘successful’ post-war immigration program. Not only are good histories enjoyable, they should also be thought-provoking and make us question our own social and cultural values.

5. Beautiful Balts is a reminder that even today, Australia is haunted by its past policies. What did you want people to take away from the book?

I would like readers to come away with an awareness of the complexity of the post-war migrant cohort, who were politically, socially and culturally varied. The ambitious immigration scheme served Australia’s economic interests, but also broadened the view of what could be possible in a previously White Australia, leading to multiculturalism. It also assisted vulnerable people in regaining a sense of security and enjoying a return to family and work lives. It does seem to me that the lessons from the post-war era could be useful when we are currently facing the largest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.

6. What does being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards mean to you?

I am absolutely honoured to be shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. I very much wanted the book to have appeal for a general readership, including descendants of the displaced persons and other post-war migrants to Australia, and I am pleased that the book will receive a wider readership as a result of the shortlisting.

About the author:

Jayne Persian is a historian of modern Australia and has a PhD in history from the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the political, cultural and social history of the 170,000 ‘Displaced Persons’—predominantly Central and Eastern Europeans—who arrived in Australia as International Refugee Organisation (IRO) sponsored refugees. She is currently a lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba.

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Winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced on the 5th of December 2018. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for winner updates and author interviews.

You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #PMLitAwards, and you can read the full list of shortlisted titles here.


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