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Monday musings on Australian literature: Narratives from outside Australia?

April 22, 2019

In my post on this year’s Stella longest announcement, I quoted this from the judges’ comments:

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia …

They followed this with other wishes like stories by and about “women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories”. These are obvious desires, but I am intrigued about the specific request for “narratives from outside Australia”, given the writers themselves have to be “either Australian citizens or permanent residents of Australia”. Superficially, at least, this is the reverse of the Miles Franklin Award which stipulates Australianness in the content (“Australian life in any of its phases”) of the works to be considered. (Some might remember the questions about Shirley Hazzard’s The great fire winning the Miles Franklin in 2004. Its link to Australia was pretty tenuous.)

Now, I’m not arguing against reading books not set in Australia – far from it. It’s just that, as a reader, when I look for narratives from outside Australia, I tend to look to writers from those places outside Australia.

So … what specifically do they mean?

Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's TroppoDo they mean they’d like more narratives by Australians about Australian experiences abroad?

We have always had those. Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, Christina Stead’s For love alone (my review) and Shirley Hazzard’s The transit of Venus are good examples from the past. Contemporary examples include Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo (my review) and Angela Savage’s The dying beach (my review). Both authors have spent significant time in the Asian countries they write about. Dickie says this about Troppo:

Some of the anecdotes are almost true, certainly stemming from my own experiences as a traveller and surfer … The texture of Troppo is also very true, the intoxicating smell of kretek cigarettes, the nights bleary on Bintang beer, and the way the call to prayer from the mosques drift down through mountain valleys.

Both these novelists use plot-driven novels to explore not only personal growth, but socio-political and environmental issues affecting the southeast Asian region, issues important for Australians to understand.

Other contemporary novels by Australians about Australians abroad include Murray Bail’s The voyage (my review), Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne (my review), Angela Meyer’s superior spectre (my review), and Tim Winton’s The riders.

Writer Irma Gold recently wrote a blog post titled “Literary adventures abroad”, and featured Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky, whose book The hollow bones I haven’t read. Meyer references that issue concerning writers from the country itself:

I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff.

Savage says of her decision to write novels set in Thailand:

Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, several of the novels I’ve read that include Australians abroad are historical fiction works set during, or post, various wars, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman (my review), Joan London’s Gilgamesh, Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north (my review). All of theses enhance our understanding of the personal, social and/or political impact of war on Australian life and culture.

Merlinda Bobis Fish-hair womanDo they mean they’d like to see members of our diverse population writing about where they came from?

There are many memoirs on this topic, but, while the Stella Prize encompasses all forms and genres, my focus here is fiction. A memorable example for me is Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-hair woman (my review), which is set in the Philippines during the civil unrest of the 1980s. It’s a strong, evocative piece about humanity and the stories we tell (or manipulate) in the name of it.

Other Australian writers who have written about the places they came from include Michelle de Kretser in The Hamilton case, Sara Dowse in Schemetime (my review), Kavita Nandan in Home after dark (my review), and, coming up this year I believe, debut author Elizabeth Kuiper with her debut novel about coming of age in Zimbabwe.

One of the things these writers can do is provide a unique insight into their home cultures, because they revisit them through their migrant (expat) eyes. That insight can be uncomfortable, though, for the home culture, as we Aussies have felt when our own leave and then write about us from elsewhere. Peter Carey is a good example. I like Sydney Review of Books reviewer Natalie Quinlivan’s analysis of the situation when she says that his “fiction often tries to rewrite and reframe Australia. The success of such a pursuit depends on whether thinking about Australia, rather than living in the country, provides Carey with objective clarity or rhetorical detachment.”

Marion Halligan Valley of graceOr, do they just mean they’d like Australian writers to set books elsewhere.

Markus Zusak’s The book thief is an obvious example (my review). But others are Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (my review) and Marion Halligan Valley of grace (my review). These are all great novels, in which their authors have used their imagination and experience to explore universal truths in places other than their own. Each has a reason for making that decision – Hornung, for example, being inspired by a news article – and each has created a book that I have loved for its heart.

Why seek Australian narratives set outside Australia?

Well, I think Angela Savage says it all on Irma’s blog:

I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.

I don’t know what the Stella judges specifically meant, but I think Savage has nailed it. In the end, what we want to read is as many different perspectives as we can because diverse reading opens our eyes and minds to other ways of being and seeing. However, my point is one of degree. I welcome these books (as those of you who read my reviews will know), but I’m not sure that Australians writing “narratives from outside Australia” is a glaring gap that needs filling.

I do hope all this has made some sense!

What do you think? 

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2019 12:06 am

    To start at the end, the last thing I would want to read is yet another white person telling us what it’s really like in Asia (or Africa or anywhere they don’t live really). On the other hand Charmian Clift tells us a lot about both Australians and Greeks when she writes about living on Hydra.

    • April 23, 2019 8:26 am

      Ah yes, Charmian Clift. Another from the past.

      I agree with you Bill. Of course some Aussies have lived in Asia and those I mention write from that expat point of view.

  2. Teresa Pitt permalink
    April 23, 2019 1:09 am

    One year in my book group (called Landmarks in Australian Literature) we did ‘Australians Abroad’ – i.e. books written by Australian authors experiencing other places through Australian eyes. The following year we did ‘Immigrant Voices’ – i.e. books about Australia viewed through the eyes of new arrivals. I can’t fathom exactly what the Stella Prize judges mean by ‘narratives from outside Australia’ – it could be either of these, or something else entirely!

    • April 23, 2019 8:29 am

      Exactly Theresa. I can’t quite fathom exactly what they meant either.

      BTW, I love those themes for your book group. they would have been interesting.

  3. April 23, 2019 2:55 am

    I keep meaning to read Troppo…this is a good reminder.

  4. April 23, 2019 3:03 am

    Regardless of what was meant you’ve created an interesting roundup of the many possibilities.

  5. Sara Dowse permalink
    April 23, 2019 8:43 am

    Thanks, Madame Gums, for mentioning Schemetime. For a long time, back in the day, the fact that I wasn’t born in Australia and came here when I was just about to turn twenty, was a nagging problem for me as a writer, because I felt I wasn’t Australian enough. It’s interesting to me that Stella wants the very kind of fiction I wrote, from Schemetime to Sapphires. Not to mention As the Lonely Fly, that’s set entirely outside Australia. But second guessing what readers want can only be a no-go zone for writers; we write what, for one reason or another, what is closest to our hearts.

    • April 23, 2019 6:08 pm

      Thanks Sara. Yes, I was going to mention As the lonely fly too, but decided to keep just a few examples to each of my categories, and spread the love around. I like finding opportunities to keep older books in front of us all.

      I thought about commenting that in the end writers “should” write what they want to express, so Im glad you said this. I don’t think there should be any “shoulds” when it comes to what writers write. That doesn’t mean, of course, that readers can’t say what they’d like to read, but writers, I’m sure, write best when it comes from their heart, not from some agenda.

  6. Meg permalink
    April 23, 2019 9:52 am

    Hi Sue, I am not too sure what the Stella considerations are about, but I do know they want diversity. I do like Sara’s answer. It is best that authors write about what is closest to their hearts. I like reading about Australian authors experience overseas and here in Australia, but my preference is for their experience here in Australia.

  7. April 23, 2019 10:55 am

    I have no idea what the judges meant: that wishlist sounded like virtue-signalling to me.
    What I’d like more of (and I get it sometimes) is Australian literature with an *awareness* of the rest of the world and of the cultures that make up our society. You can see it in the fiction of Michelle de Kretser, Andrea Goldsmith, S K Karakaltsis, and Amanda Curtin, plus the writers you’ve mentioned in your post. It’s also there in the novels of Simon Cleary, A S Patric and Rodney Hall, among others.
    You don’t see it in domestic novels with a monotone cast of characters.

    • April 23, 2019 6:13 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Yes, I did mention de Kretser (and thought of quoting from her Questions of travel, which I love, but decided I’d gone on enough). I agree with your point. It feeds, in fact, into another post I’m thinking of writing! Watch this space (perhaps next week or perhaps soon after!!)

  8. April 23, 2019 11:18 am

    PS By coincidence, I found this on Twitter today: ‘For those of us who have spent our lives fighting for cultural space, respect, autonomy, equity – the last thing we need is for our accession, if and when it comes, to be asterisked.’

    Nam Le on David Malouf, identity and artistic sovereignty. https://granta.com/a-great-lake/

    • April 23, 2019 6:18 pm

      Thanks muchly Lisa… I’ll read this in the next day or so. Today has been a flat chat day and we have another commitment tonight, and then are heading to Melbourne tomorrow. (One day I’d love to set up another meeting opportunity – perhaps with Janine and others too – but our time is so short and mapped around the offspring with whom plans tend to be fluid until the end! I have bought a gorgeous little board book to take down with me to share with Grandson Gums!)

    • April 23, 2019 6:18 pm

      PS I’ve been wondering about Nam Le, and what he’s doing.

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