Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (2)

In this week’s Monday Musings*, I plan to continue last week’s discussion of some of the ideas that arose from the National Library of Australia’s Writing the Australian Landscape conference.

But first, I’ll recap the two questions posed by the keynote speakers:

  • Day 1, author Murray Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away.
  • Day 2, historian Bill Gammage asked How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

Thinking about these over the past week, I’ve come to the notion that these could (almost) be seen as two sides of the same coin. That is, as I understood him, Bail wasn’t so much suggesting that we’ll end up not discussing place or landscape but that we won’t “need” to focus on it to prove our Australianness, to confirm our identity. Landscape would then become part of the background, it would be part of us, and we would no longer be outsiders to it. Does this make sense or am I twisting their words, I wonder?

The meaning of place

Several “place” related concepts were discussed over the weekend, sometimes with clear definitions, and sometimes more loosely. Many speakers talked about the relationship between Landscape, Place, Country and Culture. Landscape was not seen as purely physical but as something that we relate to and/or that impacts on us. Gammage argued that it takes time and memory to translate “landscape” to “country” or “culture”. Historian Matthew Higgins talked about “place memory” and suggested that when we talk about and remember place, “life is as important as the landscape”.

Gammage, and several other writers including Sue Woolfe, Charles Massy and Ros Moriarty, spoke of learning about indigenous Australians’ relationship to the land, a relationship in which the physicality of the land is inextricably entwined with spirituality. People, land and law are three aspects, he said, of the one thing.  While westerners objectify the land – as in, “isn’t it beautiful?” – indigenous Australians see their ancestors in it. Landcare is the business of life. Climate change activist, Anna Rose, and Adrian Hyland, who wrote Kinglake 350 about the Black Saturday fires, would agree, albeit from a different perspective.

John Moriarty Qantas Plane

John Moriarty Qantas Plane

Non-indigenous woman Ros Moriarty, who is married to indigenous Australian John Moriarty, said:

Australians have no idea that the singing of the continent continues. We sip at the edge of its physicality when we could gulp from the well of its spirit.

This message, reiterated slightly differently by many of the speakers, was the most powerful message (for me, anyhow) of the weekend. It wasn’t a new concept to many of us I think, but the strength and clarity of its communication was moving and inspiring.

… And then, late in the conference came …

Jeanine Leane

I’m singling out Jeanine Leane because she was, as far as I’m aware, the only indigenous writer to speak at the conference. I have read and reviewed Leane’s gently powerful Purple threads, and was looking forward to seeing her in the flesh. She had a big task, but she was up for the challenge. She reiterated the points made by other speakers regarding country and its meaning for indigenous Australians but she, of course, spoke from the experience of having walked the talk. She knew intimately whereof she spoke and showed how much we westerners, albeit with a lot of goodwill, stumble around in our understanding.

For example, she spoke of the notion of Australian “classics”. She argued that the works of writers like Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf, and Kate Grenville, which are regularly identified as “classics”, are classics of the settler quest written for settler readers. Within the concept of “classic”, she argued, is the question, “Whose classic?” Leane pushed the point further by referencing Alexis Wright, author of Carpentaria (my review). Western (white) critics, she said, see magical realism in Wright’s work. (Ouch!) But the notion of “magic”, she argued, is used by settler critics for things they can’t understand. For Wright, though, the point is that “if you can’t see that tree behaving strangely, that’s your problem”.

Leane seemed, however, more optimistic than angry, for all the strength of her argument. She said that there is a proliferation of Aboriginal writing across genres, and that this writing expresses not only the “generational story of loss and longing” but also people’s aspirations. I hope she’s right, but even more, I hope more of it is taught is Australian schools and read by Australians of all backgrounds.

And this brings me back to Bail and Gammage. How should we “settler” Australians proceed? How do we relate to the “place” in which we live in a way that isn’t superficial or tokenistic but that doesn’t (arrogantly) presume a connection that we don’t have?  We have a way to go yet.

* There is more to say, but this will be the last post for the moment. I may share more again later, perhaps after the papers become available on the NLA’s website.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (2)

  1. I’m enjoying these posts, Sue. Being a non-Indigenous fellow, I don’t see my ancestors in the landscape, but nevertheless I do hear the landscape speaking to me, and I suspect I could encourage a far greater connection with it if I took more time to listen (would that I could spend that time!). But I think the ‘magic’ is there. As for whether the word ‘magic’ is a useful word to apply, it’s hard when the likes of Kim Scott talk of ‘magic’ in their own works (I’m thinking of True Country especially here). I too am admirer of Wright’s Carpentaria, as well as the greats of magic realism. To me the strangeness of phenomena in such tales underscores the power of the story world, rather than set it apart. Ultimately, there’s a magic in life we can all tap into, and if we continue to listen to the likes of Wright, Scott, Munkara et al we’ll be in good hands. John (PS: it would have been great to hear more Indigenous authors speak at a session on the Aussie landscape!)

    • Thanks for all this John … the magic issue was interesting. Wright’s response was about encouraging Westerners to understand what she calls “Aboriginal realism”. I should have said that in my post I realise! My only criticism of the conference really was that with such a topic it would have been good to have had more indigenous speakers … and who knows, maybe they tried but people weren’t available.

      I must read True country.

  2. Fascinating! I agree, Bail and Gammage do seem to be two sides of the same coin. Leane sounds like she was really interesting to hear and I love the Wright quote “if you can’t see that tree behaving strangely, that’s your problem”! Except it is a problem if you can’t see the tree behaving strangely, a problem for the tree and a problem for the people who can see. Do you think the aboriginal culture wants to teach the “settlers” to see the landscape the way they do or would they rather the settlers arrive at their concept of the landscape that is different but no in conflict with the aboriginal one? At the same time my question of whether the aboriginal peoples want to teach puts the burden and obligation on them when it should be on everyone else but I am not sure how else to ask the question.

    • That’s a good question Stefanie and one that goes to the heart of my trouble with how to end this post. Gammage and others talked about indigenous people’s willingness to teach – and said that that’s what the elders do, it’s their role – and that the important thing is not what they’ve lost but what they still know. However, the question is WHAT do we learn? I don’t think we can quite “see” the landscape the way they do – because it’s to do with their ancestors, not ours – but we can learn to care for the land the way they do, and perhaps reach something in between that “seeing” and “caring” that encompasses a spiritual connection albeit a little differently to theirs (and, as you say one that’s not in conflict, one that’s not, for example, rapacious and that sees the land as an economic resources and not much else). The burden and obligation IS on them to teach, as you say, but my impression is that they are willing to teach what they are able to teach, recognising that there are things that only some people (male elders, female elders) are allowed to know.

      • It’s good that the indigenous people are willing to teach. But who will listen and as you ask, what do we learn are important to ask too. I think there is the same difficulty in the US with Native American traditions. We settlers are not going to have the same spiritual and ancestral connections, it is impossible. But being open to the deep knowledge indigenous people have of the land will, I think help, help us all forge new and stronger connections with it and each other. It seems hard work, but also hopeful work.

    • Thanks Karen Lee …. I’d love to write another one but life is taking over at present so I think I won’t manage it. There were some comments about readers that are worth sharing. I’ll squeeze them in somewhere.

  3. Thank you for sharing these interesting gleanings from the conference. The idea of our unease with the Australian landscape came up over and over at Adelaide Writers’ Week. Someone even quoted Bruce Chatwin as having said that the trouble with us (incomers) was that we were all ‘lost children’. I remember feeling flummoxed by it at the time, sitting down under a tree for a while to question whether or not I felt that was true. The answer that came (though I am of settler stock) was that I do not feel lost or even uneasy in my relationship with the landscape. Appalled by past events, yes, but not by the place.

    As the rooms of the houses I grew up in will always be more than bricks and mortar, the landscapes of childhood have entered into me and when I am away for any length of time I ache and yearn until homesickness becomes debilitating. The question of place is a vexing one for a novelist. I lived for seventeen years on the Isle of Man and yet never considered setting anything I wrote there, always feeling like a stranger, as if my knowledge of the place (and it is only 8 miles wide and 22 miles long) would never be deep enough.

    The novels I’ve published have had Indigenous characters and I’ve always been questioned about that. My response has been that they were part of my landscape as a child starting school in Wilcannia, and to leave them out would be just another form of silencing. I wrote carefully, though. Respectful of their relationship with the land, recognising that my connection is different, though no less passionate, no less tied to identity. I would dearly love to see that tree behaving strangely, though I don’t suppose I ever will.

    • Oh thanks Carol for this response … I feel pretty much like you. I don’t feel uneasy in the landscape either – and have lived in and travelled to remote Australia – but do feel uncertain at times about how we settlers express that. I love your last sentence! That contains it all really … the desire and the reality.

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