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Monday musings on Australian literature: Reverse expats

April 18, 2011

Several months ago I wrote a Monday musings post on Australian expat novelists, so I thought it was only fair to write one on reverse expat novelists, that is, writers from elsewhere who have settled in Australia. Because, yes, some people DO come here as well as leave!

For this post, I’m choosing a few writers who settled (permanently or semi-permanently) in Australia in their adult lives … they are all English or South African born. (I wonder what that says? We are, of course, all Commonwealth countries, which may have some bearing on it all … but after that, I’ll leave it to others to ponder.) And, because I need to choose some order in which to list them, I’ve chosen the order of their arrival in Australia.

Elizabeth Jolley
(born in England in 1923, arrived in Western Australia in 1959, died in Western Australia in 2007)

Regular readers of my blog will know that Jolley is one of my favourite writers. All her novels were published after her arrival in Australia. In fact, like many authors, she was rejected many times before her first books, Miss Peabody’s inheritance and Mr Scobie’s riddle, were published in 1983. All the books of hers that I’ve read, with the exception of the autobiographical novel My father’s moon, are set in Australia though travel elsewhere does occur in some.  Jolley clearly settled well into Australia – and in 1970, when still living in Perth, she and her husband bought a 5 acre rural property outside of Perth. She chronicles this in her delightful “memoir” (if you can quite call it that), Diary of a weekend farmer. It is very much diary-style and starts with the search for land. You might like this one (from 10 October 1970):

Told of another place Mount Helena drove there, like a place in a Patrick White novel 27 acres covered in scrub and burned trees old cars and trucks, washing machines, it was like a dump, several dogs so turned the car as quickly as I could.

A week later, though, they find just the spot. It sounds English by her description (17 October 1970):

Serene. A high verandah, a fig tree, a loquat, honeysuckle, a hedge of rosemary. A gentle slope of bush down to a meadow, stream on land at both bottom corners …

And on 6 November she says “You look across to Tolstoy country. A paddock with horses running …”

It is however Australian – the snakes and bushfires tell us that. And, it is clear, this land, this experience, informed much of her writing, including, specifically, The five acre virgin and other stories, and The newspaper of Clarement Street.

Peter Temple
(born in South Africa in 1946, arrived in Australia in 1980)

Temple is one of Australia’s best regarded crime writers. In fact, his latest novel Truth was, rather controversially, the first genre novel to win our top literary award, the Miles Franklin. As with Jolley, all his novels have been published after his arrival in Australia and they are, at least to the best of my knowledge as I’ve only read two, set in Australia and very much imbued with Australian landscape and culture. His description of the land (in Victoria this time) in The broken shore sounds a bit Patrick White too:

Early settlers planted cypress trees and hedges as windbreaks around their houses. It worked to some extent but the displaced wind took its revenge. Trees, shrubs, hedges, tanks, windmills, dunnies, dog kennels, chickenhouses, old car bodies – everything in its path sloped to leeward.

Nicholas Shakespeare
(born in England in 1957, first visited Tasmania in 1999 and now divides his year between Tasmania and England)

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any Shakespeare, but I have Snowleg on my TBR pile and I have been wanting to read The dancer upstairs for some time too. So, I’ll just report on him using an interview with Susan Wyndham in 2007. He said that  “the thing about Tasmania that’s exciting for a writer is how close to the surface history is”. And, guess what, Patrick White rears his head again. Shakespeare tells Wyndham:

In my shed, one of the discoveries I made was Patrick White and The Tree of Man. It is extraordinary the way he took a marriage through all its vicissitude; most writers don’t take on that challenge.

A commenter on Susan Wyndham’s blog described his book Secrets of the sea as “So Australian with a strong thread connecting to Britain”. I must, must, must get to this writer.

Coetzee, Poland, 2006 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik, from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

JM Coetzee
(born in South Africa in 1940, arrived in Australia in 2002)

Coetzee, of course, had an established literary career before he arrived in Australia, but his rather stellar career has continued unabated since then. Elizabeth Costello concerns an Australian novelist, and Diary of a bad year is set in Australia. These books tend to the intellectual or philosophical, yet they too reflect on Australian culture often counterpointing international concerns. Coetzee is a rather reclusive man, but I have managed to once hear him speak. He briefly introduced and read from Slow man, and then immediately left the podium. There was, in other words, no opportunity for questions and answers. While that was a pity, I bear him no grudges. He is a writer after all and doesn’t have to join the literary promotion juggernaut if he doesn’t want to!

I’ve chosen these four reverse expats because they are of particular interest to me. There are others, such as British comedian and writer Ben Elton, and best-selling South African born author Bryce Courtenay. Having lived overseas on a couple of occasions, I am fascinated by the decision people make to leave their homes permanently for another country. There are many reasons why people might do so – political (of course), economic, personal (such as having a partner from another country), cultural, and so on. Some of you who read my blog have, I know, made the jump. I’d love to hear your perspectives on being an expat.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 02:49

    Your Monday posts are hard on my TBR pile! I’m not an expat unless you count moving from southern California to MN, which at first did feel like I moved to another country. sometimes I think of moving to Canada somehow imagining I’d be escaping the consumer/materialistic culture favored in the U.S., but I’m probably deluded about that.

    • April 19, 2011 14:06

      Good one Stefanie … parts of America are very different from others aren’t they? I’ve probably said this before but I met and became friends with a woman in SoCal who’d “migrated” there from Minnesota. She loved the warmth but did at first comment on cultural differences. I suspect it’s getting hard to escape materialistic/consumerist cultures in most western places … but there are degreesI think even in different parts of the US?

      • April 20, 2011 00:14

        Yes, I imagine when your friend moved from MN to CA she had a bit of culture shock too! There are degrees of difference in the U.S.. I think the Midwest of the country tends to be a little less consumer oriented than the coasts. Minneapolis has a wonderful “alternative” community and is one reason why I love it here so much in spite of the long cold winters, but sometimes it still gets a little claustrophobic.

        • April 20, 2011 00:22

          Yes, that’s what I suspected about the coasts. Minnesota does sound great but the climate would do me in I think. I need that sort of community in warmer weather – oh, but wait, I think I do have some of that sense here!

  2. April 19, 2011 02:53

    I loved ‘The Broken Shore’ and hadn’t realised there was another book available. Off to the library site NOW!

    • April 19, 2011 14:08

      Ah good Annie. They are not sequels – but the main character in Truth is a friend of the main one in The broken shore and both appear slightly in each other’s books (if you know what I mean). I’ve reviewed Truth here on this blog so you might like to look at that before or after you’ve read it. (I read The broken shore before I started blogging and loved it too even though I read very little crime.)

  3. Liz permalink
    April 19, 2011 05:59

    Thanks to you and your blog for mentioning Elizabeth Jolley. I have just ordered a book of hers through inter-library loan so hoping that won’t take too long. With ref to your mention about expats: I am English but now live in West Texas (Cowboy country) and have done since I was a college student. I came out after having been awarded a swimming scholarship to a big university here, and stayed here. I think things just rather worked out that I stayed over here and got citizenship etc. I certainly didn’t have it all planned out when I was a fresh foreign student with two suitcases! Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for bringing attention to Aussie authors. I have been interested in getting into more Antipodian (sp?) lit and your blog helps direct the way. Thanks!

    • April 19, 2011 14:14

      Oh which one, which one. Do tell me. I’ve read about half her novels and am saving others up to mete out over time. Right now I’ve decided to properly read Diary of a weekend farmer … not a novel but still her. I saw her “live” a couple of times. She was, unlike the taciturn Coetzee, wonderful. Looked like a little old lady, voice sounded like a little old lady but she was something else when she spoke. Wicked and compassionate at once. Anyhow, thrilled to have you here and to find another “foreigner” interested in Antipodean (“e” not “i” but you were close) literature.

      What part of West Texas if you don’t mind my asking? When I drove through Texas – many years ago – I felt it was the part of the US that was most like Australia (not culturally so much but the wide wide open spaces). I can see how as a student you might land in a place and gradually meld in.

      • Liz permalink
        April 21, 2011 05:09

        I ordered The Newspaper of Clairmont Street…. and you are welcome to ask all you want. I currently live in the Panhandle of Texas. This is the northwest bit that sticks up… the town is called Lubbock. (Buddy Holly is the claim to fame for the city.) And you’re right: I had not put it together, but it is semi-arid and very dry (no rain in six months!) so it would be like parts of Oz (at least the bits I have seen on film).

        • April 21, 2011 08:12

          Oh good … The newspaper of Claremont Street is the one I love to recommend to people. It’s an early one – not quite the first published but one of the first. I love it – and it gives a good sense of her. Do come back and tell me what you think.

          Ah I’ve heard of Lubbock – probably the Holly connection. We didn’t get to the Panhandle. Drove in from the west into El Paso, down to El Presidio and then through Big Bend and up and over to San Antonio, Houston and Galveston, then Austin and back west (and north) via the Carlsbad Caverns. A memorable trip.

  4. April 19, 2011 09:08

    For love of course – UK to Australia (via Japan!).

    • April 19, 2011 14:18

      Welcome Tony. Yes, love, that’s a biggie and becoming bigger, particularly with the increased movement of young people. Japan? Did you teach English there? Our son did that for 3 years. (I have an English friend – quite a bit older than I am. I met her when she started volunteering at my workplace well after she retired. She’s now 76. Came to Australia when she was 21 with a friend … and met a man here. She’s never looked back – she loves the sun/climate. For other English people, I think, our climate in many parts of Australia is too harsh isn’t it?)

  5. George permalink
    April 19, 2011 10:16

    Would it cool down the heated discussions over immigration in the US if we referred to the immigrants as “reverse expats”? It might at least end some discussions in a hurry.

  6. April 19, 2011 12:13

    I had no idea Elizabeth Jolley was not originally Australian. I wonder how many other aspirant reverse-expat writers there are, who do not meet our immigration requirements: ages ago in a documentary about Australia House in London, I remember seeing an exchange between a man inquiring about coming to live in Australia and one of our officials there. The man peered through the little window that divided him from the Australian across the counter and said he would like to know what he needed to do in order to emigrate. Our official explained that we were looking for people with skills to come and live in our country and asked what the man’s main occupation was. ‘Umm, well, I write poetry,’ the man replied. There was a slight pause. ‘I’m afraid there isn’t a pressing demand for poets in Australia just at the moment,’ the official told him. It was a rather tragic little vignette, I thought.

    • April 19, 2011 14:21

      You learn something new every day! Love your story. Must say that I wondered on what basis these writers have managed it – Elton’s wife is Aussie so that works for him, and Jolley’s husband came for work (Librarian at the University of Western Australia).

  7. April 19, 2011 13:13

    Jon Bauer is an import as well, see
    (I’ve claimed him as an Aussie author, of course).

    • April 19, 2011 14:22

      Thanks Lisa. There’s MJ Hyland too isn’t there – but she’s been and gone so a bit tricky. I decided not to mention Nam Le given he arrived here when he was 1!

  8. April 19, 2011 17:21

    I must be very ignorant as I didn’t know that Shakespeare and Coetzee reside in Australia. I think for a writer, the experience of living in another country must be wholly positive. There are lots of English writers who live in France these days, due to the cheaper cost of housing and the greater tranquillity of a less-populated nation.

    • April 19, 2011 20:00

      Glad I added to your store of literary knowledge Tom! Peter Carey has argued that living elsewhere enabled him to have a better perspective (particularly when he was writing about Australia). I can see how that would work.

      As for the English in France – perhaps they like the climate better too?!

  9. April 21, 2011 03:37

    Adrian McKinty recently landed in Australia from Ireland with a pitstop in America.

    • April 21, 2011 07:54

      There you go again telling me about an author I haven’t heard of … a noir, crime writer? Ah, just looked him up on Wikipedia. He sounds good … I wonder why he has moved here.

  10. April 29, 2011 08:27

    Coetzee is terse. His writings and his speaking.

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