Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2017

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2017), by Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss PhD is a versatile and prolific author: she is well-known as an author of non-fiction and social commentary, commercial women’s fiction (which she calls choc-lit), YA, children’s books, and poetry.  She was co-editor with Peter Minter of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (2008) (see my review) and with the late Rosie Scott also co-edited The Intervention, an Anthology (2015) (see my review).  I have also read and reviewed her splendid Am I Black Enough for You (2012).  But I have never read her fiction, until now…

Heiss writes what she calls choc-lit with a purpose: writing to engage non-Indigenous Australians with light-hearted novels about people ‘just like herself’, modern independent women who have or want to have great careers, women who network within great friendships, women who fall in and out of love, and women who face challenges and have their share of loss, failure or success.  The difference is that her novels include characters otherwise mostly invisible in Australian fiction: Indigenous women getting on with everyday life, just like they really do in everyday life.  And as it says in the article at Precinct news, she subverts the chicklit agenda by weaving into her plots the issues that concern her and should concern all of us: Aboriginal literacy, black deaths in custody, human rights, infringements, and Indigenous artistic protocols.  These novels include Tiddas  (201); Paris Dreaming (2011); Manhattan Dreaming (2010); Avoiding Mr Right (2008); and her debut in this genre, Not Meeting Mr. Right (2007).

Her latest book, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms adds to these concerns with a departure into historical fiction which reveals aspects of Australia’s Black history.  Her setting is Cowra and the Aboriginal mission at Erambie during World War II, and the book begins by introducing Hiroshi, who is wrestling with his conscience because he feels he can’t honour his Japanese heritage as a POW in the Cowra camp.  As readers probably know, Japanese soldiers underwent harsh training to imbue in them the belief that surrender was ignoble and it was better to die than to be captured.  And in the Cowra breakout on the 5th of August 1944, many of the Japanese POWs escaped only to commit suicide rather than live with the shame of seeing out the war in the comfort and safety of an Australian POW camp.

Heiss uses this historical backdrop for a love story between Hiroshi and a 17-year-old girl called Mary whose parents decide to offer refuge at Erambie to the escapee.  And although I haven’t read Heiss’s other novels, I suspect that this novel has a harder edge than they do, because it depicts the institutional discrimination of the period, from which there was no legal escape for Indigenous people.  In this period, before the 1967 Referendum and the reforms of the Whitlam era and since, they had no choices.  Aborigines were not counted as citizens, could not vote, had restrictions on where they could live and go and who they could marry, were denied pensions and allowances, had inferior education, employment opportunities and wages, and lived on sub-standard rations in missions around Australia in constant fear that their children would be taken away from them.  (And that’s only the half of it).  So while there is disagreement in the Erambie community about providing refuge to an enemy soldier – especially among those who had family on active service overseas – respect for Elders means that there is acceptance of Banjo’s point-of-view:

‘The government is fighting the Japanese – the same government we are fighting.  We’re fighting for a better life.  I feel like I’m at war every day with all those who control our lives.  I’m sick of living in this hut without water.  I want the same wages as the whitefellas doing the same job.  I’m tired of us living in fear of having our kids taken away, while white people don’t have to worry about anything: they have enough food and they have water and electricity and get paid properly for their work.’  Banjo’s voice is not loud but it is firm.  ‘If we are at war with this government, then, to my mind, this fella and I are on the same side.’ (p.7)

Given Australia’s obsession with military history and the tragic history of Australians in Japanese POW camps, many readers will find this perspective confronting.  Heiss has created her Japanese character sympathetically as a gentle, university-educated man who never wanted to go to war, utterly unlike the stereotype of the guards responsible for thousands of Australian deaths on the Burma Railway and whose contempt for prisoners resulted in many more deaths in the camps.  In this respect Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom defies the stereotyping of Japanese in the same way that the late Cory Taylor did in My Beautiful Enemy (see my review) and for somewhat similar reasons: her love story is between people rejected by Australian society and who have complex reasons for values that are different to the dominant point-of-view.

Notwithstanding the hatred expressed in war propaganda against the Japanese, Hiroshi, holed up in an air-raid shelter on the mission, reflects that he as a POW had enjoyed better living conditions and was treated with greater respect than these Aboriginal Australians were.  When Mary explains that the only way to be treated in the same way as other Australians was to renounce their Aboriginality and sever all ties with their community in order to have an Exemption Certificate, he is baffled.

‘This is crazy,’ he says, confused that a country that treated him so well at the camp could treat its own people so badly.  ‘This paper changes all that?  Changes the way people treat you and how you can behave?  But you are still Aboriginal.  A piece of paper can’t change that.’ (p.119)

BTW#1 I thought at first that it was unrealistic that Hiroshi was hidden underground in this shelter for so long, until I was humbled by the realisation that it was unrealistic that Aborigines might have had anywhere else to put him when they were living in tin shacks themselves, overcrowded and with little privacy since the mission manager could intrude at any time.  Mary is able to conceal her nightly visits to share their meagre rations by ostensibly going to the lavatory which is some distance from her home.

BTW#2 Note the use of the present tense, a subtle reminder throughout the novel that discrimination and racism is not something that has gone away.

Heiss also raises the issue of non-Indigenous responsibility to learn and find out about Indigenous issues for themselves by depicting Mary’s exhaustion at having to explain all this to an incredulous Hiroshi over many nights, over many months of the war.  This is the exhaustion that Indigenous Australians deal with on an everyday basis today, always having to educate their fellow Australians about things they should know and find out for themselves instead of expecting to be told by others:

Mary sighs.  ‘We still look the same, think the same, know the same and understand the same history that has led us to where we are today.  And that is what makes us still Aboriginal.’  She takes a deep breath, exhausted by what feels like schooling.  None of the talking will change anything about her lot, other than the man she has feelings for coming to a better understanding of who she is and the life she leads. (p.120)

BTW#3 My only demurral to this is that there is so much to know, and the journey is long.  People of my generation are doing catch-up after having learned nothing at school and nothing at university about Indigenous issues.  I’ve been reading and reviewing Indigenous authors on this blog since 2011, and I’d read a couple of books by Indigenous authors before that, but I am only too aware that there is so much that I don’t know so I really appreciate opportunities for ‘schooling’ when they come my way.

The narrative tension in the novel is driven by the reader’s interest in how this doomed relationship might be resolved, but the book is much more than a star-crossed romance.  Comic elements lighten the mood in the characterisation of the incorrigible gossip Marj and the mission manager nicknamed King Billie, and an optimistic tone is achieved despite the circumstances through episodes of loving and happy family life.  At the same time, the novel is a coming-of-age story and so we see Mary occasionally behaving like a typical adolescent irritated by her mother’s ‘interference’.

Like the recently released Terra Nullius by Clare G Coleman  (see my reviewBarbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is an emerging trend in Indigenous fiction: subversive and entertaining at the same time.  You can vote for it in the People’s Choice category of the Queensland Literary Awards here.

PS There are book group questions at the back of the book.

Anita Heiss is a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW, and her mother lived at Erambie.

Author: Anita Heiss
Title: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2017
ISBN: 9781925184853
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Eltham Bookshop $19.99

Available from Fishpond: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms



  1. I like chick lit and I admire Anita Heiss so I might overcome my dislike of Australian historical fiction and give this a try. (Am about to read Terra Nullius)


    • Bill, I reckon these two are unmissables. Because they are reshaping the tropes of commercial fiction genres for their own purposes, and I haven’t seen it done like this before. I’m no expert on Indigenous writing, but as I see it, it is moving onwards from heartbreaking memoirs, to the startling fiction of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott (which though I love it isn’t always accessible to the general reader) and then this other strand of subverting widely read genres. I’d love to know what you think of them.
      Because in both cases there is a deliberate modern sensibility acting on the historical narrative and the characterisation, so that the reader is forced to notice it and ask why it’s there if it’s not a mistake.


      • I love Wright and Scott because they are not accessible – in fact they may be the two finest literary writers in Australia today. It’s great the way you have framed Heiss’s historical fiction, now I must read it. Perhaps the only other writer doing the same thing is K. Greenwood with the independent Phryne making a point by being so ahistorical.


        • Yes, I love them too, but I think Terra Nullius and Barbed Wire will get through to a wider audience, which is good.
          I haven’t read Greenwood, it must be time for a legendary review, eh?


  2. What’s choc lit? It’s the first time I hear of this genre.
    Next question: is it readable for someone who’s not Australian?


    • Anita Heis calls it choc-lit because it’s chick-lit with brown-skinned characters. It’s typical of her sense of humour that she would do this:)
      Yes, I think it would be readable for you, partly because the characters explain their own histories and points-of-view.


  3. […] Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, by Anita Heiss, see my review […]


  4. […] Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2017) by Anita Heiss […]


  5. […] Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss historical fiction, see my review […]


  6. […] first heard of Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss on Lisa’s blog when she reviewed Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms, a book I decided to read. Unfortunately, it’s not available on my kindle store but Not Meeting […]


  7. Anita Heiss’ novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms seems very interesting. I applaud her tireless commitment to producing fiction and anthologies that bring awareness to the ongoing struggles for Australian Indigenous rights. I agree with you Lisa that Dr. Heiss solidifies the trajectories of and Australian Black Indigenous history, culture, and social justice. I previously read her choc-lit novel Manhattan Dreaming where she explored female identity and autonomy as well as cultural protocols in authenticating and protecting indigenous ancestral knowledge and customs. I look forward to reading Dr. Heiss’ latest anthology, Growing up Aboriginal.


    • Anita is a wonderful ambassador for indigenous issues on many fronts – and I really like the way she used historical fiction to illuminate so many issues in this novel, without any of it seeming heavy handed or didactic. She has a great sense of humour too, I wish we saw more of her on shows such as Q&A, I really do…


  8. […] Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  9. […] including what she jokingly calls ‘choc-lit and a recent foray into historical fiction with Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, and with that strategy she spreads that message to people through novels written to entertain. […]


  10. […] the Germans were not trusted as much.  And as I know from reading books like Anita Heiss’s Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, Japanese POWs were so ashamed of their surrender that they were often suicidal about their […]


  11. […] review Common People by Tony Birch, see my review Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss, see my review The Drover’s Wife by Leah […]


  12. […] review Common People by Tony Birch, see my review Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss, see my review The Drover’s Wife by Leah […]


  13. […] For a better written and better informed piece about this novel, check out Lisa’s review here. […]


  14. […] Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, by Anita Heiss […]


  15. […] fiction, and children’s novels.  She made her first venture into historical fiction with Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms in 2017, but Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray* (River of Dreams) is a departure in style signalled by […]


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