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Hope should move us to action, says Tim Winton

On the action list: patriarchy and toxic masculinity

There’s a moment in Tim Winton’s new book, The Shepherd’s Hut, when a ruined priest out in the barren saltlands of Western Australia expresses what’s left of his theology.

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Exiled Irish priest Fintan MacGillis tells a curious 15-year-old Jaxie Clackton that he suspects God “is what you do, not what or who you believe in.”

To reveal how this works out would spoil the ending of this powerful story of survival and sentimental education by one of Australia’s most celebrated authors. But it involves blood, pain and visceral sacrifice.

“There’s an enormous amount of energy wasted on orthodoxy and making sure everyone thinks the right thing.” –Tim Winton

It’s a theme that Winton, as a self-described Christian, feels strongly about – along with other moral and cultural issues of our time.

“Fintan’s boiled-down uncertain theology of essentially the propaganda of the deed might be a timely one,” says the award-winning author of Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath.

“In our culture and certainly in the traditions that I’m most familiar with in religious terms, there’s an enormous amount of energy wasted on orthodoxy and making sure everyone thinks the right thing.

“Sometimes I just think religious people need to shut up and do something … rather than just banging on all the time in their specialised language about what’s correct.”

“They’re quite prepared for all the energy to go to that while they do nothing, or at least they do nothing good – they’re not doing very much to move things on … sometimes I just think religious people need to shut up and do something, and also shut up and listen rather than just banging on all the time in their specialised language about what’s correct.”

One thing Winton wishes Christians would “do something” about is patriarchy, gender imbalance and toxic masculinity.

He has described his protagonist, Jaxie Clackton, as a borderline sociopath – the school bully and the local wild boy in his one-silo wheatbelt town in WA. But he has been made that way by being beaten and tormented all his life by his vicious drunk of a father.

“I think boys are beautiful. I think they’re graceful and dreamy and vulnerable and full of gentleness and softness … It just breaks your heart to see all those qualities shamed out of the boy by the time he gets to about 11.”

When Jaxie gets what he prays for and his father dies in grisly circumstances, Jaxie fears he will be blamed and so takes off into the bush, grabbing a high-powered rifle, a backpack full of food and five litres of water.

As he approaches the saltland country on the edge of the desert, having survived several days by shooting his dinner, Jaxie stumbles across an isolated camp where Fintan McGillis has been exiled for eight years.

At first, Jaxie is confused by this loquacious priest with a plastic top set of teeth while Fintan is terrified by this smelly ruffian, whom he assumes has killed someone. But Fintan presents an entirely different way of being a man to Jaxie, a larger view of the world that includes books, poetry and music.

“Fintan is definitely no ideal mentor but he’s got something to offer a boy like Jaxie, which his father clearly hasn’t had, and some of that is about having an emotional language and poetry in him and being from another place entirely.

“And the both of them need each other; whether they concede it at first or not, their chances of surviving out there are increased by 50 per cent just because there’s another person. And then there’s the other nourishment of company and solace and curiosity and all of the relational sort of things.”

At 57, Winton says he has lived long enough to see the effects of the impoverished notion of masculinity our culture imposes on boys as they grow up.

“I think boys are beautiful. I think they’re graceful and dreamy and vulnerable and full of gentleness and softness,” says Winton, who has two sons and a daughter.

“Our boys are told that life is a fight or a game they have to win, it’s a race they have to win, and they treat relationships accordingly, which is terribly limiting and damaging.”

“It just breaks your heart to see all those qualities shamed out of the boy by the time he gets to about 11. It’s like the world’s ganging up on him to surrender all the beauty in his life – all the music, all the poetry, all the vulnerability and gentleness, the openness – and he conforms to a narrow script of masculinity.”

He says women are equally to blame as men for shaming the “goodness” out of boys, even though they suffer from the “poisonous fruit of that shaming and that training and modelling.”

At a time when people are encouraging girls to reach for more, to be fierce, strong and not settle for compliance, boys, he says, are trapped in a narrow version of masculinity that involves a shrinking of their emotional and linguistic palette.

“There are just behaviours that are no longer available to a boy after a certain time. It’s not absolute and universal, but it’s very common. You see how quickly a boy is punished for deviating from this narrow vision of masculinity and he doesn’t want to be like that but if you’re punished enough you learn to obey the cultural questioner to conform.”

Part of what’s been lost from boys’ emotional palette is the importance of relationships and sacrifice for the group, Winton says.

“What I’ve learned from travelling with Nyulnyul people in the Kimberley and other indigenous groups is that people take the group seriously,” he says.

“This is what Jaxie has to learn. You go out into the wild country, you can’t survive on your own – you need people. In order to be a human, you need relationships and in order to live in Australia, the group is the best friend that you have. It’s the means by which you survive physically, but it’s also one of the means of revelation in some traditions.

“I think people are looking for people to show what they believe by their actions, their concerted actions, people putting themselves on the line.”

“Life is about relationships and, whether we like it or not, our boys are told that life is a fight or a game they have to win, it’s a race they have to win, and they treat relationships accordingly, which is terribly limiting and damaging. But life is not a game, it’s not a fight, it’s not a race, it’s a dance. And that’s a group thing.”

Winton, who took two years to write The Shepherd’s Hut, describes writing in the first person as Jaxie as like “Russian roulette” in having to imbue his profane patois with a sense of musicality and poetry.

“He’s so abrasive and so profane and so opinionated and unpleasant and yet you sort of hope there’s something about him, some kind of residual charm or curiosity from the reader that he’ll get under your skin and you’ll stay with him for the course. The reader senses that there’s more to him than the armour, the mask that he’s carrying around,” he says.

“It’s the same for all people. Everyone’s wearing their mask, everyone’s got their armour on and you make all these assumptions about people when they’re not always who you think they are. It’s only when you’re forced to be in someone’s company long enough to get behind the mask that you … can do that and so if you’ve got a 200-page book the reader that does stay the distance will have time to see that there’s more to this boy than his racism and his profanity and his reiterated misogyny.”

In spite of his limited ideas and vocabulary, Jaxie is searching for something more. When Fintan puts the idea into his head that he is an “instrument of God,” it ignites a sense of power in himself.

“That’s our job as citizens. If it doesn’t feel hopeful, you don’t pretend to be hoping for something, you have to strive to create conditions where hope is possible and then likely.”

“I guess it’s just a sense of agency – in the most basic terms that life is not what happens to you, it’s what you make happen,” explains Winton.

“You can’t forever blame everything else for your behaviour, and early in his life he understands a perverted form of that in the sense that ‘everything that’s been done to me I’m going to do to others,’ even in a malign sense.

“But he finally sees that there’s a positive form of that, of making good things happen, and he’s sort of enchanted by the notion that there might be something he could do that would make the world a better place.

“Of course, he gets it half wrong, or almost entirely wrong in a way, but at least in the sense that – well, he witnesses this horrible thing – and it’s a man exceeding himself selflessly for the sake of somebody else and it’s a vision of manhood that was horrible and visceral in its reality but the implications for this kid are that someone’s going to go to the wall for me, to protect me.”

Winton, who calls himself a “brutalised cynic,” nevertheless expresses an idealistic notion that people are calling out for just such a sacrificial kind of moral leadership.

“I think people are looking for people to show what they believe by their actions, their concerted actions, people putting themselves on the line, their bodies, their hearts, and their fortunes on the line.

“I’m not by nature an optimist but I think that my view of life is that optimism is a discipline that we have to adopt, it’s not a feeling … I think we have to create the conditions of hope where hope isn’t obvious. A mother in a village bombed out somewhere in Syria … when the children look at her and say ‘is everything going to be all right?’ What’s she going to say? Of course, she has to say ‘everything’s going to be all right’ because she’s going to do everything in her power, limited though it is, to make sure that life will be all right for those kids. And that’s our job as citizens. If it doesn’t feel hopeful, you don’t pretend to be hoping for something, you have to strive to create conditions where hope is possible and then likely.”

Commenting on the inscription in the book – “change is hard and hope is violent” by Liam Rector – Winton says “hope when it’s ignited is fierce and it demands things of us.”

At the end of the book, Jaxie has been through explosive change and it is a violent but liberating sensation.

“Jaxie is not just a beast any more; he is just an arrow of light fanging north up the highway,” says Winton.

“He has an angelic feeling – a feeling of being finally unbound for a moment from everything that’s gone before. We have those moments in our life where we feel unchained – ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, etc!’”

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The Shepherd's Hut

Tim Winton

Available from Penguin

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