To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin, out now) is the debut novel of Brisbane author Ben Hobson. Set in 1961, the book tells the story of 13-year-old Sam Keogh, whose mother has died, and whose silent, hitherto absent father decides to make a man out of his son by taking him to work at Tangalooma, then the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere. What follows is the story of a gentle boy trying to make sense of the terrible reality of whaling and the cruelty and alienation of his new world, the world of men. Here Ben shares the inspiration behind the novel.
Editor’s note: This piece contains a graphic photograph of historical whaling.
A young high school student is being laughed at. A few older boys are threatening to throw rocks at him. A few metres away, laughing, yelling, faces scrunched up. Aggressive, tight. He looks around awkwardly, doesn’t know what to do with himself. One of the older boys finally unleashes his rock. It flies through the air and smacks into the young student’s forehead. He falls down. The older boys run, fearing they’ve killed him, fearing they’ll get in trouble.
I was this young man. I didn’t know it at first, but when I started writing fiction it was him I was writing for. I wanted to pick him up, brush the dirt from his back, hold him by the shoulders and affirm him. He needed to know that he had a place, that he wasn’t alone. Instead of eternally looking up at the sky in question, I needed to give this kid an answer.
So I started writing about a young man whose mother had passed away, untethering him from his own identity. As long back as he could remember he had been her son. Now he wasn’t. He was some new creature. His father’s boy.
When you’re that young, it’s difficult to find a sense of direction. For me, I kept looking to my dad, and my dad’s friends, to see if I fit their mould. What type of masculinity did I need to emulate? I’d watch my dad work – work hard – providing for his family. When I worked hard I’d ache and whinge. I wasn’t made of the same stuff, clearly. When struck by a rock, instead of firing up and retaliating, I fell down, played possum. Why was this my reaction? Why didn’t I just act like a man?
So I wanted that for this boy. I wanted him to experience the same thing I had. The feeling that you just didn’t fit. The world needed men of a certain mould, and you just didn’t have it, son. I needed this boy to feel that because I’d felt that.
I thought about different jobs this father could have. Something blokey. Bank robber. Something tough. Drover. Sheep shearer. In my research, after dipping my toes into a variety of different options, I stumbled onto a picture of Tangalooma Whaling Station. It was a vivid picture. Terrifying, really. Red blood and white blubber coating much of the wooden deck. Huge, cavernous monsters, laying forlorn in their own deaths. Just pragmatic now, just useful. Becoming jewellery, margarine, lantern oil.
But what struck me most about that picture was the men. They didn’t look scared, or frightened. They looked like regular guys. Just blokes doing a job. This is the scariest thing of all, to me, that this was made to look so dull. Just another day at the office. Just run-of-the-mill.
It made me wonder: what sort of man wasn’t afraid in the face of such horror? Who looked at these huge, sad mammals without pity, or remorse, but with practicality, with function?
And I wondered how I would have fared. That kid on the oval, pretending to be dead. How would he have seen such a place? What would he have done?
So I started writing. And finally something leapt from my fingertips. After banging my head against so many writing walls, this story just seemed to fall out of me. A story of blood and blubber. Of questions, of masculinity.
I was this young man. And I needed to talk to him.