Attended a panel this morning at the always excellent Emerging Writers’ Festival on the idea of an Australian literary voice: “Does one exist? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative…?” Panellists were Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Stephanie Convery, Bruce Pascoe and Lily Yulanti Farid.
First, the panellists all argued that the idea of AN Australian voice is problematic, that the prevalent voices aren’t representative, and some questioned the very notion of a nationalist voice or the need for one.
The speakers were all great and came at the topic from different perspectives – no consensus as such, just lots of unpacking, because it’s all too much to fit into an hour’s discussion. I think it’s fair to say there’s pain around this issue, and Mohammed hinted that he gets a bit of grief for raising the issue in some forums – which I can well imagine.
I’ve been thinking about all that since, so here are a few thoughts and questions.
What we often think of as national literature is about place, right? Mohammed used the example of Irish literature: we know what that means, we know more or less who it includes.
In a sense that’s true: I immediately pictured Irish literature and it looked a bit like an old postcard of Galway Bay.
But I bet that there are a whole lot of Irish writers who feel excluded from the idea of Irish literature.
Surely the same discussions go on in Ireland and England and France and a whole range of other countries too. Don’t you reckon? Remember when the Zadie Smith or Monica Ali generation of young British writers exploded on to the scene? English literature was not just Dorset or the Lakes District any more – or even Bloomsbury – it was also the East End and North London. Wow. Mind-blowing. But the post-war novelists got the same reaction.
So is ours a different thing because it’s much more exclusive? Could be. Or is there a fundamental question in there for us about the Australian sense of place and the way in which that comes through in the books we prize (not necessarily the books we write)?
This country most prizes – awards, discusses, reviews, quotes, studies, canonises – writing about the mythical place of the colonial or post-colonial bush. (Though it should also be said we don’t necessarily buy the most awarded books in great numbers, if at all – but the books sold in the millions are often concerned with the colonial past or the bush too.)
That obsession won’t go away, I think, until there is a genuine and deep reconciliation with the truth of dispossession. We have a long way to go before that permeates enough to change the way non-Indigenous Australians see and mythologise and engage creatively with the land.
The people writing about place differently include Kim Scott, of whom Alison Ravenscroft wrote recently:
In his hands, even the country—the mountain itself—is differently shaped: it is a different thing. In That Deadman Dance we are told of the mountain that sheltered Wabalanginy: ‘like an insect among the fallen bodies of ancestors, he huddled in the eye sockets of a mountainous skull and became part of its vision, was one of its thoughts’ (52). Rocks are fallen ancestors, country is a body, to travel is to journey beside animated ancestors. Scott is not telling the same old story, populated with men and women who are remarkably recognisable to white readers as a version of ourselves, or familiar from our fantasies of our others. His writing calls his white readers to suspend our belief in our own knowledge of the smell, shape and sound of the world; he calls readers like myself into stories that are unbelievable (to me), impossible, implausible, even as they are ‘true story’ for his Indigenous protagonists. He invites us to bear the unbelievable, to stay with it until it morphs into another shape.
The good news is that sometimes when a beautifully written perspective like That Deadman Dance or Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria comes along, it is embraced. That’s not true for all or even many writers – no matter how good their work – who are marginalised or excluded by that nationalist myth, or who simply chose to write about something completely different or in a completely different style.
The other most significant place is suburbia or the bourgeois world – that’s a subversion of the bush myth in one way, but it’s also traditional in our literature (Patrick White, for instance, or Christina Stead) and also in realist writing generally.
Others have written and spoken about the issues involved with the supposed national identity and gender, especially lately. It appears that male writers focused on suburbia are in the Best in Show literary category, while women writers who focus on suburbia are doing Women’s Writing, and the writing that is most often awarded is predominately written by straight white men about the outback. There are statistics, there are arguments, there’ll be a little bit of movement here and there. That sound you hear is heads banging against brick walls.
So there are simple answers to the questions raised for this morning’s panel. No, there is not AN Australian voice, it’s just that some voices are prized over others. Those that are most prized fit into a certain canon and that canon will have to change if only so we don’t get bored to death. The other voices (which is, let’s face it, just about everyone) are sometimes in danger of being drowned out, and we have to do a whole lot more to support them.
But I feel optimistic that there are enough people who want to hear them, and that when they do, they will realise how much more interesting and glorious a choir can be instead of that guy on the street corner singing Eagles covers.
Because when you think about it, Irish literature includes as diverse a range of writers as Childers, Stoker, Somerville & Martin, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, O’Casey, Beckett, Wilde, O’Brien, Heaney, Enright, Binchy, Trevor, Banville and Tóibín. You don’t see all of them banging on about Galway Bay.