Great Humanity and Human Decency: Annette Marfording reviews ‘The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey’ by Alex Miller

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey (selected and arranged by his wife Stephanie Miller) by Alex Miller,  Allen & Unwin 2015.

simplest wordsThere are many Australian authors who are good writers, but there are few who, in addition to bringing the reader enjoyment – and incidentally – teach the reader something about how to be a good person, show the reader the impact of racism and other injustices, and thus demonstrate their deep humanity. In America, one of the most famous authors to do so is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird through her character Atticus Finch, teaches her readers the meaning of empathy and the injustice of racism. In Australia, that author is Alex Miller. And for those who are not familiar with all of his work and especially his most award-winning novels The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country, and Landscape of Farewell, in which those teachings of his are the strongest, his deep humanity is starkly illuminated in this book The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey.

Although Alex Miller has written short stories and essays, some included in past editions of The Best Australian Essays and The Best Australian Stories, he is best known for his novels, for which he won multiple literary awards, including the Miles Franklin award for The Ancestor Game and for Journey to the Stone Country. Apart from the Miles Franklin, his most prestigious literary awards are the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for The Ancestor Game) and the Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award from the People’s Literature Publishing House in China (for Landscape of Farewell). He has also been awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature and the Manning Clark Cultural Award for his outstanding contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life.

In individual pieces, written mostly for newspapers – especially the Melbourne Age – and in short stories, selected and arranged for this book by the author’s wife Stephanie, and with the addition of significant photographs with family and friends, The Simplest Words presents a kind of autobiographical journey of the author in chronological order, which ends with a surprise poem. That the book emerges as an autobiographical journey is interesting in itself, because at the symposium on his novels, organised by Professor Robert Dixon at Sydney University in 2011, he began his own contribution by saying, “I’ve been asked for a memoir for this occasion yet I am uncomfortable writing directly about myself. I prefer the mask of fiction. In this preference it is self-deception I fear most, for who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?” The last sentence is, of course, an immediate demonstration of his deep humanity, his morality, his modesty: “who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?”

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey begins with the desire for storytelling in his childhood, takes the reader through the impetus for each of his novels and shows their profound link to his own life, includes brief extracts of each of those novels, and introduces the reader to his special friends, his thoughts about writing and issues he feels passionate about. For those who are new to Alex Miller’s work, this book is thus the ideal introduction to, and overview of, his body of work.

For this reviewer, who is intensely familiar with his novels, has reread most of them, some more than once, who was one of the only non-university people to attend the above mentioned symposium on his novels, and who learned yet more about him in her in-depth interview with him for her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, there were several highlights in this collection. The first, the ability to read ‘Comrade Pawel’, the story that was his first publication in Meanjin in 1975. The story is based on an incident that happened to his friend Max Blatt in the Second World War. Reading the story as written by Alex prompted Max to say, “You could have been there,” and with those words launched his writing life and career.

A second highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a previously unpublished novella, ‘The Rule of the First Prelude’, in which Alex Miller imagines the life of the child of his protagonist Emily in his novel Conditions of Faith as an adult, and her grief at her mother’s absence. It is an eloquent and extremely powerful story, though written, indeed, in the simplest words.

A third highlight of this book are the essays on issues the author feels passionate about; foremost ‘Australia Today’, in which he writes in disbelief about the Australian government’s shocking turn-away from asylum seekers, and yet, remains hopeful that Australia will return to humane refugee policies. Another is ‘Chasing My Tale’ on the labelling – such as revisionist historian – that he has received by academics following his novels and his resulting bewilderment, causing him to say, “I believe a novel is like a painting or a piece of music, at least in the sense that it cannot be explained but can only be experienced.” Another is ‘Sweet Water’, an outstanding essay on the need to preserve the Urannah Valley, and thus the land and pristine wilderness of the Birriguba people of North Queensland, from damming and consequential destruction. The Urannah Valley is part of the landscape in his novel Journey to the Stone Country and in this essay Alex Miller explains the significance of this land to its original owners, and makes a passionate argument against the focus of Western culture on acquisition: of land, of knowledge, of consumer goods, and in favour of preserving the sacred. And, while in the interview with me he stated that his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell were not written as books about Aborigines and the issues they face, but were the stories of his personal friends, which they had asked him to write, towards the end of ‘Sweet Water’ he nevertheless points to the importance of writing about things affecting Aboriginal people: “Some critics assure us that our novels are irrelevant to the important issues facing our society. I don’t share that view. As well as entertaining us, our novels have always explored the individual’s relationship to the great moral questions of the day. Not answers, but an awareness of the questions we need to face. Something, dare I say it, such as an image of the Urannah Valley…., intact as yet and just as filled with mystery as the deepest and most hidden part of the great Amazonian forest. A fragile and precious reality of ours that we are about to destroy in order to provide water for coal mines and crop irrigation.”

A fourth highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is the inclusion of ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a piece on parental love and advice and writing, which he read at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and which held the entire audience in a suspended hush for the duration.

A final highlight of this book are Alex Miller’s pieces about his friends, including the aforementioned Max Blatt, the late Frank Budby, elder of the Barada Barna people, who became his protagonist Dougald Gnapun in Landscape of Farewell, Col McLennan, elder of the Jangga people, and his wife Liz Hatte, who became his protagonists Bo and Annabelle in Journey to the Stone Country, biographer Hazel Rowley who became his soul mate by daily email correspondence, and philosopher and author of Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, Raimond Gaita. And in words I would use about Alex Miller, he finishes the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ as follows: “Rereading her books these last few weeks I have known myself to be in the presence of Hazel Rowley’s great humanity… Her great books are for life. To read a great book for a second time, just as to listen to a great piece of music for the hundredth time, is to be in the presence of a new creation.” Gerard Windsor, in his review of The Simplest Words for The Australian refers to this praise as “quite starstruck admiration” for Hazel Rowley, and the same might be said of this review for Alex Miller, but I see it as simple gratitude for those people in our lives, be it primarily only through the written word, who remind us of the existence of such great humanity and human decency in this increasingly self-centred world.

Buy The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, buy Alex Miller’s novels, and reread each of his books for perpetual new pleasure, awe and gratitude. It’s no surprise that this book was my book of the year 2015. It was published by Allen & Unwin in a sturdy hardback edition with a hauntingly beautiful cover image designed by Lisa White, which you will enjoy looking at for years to come.

 – Annette Marfording


Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at or All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is available from