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Words by Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage

It was an honour and privilege to speak to the former Governor-General of Australia, Dame Quentin Bryce.

Dressed in ivory, with a bolero jacket draped over her shoulders and Dear Quentin in her hand, she walks into the conference room at the Pier One. Despite the early start from Brisbane, her commitments of the day in Sydney are still not over, at 6:30pm. Yet she eases into the conversation with great enthusiasm and warmth.

Dame Quentin Bryce interview photograph copy.jpg
Photograph: Dina Mura

Dame Quentin’s book, Dear Quentin: Letters of a Governor-General is a testament to her close relationship with fellow Australians.

Hence, naturally, one could ask whether it is a memoir.

“I suppose it’s a memoir in that they’re memories of a particular time in my life but I haven’t thought of it as a memoir at all. It’s a collection of letters from a time in my life that I enjoyed very much. It was a privilege and an honour to serve our community as Governor-General and a lovely part of that was the correspondence I received from Australians of all walks of life. And letter-writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. So it was a very natural thing for me to reply to the letters that I received. To those that were hand-written, I replied in writing by hand. People constantly remarked about it because I think, in many ways, it’s a forgotten art,” she says, nodding her head.

So, what inspired the compilation of these letters?

“It was a suggestion made to me when I was packing up to leave Yarralumla, by my official secretary, Stephen Brady. I think he’d been surprised if not a little bemused, by the attention I gave to my letter-writing.”

But the idea had to be adjourned.

“When I went back to Queensland, I was asked by the then premier Campbell Newman to lead a task-force on domestic violence. Of course, I said ‘yes’.

“But I really got into this project when I had an idea of doing it for the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute that I’m involved with; all the funds from this book will be going to the institute. A lovely thing about that, is that it has prompted many people to support the important work of the institute which is about the future of our country, our children’s health. That’s the most important thing to me as a grandmother, and it has been, across my life.”

“It meant a lot to me to receive the letters,” she says, “each one of them was precious.”

“Of course, I’ve succumbed to the odd email,” she confesses, “but writing a letter by hand, as your hand goes across the page, you’re thinking about the person that you’re writing to, what you’re saying and what they’ve written to you; there’s an immediacy and an intimacy.

“Sometimes people wrote to me about feelings that brought so much emotion that they couldn’t talk about because they would bring tears. I think there’s something very special in it [letter-writing] as a way of connecting with our fellow human beings.”

Indeed, she doesn’t overlook the “funny and vivacious” letters that she received, especially from children.

As I mention the boy from Coober Pedy, Giordan Staines, her smile widens. She recalls a recent chance meeting with him and explains how brilliant a writer he is.

When asked about the most momentous event in her life, she answers forthwith, that it is the birth of her first child; “I think there’s nothing to touch the wonder and relief and happiness of that. It changes your life forever because from that time on, there’s always someone who comes before yourself. It pierces your heart. It’s very scary as well”. She smiles.

She is a trailblazer, a role-model and most of all, a maternal shade; hence this response is far from surprising.

“There are particular things that are in your mind as the first in a role; I think it’s especially so for women. We have a sense of responsibility about being pioneers and I’m always conscious of the fact that I stand on the shoulders of women who fought hard to break down barriers, to education in particular; that gave me the opportunities to have the experiences and the enriching life that I’ve had,” she says, exuding an aura of probity, “I feel enormously proud of the Australian women’s movement.”

She advises today’s youth to “grasp opportunities!”

“I’ve seen the most wonderful changes across my life, particularly for women. The most significant change has been through education. When I was a girl, there was a very narrow range of opportunities for women.

“They were and still are to a great extent, stereotyped. But I find it exhilarating to see the energy, the opportunities and the choices that young people have today, that I could never have dreamt of.”

At the heart of this all lies what Dame Quentin loosely quotes from Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus; “reform is not about banners and bombs, it’s about hard work and battles, the composition of letters and the ignominious struggles with a duplicating machine”.


Thank you very much, Dame Quentin.


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