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Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape

August 5, 2013
Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

This weekend just gone I had the privilege – well, I paid to go, but still it was a privilege – to attend a conference at the National Library of Australia titled Writing the Australian landscape. You can see why I had to go … wild brumbies couldn’t keep me away.

But if, perchance, the topic hadn’t attracted me, the line-up of speakers sure would have. They included:

There wasn’t a boring one among them. (The full list of speakers, and chairs, is available online) Kudos to the National Library* for putting together an excellent program and to the speakers who had all taken the topic seriously and offered much for the audience to think about. I think I can speak for all who attended when I say that we laughed, cried and winced (though perhaps not always at the same things.)

All that’s by way of introduction. Now I’d better do the hard yakka and share some thoughts and ideas, but that’s not going to be easy.

I’ll start with a little manifesto, if I can call it that. The way I see it, to be a white (non-indigenous) Australian today is to feel a little uncomfortable. Many of us love being Australian, love the land or country we call home, and yet are aware of the cost to others of our being here, of the dispossession we brought to others. But, we can’t be ashamed of being western**. That’s our heritage, that’s what informed our thought processes. However, we can be ashamed of assuming that others think the way we do and, worse, of assuming that others want to think the way we do (or be the way we are). My – our – challenge is to be open to other ways of thinking, to respect them and to learn what we can from them. While almost all the conference speakers were non-indigenous, there was a lot of goodwill amongst the speakers and the audience in the room, a lot of willingness to open our eyes. Please read my notes on the conference with this in mind.

Why write (about) the landscape?

And so, I really do have to start now. The conference got off to a rather provocative start with Miles Franklin award-winning author Murray Bail giving the Kenneth Binns lecture. Speaking from his western-writer standpoint, Bail was concerned that we were even having the conversation. Other western literatures, he argued, are not preoccupied as we are with landscape and, related to that in his mind, with national distinctiveness. Did Tolstoy, he asked, worry about his “Russianness”? No, he said, we read Tolstoy for the moral questions he explores, to learn how to live, be happy, be wise. For Bail, landscape is a New World concern, which that quintessential New World country the USA has now shaken.

Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away. I found this a fascinating idea and will be thinking about it for a long time:

  • Is our fascination with landscape a bad thing?
  • Is our landscape so different, so forbidding, that it will always play on us? (But then, aren’t other landscapes, such as the Siberian desert forbidding?).
  • Does our particular history of occupation and dispossession mean that place and landscape will for a long time yet be a fraught issue?
  • Will the fact that for indigenous Australians morality is tied to the land, to country, mean that considering landscape will always be part of our literature?

What does (the) landscape mean?

Historian Bill Gammage gave the keynote address on the second day. His focus was very much on indigenous relationship to land, to country, which is the subject of his most recent multiple award-winning book The biggest estate on earth. His argument was that “country” is not about nature (about landscape) but about culture, and that non-indigenous Australians could learn a lot about our country by learning from indigenous Australians what they know and are able, within their laws, to tell us. I loved his glass-half-full statement that the point is not how much knowledge indigenous Australians have lost but how much they still know. Gammage, like Bail, recognised we are challenged by our landscape, but his conclusion was not that we should aim to stop writing about it but How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

I will share more from the weekend – including Jeanine Leane’s powerful paper – but for now these two keynote papers nicely encapsulate the weekend in which we explored the progression from Landscape to Place to Country to Culture.

* I understand audio and printed versions of the talks will be available on the NLA’s website. I’ll provide a link when they become available.

** * Yes, I know, not all non-indigenous Australians are western but I’m using this partly by way of comparison, and partly because it’s my heritage. And yes, we can be ashamed of things westerners have done but not, I think, of being who we are.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2013 1:46 am

    Great introduction; I’m very much looking forward to hearing/reading about the rest of the conference! Would have loved to be there…

    • August 6, 2013 8:18 am

      Thanks Hannah … I hope to write one or two more posts on it … I have 20 pages of notes!

  2. August 6, 2013 2:24 am

    Wonderful. I don’t want anyone to stop writing and caring about landscapes, but I like the idea of not having to write about them as outsiders. So glad you went to this and will be sharing more. Timing for Jeanine Leane is perfect for me.!

    • August 6, 2013 8:20 am

      Thanks Marilyn … I’ll try to write about Leane’s paper soon. It was great to see and hear her, having read the book. She didn’t pull any punches …

  3. August 6, 2013 2:44 am

    This is so fascinating for me after the book on place and placelessnes I just finished and am currently trying to put my thoughts together on enough to write about. It is such a complex issue. I am surprised a little at Bail’s response. Everyone experiences landscape and place differently and I agree with Gammage that a lot of it is cultural. Indigenous people are connected to the landscape, in relationship to it, in a much more intimate way than those of use who arrived later. We have to create a relationship from scratch since we have no history. And that takes time and lots of negotiating. Plus, I don’t think our current western culture supports a deep relationship with landscape, it tells us we have to be mobile, nimble, and disconnected to place. So I think the more we talk about landscape the better it is because it helps us become more cognizant of our interactions with it.

    • August 6, 2013 8:26 am

      Oh thanks Stefanie … I’m inclined to agree with you about landscape … Bail talked about our lack of history but in a different way I think to that sense of our history with our land. Certainly de Kretser says we are on the move, mobile, ever questing (for what?). I was thinking, too, that the more talk the better!

      BTW He argued that Bellow’s Augie March signalled America’s move away from the self-questioning self-justification — what is American — to we are here and this is us. I’ve read it but a long time ago.

      • August 6, 2013 9:32 am

        I’ve not read Augie March. That makes me really want to read it though just to see if I agree! 🙂

        • August 6, 2013 9:46 am

          A good a reason as any to read the book. I enjoyed it a lot at the time. It’s a picaresque tale … and, I’m ashamed to say, the only Bellow I’ve read.

  4. Kate Mc permalink
    August 6, 2013 6:53 am

    Sounds like an inspiring, thought provoking conference. And I love your comments. It is interesting to consider the Australian landscape, from the perspective of having been immersed in European landscapes for the last couple of months. The age and visible cultural layers in Europe are much more obvious than in Australia. I feel drawn to landscapes in Australia because they are more interesting, mostly, than our built environment, plus they are places of wonder and beauty….it is a privilege to be able to experience them. And a number of European writers have strong links to the landscapes, Worsdworth and Hardy to name just two…so I’m not sure that writers don’t write about landscapes when they are confident in their cultural framework… Lots to reflect on Ms Gums…

    • August 6, 2013 8:31 am

      Thanks Ms Mc … there was/is lots to reflect on. Thanks for the reflections about European writers … perhaps its how they write about it. I thank Bail was suggesting that the way we write about it has to do with defining ourselves, our identity, our Australianness as in we are distinctively “Australian” because our landscape is distinctive. But, it can do with a lot of teasing out. I’m hoping to get a set of thoughts together about this issue.

  5. August 6, 2013 7:05 am

    I love the way you presented the line-up of speakers.
    This is, indeed, food for thought. Landscape, place, culture, land…all these words mean different things to each of us and, as writers and individuals, we are influenced deeply by them.
    Speaking personally, I don’t believe I write about landscape as an outsider. And, as a non-indigenous Australian who has spent a lot of time with indigenous Australians, I have never felt that I am expected to write about landscape as an outsider.
    I will look forward to further posts on this wonderful topic.

    • August 6, 2013 8:34 am

      Thanks Karen Lee … I’m glad you liked my listing of speakers! And thanks for your own reflections on your writing. I am cogitating a further post on this aspect, if I can get my thoughts together, as I think many of us are interested in it.

  6. August 6, 2013 8:22 am

    It was good to read your thoughts on the conference overall and on the two keynote speakers. Blogs are great for continuing the discussion, and you’ve reminded me that I too should blog about the conference!

    I have been thinking a lot about Murray Bail’s argument and I definitely think there are some flaws. There are “old world” texts where landscape is important, and I also think that if we consider nature writing then it too is present in Europe. Nature writing is entwined with landscape in many ways but perhaps the tendency in Australian writing has been to a kind of awe-inspired half-afraid depiction of deserts and the like, without the more subtle (& less touristy!) forms of nature writing. Of course, I am generalising terribly!

    Also just a small point – Bill Gammage’s book is titled The Biggest Estate on Earth (estate not state) – in reference to his thesis that Aboriginal people managed the land across the entire continent.

    Look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the conference soon!

    • August 6, 2013 8:44 am

      First thanks equineocean for commenting – as I enjoyed your Conference tweets. And thanks for picking up the typo … have no idea how I did that as I’ve never spoken of the book as anything other than “estate”.

      Bail’s was a great keynote I think because his argument was provocative. And he generalised too – it’s hard not to if we want to draw out ideas but as soon as we generalise we start thinking of the exceptions, don’t we? I think that one of his main points was to do with the fact that we are using our distinctive landscape to define our distinctiveness as Australians … that we are not yet comfortable in our sense of who we are without recourse to our unique landscape. So the more I think about it, the more I think I see where he’s coming from. It may be as you suggest more “the type of writing” about landscape rather than writing about it itself that he’s concerned about. (He who has written so much about it!)

      Then there’s the terminology and concepts – landscape, place, country, nature, culture and, as you and I tweeted about, the ocean!

      I hope you write about it too.

  7. August 6, 2013 8:48 am

    I loved reading this post and look forward to more, including possible link to the audio. The comments too are really interesting and it’s a worthy discussion. Bail’s comments interesting, maybe he was being provocative? Much to ponder, thank you.

    • August 6, 2013 9:45 am

      Thanks Jenny … the discussion in the comments is great. I’m so enjoying the reflections. Bail was provocative and, while I don’t know him well (except via his novels), I’m sure he knew it. Was he really thinking things through for himself too, I wonder?

      • August 6, 2013 2:08 pm

        I think that’s something a lot of us do? Often when speaking things aloud we are working things out; if we write, we’re often working things out that way too. It’s a form of thinking and processing I reckon.

        • August 6, 2013 3:05 pm

          Yes, I think so too, Jenny … which means we shouldn’t assume that things people say in these sorts of contexts are set in concrete but that they are part of an ongoing conversation.

  8. Meg permalink
    August 8, 2013 5:14 pm

    It sounds very interesting and I think most people relate to the Australian landscape. Our national anthem, and I say one of Australia’s most famous poems My Country by Dorothea MacKellar enhances our relationship with the land. I was at Carrie Tiffany’s book talk last night and she stated that she always writes with the landscape in her mind. She has worked as a park ranger in Western Australia and in Victoria. She related a great little tale about how she was dressed in her ‘perfect’ hiking park ranger outfit while the Indigenous Australian walked barefoot and without any scientific education understand the conditions of the environment by his taste and feel of the environment. She on the other hand had note books everywhere . Also on Sunday I went to a very informative discussion about the movie adaptation of The Turning by Tim Winton. Each individual story has been adapted by different directors. No director knew what the other director was doing. I haven’t seen the film, but the directors who spoke mentioned how Winton involved the landscape of Australia into his stories and how easy they found it to direct their story because of such great detail by Tim. Our history is short and I think we do have to relate to our landscape. It is important to be written as part of every Australian.

    • August 8, 2013 5:27 pm

      Thanks Meg … in my next post, that I hope to write, on the conference, I planned to mention that Winton didn’t really get much of a mention during the conference the way several other writers did. Do you know when the film is coming out? I haven’t seen trailers yet, though I recollect that it was being made. Sounds like they’ve used an interesting process.

      And Carrie Tiffany’s story is fascinating … indigenous people really do know their country, don’t they. I love the fact that Carrie Tiffany has such a different background to many writers, that is, her more scientific background. She brings such a different sensibility to her work and yet it’s not black-and-white dry science. (Oops, did I say that? I hope I haven’t offended any scientists reading here!)

    • August 8, 2013 5:36 pm

      Oops, Meg, I have just read it was shown at MIFF. How did I miss hearing that? I think being at two conferences on two weekends has resulted in my losing touch with the world.

  9. Meg permalink
    August 9, 2013 7:45 am

    Don’t worry Sue, there will be more screenings. However, the film is to presented in a different manner in that there will be only one screening a day at selected cinemas. Also, at the end of the session they are hoping the audience and maybe some directors and actors will be able discuss the movie together. I do know it is going to be shown at the Nova in Melbourne the end of September, unfortunately I am away. You can see initial responses from Tim Winton and some directors at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCdrvGfV5uo

    • August 9, 2013 10:14 am

      Thanks Meg … just after I saw your comment I received an email about the first screening here (In September) BUT I’ll be out of town. Darn it … I’d have been there in a flash.

  10. Matthew Todd permalink
    August 9, 2013 11:23 am

    I followed your live tweets from the conference with much jealously, so I’m happy to see that you’ve provided a brief summary!

    I’m in the middle of reading Alexis Wright’s new novel, The Swan Book, and it fascinated me to see how the relationship between Indigenous culture(s) and the landscape plays out in her work. It really is unlike anything I’ve read by a non-Indigenous Australian – even people like Tim Winton, who are renowned for their evocation of place and landscape.

    • August 9, 2013 1:58 pm

      Oh thanks Matt. I just saw the book in a shop on the weekend and wanted to pick it up but I know I won’t have time to read it until later this year so didn’t. I probably should have bought it anyhow. It looked intriguing and yet familiar from the little sentences I dipped into.

      I plan to discuss the conference a little more next Monday …. with perhaps input from other thinking, reading too.

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