Saturday, September 20, 2008

What makes Australian Literature Australian?

Here are just some thoughts as part of the discussion on WHAT MAKES AUSTRALIAN LITERATURE AUSTRALIAN as part of the Brisbane Writers’ Festival panel sponsored by AustLit: the resource for Australian Literature

Having this discussion is about as hard as the one about determining what Australian identity is – because there is no hard and fast definition.

I’m wearing three hats as I write this (which may explain why I have a chronic headache!): one hat belongs to the Chair of the ASA, one belongs to the editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, and another belongs to Anita Heiss the author. And so, I’d like to share ideas from all positions as part of this discussion.

As Chair of the ASA – I represent the professional association for Australia's literary creators. The organisation was formed in 1963 to promote and protect the rights of Australia's writers and illustrators, and now has almost 3000 members across Australia. Our members are biographers, illustrators, academics, historians, cartoonists, scientists, food and wine writers, children’s writers, ghost writers, librettists, travel writers, romance writers, translators, computer programmers, journalists, poets and novelists.

The ASA has a very open view of what constitutes Australian literature, and the most recent debate we have had within the organisation was around setting the criteria for the Barbara Jefferis award which is offered annually for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. Essentially, we decided that an ‘Australian author’ is someone who is an Australian citizen or permanent resident. And being an Australian author would therefore constitute them producing Australian literature.

Because we represent such a diverse membership I emailed some members in preparation for this discussion to get their perspective on the topic:

Alex Miller – twice winner of the Miles Franklin said. He wrote this in CAPS so I think he was shouting at me...


Anyone who believes we need a definition of something indefinable is not an artist, but publicist.”

Pamela Freeman – award- winning author of 17 books, including fantasy, said:

“Australian literature is not necessarily set in Australia or explicitly about Australia or Australians, but it reflects upon, explores, celebrates or grieves over human experience through stories which are informed and influenced by deep and long-lasting experience of Australian culture, geography, landscape and climate.

Is that inclusive enough for you? It would exclude, for example, DH Lawrence's Kangaroo, since his experience was neither deep nor long-lasting, but would include the children's books of Odo Hirsch, although many of them appear to be set in Europe.
I would argue, for example, that Australian writers of fantasy are exploring themes and issues quite differently from US fantasy writers, even those of us who set our secondary creations in Northern Hemisphere landscapes.”

Multiple award-winning and internationally published children’s book author Libby Gleeson said:
“I'd argue it's as diverse as Australia itself - i.e. 'Not Meeting Mr Right' (chicklit) right through to Alex Miller (literary fiction) and spy stories and crime novels. I don't think there is a distinctive defining characteristic. I used to think Oz kids’ books were freer of limitation and censorship than those from Britain and America but you can't generalise about that even any more. And we don't see what comes out of Europe.”

Rosie Scott: novelist, essayist and playwright said:
“It's a very hard thing to define. In the early days it was easy - the defining characteristic of Australian literature was that it was usually about the bush, the outback and battlers. Now it's so varied and cosmopolitan, it borrows from so many cultures and literary traditions that the only defining characteristic I can think of that's particularly Australian is a certain irreverence, a lightness of touch in that most writers don't take themselves seriously, a lack of pomposity - but of course there are Australian writers who break that rule too!”

And from Jeremy Fisher who is the Executive Director of the ASA, but also a writer:
“Our literature isn't just fiction, nor, as Shaun Tan has demonstrated is
it just words. Our literature is our expression, in a myriad of forms, of
our own uniqueness.”

In further considering the issue of what makes Australian literature Australian, let’s turn the question around. Let's pretend we are American. What is American literature? Well, that's fairly obvious isn't it?

The problem for us is it's not obvious because our literature doesn't have the full authority of being ours because we read both American and British literature as well as our own. But by and large we very rarely read New Zealand literature. We might still be ANZACS but we don't read their books and that's largely to do with the colonial distribution agreements that still govern global publishing. These agreements have shaped the way we consider literature in general.

In NSW, the Board of Studies recently amended its K-12 syllabus to include an Australian literature component. This week as we have heard already, the English Teachers Association of NSW objected, saying that this was too prescriptive. Let me say that the changes still only meant that one-third of the material studies in English in NSW schools was Australian. Turn that around again and think of an American school -- how much material wouldn't be American? 0% or 1% Let's be generous and say 5%. [This might also explain why the American understanding of the rest of the world is missing!]

To be fair, the ETA argued it was wrong to concentrate on one medium - the book as text. But this argument shows how little they know about Australian literature. No oral traditions for a start. No performance poetry. No graphic novels. Shaun Tan? Sorry, NSW English teachers don't think you’re Australian literature. Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas, get out of NSW schools, you're not Australian literature! The teachers have said so. Isn't that absurd?

I’d like to switch hats quickly if I may, and in doing so wanted to flag that I am never categorised as an Australian author. I am always called and Aboriginal author – although all my work is about, reflects, and is based in Australia. In fact, when I released my first chick lit novel last year, I was told by one reviewer that I had created a new genre altogether, that of Koori chick-lit. Pioneering a new genre is exciting, but not when you are potentially excluded from the mainstream literary culture and discourse.

At other times I have had publishers tell me that my work isn’t really Aboriginal literature because it doesn’t fit their prescriptions of what Aboriginal literature is or should be – that is, it must be about ‘our issues’ of land rights, native title, racism and so on.

With that sense of ridiculous boxing of Aboriginal literature in mind, Peter Minter and I were very conscious of how we defined Aboriginal literature when we were putting together the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature which is the teaser to the 2009 release of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature.

We have always been told, ‘you’ve only ever had an oral literary tradition’, when in fact, what we’ve had is a storytelling tradition that included songs, dance painting (on rocks, on bodies on instruments, in the sand and so on) and yes, we have oral stories as well.

So when Peter and I were reading the 1000s of pages of material for potential inclusion in the anthology, we considered any written material that told our stories – as literature. And in a sense it freed us up from the often limited view of ‘literature’ in the mainstream arena. In our anthology we include Aboriginal literature as material created by Aboriginal writers, regardless of the genre, the content of the work or the style and voice of the writing.

Our definition is so broad that the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature includes a diverse collection of written works by Aboriginal people across a broad spectrum of styles and forms – like journalism, letters, petitions, poetry, prose – novels and short-stories, songs, plays, children’s books and social commentary.

The works chronicled in our anthology demonstrate the ongoing suffering of dispossession in Australia, but also the resilience of Aboriginal people across the country, and the hope and joy in our lives. And what these stories do is tell the history of the evolution of Aboriginal literature written in the English language. And the works range from Bennelong’s Letter to Lord Sydney’s Steward in 1796 right through to Alexis Wrights Carpentaria in 2007.

Our writing is about the First Australians and our life in Australia. And it is ‘Australian literature’.

[Acknowledgement to Dr Jeremy Fisher for assistance with ETA facts and figures]


Qudanil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pirra said...

Much food for thought there.

A whole new genre...hmm, yes. It's nice to be recognised as something fresh, new and unique but it can also be kind of lonely out there on your own.

I think as Australians we are lucky when it comes the range and depth of our literature. Because our society is so multicultural our voices can range from Indigenous, to Asian, to Mediterranean, to British, to European, to Middle Eastern and back again. Which only serves to make the defining and distinction if it that much more difficult to do.

But how nice is it to walk into a book store and see all those differently flavoured voices placed together on a single shelf simply titled "Australian Literature".

Dr Anita Heiss said...

I agree Pirra - great to have such wonderful and diverse stories and styles under the title 'Australian literature'. Peace, Anita


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