Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape
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:
- writers I’ve reviewed here, like Murray Bail (The pages), Jeanine Leane (Purple threads), Geoff Page (The scarring), Andrew Croome (Document Z and The midnight empire);
- writers I read before I started blogging, like Sue Woolfe (The secret cure)
- writers whose blogs I read like Kerryn Goldsworthy (Still life with cat) and Jane Gleeson-White (Bookish girl);
- writers I plan to read soon like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth), Steven Carroll (his Glenroy and his TS Eliot novels), Paul Daley (Canberra); and
- still more, some on my radar (like climate activist Anna Rose, Matthew Condon, Adrian Hyland, Matthew Higgins, Patrick Allington and Ros Moriarty) and a few I wasn’t really aware of (like Felicity Volk, Jennifer Harrison, Charles Massy, Deborah Burrows, and Heide curators Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan)
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.