Monday musings on Australian literature: Women writers on the outback

After I posted my completion of the AWW Bingo Card yesterday a discussion ensued on Lisa’s ANZLitLovers blog regarding her comment on the dearth of books written by women “set in the outback”. That got me thinking … and it seemed like a good topic to play with in a Monday Musings.

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meThere’s a question to resolve first, that of defining “outback”. What do we mean by it? In my post, I said that I tended to see “the outback” as Australia’s dry remote regions, but for the Bingo I used Sarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (my review) which is set in a remote mountainous area of Tasmania. Meanwhile, over at Lisa’s blog, a commenter suggested that Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is set in the outback (I’ll drop the inverted commas from now on!), to which Lisa replied that she “did think of Salt Creek (because I loved it) but it’s on the coast down on the Coorong, not the outback.”

So, what – or where – is this Outback?

I did some research. Online dictionaries offer broad definitions – “the back country or remote settlements; the bush (usually preceded by the)” ( and “the remote bush country of Australia” (The Free Dictionary). The Advanced English Dictionary, quoted by the Collins Dictionary, has it as “The parts of Australia that are far away from towns are referred to as the outback.”

However, perhaps the best definition for our purposes is that offered by The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (2nd ed.):

‘Outback’ denotes the remote and sparsely settled inland districts of Australia but does not indicate such extreme remoteness as implied in a similar expression, the ‘Never-Never’.

It goes on to say that the term was used in the latter part of the 19th century, but became more common in the 20th century, so much so that “the original semi-colloquial expression is now an orthodox term”. It also says that while the outback was romanticised, particularly by bush balladists like Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson “forcibly” presented the other side in his Some popular Australian mistakes where he wishes “that Australian writers would leave off trying to make a paradise out of the Outback Hell”.

I’ve read elsewhere* that the outback is the region “past” the bush. So “past” the bush but not as far as the “Never-Never”! Now, as a librarian, I’m into categorising, but I also recognise that categories need to be loose and flexible. So, I’m going to accept any area that is sparsely populated and that has a challenging or forbidding environment to live in. This means, I’d argue, that mountainous Tasmania could qualify, but that the Coorong is borderline. It’s only 150kms from Adelaide and it is coastal rather than inland (which is where we tend to see the outback), but it does have a rather challenging environment.

Outback literature – past

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not going to write a deeply researched thesis on this, but write primarily from “the top of my head”. Generally – and I am generalising – much late 19th to early 20th century literature set in the outback tended to be about nationalism, identity and the pioneering spirit. There were novels by women about farmers and pioneers (such as Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The pioneers, my review). Miles Franklin wrote her autobiographical novel, My brilliant career, about a grazier’s daughter who wanted a different life from that being mapped out for her, and then of course there’s the remarkable Barbara Baynton whose short stories in Bush studies (my reviews) certainly didn’t “make paradise” of the outback. Life for her characters, particularly women, was hellish. Baynton and Franklin were realists who didn’t buy into the romance of the bush.

Their realism, and that of some of their peers, was picked up through the middle of the twentieth century by writers like Ruth Park (Swords and crowns and rings, which I’ve reviewed and which is set partly in rural areas before moving to Sydney), Kylie Tennant (The battlers) and Eve Langley’s The pea pickers (my review). But, it’s a huge subject and I really want to get to what inspired this post, contemporary women’s writing about the outback. (The Bingo challenge itself though, I should add, didn’t specify contemporary writing.)

Outback literature – current

In the discussion on Lisa’s post, she suggested that today’s outback novels deal with issues like inheritance and indigenous ownership, to which I added climate change and environmental issues. Before continuing, I should mention that there’s a whole genre of writing that I’m not including here, rural romance, because my focus today is literary fiction.

Alice Robinson, Anchor PointAnd in this area, contemporary women writers have been contributing some provocative books. Gillian Mears’ historical novel, Foal’s bread (my review), is about hard country life, about conservatism and snobbery which refuses to see substance. Jessica White’s contemporary novel Entitlement (my review), on the other hand, explores issues relating farming succession and indigenous connection to land. Cli-fi, fiction about climate change, can be set anywhere, but not surprisingly a subset is set on farms, which is where Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my review) sits. She also touches on indigenous ownership issues.

And then, of course, there’s Thea Astley who I’d argue is still “contemporary” given she only died in 2004. Most of her books are set in remote places, including her last novel, published in 1999, Drylands (my review). It is set in “a God-forgotten tree-stump of a town” which is “being outmanoeuvred by the weather. As simple as that. Drought. Dying stock.” Drylands moves us into the dystopian vein and brings me to a book which probably wouldn’t immediately be thought of as an outback novel. I’m talking Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review), which is set in a remote, isolated place that is critical to the way the plot plays out.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Finally, in this very brief survey, I must mention indigenous writing. Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (my review) is an historical verse novel exploring early contact between indigenous and non-indigenous people in remote South Australia. Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) tells of a mostly-female indigenous family living on a small piece of land in the Gundagai area of New South Wales in the 1950s to 1960s. It explores the experience of being indigenous, being lesser, in a rural community. And Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) is set in a fictional town called Desperance in northwest Queensland. It depicts conflict between different indigenous groups and with the local multinational mining company, and exposes the psychological, spiritual and physical impact of colonisation on indigenous people.

Note: Bill (Australian Legend) has reminded me in his Bingo post that “the Outback” is a white construct. Mea culpa, he’s right, but I’m going to stick with my paragraph above, because I don’t want to ignore indigenous writing. How hard it is, sometimes, to get out of our own world-view.

So, it’s now very clear to me that women are still writing books set in the outback (by my definition). It’s also clear that the issues they are addressing have moved on – not surprisingly – from those of a century ago.

I’d like to know what you think. Do you accept that these books are “outback” novels? And have they reminded you of other novels by women set in the outback? Now that I’ve started, I could certainly go on …

If you are not Aussie, do you have anything equivalent in your national literature?

* Albeit in Wikipedia, with no citation.

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Women writers on the outback

  1. Lots of fascinating Australian books to look out for – Barbara Baynton and Thea Astley in particular. I suppose a Scottish equivalent of the outback construct would be the “kailyard” (cabbage patch) genre of Scottish fiction that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was, probably in contrast to outback writing, a nostalgic celebration of couthy and rural qualities – some of JM Barrie’s fiction was a highly successful example of this. A sort of “anti kailyard emerged and in a recent poll Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song was voted the most popular Scottish novel. This, published interwar, can be seen as a more complex example of kailyard writing.

  2. Very interesting. Maybe the US equivalent would be the rural midwest? Like in Cather’s My Antonia. But contemporary perhaps something like Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres or Some Luck.

  3. I also think of the “outback” as dry land, in the middle of the country, red dirt, hard times, drought, dying stock. Interesting as you mention Tassie in outback. I have never thought parts of Tassie as ‘outback’ but more as ‘wilderness’ in the remote areas. USA to me has ‘pioneer’ land which was early settlement as pioneers went to the west, prairie states, parts of midwest but I would never use ‘outback’ to describe it. That seems a single Australian term but that is my mind not others I am sure. Interesting thoughts.

    • Thanks Pam. Yes, you’re right, wilderness is a better term for “outback” Tass wilderness. As I said in my 6 degrees part I tend to think of outback as the dry inland too. But you know, sometimes needs must! I think the US does have an outback of sorts but you call it something different and it certainly played out differently.

  4. Yes, for me too the Outback is the dry inland. And peculiarly Australian. Still, I’ve been reading a bit of Zane Grey and there are some parallels, the biggest difference is that Australia was and is so sparsely populated.
    Sue, I agree with you about Thea Astley and Barbara Baynton and maybe to some extent, Alexis Wright – if I remember Carpentaria rightly, the Aboriginal world intersects with the Outback. I wouldn’t have included the others which are merely Rural.
    I hadn’t thought about the Outback not extending as far as the Never Never and probably wouldn’t agree. Baynton was told she was in the Never Never on her way to Bourke, NSW to be a governess. (And where does that leave ‘back of Bourke’?).
    We of the Never Never probably introduced the idea of women in the outback but Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed both set novels on outback stations – respectively sheep stations in the Riverina and cattle stations in north-west Qld.

  5. I associate the Australian outback, with remoteness. The only other Australian woman author who I can think of is Ernestine Hill. Most of her books were non fiction and The Territory and The Great Well of Australian Loneliness were memoirs.

  6. Oh, Sue, this is wonderful, I’m so glad to have provoked it!
    I’m comfortable with your definition of Outback, but you know, I think there’s merit in what Bill says about it being a White construct. I’ve read a fair bit of indigenous literature, and inevitably some of that is set in what we call the Outback but I don’t think of it like that when I’m reading it because it becomes a different place in the hands of a skilled indigenous writer. (I’m thinking more of the memoirs I’ve read, not fiction). It becomes ‘home’ and it ceases to be a place of ‘deficit’ (remote, empty, isolated etc) because it’s a place full of stories and songlines, with a wealth of food and a whole community of people. Usually (because of the Stolen Generations) there’s a nostalgic element as well, but there’s nothing comparable to the sort of mysticism or loneliness that Whites attribute to the Outback.

    • Yes I agree with Bill, too, Lisa, and am rather glad he raised it before my post. Your description of how indigenous writing comes across to you as a reader accords well with me too. Well said.

  7. What an interesting line of thought. I know your focus is on fiction but for me it brings to mind the seemingly endless run of contemporary memoirs written by women who live on and around outback cattle stations, inspired no doubt by the success of Sara Henderson’s books. ‘An Outback Life’ by Mary Groves, for example, or ‘An Outback Nurse’ by Thea Hayes. Also the 2016 biography of journalist Ernestine Hill called ‘Call of the Outback’ by Marianne van Velzen. And we mustn’t leave out the incredibly popular Australian rural romance genre. I’ve read and enjoyed a few, and some are set (at least partially) in the outback.

    • Thanks Michelle. Yes, I immediately thought about all those outback memoirs – Sara Henderson (that’s her name isn’t it?) et al.

      I did mention Rural Romance in another outback post in the past, but since I don’t read it I decided not to mention it here. (We see a lot of it come through the AWW Challenge links.)

      I’m glad that you’d mentioned both of these in the comments because I see the post and the comments as a useful resource!

  8. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Women writers on the outback | picardykatt's Blog

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