Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists

Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? (Carmen Callil, Australian-born founder of Virago Press)

That answers one of my questions: that is, whether other nations talk about “expats” the way we do. Apparently they don’t. Is it the oft-quoted Australian cultural cringe? Is it envy? Perhaps I’ll just skirt the issue and say that Australians have a bit of a reputation for wanderlust, so I’m not surprised that we have our share of novelists who have gone overseas and stayed. One of those is Kate Jennings whose “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, I reviewed last week. Kate Jennings went to New York in 1979, and has not returned (except for regular visits). In her book, she includes interviews with three other expat Aussie writers, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ray Mathew (both now deceased), and Shirley Hazzard. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about some of our still-living novelists who reside in the USA.

But first, Ray Mathew, the least known of Jennings’ three interviewees. I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago when he was the subject of one of the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) gorgeous little “A Celebration” books, using funds bequeathed in his name by his American friend and patron, Eva Kollsmann. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsmann Trust is a significant bequest which funds a number of initiatives at the NLA. One of these is the annual Ray Mathew Lecture which is to be given by “an Australian living abroad”. The first lecture was given in 2009 by Geraldine Brooks, and the second, this year, by Kate Jennings.

Shirley Hazzard

Hazzard, 2007 (Courtesy: Christopher Peterson, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For brevity’s sake – and because I’ve read each of these writers – I’ll just focus in this post on five Australian expat novelists based in the USA. Some of them are very well known internationally, moreso than many of our home-based writers. This is not surprising I guess: if you live in the USA and get published there your market potential is far greater than it would be at home. That said, the lure of increased fame and fortune is not the reason these writers moved overseas:

  • Geraldine Brooks: moved to New York in 1983 to study, met and married American journalist (Tony Horwitz), and now splits her time between Australia and the USA. Geraldine Brooks titled her Ray Mathew lecture, “The opportunity of distance”. She’s the youngest of these five and, perhaps, has the most uncomplicated view of her relationship with home. She has travelled widely and discussed in that lecture all the benefits that have resulted, but her final point is:

For all its opportunities, distance can still feel like a tyrant, sometimes, when a partner’s work or a kid’s schooling means we must spend more time there than here. The oscillation stalls, the roots start to dry out. It’s like a high stakes game of musical chairs. Round the world you go, and then the music stops and you have to sit down somewhere, but it’s not quite the chair you were aiming for.

  • Peter Carey: moved in 1990/91 to New York with his wife to work in their respective careers, and has remained there. Peter Carey, not surprisingly given his status, is often asked about his expat status. Here is what he said in an interview for the Paris Review:

Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate….

  • Shirley Hazzard: moved to Hong Kong with her parents in 1947 when she was 16 years old, ending up in New York in 1951 where she has been mostly based since, though does spend time regularly in Capri, Italy. A webpage on Shirley Hazzard summarises her expat status in this way:

Hazzard does not reject her designation as an Australian writer but insists her temperament is not national. She only took out United States citizenship twenty-five years after she began living in New York, on the resignation of Richard Nixon. Eschewing nationalistic identifications, she does not consider herself as an expatriate, and emphasized that “to be at home in more than one place” (Gordan and Pasca). However, her novels are full of displaced Anglos in Hong Kong and Italy, or displaced Australians in London and New York.

  • Janette Turner Hospital: moved to Boston in the mid 1960s with her husband, and has lived in Canada and the USA. She now splits her time between these two countries and her home state of Queensland. In an early Griffith Review, Hospital commented on the impact of modern technology on being physically displaced, and wrote:

Place is unequivocal. But virtual communities and diaspora organizations suggest that you don’t always need to be somewhere to be a part of something. You can check the surf report, vote, play scrabble, watch the evening news, buy a car or be connected to country from the other side of the world. This new reality reflects an age-old truth: that home is where the heart is. It offers a new kind of citizenship. One we’re defining as we go.

  • Kate Jennings: as described above. She bookends Brooks nicely: not only because they gave the first two Ray Mathew lectures but because they both value travel highly but offer almost opposing conclusions. Here is Jennings from her lecture:

I have lived now in New York nearly as long as I lived in Australia. Heretical as it might seem, Australia is neither my country nor my home, as it is for Geraldine. It’s the place I started from, to paraphrase TS Eliot slightly. It shaped me, but so have my 30 years in New York city. I have, as Robert Dixon put it, ‘overlapping allegiances and multiple affiliations’.

Well, that lot provides enough to think about I reckon. I was going to talk a little about these writers’ works but I’ve taken up enough of your time for this Monday. More anon… Meanwhile, if you’ve lived away from “home” for any period of time, what do you think about all this?

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists

  1. This is such a brilliant post, Sue. (I’m really loving your Monday Musings.)

    I remember when MJ Hyland got longlisted for the Booker in 2006 and all the Aussie bloggers claimed her as their own. I ended up doing the same when someone pointed out she had spent a great deal of time in Oz and had graduated from Melbourne Uni. But in subsequent interviews MJ wasn’t too hung up on getting herself classified as Australian, Irish (her parentage) or English (her place of birth) and declared herself a “citizen of the world”. I thought that was quite a nifty and appropriate take on it all.

    I have lived in the UK for 12 years now, which is more than a quarter of my life, but I still regard myself as Australian. I still have an Australian mindset and a way of looking at things that isn’t always appreciated here (I’m either “refreshing” or “outspoken” depending on your take). But London is my home, and I do love living here. When I go “home” to Oz I do feel like a stranger in a strange land though, because things have changed/moved on so much. I do dream of moving back at some point, but I know I would miss so much about the UK that it would be a real wrench. It’s difficult being caught between two worlds, but it does not bother me as much as it used to.

    • Thanks kimbofo for taking up the question (and for liking the musings). I put MJ Hyland a bit in Hazzard’s camp. Hazzard was born here (which I don’t think Hyland was) but she too had non-Australian parents. Both I think are truly “international” given their fairly peripatetic lives. I have lived in the USA twice – 2 years in the 1980s and 3 years in the 1990s. I really loved it BUT I felt Australian and feel those formative experience of childhood and adolescence really set who I am. I could have lived longer away if that’s how things had worked out but being there really enabled me to see how important place does seem to be to me. I can understand how you feel.

  2. I’m also loving this series of yours. Thanks for list – I had no idea that Geraldine Brooks is Aussie nor was I aware that Peter Carey does not live in Australia. It’s interesting how people convey their citizenship and attachement. I went to college in the US and then lived and worked in New York for another 11 years before coming back to Ghana. In the US, I was always torn and conflicted about Africa and Ghana. I’m glad that I’m in Ghana but I do also miss New York a lot. I guess one can feel at home in more than one place. I look forward to next week’s installment.

    • Thanks Kinna … I agree that you can feel at home in one place though perhaps one place may be more homey than others? I feel a strange sense of home in the American southwest – something to do with the dry expanses I think! Do you manage to get back to New York at all? I was going to note in the post how many of the Aussies above did start or end up in New York.

  3. Hmm, it’s a pity that Monday is the only day that begins with M for Musings, becaues otherwise I’d be pleading with you to change the day of these delicious posts. Monday is such a beastly day, and by the time I finally get to my email and my RSS subs, I’m too tired to join in the conversation!
    Roll on retirement!
    Lisa, 11.30pm!

  4. I don’t live in Australia – never did – always wanted to go there and have never done that either. I love your authors, though, and am familiar with all those listed and would like to thank Australia for sharing them. I’ve always regarded them as Australians first. You’ve got a few non-native Aussies on your shores, too – Coetzee springs to mind but I think there are others.

  5. I have come the other way, and I know what they mean. The other problem is being seen in Australia as the epitome of Englishness when in England you’re actually a bit of an outsider. The ‘citizen of the world’ comment is a bit of a cop-out, but there is a feeling of slipping between the cracks.

    • Welcome Tony. Oh dear, what does the “epitome of Englishness” mean? I hope it doesn’t mean you are not made welcome? “Slipping between the cracks”. I can understand that too. It’s interesting how differently we all feel about the experience of living elsewhere. In one sense the “citizen of the world” is a bit of a copout but I can also see good reasons for feeling – or seeing it -that way. There are those who really have moved around a lot – such as MJ Hyland and so some degree Hazzard in her early years – and there are some who prefer to avoid the downsides of over-identifying with place (such as myopic nationalism), don’t you think?

  6. I love this post (bet that’s no surprise!), and Geraldine’s quote has burrowed right into my heart – it can apply to life in general, not just travel/distance. I kinda want to put it on a poster above my desk at uni…

  7. I had no idea Shirley Hazzard and Geraldine Brooks were Australian! I know in America we claim our expat writers as American. There is a whole period of literature in which many of the big writers lived abroad like Edith Wharton and Henry James and Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. Maybe Americans are more shameless than? 🙂

  8. I was wondering about this dilemma when you started this series and I think I’ve asked it here before: what constitutes as Australian writing? Those that write about the country or those who are from or residing here? I suppose that question can be asked across the board.

    I still remember that was a bit of controversy around Peter Carey (he always seems to be covered in controversy) when he made some comments that sounded like he was renouncing Australia and his hometown of Ballarat, i think it was.

  9. Stephanie: I’m glad to have been of service. Wouldn’t want you thinking our treasures were American after all! (That said, I do find it hard to claim Hazzard as Australian since she hasn’t lived here, I believe, since 1947 – and doesn’t really claim Australian-hood herself). Brooks is another matter … as she does split her time and sees herself ultimately as Australian. I take your point re Hemingway, James and Wharton (from my various readings over time). What of current American writers living abroad?

    Mae: Carey certainly does seem to attract his share of controversy. A bit outspoken I think and sometimes a little erratic in doing so (though that’s based on memory rather than hard-researched fact). As for what’s Australian writing? Hmmm…how long is a piece of string. Are you asking Australian writing versus Australian writer? I think I’d almost ignore the first question and be legalistic about the second. But that’s a copout isn’t it? Perhaps I’ll make that another post that we can all engage in?

  10. Re. Australia is the only country I have come across …

    But how many countries has she come across? She only names two. Both of them have formidable publishing industries, both of them are bursting with writers, both of them have longer literary histories than Australia. This is not a fruitful comparison. And yet the answer is yes. I can very definitely imagine British critics writing of Auden “thus,” and the reason I can imagine them writing thus is that they did write thus. “At one stroke,” said Philip Larkin, commenting on the other poet’s emigration, “he lost his key subject and emotion – Europe and the fear of war – and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns.” Here’s a sentence from Auden’s Wikipedia entry: “His departure for America in 1939 was hotly debated in Britain (once even in Parliament), with some critics treating it as a betrayal.” And here’s a sentence from a Guardian article about his centenary: “”He has been much criticised for leaving Britain when he did.” One of the subtitles for this article is, “Muted celebrations for poet who shunned Britain.” ( )

    So she’s picked a bad example. As for the U.S., forget Hemingway. He didn’t so much leave North America as bounce back and forth between it and Europe. Think of Henry James, whose permanent expatriate state more closely parallels that of a Hazzard or a Jennings. Did American critics get shirty when he decided that he was going to stay in Britain? Oh yes. Here’s the opening sentence of an article on the subject by Henry Stafford: “No aspect of Henry James and his work … excited more controversy among his American contemporaries than did the question of his nationalism.” Stafford quotes another writer named R.N. Foley: “criticism was tainted by chauvinism and disapproval of him as a man who had deserted his country because he thought it not good enough for him.” His Wikipedia entry adds, “Some American critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, expressed hostility towards James’s long expatriation and eventual naturalization as a British citizen.”

    I’ll stop there because I need to go away and eat. But my answer to Carmen Callil’s question is, again — yes.

    • Good for you DKS. Must admit I didn’t know so much of Auden but when I thought of James I did think he was treated askance. Wharton too I think. I wanted to throw it out there a bit, but I should have stopped and thought on it a bit too!

  11. Well, Callil is being disingenuous. You point out that the Australian writers who live overseas are almost the only ones that people outside Australia know. This is true, with a few exceptions. And those exceptions are usually writers who have won foreign prizes, or at least been nominated for them. Tim Winton has been shortlisted twice for the Booker. Patrick White won the Nobel. David Malouf won the IMPAC.

    There is no UK or US analogue to this.

    Here’s a scenario. Anne Tyler, Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, and Roger Ebert, live in Osaka. They have lived in Osaka for decades. Their international careers are flourishing and they are interviewed by the Paris Review. The rest of American literature is an utter mystery to the rest of the world, aside from Joyce Carol Oates, who won a rich Chinese prize in the mid-90s, and Flannery O’Connor, who was awarded a Nobel in 1963, just before she died.

    Or, here. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and — oh think of a few more famous British names, say about three or four — have spent years in Kinshasa, the hub of the world’s publishing houses. “We didn’t come here to get rich,” they say. “It just so happens that our spouses are Congolese.” The world has heard of Shakespeare — he’s a famous international figure, like Cervantes or Murasaki — but he is assumed to be a freak, since the rest of British literature is a blank to everyone except those determinedly eclectic foreigners who like to search out books that no one else around them has read.

    Those are your analogues. Now, O Carmen Callil, picture the reactions of Britain and the US.

    • You are absolutely right re the exceptions. When I said “than many of our home-based writers” I was specifically thinking (in terms of living writers) of Tim Winton and David Malouf.

      I love your examples, though I have no idea that Anne Tyler lived in Japan. I read quite a bit of her early/mid career work but haven’t read the last few. But do you really think most home-based American writers are not known outside of the US? What about Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides, Cormac McCarthy to name a few?

      • No, those were my inventions. Tyler doesn’t live in Osaka. That’s what it would be like if the US and the UK were in the same boat as Australia. A few famous writers would live overseas and no one outside the country would have heard of anyone who stayed at home.

  12. Oh silly me!! That’s what happens when you are tired and read too fast! I see now you say “scenario”! I should also have picked up on the Congolese spouses! Silly, silly me! Time for bed…

    • S’cool. I guessed I’d hit you at the wrong moment. My point is that I think the dividing tendencies Callil mentions are a normal human phenomenon, not something particular to the characters of Australians. I believe it’s reasonable to assume that if almost all of the US and UK’s internationally-known authors clumped themselves together in two foreign countries, then the British and the Americans would start making that division too. When she says that “Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere,” then what she really means to say is this: “Britain and the US have large publishing houses.”

  13. Who is the historian who grew up in the Outback, studied history, and moved to Canada?

    She wrote two memoirs about her struggle to teach at the university in Australian and another one about her youth.

    • I think that’s Jill Ker Conway. Her first book was The road from Coorain. I didn’t include her because I decided to limit my list to novelists (just for the purposes of not going on for too long). She ended up in the US – first woman president of Smith College. Is this the one you mean?

  14. It certainly is – and it sold well here when it came out. I enjoyed it – particularly her description of her tough rural upbringing – but found her attitude to her mother – albeit having justification – a little harsh.

    • Hi Harry … it’s hard to know where to start … but in the links on my blog is one called Teaching Australian Literature which you would do well to search around. But, check out Ruth Park, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville (The secret river for example), Miles Franklin… and Im sure others will add more. Am out of the country at present using a free internet cafe so can’t hang around right now. Do keep in touch though. Is this for US schools? What level are you talking about?

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