Regionalism, Well-Being, and Domestic Violence in Tony Birch’s “The Red House”




Creative Arts, Domestic Violence, Place, Regional, Tony Birch, Victoria Clunes, Well-being

How to Cite

West, P. (2019). Regionalism, Well-Being, and Domestic Violence in Tony Birch’s “The Red House”. M/C Journal, 22(3).
Vol. 22 No. 3 (2019): regional
Published 2019-06-19

Introduction: The Creative Arts and Regional Well-Being

The relationship between regionalism, well-being, and the creative arts has enjoined significant attention from community activists, commercial entrepreneurs, policy analysts, artists, and researchers over recent years (Australia Council for the Arts, “Living Culture”; Australia Council for the Arts, “The Arts in Regional Australia;” Drummond, Keane, and West; Elg; Warren, and West; Woodward, Bremner, and Cahalan). Underpinning most of the activity and research in this area is the understanding (occasionally bordering on an un-critical presumption) that the creative arts make a positive contribution to regional well-being. Commenting on the Live. Love. Life. creative-arts wellness festival in Daylesford, Victoria, Mary-Anne Thomas (Member of Parliament for the state seat of Macedon) stated that the festival will “reinforce Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges’ status as one of the nation’s leading wellness destinations” (Elg). For Thomas, it would appear that the linkage of the creative arts to regional well-being is never in doubt; which is to say, always already available for reinforcement. According to university-based researchers Margaret Woodward, Craig Bremner, and Anthony Cahalan, writing in a more scholarly and critical register, “there is a growing body of research which shows that thriving creative industries and cultural activities are crucial for the health and vitality of a region and its communities” (3). Qualifying this, they add that: “Achieving high levels of community well being through thriving creative activity is not however without its challenges in regional Australia” (3). Similarly, Rozaline Drummond, Jondi Keane, and Patrick West present their work as a test of the efficacy of the creative arts in aiding regional well-being: 

The opportunity to work collaboratively with a community like the one at Lake Bolac [Victoria] provided an occasion to gauge our discerning and initiating skills within creative-arts research and to test the argument that the combination of our different approaches adds to community and individual well-being. Our approach is informed by Gilles Deleuze’s ethical proposition that the health of a community is directly influenced by the richness of the composition of its parts. (n.p.)

Deleuzean philosophy aside, quantitative data indicates that people in regional Australia are increasingly optimistic about the positive impact of the creative arts on their well-being. In 2016, 57% believed the arts impacted their sense of well-being and happiness, up from 52% in 2013 (Australia Council for the Arts, “The Arts in Regional Australia”). Given this article’s emphasis on place and well-being in relation to located creative-arts production, it is worth citing another dataset from the same Australia Council for the Arts publication, which details the “Location of Professional Artists”:

  • There continues to be a concentration of artists in urban areas. Three quarters (74%) live in cities, compared to two thirds of the Australian population. This urban concentration […] may in part be related to concentration of cultural infrastructure in cities.

  • 1 in 6 Australian artists live in regional cities or towns (16%) and around 1 in 10 live in rural, remote or very remote areas (11%). (n.p.)

Regional artists are a minority voice in the Australian creative arts. But the ways in which a minority voice is constructed, and the (potential) impact a minoritarian position has within the wider debate about regional well-being and the creative arts, requires careful unpacking. Ironically, creative artists themselves have been relatively neglected actors in this space. Working with Tony Birch’s short story, “The Red House”, as a neglected text of regionalism, this article exposes oversights in current understandings of the connection between well-being and regionalism. 

The Voice of the Regional Artist and “Resistant Speech” 

It is important to recognise that the “concentration of artists in urban areas” may sometimes lead to situations where non-regional artists, in the undoubtedly well-meaning pursuit of regional well-being, drown out the voices of regional artists in regional places (Australia Council for the Arts, “The Arts in Regional Australia”). Drummond, Keane, and West, all city-based artists, show sensitivity to this problem in their observation that: “It is not for the artists to presume that they can empower a [regional] community.” Certainly, regional artists and communities should take the lead in the development of regional well-being through the creative arts. The problem of (not) speaking for the other is, however, not so easily dealt with (Spivak). While urban artists might adopt the strategy of consciously allowing regional artists a voice, making such allowance could itself be viewed as a play of privilege and power by the city-based practitioner, resourced by their greater “concentration of cultural infrastructure” (Australia Council for the Arts, “The Arts in Regional Australia”). It is notoriously difficult to give the slip to the relatively invisible operations of entitlement. 

Furthermore, even if the regional artist is given a voice, there are many different ways of being heard or not heard. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s distinction between “speaking” and “talking” is useful here. Discussing “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in an interview with Bulan Lahiri, Spivak notes that: “It was not about talking. It was about: when the subaltern speaks there is not enough infrastructure for people to recognise it as resistant speech. That’s what it means.” In this crucial move, Spivak refines understanding of the issues at stake around the minoritarian position of regional artists. It is not enough for regional artists merely to “talk”; rather, they must be heard with the full impact of “resistant speech” (Lahiri). 

Obviously, what Spivak means by the “infrastructure” of “resistant speech” differs from the meaning the word “infrastructure” has in the Australia Council for the Arts publication referred to above, which employs the term as part of a governmental and technocratic discourse (“The Arts in Regional Australia”). The distance separating these two usages of “infrastructure” indicates the difference between the quantitative and the qualitative. Working with Spivak, this article’s focus is on the gap or failing in the infrastructure of qualitative research that has led to the relative neglect of Tony Birch’s short story “The Red House” as a significant text of regionalism. The Australia Council for the Arts, with its quantitative and empirical methodology, would not count Birch as a regional writer (to the best of the author’s knowledge, Birch lives and works in Melbourne). Its definition of a regional artist undermines the possibilities of a qualitative research infrastructure. However, recognizing the powerful regional concerns within a text by a primarily city-based writer like Birch is a key move, not only in expanding the definition of who counts as a minoritarian regional writer, but in giving voice to the “resistant speech” of women and children, subalterns on Spivak’s terms, within the regional-urban flux (Lahiri). 

The aim of this article is to give voice to Tony Birch as a regional writer, at least insofar as he is the author of “The Red House”, while also addressing the issue of well-being (as linked to the curse of domestic violence), through attention to Birch’s artistic re-creation of regionalism. In this way, working with Spivak’s reference to “infrastructure,” the aim is to nurture the growth of a research infrastructure open to a more productive engagement with regionalism, which begins by nuancing the definition of regional. It is not that regional artists, defined either by their demography or (as with Birch) by their creative concerns, are not “talking” rather, what they are saying is not being recognised in Spivak’s strong sense of “speaking”. 

Indeed, the very fact that Birch is not a regional writer in an empirical sense, and that, as will be explored later in this article, “The Red House” is not even primarily set in a regional location, has at least one important consequence. Potentially, it increases the value of Birch’s short story to an engagement with regionalism, given that “The Red House” unfolds regionalism as a concept always already in productive dialogue with other frameworks of place (such as the urban and the international). To the extent that Birch is a city-based writer of regionalism, and thus on the (urban) margin of the (regional) margin, he enlivens an exquisite position of minoritarian power. Furthermore, “The Red House” contains a diversity of acute insights into the nexus of regionalism and well-being that, to date, critics have overlooked. 

“The Red House” and the Well-Being of Places 

Comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to creative work that itself dramatises and interrogates the issue of regional well-being. Tony Birch’s short story “The Red House” (2006), from his collection of linked stories (which is sometimes referred to as a novel) Shadowboxing, is a particularly interesting candidate to fill this gap in the literature, given how delicately it ranges across, and problematises, the division between the urban and the regional.

“The Red House” is the opening story of Shadowboxing. Covering a period of close to a decade, loosely overlapping with the 1960s, and set in different parts of Victoria and Melbourne, it is told in the voice of Michael, who recounts the story of a peripatetic family under stress and struggling to survive. The first sentence reads: “We moved to the red house in the winter after my younger sister, May, died of meningitis” (1). The first page also establishes the place-based coordinates of the story: “In the weeks following our move from Clunes back to Fitzroy, our new house was almost submerged by a rising flood” (1). Birch’s interrogation of regionalism will henceforth operate largely along the Clunes-Fitzroy axis. Fitzroy is an inner-city suburb of Melbourne while Clunes is a small regional town (present population: approximately 2000) about 140 kilometres north-west of Melbourne (Clunes). A flashback section of three pages or so, early on in the story, fills in the events leading up to the return to Melbourne after May’s death in Clunes. Apart from this, the story has a linear structure. 

The various spatial shifts of “The Red House”, both within Melbourne and between Clunes and Melbourne, are all triggered by threats against, or the pursuit of, multiple modes of well-being. The first move reflects the promise of a fresh romantic union: “It was only after he [Michael’s father] had met my mother and moved with her to my [maternal] grandmother’s house over in Carlton that he had left Fitzroy for the first time in his life” (45). This move from Fitzroy to Carlton is followed by a much bigger one: Carlton to Clunes. Implicated in this move are at least two modes of well-being: “The eventual move to the bush had come on the advice of a doctor at the public hospital. He said that the fresh air would help my dad recover from [his] asthma” (5); however, “My grandmother told me years later that the move did not really have all that much to do with his asthma. It was the drink” (5). The context is the husband’s assault of “his six months’ pregnant wife” with “a straight right on the end of her nose” (5). The decision to move to Clunes is made by Michael’s mother: “He fought with her so much that my mother eventually decided that she would have to move away from her mother’s house, for both their sakes. Clunes was a drastic move. But it worked, for a time […]. They appeared happy” (6). This part of “The Red House” unpacks the complexities of how well-being and (physical and mental) health are linked in a social matrix; a physical ailment (asthma) elides an addiction to alcohol, until a doctor’s discourse (validated by the authority of a medical establishment) is subverted by the subalternate voice of Michael’s grandmother. This passage also dramatises the abject scenario of a victim (Michael’s mother) attending to the well-being of her persecutor (Michael’s father) by moving to Clunes “for both their sakes” (6).

Subsequently, May is born in Clunes, “a ‘special baby’. She was magical even…” (6). Indeed, “My father’s habit of explosive anger melted before May. He was truly besotted with her” (6). Just before what would have been her second birthday, May dies. “My father wanted to bring May back to Melbourne for burial, but my mother stood up to him and demanded that she be buried in the town where she was born” (6). This is the most powerful enduring connection of Michael’s family to regional Clunes. Significantly, well-being (in the sense of survival and the rebuilding of happiness after the tragic death of a daughter) is dispersed differently, through place, by mother and father, along gendered lines. While the mother wants her daughter’s birthplace and place of death to coincide, the father wants to possess his daughter, almost as if she were an object, by returning her to the city for burial. (Space restrictions preclude further exploration here of the many issues raised by May’s death, including those around the gendered nexus between well-being [happiness] and the proximity or otherwise to a child’s burial place.) 

After May’s death, Michael’s father’s behaviour deteriorates once more. The domestic violence continues: “It was difficult for my mother to find anything safe to say to him […]. She tried to talk about May with him several times, but he either responded with silence, or swore and yelled at her uncontrollably. He also found his way back to the pubs” (7). The decision to return to Melbourne is made by Michael’s father, against his wife’s wishes: 

And then one night after he had walked in from the pub he sat down at the table and just said to her, ‘Fuck all this fresh-air bullshit, we’re going back to Melbourne.’ She tried persuading him to stay, talked about his job and my school, but he would not listen. He got sick of her talking and slammed a fist into his heavy palm. 

‘We’re fucken going. That’s it. We’re going.’ 

And that was it.

She looked across the table that night and saw once again the man she had married six years earlier, the man who she had deceived herself had faded and eventually disappeared with the move away from the city. (7)

In this passage, well-being (even if only imagined rather than real) is explicitly linked to place. Shortly afterwards, the family moves into the red house, where they will remain. The flashback section of the text has already sketched out the chain of events that leads to the return to the city, while also commenting on the agency Michael’s mother exercises in dealing with what, to her, is an unwelcome situation: “Mum […] had argued against coming back to the city. She sensed the looming danger in my father moving back both to his old streets and his old habits. But on realising that she had no real say in the matter, she was determined to ensure that she at least have some say in the house she was moving into” (4). Specifically, Michael’s mother turns her Fitzroy house into the regional house left behind in Clunes. Under her influence, “It wasn’t long before the inside of the house came to life and began to resemble the old place at Clunes” (11). Again: she brings a portrait of May, along with assorted baby belongings, into the Fitzroy house, keeping this secret from her husband. Thus, Michael’s mother infiltrates regional place into urban place as a strategy of (subalternate) well-being. 

In summary, “The Red House” unpacks well-being as an expansive category shaped by domestic violence, in a negative sense, but also more positively by the actuality or promise of happiness. It also interrogates the fine-grained links between well-being in its incarnations as medical and emotional health. At the same time, it maps the rise and fall of well-being against a human geography of regional and urban places, refusing any simplistic connection of place to well-being (more faintly, there is even the problematising presence of international place, in the character of the Italian landlord, Mr Carboni, and the reference to “the local Italian community [2]). Thus, the text’s regionalism suggests a strategic model, reliant on human intervention in the (re-)creation of place; this is most evident in Michael’s mother’s actions. “The Red House” rewards interpretation as a text of how regional place (Clunes) is re-made in urban place (Fitzroy) through the rehabilitation of a house in the interests of well-being. 

Well-Being and Domestic Violence across Places 

It is hard to imagine a greater threat to the well-being of women and children than domestic violence. This makes it all the more surprising that “The Red House” is one of relatively few texts (to the author’s knowledge) to offer a detailed outline of the territory of well-being, in its many forms stretching from the health-based to the emotional, while also including a direct and unflinching consideration of domestic violence. (One cognate text is Kathryn Heyman’s novel The Breaking, which merges medical disability and domestic violence within a broader consideration of regional well-being.) Even more unusual is the way Birch’s story of well-being and domestic violence is mapped in relation to regional and non-regional places. “The Red House” is rare and valuable for its triangulation of well-being, domestic violence, and place; above all, in its refusal to resort to any comforting notion that regional places have essential qualities that make them necessarily better for well-being than the experience of cities. 

This is perhaps the meaning of the colour of the red house, a colour Michael’s father hates. According to a local know-all, Emu Bailey, the red was originally a form of protest by Ettie Rogers, “‘some sort of communist’” (10). “‘Most everyone around here back then was DLP [Democratic Labour Party]. Still is, some of them. Ettie wasn’t in agreement with the others in the street, so she let them know all about it. Redone it every summer too, the same colour, red’” (10). When Michael’s mother responds to her husband’s injunction to re-paint the house “‘any colour but that fucken red’” (13) by preparing to re-paint it, subversively, “a deep red splash of colour” (19) it is not difficult to discern a silent protest, passed down from woman to woman, against the domestic violence suffered by Michael and his mother. Indeed, Birch comes very close to describing the red of the house as blood-like, labelling it “a rich congealed red” (2). “Congealed” is often used to describe blood. In this way, through a colour that evokes the body, a house becomes a visible and metaphorical protest against the bodily violence (but also emotional and mental torment) that is domestic violence. As Meg Mundell argues, “the body is integral to how literary sense of place is produced” (8). This bodily, coloured protest folds back into the special sort of place the Fitzroy home becomes. If Michael’s mother cannot keep living in Clunes, she can at least paint her city house red. 

Perhaps attesting to the success of this female protest, there is, towards the end of “The Red House”, a fascinating moment when, as if influenced by the domestic circumstances of transplanted place (from regional Clunes) created by Michael’s mother, domestic violence threatens, but is thwarted. Michael’s mother has just told her husband that she is going to have another baby: “He spun around and moved towards her. I thought that maybe he was going to hit her. But he didn’t. He stopped in front of her. They were toe to toe” (17). Place and (pregnant) body, in an intensified combination (or even, to riff on Spivak’s terminology, as an “infrastructure”), allow the subaltern to “speak” against her oppression. 

Conclusion: Re-Defining Regionalism through the Literary Creative Arts 

Tony Birch’s “The Red House” re-creates the regional as something other than a pre-determined place. Regionalism is “activated,” in a strategic mode, within the flux of the urban and the regional. This is particularly evident in the actions of Michael’s mother. She preserves her well-being (located in Clunes, as it were, where her daughter is buried) even after she is forced by her husband to return to Melbourne (the place she left to escape from his domestic violence). The picture of May acts as a talisman of well-being (aptly, given Clunes is described by Michael as “a town where old superstitions held sway over logic” [6]), which Michael’s mother smuggles from regional Clunes into her Melbourne house. 

“The Red House” is thus a vital literary rejoinder to the conceptualisation of well-being, and regional areas employed by government bodies and commercial entities, which instrumentalizes a binary opposition of the regional/non-regional. By extension, it contests the naïve linkage of regional place to well-being through a nuanced investigation into the complex links between place (regional, urban, even international) and multi-faceted well-being. Birch’s story is a valuable, fine-grained creative analysis of well-being (extending from happiness, comfort and security through to what might be called the “ill-being” of domestic violence), which is matched to an equally fine-grained engagement with multiple modalities of place. It challenges the reader to creatively re-think how regionalism and well-being might align. 


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Author Biography

Patrick West, Deakin University

Associate Professor in Writing and Literature in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne Campus.