The View from Here: Books from Australia

Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling south to Australia. Our guide is Whispering Gums. And if you want to know what’s so significant about that name, you’ll just have to read on. Oh and don’t forget to look up the website via the link above. 

Let’s meet our local expert

I’m a retired librarian/archivist, who still does some ad hoc contract work. After all, I do need some book-buying pocket money! Like most litbloggerswildselfsue1 I’ve loved reading all my life. In my youth, I’d assess the success of my birthdays and Christmases by how many books I received. Using this criterion, I now deem these celebrations as very unsuccessful. I receive few books because people aren’t sure what I might have read. Wah!

I started my blog just over five years ago and called it Whispering Gums. This name has nothing to do with being in my dotage (though some might argue differently!). It refers to my love of our Australian gum trees. “Whispering Gums” comes from a line in my old school song, as I described in my first post. (http://whisperinggums.com/2009/05/02/my-name/).

I mainly read literary fiction (with some forays into non-fiction and poetry). My focus is Australian literature, particularly Australian women writers, but I also love Jane Austen, English and American classics, and I like to explore literature from diverse cultures. I’d love to find more time to read translated literature.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Australia?

This is a difficult question for a literary fiction reader to answer. Crime is popular here, with Aussie readers joining the rest of the world in being fascinated by Scandinavian crime, but there are many Aussie crime writers too, such as Peter Temple, Shane Maloney, Peter Corris, Wendy James, Dorothy Johnston to name just a few. Other popular genres include fantasy/speculative fiction, and rural or outback family sagas. Historical fiction is popular too, with both general and literary fiction writers. Many of our recent literary awards seem to have been won by books set in the past.

I believe that Australia’s women writers, literary and genre, are experiencing some resurgence. Books by women writers like Gillian Mears, Anna Funder and Michelle de Kretser, have been shortlisted for and/or won major literary awards in greater numbers than a decade ago. And new women writers are appearing, such as Hannah Kent who created a sensation with her Iceland-set novel, Burial rites.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Australian literature?

Due to a somewhat peripatetic childhood, I probably read more Australian books at school than many Australians of my generation. The absolute standout for me was Patrick White’s Voss, which I studied in my last year of school. It turned me onto White, and I’ve never lost my interest. This novel had it all for a teenage girl – outback drama, romance (of a cerebral and spiritual nature), and angst about life and society. I also read novels by Frank Dalby Davison and Vance Palmer, who are not much read now, and some CJ Dennis and Henry Lawson.

Noticeable by their absence in my school reading lists of the 1960s were Australia’s pioneering women writers, such as Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin, and Christina Stead. Unfortunately, I don’t think this situation has improved a lot.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from Australia that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers? 

Where do I start? If we are talking attention overseas, I’d say few if any of our writers receive the attention they deserve overseas. Every now and then there’s a flurry when one is nominated for a major international award, like the Booker or the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize. Otherwise, recognition is pretty rare. Why they are not better known overseas is, I assume, due to the challenge of finding publishers overseas. E-publishing may see this improve, but it will also need major overseas reviewers to read and write about the books. I like to think Australian blogs are starting to help a little in this regard.

Tim Winton: Australia's  top must read author?

Tim Winton: Australia’s top must read author?

My favourite under-appreciated writer here and overseas has to be Thea Astley who died in 2004. She had a long and prolific career and was the first writer to win our most important literary award, the Miles Franklin, four times. Only one other writer, Tim Winton, has equaled that to date. She was a fearless writer in terms of subject matter and style, and was deeply concerned about inhumanity and intolerance in twentieth century Australian society.

Australia’s indigenous writers are starting to attract notice – and a few, like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright – have won major literary awards here. But, there is still some general resistance from the wider reading public to engaging with indigenous literature, and I don’t think these writers are well known overseas.

I could name many others, particularly if we are talking recognition overseas, but would probably end up listing most of our writers! I wonder what Australian writers your readers know and like. Would I be surprised?

Q. Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country

The promotion for retired gallery director Edmund Capon’s series the Art of Australia describes his view of Australian art as being part of our “quest to make sense of the vast continent and people’s place in it, from its haunting landscapes and ever-present dangers to iviewfromherets great beauty and extraordinarily diverse culture”. This could also be said of much of our literature.

Our earliest settler literature was particularly concerned with how we relate to and make sense of this vast, dry and yes, ultimately dangerous, land. The underlying themes generated from this can be contradictory, such as stoicism, rejection of authority, spiritual desperation, resourcefulness. Sometimes these have been expressed with a self-deprecating humour, sometimes romantically, and other times grimly. Writers like Henry Lawson and poet Banjo Paterson still form part of our literary psyche, but both tended to romanticise bush people. Modern writers also write about the land, and still explore the hardships involved. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, Courtney Collins’ The Burial, Roger McDonald’s The Ballad of Desmond Kale are very different examples of modern writing about the bush. McDonald said of his book that “A story about rural life in Australia can never be a success story because it’s all based on failure. But I love the way in a novel you can combine opposites so that while there might be a slippery ride to failure there is also something triumphant in the whole enterprise.” That probably encapsulates much of our “bush” writing I think!

Related to this is the idea of “strangers in a strange land”. Australia is a land of migrants, with around one in four having been born overseas. Their experience is expressed through both fiction and memoirs. Christos Tsiolkas writes novels about European immigrant communities, Alice Pung has written two memoirs about being the daughter of Asian refugees, and Shaun Tan’s graphic and illustrated novels explore the idea of being a “stranger” from various perspectives, including immigrant, and dystopian.

Australia, though, despite its expanse, is highly urbanised, and many of our novelists have and do explore this. A classic is Ruth Park’s Harp in the South trilogy set in the slums of Sydney post-World War 2. Helen Garner, Stephen Carroll, Andrea Goldsmith and Amy Witting write about urban concerns – the young seeking life in the city, others seeking meaning in the suburbs. Our only Nobel novelist, Patrick White set several of his novels in urban areas, though his concerns tend to be pretty existential.

We are now seeing indigenous writing gaining greater recognition. They focus on the impact of dispossession, from both individual and community perspectives. I’ve mentioned Kim Scott and Alexis Wright already, but there are many others such as Melissa Lucashenko, Marie Munkara, Jeanine Leane.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Australia and that from your near neighbour New Zealand?

Good question. I haven’t read as much literature from New Zealand as I’d like, but I have read Jane Frame, Keri Hulme, Lloyd Jones, Eleanor Catton, and Fiona Kidman. We are both settler nations, which also have significant indigenous populations. However, our trajectories are somewhat different: the British signed a treaty with the local population in New Zealand, but not in Australia. It hasn’t been smooth sailing in New Zealand but this has provided a basis for further negotiation. Consequently, indigenous literature here has a strong focus on dispossession and the ramifications of two hundred plus years of “invasion”.

And then, our settlements were very different. Australia was established as a penal colony, while New Zealand was established as a religious/independent colony. The harsh lives and treatments of the convicts informed much of our early literature – exemplified by Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life – in terms of the development of cultural mores here, like the mateship and “fair go” traditions, the rejection of authority, as well as our sense of being isolated by a forbidding landscape. These ideas underpin much of our literature, which either depicts them or questions their validity.

Our landscapes are very different. New Zealand has a cooler, more mountainous (particularly in the south), is generally more fertile, and comprises more islands. Australia’s vast, dry, forbidding interior has taken our literature into quite different realms.

But we have similarities too. Our remoteness from Europe (and to a degree North America), and our proximity to Asia, have impacted our respective worldviews, as has the fact that we are both still strongly immigrant nations with 20-25% or our populations born overseas.

Q. There was a poll on the booktopia blog some years ago which put Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet top of the ‘must read novels’ by an Australian author. If the poll were run today who do you think would come up in the top three spots?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Cloudstreet retained its position at the top, or in the top three. After that I really don’t know, but I think My Brilliant Career and Seven Little Australians would remain in the top ten. A cop out I know. I do know what I’d like to see there: books by writers like Patrick White, Kim Scott, Thea Astley, David Malouf – and any of those I’ve mentioned here.

 

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 6, 2014, in world literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. This might be a good time to let everyone know that I’m hosting AusReading Month again in Nov.
    Pop over to here to read my info/sign up post
    http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/ausreading-month-2014.html

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is very informative. I can’t wait to read Patrick White and Christina Stead.

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  3. Thanks for responding to my comment, Karen.
    I would be interested in writing a guest post based on my experience of judging the Barbara Jefferis Award, (an Australian award offered every 2 years for a work of high literary merit depicting women and girls in a positive light). I wouldn’t be ‘representing’ my country – WG has done that superbly – but the experience of reading and evaluating 72 books (mainly by women, given the criteria), has taught me a lot about the current state of fiction writing in Australia. I will be posting about the award myself – the shortlist is due to be announced today! – but I’m sure that there’ll be a great deal more to add.

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    • That sounds an interesting take Dorothy. How would you like to do this? How I did it with Whispering Gums was to send her a few questions in advance to think about. Since you would focus on a specific award, should we try a different approach. If its easier for you drop me an email at heenandavies at yahoo dot co dot uk

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  4. Annette Marfording

    Having moved to Australia from Germany in 1985, all my favourite books are Australian now:
    Kris Olsson’s Boy, Lost
    Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell
    Venero Armanno’s Black Mountain
    Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda
    Helen Garner’s This House of Grief
    Andrea Goldsmith’s Facing the Music
    Chris Womersley’s Bereft
    Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance
    Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper
    Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

    @marfording

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    • This list plus the recommendations from WG will keep me busy Annette. I’ve just downloaded some samples for my e reader so I can decide where to begin

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    • Thanks Annette for listing some favourites. I’ve read most of these and can concur. A couple I am keen to read, and will be reading at least one in the next month or so. But there one there I don’t know at all, Venero Armanno’s Black mountain. Is that one local to your region?

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    • Give Peter Temple a go. A winner of the Miles Franklin Award should be at least tried. 🙂

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    • Some of my favourites in here too Annette. I loved Boy, Lost, Bereft, The Book Thief & This House of Grief. (I really must read That Deadman’s Dance!)

      Also look out for
      The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
      Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett
      The Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse
      Dirt Music by Tim Winton
      The Shark Net by Robert Drewe
      Daughters of mars by Tom Keneally
      Harp in the South by Ruth Park (classic)
      The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
      anything by David Malouf, Thea Astley, Alex Miller, Geraldine Brooks, Kate Grenville
      and for something lighter but still fabulous – Liane Moriarty

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      • Stop Stop! you are going to do serious danger to my bank balance here. I did a double take on seeing Geraldine Brooks’ name. I was sure she was American having heard her talking (though not in person). but then a quick search revealed that she was born in Australia after all. So I’ll grant you that one

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  5. What a terrific interview. Congratulations to both of you! I echo the praise of other commentators regarding the breadth of knowledge, generosity and spirit to be found on ‘Whispering Gums’. Not least of her skills is in nurturing discussions about literature amongst a very diverse group of readers – including a memorable recent one about the effects of the Australian landscape on its writers and artists. (And thanks very much for the mention.)

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    • A work colleague and I had a similar discussion – though not nearly as thoughtful – in relation to northern Michigan which we were visiting on a business trip. I’ll now have to go and read the WG in more detail. Thanks for nudging me that way Dorothy.

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    • A pleasure Dorothy … I couldn’t mention everyone I’d like to have but I’m glad I found a place for you!

      And glad you liked the interview. Karen’s questions were great – only she and I know how long this all took but our lips are sealed!

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  6. Australian readers enjoy many books from the US and the UK. The fact that the settings and social niceties might be unfamiliar to us makes very little difference. But I think publishers underestimate the ability of US and UK readers to similarly enjoy books written in places that are only little different from their own (such as Australia). Hence the poor distribution of Australian books overseas. So to everyone from The Rest of the World, there’s a whole continent of books written in Australia that you’ll likely enjoy. Why not try just one…?

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    • I will I will MST, I promise. I already have Barracuda (a signed copy even) but will explore some of the other authors mentioned too. As for publishers attitude, the do underestimate the ability of readers to navigate unfamiliar territory. Hence why some British expressions get ‘translated’ for US editions as if American readers would get completely fazed by seeing a word like crumpet or muffin and not realise that bookshops in UK equal bookstores in US.

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    • Well said, Michelle …

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  7. Whispering Gums is easily the best book reviewer I’ve ever come across – and that’s not just because she reviewed mine brilliantly, but because every review enables the reader to make a judgment call on whether or not s/he will read that book. Most reviewers can’t do that.
    I like very much that she mentioned my favourite author of all times – Peter Temple – at the beginning of her ‘crime’ list, even if I don’t put him in that category. 🙂
    And she mentions Helen Garner, whose work I consider something to aspire to, if only I had anything more within me.
    Basically, any book review WG publishes on her blogsite is worth reading, if you’re in the market for doing that …

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  8. That’s embarrassing – I should have remembered Roald Dahl!

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    • Well, considering Roald DAHL’s father and mother were both Norwegian – that all summers were spent in Norway – that his boarding school days were in England (beginning Weston-super-Mare) I think you can be more than forgiven the place of birth/early childhood slipping your notice. Though no doubt that had its resonance in his writing. His defence of the underdog. My students variously in Japan loved his Danny, the Champion of the World (an English setting – and don’t do too much of an analysis on its stereotypes – just see it as a little bit gothic – the poachers agin the gamekeepers! A boy loved by his Dad)! And they especially relished his memoir: Boy! They found aspects of their own school lives within Dahl’s dramatically heightened memories! It released their own ability to write in English!

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      • Ascribing a nationality is a slippery task isn’t it. Do you base it on where they were born or where they spent their formative years? Owen Sheers,who has been tipped as an author to watch, and who I would have instinctively classed as ‘Welsh’ is listed on one website as a Welsh author though was actually born in Fiji (he was brought up in Wales). The same site listed Phillip Pullman who I would never have considered anything other than English spent most of his early life living in Wales (though was born in England?.

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        • Yes, ascribing nationality. Born there and/or grew up there and/or lived a period of their life there or set a book there! In terms of Australian literature we count DH Lawrence’s Kangaroo – written at “Wyewurk” at Corrimal on the coast just to the south of Sydney in the early 1920s – and he was only in Australia something like six weeks – but that book explains a lot about post-Great War Australia – and the physical description of the land is stunning.

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      • Ascribing nationality is certainly an issue in Australia too – with two recent writers being a little contentious: MJ Hyland and Evie Wyld. Both now live in England, and neither as I recollect was born in Australia, but both have or have had Australian connections. My sense is they’re more English than Australian in nationality but I’m happy to “let” them be dual for literary purposes and take some of the credit!!

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  9. Pykk, I’m impressed with your knowledge already – that’s a bigger list than most people in Wales would probably be able to conjure up. For novelists, you could look at Richard Llewellyn (How Green was my Valley) or Gwyn Thomas. Coming more up to current times, there is Gillian Clarke (the National Poet) or Roald Dahl

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    • I had Geoffrey’s name wrong though. That should have beem “of Monmouth,” not “of Wales.” Llewellyn I’ve heard of, but not Thomas or Clarke. I’ll see if the library’s got her. Gerald is on the floor just next to me. “Carmerthen means the town of Merlin, because, according to the Historia Regum Britanniae, Merlin was discovered there as the offspring of an incubus” (tr Lewis Thorpe).

      Looking below this post to your comment about “ascribing a nationality,” is the poet David Jones (born in England to Welsh parents) ever considered Welsh by the Welsh?

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      • Confession time here – I’ve not heard of David Jones (red face) but looking at some info about him on line he most often is described as English even though there is a fair amount of commentary that his writing was influenced heavily by his Welsh parentage. So I think you can take your pick

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  10. WG has an amazing knowledge of Australian Literature and I am always impressed by her generosity: I’d like to add some other names – if I may. Firstly from NZ: Witi IHIMAERA and Patricia GRACE (both for reflections of Maori life); for Australia: Judah WATEN (start with his classic Alien Son short story collection) born in Odessa, till age 2 in Palestine – then 1913 to Perth. He wrote firstly, seriously, on the non-English immigrant experience in Australia: Katharine Susannah PRICHARD – see her book Coonardoo. Richard FLANAGAN – his recently published award-winning:The Narrow Road to the Deep North (the title from Basho’s haiku journey in Japan some centuries ago) re the Pacific War and themes around such service/PoW experience then and beyond – very moving. Morris LURIE – especially start with his Flying Home. Anything by Peter CAREY – but I most loved his Parrot and Olivier in America (based – in some senses – around the 1830s visit of Alexis de Tocqueville to the US) – and anything by Lily BRETT. Both these last two named live in NYC.

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    • Great suggestions, Jim. I still need to read Ihimaera. And I have Lurie in my pile now. Sad to see he has just died.

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      • WG: Thank you for informing me of the passing of Morris LURIE – one of Australia’s greats! Almost 76 – sounds far too young. Judah WATEN was only 74 back in 1985 when he died – just weeks before a probable meeting when I was to pass through Melbourne. And six years later in Japan I met up with the former High School English teacher-become-academic of my home-stay family’s wife – and he was Judah WATEN”s Japanese translator of Alien Son (who had similarly just missed out on meeting him in person – rather than our shared contact of letter/correspondence). This was EZAWA Sokushin. He completed his MA in New Zealand with poet/playwright Vincent O’SULLIVAN – they worked together on Vincent’s play: “Shuriken” – performed in NZ and in Japan – about the Featherston Incident (not dissimilar to the Cowra Breakout of August 1944 in Australia – but of Japanese Officer PoWs a year earlier – an internment camp north of Wellington)!

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  11. I should interview myself? But I might get confused!

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  12. That’s great Karen … I’m glad I’ve done that. I wish I’d mentioned more of our very new writers but I did want to get in older ones too. I reckon you should do one yourself on Wales.

    And thanks Tony .. As you know, I’ve loved your interest in Aussie books over the years. You are somewhat of a rarity. You and Guy, and a couple of others.

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  13. This is a very good summary of Australian literature. I’m an outsider who happened to take an interest in Aussie literature and still do.

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  14. Sue and lisa of anz litlovers are always my guides too australian lit

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