Monday musings on Australian literature: West Coast Writers

Western Australian cities, towns, settlements ...

Adapted by Mark Ryan (Image from Wikipedia under the GNU Free Documentation License)

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:

Fitzroy River

Aerial shot of the Fitzroy River

… 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 StowSally 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.

42 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: West Coast Writers

  1. For some time I have loved reading books by WA authors. I’m from the eastern seaboard and have only been to WA twice. Yet I feel I know the state so well having read and loved all the above authors.
    I reckon they just nail it!

    Most recently I have fallen in love with Jasper Jones, the novel from Craig Silvey.

    Cloudstreet has been my GAN for years but sitting right beside it now is Jasper Jones.

  2. Yep, I am from Queensland and have never been to WA (or SA and NT). Great post. Have you seen fellow WA blogger, Hila’s blog: She is a post doctoral fellow, writer of ballet and movie reviews and maker of a beautiful looking blog. She has also just published a book that I just bought, it is beautiful.

  3. Hi Sue, there was a feature about WA writing on ABC RN about a week ago – you might want to check it out. I can’t remember which program it was, probably The Book Show or maybe the travel one on Sunday mornings…

  4. I’m mortified that even though I know the basis of this series, and there’s “Australian” in the title, I still thought “San Francisco” when I read West Coast. Shame on me!

    • Oh dear, now that’s putting me on the spot. Cloudstreet is certainly one of my top ones, and I’d say go for it. I’d have to read it again to be sure but I’d probably have Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda up there somewhere. I love White’s Voss. Of the books I’ve read they are probably my top three.

      To my shame, though I’ve read many great and critically well reviewed Aussie women writers, I have’t read the two main female contenders, Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead.

  5. I like that I get a little literature and a little history with your Australia posts. I was at the bookstore yesterday and checked to see if they had any Winton and was disappointed though not surprised that they didn’t. I chuckled at your secession comment. Texas rumbles about that here now and then and of course California is always wrangling over whether it should split into two states. Keeps things interesting!

    • Thanks Stefanie … my hope is to provide a little more than “just” literature in these posts so am glad you like that. I sometimes worry it’s a bit too dry. I did think of California when I mentioned the “secession” issue. I don’t think I was aware of it regarding Texas too though. No Winton? Oh dear…it says something really doesn’t it, since he is probably one of our best known overseas.

  6. I love Tim Winton, he’s the only Australian writer I automatically read other than some of the fantasy authors that make up my holiday list. The others are all new names to me. Is there anyone in particular you would recommend as a good introduction to your west?

    • That’s great Annie … I really enjoy him too. For an introduction to the west Robert Drewe’s The shark net might be good BUT I’d love you to give Jolley a go. She was born in England and came to Western Australia as a married woman with her husband who was to be the University Librarian at the University of WA. I’ve written a Favourite authors post on her (which you can find if you are interested under the Categories drop down). If you could locate a book or two by her, I’d love to hear what you thought. She can be black.

  7. Interesting comment from Tim Winton on the role of place in a novel. I always feel when reading his stuff (particularly Breathe and Dirt Music) that his locations and landscapes become almost additional characters in the story; so interwoven and influential in the journey of the characters.

    Aside from Winton, Sally Morgan is the next writer my mind immediately associates with WA. My Place is a great meditation on the role of ‘place’ in defining our sense of self, and it’s a book that always gets me thinking about the the many identities that compete for representation in Australian cultural products.

    • You are right about My place, it’s a rivetting book. I didn’t focus a lot on her because she’s more artist than writer but your comments are very valid.

      As for Winton, I thoroughly agree – whenever you think of him, place is high in your mind isn’t it.

  8. I have lived in the West all my life, and I often think that life here is defined by a sense of isolation. Whenever I go East I feel as though I am visiting Australia as it is portrayed in newspapers and TV; as though we live somewhere apart. This seems to be changing – more and more I notice stories in the national press on places that are distinctly West Australian: Rottnest, Margaret River, Fremantle.

    My reading is generally about elsewhere. But the two books about Western Australia that I have most enjoyed are The Merry-go-round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, and The Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards.

    • Thanks Karyn … how great to have the perspective of a “true” westerner. I love your state, btw. If it weren’t so far away (!), Perth would be my pick (at least, equal to where I live). I hope you are right about WA being more visible these days. It should be.

      And thanks for your contribution. I don’t know the Edwards at all, but I have The merry-go-round in the sea on my tbr. Am keen to read it, and you have encourage me to increase its priority in the pile. (I must try to get one of my groups to read it! That would help immensely). As you probably know Penguin put it out in that new $10 orange and white series they’ve been doing.

  9. I have two Tim Winton novels waiting for me and have been meaning to read them for months. I hope to find the time this spring and look forward to discovering the landscape.

    • Oh good – which ones are they? (The riders won’t do the WA landscape but from recollection all the others do, some more than others). I’ll watch out for your reviews Michelle.

    • I’ve seen the TV adaptation which I think was fairly true, and I’ve dipped into it here and there (as it’s one I don’t actually have). I’ve also read some short stories (in The body surfers, which I do have). On the basis of those, I’d recommend it but with the proviso that I haven’t actually read it cover to cover yet.

    • Guy, I read Shark Net and thought it was fairly average. A nice memoir and certainly evocative of time and place, but I wouldn’t go pressing it into everyone’s hands saying, you must read this.

      • Thanks kimbofo … it was the time and place I liked about the adaptation but as I said I’ve only dipped into bit of the actual book. I do like stories in The body surfers that I’ve read though, and assumed The shark net was of similar quality.

  10. I was in WA in December lsat year for a holiday – if there is one place in Australia other than Sydney where I think that I could live, it would be Perth. Such a great city and such a great half of the country. I wanted to buy a book by a WA author while I was over there, but because I was on hols I couldn’t be bothered doing any research to find out who one might be – now I know for next time I am over there!

    • Me too — though Perth would beat Sydney for me. Been there done that! LOL. Seriously though it’s a lovely state…I’m doing some contract work (you know retired, but not quite) for an org over there and so have been to the Pilbara, once and will get back there at least a couple of times this year. Wonderful experience. BTW You could of course buy some WA authors in Sydney too!

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