(hint: it’s not a kangaroo)
Originally written for Capital Letters (ACT Writers Centre), and accessible on their website here.
The world is full of impenetrable questions. Who is responsible for the word ‘flibbertigibbet’? Why is one sock always missing? And could the Pavlova really be as Australian as Crowded House?
Yet one issue repeatedly proves itself to be even more complex: that of Australian culture and literary tradition. To understand why certain books and stories are considered Australian requires more than merely knowing an author’s place of birth, or even their mother tongue—for Australian writing has been produced by Indigenous Australians and multilingual migrants as well as by those who speak English alone. Yet for all the diversity embodied by its authors, Australian writing—or at least, the writing which has come to define our literary canon—arguably revolves around a particular image of the country and its people.
This image was established by those who first brought traditional forms of Western literature to the Australian continent: British colonists and migrants in the late-18th and 19th century. By consequence—and reflecting attitudes which will surprise approximately nobody—the first pieces of Australian writing tended to focus on the wild adventures of daring settlers as they came up against the new frontier of the Australian outback. This writing included works ranging from Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, to Banjo Paterson’s iconic bush poetry.
While such adventure-style narratives represent an ever-shrinking proportion of the Australian experience, they do help to explain the foundations of the modern national psyche; although the oral storytelling tradition in Australia is potentially the oldest in the world, its value has only begun to gain mainstream recognition in recent times. The stories which were propagated throughout the country from British settlement onwards reflect a particular form of romanticism coupled with a muted wariness of this ‘wide brown land’ and ‘her beauty and her terror’. These tales were therefore filled with survival against the odds, brawny drovers and bushrangers (note that one of our national heroes is Ned Kelly), mateship, egalitarianism, and a love of the underdog. If you’re Australian, you may be either rolling your eyes or tearing up at this point—especially if you’ve just remembered Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
20th century Australian literature came next, ushered in by Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in 1901—often touted as the ‘first authentic Australian novel’—and swiftly followed by Jeannie Gunn’s 1902 publication We Of The Never Never. Both texts explore the lives of pioneer women in the bush, and are often considered to be quintessentially Australian; realism had arrived
in the outback. They also heralded in an increasingly reflective tone in Australian writing, as seen later in the works of Ruth Park, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Patrick White. Family struggles and the quest for
identity are integral themes, and ones which have grown into central concepts in much Australian work, whether set in urban or rural locations. This is undoubtedly due, not least, to the complexity of the question: what is ‘Australian’? Where do you come from, and where do you belong?
On that note, it is worth pointing out the more sobering elements of numerous works falling within the Australian literary canon. Disquiet is a defining feature of much Australian writing; after all, if one lives on this continent, it means that one has a family history which either includes leaving home and heritage behind at some point, inhabiting somebody else’s, or being forcibly evicted from one’s lands. Much literature by Indigenous Australians addresses such issues; Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is perhaps the most famous contemporary example. Furthermore, the settler’s unease when faced with the harsh, unpredictable Australian
environment has translated into a common undertone for literature ranging from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, to Gail Jones’s Sorry, to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. The land and its habitations in these novels are practically characters in their own right. Indeed, many popular novels such as the aforementioned Cloudstreet, or Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, border on magical realism—a stylistic choice which leads full circle (albeit from a different angle) back to the romanticism present in early Australian fiction.
Yet the proliferation of Australian writing with these themes—the harsh land, the difficult lives, and the smattering of spirituality over a grim face—does not ipso facto mean that these themes are Australian writing. Indeed, both writers and readers could do well to ask: to what degree does Australian literature capture its subject, and to what degree are we cultivating our own culture through the stories we weave?
Naturally, culture is in part formed by storytelling, and there is no denying that this is very much the case in Australia, as evidenced by its literary history. Yet one can still question how much the fixation of Australian literature on the land, for example, has to do with the tangible stories existing in our country, as opposed to what publishing houses wish to print. This is especially worth pondering when one considers that the overwhelming majority of Australians live, and have long lived, in cities.
Nevertheless, for publishers to be printing this particular brand of Australian fiction, it does indicate that these stories are what will sell to the public. Questions surrounding the ‘Australian’ aspect of these books are therefore potentially irrelevant—it’s an aspect we’ve apparently all embraced, after all. This said, however, such trends in the major canonised Australian novels over time, do perhaps reflect a vacuum of themes, perpetuated by publishing bias, critical success, heavy-hitting literary award nominations, and—of course—sales.
None of this is altogether bad. Indeed, in many ways it is good, for we now have an easily-identified literary canon—easier to package and pitch to overseas markets!—filled with poignant stories, and handy tips on what to do if you find yourself stranded in the Blue Mountains with a flock of mangy sheep. Yet as both readers and writers, it is important not to grow complacent. Employ a theme too many times, or too simplistically, and it becomes a trope; so be careful when writing about this wide brown land. There’s much to love about Australian literature, but there’s also a very real risk of cheapening it—and creating a hackneyed cast of rough white men, tokenised Indigenous Australians, and mystical lands of which we have no experience—if we adhere too closely to the beloved foundations of a national psyche. Perpetuating this particular tradition of Australian literature could also discount or overlook the stories of people such as Indigenous Australians or migrants of non-European descent, whose voices might not fit into the narrow, potentially exclusionary focus established by British settlers and their European literary heritage. Pride in our distinctive but contentious literary past could result in our peddling little more than
one narrative. Moreover, the nation in this narrative might not even exist—and may never have done so.
With this in mind, is the advice therefore to write in the most ‘truthful’ manner possible, by writing only that which you know? No: aside from other decent reasons such as the right to use one’s imagination, as a resident of Canberra, I cannot endorse a rule which would condemn me to a lifetime of describing public servants and 70s architecture. But do try writing something which reflects your Australia, whatever that may be, and however corny that advice may sound. Granted, as always, our country continues to exist in part through how we see it—take the extreme hipster scene flourishing in Melbourne (ah, Melbourne), which is part-organic, part-constructed—so there can never be an unfiltered truth regarding what we see around us. Yet that still doesn’t mean that you have to sell your soul to the trope god in order to write a novel which can be recognised and appreciated.
Therefore, in the tradition of authors who wrote what they saw—or imagined they saw—take a look around you at the people, the attitudes,
and the social values. We live in one of the most multicultural and diverse nations on Earth. So what can you bring to Australian literature that’s fresh? Whose story are you writing?