Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (2)
In this week’s Monday Musings*, I plan to continue last week’s discussion of some of the ideas that arose from the National Library of Australia’s Writing the Australian Landscape conference.
But first, I’ll recap the two questions posed by the keynote speakers:
- Day 1, author Murray Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away.
- Day 2, historian Bill Gammage asked How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?
Thinking about these over the past week, I’ve come to the notion that these could (almost) be seen as two sides of the same coin. That is, as I understood him, Bail wasn’t so much suggesting that we’ll end up not discussing place or landscape but that we won’t “need” to focus on it to prove our Australianness, to confirm our identity. Landscape would then become part of the background, it would be part of us, and we would no longer be outsiders to it. Does this make sense or am I twisting their words, I wonder?
The meaning of place
Several “place” related concepts were discussed over the weekend, sometimes with clear definitions, and sometimes more loosely. Many speakers talked about the relationship between Landscape, Place, Country and Culture. Landscape was not seen as purely physical but as something that we relate to and/or that impacts on us. Gammage argued that it takes time and memory to translate “landscape” to “country” or “culture”. Historian Matthew Higgins talked about “place memory” and suggested that when we talk about and remember place, “life is as important as the landscape”.
Gammage, and several other writers including Sue Woolfe and Ros Moriarty, spoke of learning about indigenous Australians’ relationship to the land, a relationship in which the physicality of the land is inextricably entwined with spirituality. People, land and law are three aspects, he said, of the one thing. While westerners objectify the land – as in, “isn’t it beautiful?” – indigenous Australians see their ancestors in it. Landcare is the business of life. Climate change activist, Anna Rose, and Adrian Hyland, who wrote Kinglake 350 about the Black Saturday fires, would agree, albeit from a different perspective.
Non-indigenous woman Ros Moriarty, who is married to indigenous Australian John Moriarty, said:
Australians have no idea that the singing of the continent continues. We sip at the edge of its physicality when we could gulp from the well of its spirit.
This message, reiterated slightly differently by many of the speakers, was the most powerful message (for me, anyhow) of the weekend. It wasn’t a new concept to many of us I think, but the strength and clarity of its communication was moving and inspiring.
… And then, late in the conference came …
I’m singling out Jeanine Leane because she was, as far as I’m aware, the only indigenous writer to speak at the conference. I have read and reviewed Leane’s gently powerful Purple threads, and was looking forward to seeing her in the flesh. She had a big task, but she was up for the challenge. She reiterated the points made by other speakers regarding country and its meaning for indigenous Australians but she, of course, spoke from the experience of having walked the talk. She knew intimately whereof she spoke and showed how much we westerners, albeit with a lot of goodwill, stumble around in our understanding.
For example, she spoke of the notion of Australian “classics”. She argued that the works of writers like Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf, and Kate Grenville, which are regularly identified as “classics”, are classics of the settler quest written for settler readers. Within the concept of “classic”, she argued, is the question, “Whose classic?” Leane pushed the point further by referencing Alexis Wright, author of Carpentaria (my review). Western (white) critics, she said, see magical realism in Wright’s work. (Ouch!) But the notion of “magic”, she argued, is used by settler critics for things they can’t understand. For Wright, though, the point is that “if you can’t see that tree behaving strangely, that’s your problem”.
Leane seemed, however, more optimistic than angry, for all the strength of her argument. She said that there is a proliferation of Aboriginal writing across genres, and that this writing expresses not only the “generational story of loss and longing” but also people’s aspirations. I hope she’s right, but even more, I hope more of it is taught is Australian schools and read by Australians of all backgrounds.
And this brings me back to Bail and Gammage. How should we “settler” Australians proceed? How do we relate to the “place” in which we live in a way that isn’t superficial or tokenistic but that doesn’t (arrogantly) presume a connection that we don’t have? We have a way to go yet.
* There is more to say, but this will be the last post for the moment. I may share more again later, perhaps after the papers become available on the NLA’s website.