Monday musings on Australian literature: Place

Place. It’s a complex thing isn’t it?

Arti (Ripple Effects) commented on my recent post on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Spring and Fall” that

… while spring may be a welcome sight, for some strange reasons, I miss winter’s snow. (not the temp. just the beautiful snow scenes).

Would I miss winter and snow? Not on your nelly! Meanwhile, Nigel Featherstone (Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot) wrote in response my comment on a recent post of his:

As to the drive to and from Canberra: most of my trips are through Lake Bathurst; so amazing – all that sky!

But arriving in the ACT is always a good feeling. Though almost immediately I miss my home town.

Isn’t place interesting? So difficult to capture accurately…

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

These comments got me to thinking about my sense of place – and then about place in literature. First me. My love of the Australian landscape came home to me when we returned in 1985 from a two-year posting in Virginia, USA. Like most Aussies, I’d read a lot of fiction from the northern hemisphere and had somehow been imbued with the idea that the loveliest landscape is lush and green and the best houses are two-storey. After enjoying two years in such a place, I wondered how I’d feel about returning home. I needn’t have worried. We drove back into my city and it felt wonderful. I knew then that here, this  browner place with its scraggly vegetation, was my place.

Now for literature. I can think of two main uses of place in literature. One is the obvious one, place as setting, as background for the action. I enjoy reading good descriptions of place, and have shared some in my reviews. My favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to “feel” and “see” the place and its impact on the characters. A favourite example is the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens Bleak House. It’s hard to forget London and its fogs after that.

The other use, though, is more complex. It’s to do with our relationship to place – the way we interact with place, the way we feel about it, the way it interacts with us.

But here’s the rub. Relationship to place is complicated in colonial/settler societies like ours, societies which have taken over someone else’s place. How do we reconcile that? There’s a fundamental conflict between our two different experiences of place, and it’s discomforting. We want to respect and better understand the original owners’ values while validating our own. Literature (and the arts in general) can help us work through these issues –  by directly exposing and exploring the conflict, and more subtly by sharing our respective experiences. For literature to be effective, of course, we need universal literacy – but that’s another story.

Fortunately, more indigenous writers are being published and we are hearing their voices about land, about country. We need to hear it, we need to share and talk. In That deadman dance, Kim Scott tackles head on the issue of land and ownership, of competing values and different understandings, in the early days of settlement. Killam, the soldier, has to give up to the Governor a place he’d taken:

Mr Killam was learning what it was to have someone move in on what you thought was your very own home. He thought it was the last straw. The very last.

Meanwhile, Skelly tramps about the land with a gun in his hand, explaining:

Well, it’s not our home is it?

And entrepreneur Chaine decides, at one point, to give up his farming goal for whaling:

Whaling was better than attempting to work this land with its topsy-turvy seasons  and poor soil, and there’d be trouble with the natives, farming. The best land was their land, too.

For our indigenous narrator, Bobby, land is something known, felt:

And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water. He crouched to it, he touched the stone, and sensed home.

In the end, of course, the “settlers” win and we descendants are left with the legacy of loving land that was not ours. Kim Scott has made an intelligent contribution to the conversation about this complex business of land.

Some years before Kim Scott’s book (2011), Andrew McGahan, a non-indigenous writer, wrote The white earth (2004), a contemporary story set on the eve of Native Title. It’s about the love of land, by both indigenous and non-indigenous people, about greed and putting money and land ahead of spiritual and emotional values. It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s a powerful read. The old grazier believes that:

Ownership could not be shared. Not the power of it, not the weight of it either. It could be crushing that weight, encompassing all the history that the land had ever witnessed, the summation of the lives and deaths of all those who had walked it before. But William [his great nephew] barely even knew the station – he hadn’t smelled it or touched it or felt the terrible age in its bones …

The irony is that this is a man who loves his land, but selfishly and greedily. There are indigenous people who own this land and Native Title is being enacted. His daughter says:

This law is brand new, it has to be interpreted by judges. Maybe the Kuran people haven’t kept up their presence, but if they argue that eighty years ago their entire male population was killed off while trying to – then what? What humane person isn’t going to consider that a reasonable excuse, no matter what the letter of the law might say?

This is a complex novel with no easy ending …

And I have ranged far from what inspired me to write this post but it comes down to this: we have a long way to go before we (non-indigenous people) can feel comfortable about our love of our place. We need the arts to help us through it … I suspect Nigel would agree.

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Place

  1. Interesting! I have a problem with ‘place’, as I almost think I don’t belong anywhere anymore. But scrubby bushland makes me feel at home, probably the most, and yet there are other places that have also seeped deep inside. Part of the reason I write is probably to investigate some of this, or at least exploit it, but it leaves one worrying about authenticity at times.

    I’m glad that there is so much more indigenous writing about the land. As you say, the arts are opening some very crucial doors.

    • Ah yes, you peripatetic people must feel a bit like that, Catherine … I think it is possible to have more than one “place” inside even if one’s homing thoughts might fly to one particular one. My second place, after Australia as a whole (because I have a few Australian places – the sort of place where I live, the Snowy mountains, and the desert), is the American Southwest. I felt a sense of almost home when I’m there too – particularly the deserts!

      But what do you mean about authenticity? I don’t think you have to only write about places you belong to? Or are you saying something else?

  2. Such a wonderful post with so many important things well said. I’m in the middle of The Pea Pickers so I found your comments particularly to resonate.
    And as you know, the USA is a composite of many very different places. The one I have chosen to make home is anything but lush and green.
    Scott’s book with Hazel Brown is even more rich and explicit about place than his novel. I have read it and loved it but am still pondering what to say. It will have to include place.

    • Oh thanks Marilyn. The pea pickers! I reviewed that early in my blog history. It’s an astonishing book, she was an astonishing person. This post would certainly resonate given the importance of place in that book. I’d like to read that Scott-Brown book one day. I look forward to your review. Another writer whose sense of place is strong and who recognises the complexities is the poet Judith Wright.

      And yes, I do understand about the USA and place. As I said to Catherine above, the Southwest has a corner of my heart.

  3. Funny; I was just talked to Sarah yesterday about how we both really “need” the park by our place, even if we don’t go much in winter, and how it makes us like the area and feel like home. For her, because she grew up on a farm, for me, because I come from the “bush capital”. I think that may be why I never felt quite right at Lisa’s place – it was too much “city”, not enough real nature and green.

    But I do still miss the grey-green, the silver-green, the brown-green of home.

  4. Growing up in southern California I never really felt at home. Sure it’s a nice place but I felt like a square peg of sorts. When I came to live in Minneapolis it felt so right, frigid winters and all. Literature is great way to explore place I think in both fiction and nonfiction. It broadens horizons so to speak 🙂

    • That’s interesting Stefanie … Though I can understand how our “place” may not necessarily be the one we started with. A whole lot of other things come into play I think … I grew up in Queensland, and loved near the sea at times or had most holidays by the sea but my first real consciousness of loving place was when we moved into the outback. We only lived the for three years but they were clearly formative for me.

  5. This is a great post Sue, and place is one of the things I think and write about constantly. I detested ‘The White Earth’, it was such a *white* book, and then Melissa Lucashenko told me it was in her top 10, and then I realised that the whole point was that I resented its the whiteness, and I felt very stupid indeed for not having worked that out (but I still don’t like it much more).

    Also, it’s a bit embarrassing to wave my own flag, but my novel ‘Entitlement’ was written largely to address these issues: it raises the question of who, in contemporary Australia, is entitled to the land? I also tried to show how, through the break up of a white family that was fighting over land, how Indigenous people have been affected by their dispossession. I don’t think it’s a question that can ever be answered, though I did aim for a (probably utopian) resolution at the end of the book.

    • Oh thanks Jessica … I think it’s easy to let emotions affect one’s reading of a book. I think McGahan was very brave writing this book. It’s very hard for a white person to write about this issue. Whatever approach we take is bound to be flawed in some way, don’t you think. (But then I haven’t read your take. I do hope to read one of your books, which I’ve seen in the NLA bookshop, when I get my head above water …)

      I love hearing that Lucashenko likes it. I’d also love to understand a little more about what you mean about resenting the whiteness. Is it the attitude of the characters? McGahan’s writing? The conclusion? (I feel I should read it again … it made a big impact on me when I read it … I don’t recollect many of the books I read in 2004/5!)

      • Hi Sue, what I meant by the whiteness was that all the characters were white, and yet it was a book about land rights and there were no Indigenous voices whatsoever, and I got frustrated because it was like being stuck in a room full of people who are all the same (however, this was the point, as Lucashenko made me see). On a more personal level, I grew up with a similar, conservative rural strain of people and have been rebelling against it all my life, which didn’t endear me much to the book either.

        Louise (below) is quite right in saying we shouldn’t feel guilty about something we love, and I completely agree with your response – that the way forward is an expression and discussion of our points of view. I think this is what Kim Scott was trying to do as well, with his large cast of characters.

  6. This post has struck a deep chord with me and I’m glad you followed where it meandered even though it wasn’t where you intended going! Where it went was important. The ‘love of place’ is something I’ve long-pondered as a pale-skinned, freckled Australian. I love this country — its colours, its landscape, its oceans. I’ve grown up here, my ancestors are buried in its soil — how could it not mean something to me, something spiritual? Yet I feel like I have no right to feel that way.

    Years ago, my father said to me, ‘They (indigenous Australians) aren’t the only ones who feel a connection to this land, you know.’ At the time, I thought he had no right to say that. We are, after all, living in their country. His words have stayed with me, though, because I understand what he meant — he loved this land, too, and felt connected to it. And so do I.

    It is an important topic that you’ve raised, and more open dialogue is needed about it. I would love to be able to freely express my love for this beautiful country without feeling guilty.

    (By the way, this is the first time I’ve ever written Dad’s words without deleting them for fear of being disrespectful to the traditional custodians of this country, which is the last thing I want to do. You may not want to publish this comment if you feel that it is in any way disrespectful. Thanks, Louise.)

    • Oh no Louise, of course I’d publish it. It’s a great comment and reflects exactly where we are at present. It’s really important for us to understand and respect indigenous people and their connection to country, but we too are here, whatever history brought us here, and we need to work together to encompass all our different “loves”. More talking, and more sharing or our feelings – anger, guilt, love, pride, uncertainty, and so on – must surely be the only way forward. (Welcome to Whispering Gums by the way).

  7. WG,

    Thanks for the mention. 😉 Coincidentally, we’re having snow today, blowing, wet snow to be exact. No kidding. Also, lately I’ve been dwelling on the idea of ‘place’ as well because I’m drafting a post on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Will post soon, hopefully. Still struggling how to address the issue of root and rootlessness.

  8. Hi Sue, this is a fascinating post and I’m glad it bounced off my Under the counter post; actually I’m especially glad that, really, the original inspiration was the latest edition of Meanjin, which is, of course, all about Canberra.

    Frankly, I’ll probably end up writing a post about your post (!), as this is such a big topic, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

    As you point out, the whole notion of ‘place’ is so very intriguing and I think it’s one of literature’s tasks to explore it and to turn it upside down and inside out so that we might know it better, or at least know new definitions of it. And perhaps that word ‘definitions’, as in the plural, is key here.

    It’s interesting that you started writing about how writers write about place (wow, I’ve put that very clumsily, haven’t it?!) but ended up talking about place and layers of meaning, particularly in terms of Indigenous meaning(s). In some ways I find it an odd tangent to go on, though not unexpected and not unreasonable. I firmly believe that there can be multiple attachments to place, and multiple ways of connecting and engaging and being a part of place, all the while remaining respectful of all those who’ve come before, and keeping an open mind to all those who will come in the future.

    And yes: we need the arts in order for us to understand place better. Because as a practice, the arts understands complexity and pluralism.

    • Oh phew thanks, Nigel … I was hoping my tangent wasn’t so off-track that it lost its way. I couldn’t quite believe where it took me but decided to let it take me anyhow. Would love to see you take it further in your writerly way. I tend to always stop, thinking I’ve said enough now, but I know there’s more to say. I agree that there can be multiple attachments to place. One of the challenges is for us all to respect each other’s attachments, isn’t it. Hmm, does that mean I have to respect the dirt bikers in “my” forest! Seriously, though, that is partly what it is all about isn’t it? I think Uluru is an interesting case. I think we should respect indigenous people’s request that we not climb it, and yet I can also see that there are many ways of seeing this issue, politically, personally, spiritually. Tricky, interesting.

  9. Place – I’ve lived in a few places in the US and felt at home only in the southern parts of the country.

    I recently read a dystopian novel about my hometown (New Orleans) called “The Not Yets” by Moira Crone. It’s set in the future when global warming has really swamped the city. Even though the descriptions are set in the future, I felt that Crone really captured what the city will look like in the future.

    • Oh thanks for joining in Isabel … can you identify what it is that makes the south your place? Is it where you came from originally? I rather like dystopian novels but haven’t heard of that one … love the title!

      • I like it’s green even during winter. I like the friendly people and the yummy food. I don’t like the extreme heat though. Guess you can have everything in life!

        • LOL, Isabel … no you can’t! But they sound like good reasons. I don’t mind heat but I don’t like humid heat and I think New Orleans is like that isn’t it? I went there back in the early 1980s and loved it.

  10. Pingback: A connection to country… | LOUISE ALLAN

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