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 litbloggers 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.
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 its 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
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