Monday musings on Australian literature: My Aussie reads of 1996
Today, I’m having a bit of fun – a little trip down memory lane, in fact. I was inspired in this by Canadian blogger Debbie (ExUrbanis) who recently wrote a post on her past reads. Ever on the lookout for ideas for Monday Musings, I leapt at this one. (I do a few ideas running around my head, but I’m going to let them gel there a little longer and go for a simple post today!)
Debbie posted about 1997, but I thought I’d go for the even two decades ago. The only trouble is that I didn’t start my reading database until 1998, so it took a little bit of sleuthing through other records to discover what I read in 1996. Consequently, my list is probably not complete, but is complete enough I think for today’s purposes. I’ll start, though, with a brief look at what books and authors were “trending” (to use current jargon) in 1996 literary Australia.
1996 in Australian literature
As I only want to provide a little context, I’m just going to look at some of the major awards. Seven books were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, of which four were by women, but the winner was Christopher Koch’s Highways to a war. In other awards, Sue Woolfe won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction with Leaning towards infinity, Thea Astley The Age Book of the Year with The multiple effects of rain shadow (my review), Richard Flanagan the Adelaide Festival Award with Death of a river guide, and Amanda Lohrey won Victoria’s Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction with Camille’s bread.
Besides these authors, other Australian writers making their mark in the early to mid 1990s included, to name just a few, Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Roger McDonald, David Malouf, Drusilla Modjeska, and Frank Moorhouse. It’s encouraging to know that all of these particular writers are still writing and publishing twenty years later.
My 1996 Australian reading
I discovered a fascinating, though not completely surprising, thing about the Aussie books I read in 1996. They were ALL by women. Actually, there was one exception, John Marsden, but that related to my reading children’s and young adult books with my children.
This was in stark contract to my non-Australian reading where male writers far outnumbered the women. I read T Coraghessan Boyle, David Guterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Henry James, Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie. The only non-Australian women I read, besides a couple of children’s authors again, were Kate Atkinson and the Japanese writer Fumiko Enchi. Although overall this is probably fairly typical of my overall practice, it is a little unusual because I have always read Aussie males too – like, back then, Peter Carey, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.
Anyhow, here is my Aussie list for 1996 as best as I can ascertain it …
- Blanche d’Alpuget, Turtle beach
- Helen Garner, Cosmo Comolino (shortlisted for Miles Franklin Award in 1993) (read again and reviewed for this blog in 2008)
- Yasmine Gooneratne, Changing skies
- Janette Turner Hospital, The ivory swing
- Sue Woolfe Leaning towards infinity (won the 1996 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards)
- Jill Ker Conway, True north (Memoir)
- Katie Holmes, Spaces in her day (History)
- Pat Lovell, No picnic (Memoir)
This is not a huge list, and is not, as I’ve already said, all that I read in 1996, but it contains most if not all of the adult Australian literature I read then. It was a time when I was working, and had two young children, so had little time and energy for reading. Even so, most of these books are still vivid in my mind.
Janette Turner Hospital’s The ivory swing, published in 1982, was her first novel. I read several of her novels, before and after this, and most of them are still memorable. She’s such a powerful, evocative writer. The ivory swing, like many first novels, has a strong autobiographical element, drawing from her experience as a young wife in southern India. It won a significant Canadian award, the Seal Award for Best First Novel. Queensland-born, Janette Turner Hospital was, for several years, the Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Coincidentally, another writer I read in 1996, the also triple-named Jill Ker Conway, made her career primarily in the USA, where she was the first female President of Smith College.
But the book that has probably stayed with me most from this list is, surprisingly, a non-fiction work, Katie Holmes’ Spaces in her day. Subtitled Australian women’s diaries of the 1920s and 1930s, it grew out of Holmes’ PhD. I was fascinated by the stories of women’s lives – how they felt about their relationships, the way the single female relation would be expected to give up her own life when family needed help, how they managed washing day – because these were lives of my grandmothers and aunts. In my notes, still in the book, I comment that Holmes emphasises social constructs almost exclusively over other factors, particularly in her discussion on ageing where I suspect natural or biological issues are also at play, but this didn’t then, and still doesn’t, affect the power of this book, because the women’s voices are so strong and because, regardless of other factors, they were indeed constricted by the rules and expectations of their society.
Do you know what you read twenty years ago, and if so I’d love to know your standouts.