Emerging Historians—Gwyn McClelland
The latest participant in the Emerging Historians Q&A series is Dr Gwyn McClelland, whose doctorate was conferred by Monash University. He is currently an Associate, teaching at Monash and in 2018 at RMIT Universities in Asian and trans-regional History, Education (Bilingualism) and Japanese language.
How did you come to be a historian?
A few years after I had completed a short thesis in theology for my Master of Divinity, I remember meeting my supervisor-to-be for a coffee next to the library at Melbourne University and discussing my ideas for a PhD project, which I had developed to take my previous research further. I had not really thought hard about which part of the Arts Faculty it would be in, but my supervisor was very encouraging of my proposal. I vaguely thought I would be in Japanese studies. Only when I was accepted into my program did I realise my work would be (had to be) in History! I realised how appropriate this was and quickly began to enjoy the opportunity to enormously widen my understanding of historical methodologies and approaches in research. I am thankful for Monash University researcher Beatrice Trefalt’s encouragement of me to pursue the path of an historian.
Tell us about your PhD research
I utilised an oral history methodology which involved interviewing 12 survivors of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, including 9 who are Catholic. I interviewed around 10 other community members as well, to gain a broader insight into the modern community. I remember one interviewee invited me to his haircut – so I sat behind him, while he talked, and the hairdresser listened in too, to his discussion of his memory of the atomic bomb! Then we caught a taxi to his retirement home. Elements such as this part of the research process didn’t make it into my thesis, but it was moments like this I will never forget! I also appreciated the opportunity to meet like-minded researchers in Japan, including one who had in 2015 published a book about the Catholic narrative of the bombing, from the written record, rather than the oral.
I employed a theological framework that engaged with the testimonies shared with me, ‘dangerous memory’, as conceptualised by German post-war Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Various aspects of the interviewees’ memories of trauma at the time and after the atomic bombing suggest their memories are ‘dangerous’ for the status quo, in the US, in Japan, for the Catholic official Church and so on.
Why does it matter?
The Catholic narratives of the bombing were sidelined, or silenced for a number of reasons. Around 70% of the Catholic community around Ground Zero were killed by the atomic bomb, so one reason for silence has been the fracturing of this community. Another was the silence of the official church in Nagasaki. A third is the situation of double and triple marginalisation in which the survivors found themselves after the war (eg. ‘Worshippers of an enemy god’, irradiated and socio-economic prejudices). The research contributes to histories of marginalisation and shows the complex but significant results of atomic warfare, even for those who experience them as children. I contribute to a better understanding of the narrative of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and how the Catholic community who were to be found around Ground Zero experienced this bombing. As well, over the past seventy years, a plethora of research about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima has been produced, while Nagasaki has been relatively neglected.
What are you researching now or intending to do next?
I am presently writing a book out of the thesis, to be published by Routledge later this year in Mark Selden’s ‘Asia’s Transformations’ Series. The book will be titled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers and Protests within Catholic Survivor Narratives. Con-currently I am continuing my search for a position as a post-doc, researcher and/or teacher.
What do you love about being a historian?
It may be clichéd but I love the experience of discovery – my time at the National Library in 2015, where I was supported by a ‘Japan Grant’ was essential to my PhD thesis, allowing me the time to read in Japanese and to discover some of the nineteenth century narratives of the community I was researching. For an oral historian, finding supporting documents, including secondary sources and images is a great way to back up what you find in an interview. Oh, I have to mention another thing I really enjoy – in oral history it is a lot of fun to meet people and to talk with them.
What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
The financial stresses for my family and I, which mean at the moment I am not sure about future holidays and keep putting off home projects. It is very difficult not knowing what will keep us going over the next university holidays, nor knowing with certainty how many contracts I might be able to land in the following semester.
If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
I would like to go back to pre-1780s Australia, to see this continent as it was, especially the Birrarung (Yarra) river and the Woiwurrung region (now Melbourne). I think it would have been an amazing and beautiful area at the time.
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