For the non-Australians among you, Western Australia is our biggest state and, for many of us, is further away from where we live than New Zealand. Moreover, its main population areas are on the coast: there is a lot of desert between the eastern states and where most Western Australians live. Consequently, it would be true to say that more eastern Australians visit places like New Zealand and Bali than visit Western Australia – and, conversely, more Western Australians visit Bali than visit the eastern states. Every now and then they rattle the cage and speak of secession!
Western Australia was one of the first parts of the Australian mainland to have been visited by European explorers. Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog famously (to Australians) affixed a pewter plate when he visited the west coast in 1616. The first white settlement though did not occur until 1826 in Albany, followed by Swan River (now Perth) in 1829, some 40 years after Botany Bay was settled on the east. But, I am not here to give you a history of Western Australia. Rather, I’d like to introduce you to some of the writers the state has produced.
The state’s most famous writer – past or present – has to be Tim Winton. He has won the Miles Franklin award four times (only the second writer to do so) and he is still producing. He writes novels, short stories and children’s books – and he is a significant advocate for the environment. If there is such a thing as the GAN, Winton is currently seen as a major contender. Winton loves the land, and particularly the Western Australian coast. Most of his books are set there and place is significant in the lives of his characters. He once said to an Australian literary editor that “The place comes first. If the place isn’t interesting to me then I can’t feel it. I can’t feel any people in it. I can’t feel what the people are on about or likely to get up to”. He is the writer to read if you want to “feel” the state. Here are a couple of excerpts from Dirt music, on the more remote northwest:
… and Fox [in a plane] sees how the land is with its crone-skin patterns, its wens and scars and open wounds. The plains, with their sparse, grey tufts of mulga scrub, rise into the high skeletal disarray of the sandstone ranges where rivers run like green gashes towards the sea. All rigid geometry falls away; no roads, no fences, just a confusion of colour. Out at the horizon the jagged, island-choked coast.
The water is like shot silk and he barely raises a crease. It’s so hot out there, so still and clear that the distances seem to expand until everything looks twice as far as it did on the map.
But he’s not the only writer to evoke life in the West. Robert Drewe, who moved to Western Australia when he was 6 and spent his formative years there, has also written evocatively about the place. His autobiographical-cum-fictional book The shark net is a pretty confronting story about his childhood and, in particular, the role played in it by serial killer Eric Cooke who committed 8 murders the late 1950s to early 1960s.
And then there’s one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jolley. She migrated to Western Australia with her husband in 1959. Her writing though tends to be more interior, with place and setting used symbolically, metaphorically. Alienation and marginalisation are big themes for her, so I can’t help surmising that her dislocation from England combined with the remoteness of Western Australia contributed to this sense in her work, but it mightn’t be quite that simple. Here she is in an essay titled “A small fragment of the earth”:
In a country where a 10-centimetre map would produce sheets of blank spaces, the emptiness and the silence are impressive.
At times, in this silence, the traveller is tempted to stop the car with the idea of walking. To get out of the car and to walk. The road between empty paddocks is quiet and deserted. When walking it would be possible to accept a different view of time and journey. It would be possible to feel small and safe, walking and then pausing to stand still.
The occupation of a small fragment of the earth is known only to the person who is alone in it. It is possible to imagine the feelings of being unseen and not known about while standing alone in one isolated place, low down under the immense, clear blue sky. It might even be possible to think that all anxieties and fears will disappear. They might dissolve, dissipate themselves into the silence.
There are other significant writers too – such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, Randolph Stow, Sally Morgan, Dorothy Hewett, Gail Jones and Craig Silvey – but I can’t possibly write about them all without becoming rather tedious. They are all worth checking out though.