Bill curates: Some Australian expat novelists

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. I’m a bit over seeing my name up the top here, but Sue has asked me to keep going for a little longer, and how could I possibly say no.

This one is from August 2010. My opinions on the topic are quite different from Sue’s, but I’ll save that for Comments.


My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists

Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? (Carmen Callil, Australian-born founder of Virago Press)

That answers one of my questions: that is, whether other nations talk about “expats” the way we do. Apparently they don’t. Is it the oft-quoted Australian cultural cringe? Is it envy? Perhaps I’ll just skirt the issue and say that Australians have a bit of a reputation for wanderlust, so I’m not surprised that we have our share of novelists who have gone overseas and stayed. One of those is Kate Jennings whose “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, I reviewed last week. Kate Jennings went to New York in 1979, and has not returned (except for regular visits). In her book, she includes interviews with three other expat Aussie writers, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ray Mathew (both now deceased), and Shirley Hazzard. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about some of our still-living novelists who reside in the USA.

But first, Ray Mathew, the least known of Jennings’ three interviewees. I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago when he was the subject of one of the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) gorgeous little “A Celebration” books, using funds bequeathed in his name by his American friend and patron, Eva Kollsmann. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsmann Trust is a significant bequest which funds a number of initiatives at the NLA. One of these is the annual Ray Mathew Lecture which is to be given by “an Australian living abroad”. The first lecture was given in 2009 by Geraldine Brooks, and the second, this year, by Kate Jennings.

Shirley Hazzard
Hazzard, 2007 (Courtesy: Christopher Peterson, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For brevity’s sake – and because I’ve read each of these writers – I’ll just focus in this post on five Australian expat novelists based in the USA. Some of them are very well known internationally, moreso than many of our home-based writers. This is not surprising I guess: if you live in the USA and get published there your market potential is far greater than it would be at home. That said, the lure of increased fame and fortune is not the reason these writers moved overseas:

  • Geraldine Brooks: moved to New York in 1983 to study, met and married American journalist (Tony Horwitz), and now splits her time between Australia and the USA. Geraldine Brooks titled her Ray Mathew lecture, “The opportunity of distance”. She’s the youngest of these five and, perhaps, has the most uncomplicated view of her relationship with home. She has travelled widely and discussed in that lecture all the benefits that have resulted, but her final point is:

For all its opportunities, distance can still feel like a tyrant, sometimes, when a partner’s work or a kid’s schooling means we must spend more time there than here. The oscillation stalls, the roots start to dry out. It’s like a high stakes game of musical chairs. Round the world you go, and then the music stops and you have to sit down somewhere, but it’s not quite the chair you were aiming for.

  • Peter Carey: moved in 1990/91 to New York with his wife to work in their respective careers, and has remained there. Peter Carey, not surprisingly given his status, is often asked about his expat status. Here is what he said in an interview for the Paris Review:

Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate….

  • Shirley Hazzard (has died since I wrote this post back in 2010): moved to Hong Kong with her parents in 1947 when she was 16 years old, ending up in New York in 1951 where she has been mostly based since, though does spend time regularly in Capri, Italy. A webpage on Shirley Hazzard summarises her expat status in this way:

Hazzard does not reject her designation as an Australian writer but insists her temperament is not national. She only took out United States citizenship twenty-five years after she began living in New York, on the resignation of Richard Nixon. Eschewing nationalistic identifications, she does not consider herself as an expatriate, and emphasized that “to be at home in more than one place” (Gordan and Pasca). However, her novels are full of displaced Anglos in Hong Kong and Italy, or displaced Australians in London and New York.

  • Janette Turner Hospital: moved to Boston in the mid 1960s with her husband, and has lived in Canada and the USA. She now splits her time between these two countries and her home state of Queensland. In an early Griffith Review, Hospital commented on the impact of modern technology on being physically displaced, and wrote:

Place is unequivocal. But virtual communities and diaspora organizations suggest that you don’t always need to be somewhere to be a part of something. You can check the surf report, vote, play scrabble, watch the evening news, buy a car or be connected to country from the other side of the world. This new reality reflects an age-old truth: that home is where the heart is. It offers a new kind of citizenship. One we’re defining as we go.

  • Kate Jennings: as described above. She bookends Brooks nicely: not only because they gave the first two Ray Mathew lectures but because they both value travel highly but offer almost opposing conclusions. Here is Jennings from her lecture:

I have lived now in New York nearly as long as I lived in Australia. Heretical as it might seem, Australia is neither my country nor my home, as it is for Geraldine. It’s the place I started from, to paraphrase TS Eliot slightly. It shaped me, but so have my 30 years in New York city. I have, as Robert Dixon put it, ‘overlapping allegiances and multiple affiliations’.

Well, that lot provides enough to think about I reckon. I was going to talk a little about these writers’ works but I’ve taken up enough of your time for this Monday. More anon… Meanwhile, if you’ve lived away from “home” for any period of time, what do you think about all this?


Thanks so much Bill for being willing to continue this series until I can get back to some semblance of normal reading and posting. I’m particularly pleased that he chose this one because given he has some different ideas to mine. I look forward to hearing them to seeing whether I agree, given I wrote this post over 10 years ago.

And, of course, we’d be interested to know what you think…

37 thoughts on “Bill curates: Some Australian expat novelists

  1. Let me start by saying that I like Janet Turner Hospital’s definition, including “one we’re defining as we go”. Of the authors you list, I think JTH and Carey remain grounded in Aust.Lit and I think Brooks flew the coop years ago.

    My general position stems from Australia’s post-war situation as a nation constantly embracing immigrants. I think that just as we accept Nam Le or even JM Coetzee as Australian, we equally have to acknowledge that some of ‘our’ authors have moved on.

    The most cultural cringey thing going on right now is the claiming of authors who a) have only a slight connection with Australia; and b) are living and writing elsewhere. Evie Wyld for instance.

    • Do your ideas differ greatly from mine, Bill, or just expand them?

      I like your comment that we should also acknowledge that some authors have moved on.

      You also make a fair comment about authors having a slight connection with Australia being claimed as ours in some way. I suppose it’s “cultural cringey” though I’m not sure these authors are strongly enough felt across the board to be ours (despite the M-F award for Wyld) to qualify as full-blown cultural cringe the way some of our past attitudes and behaviours have been?

      • Well, I think I’ve previously expressed relief on my blog that I don’t have to decide these things for the purposes of deciding eligibility for book prizes. (David Vann nominated for the NZ Ockhams).
        But in respect of authors, the ‘debate’ (if it is one) is rarely about eligibility for prizes. It’s more about inclusion and exclusion, which is not a game I like to play.

  2. What a splendid choice, Bill. I’ve read just about everything by Geraldine Brooks – and read her Ray Mathew lecture above. Ray Mathew I really only know from his involvement with Mena K Abdullah and her short stories – in the collection Time of the Peacock A&R 1965 (?). My all-time favourite collection of Australian short stories. Peter Carey – the interview link here was just as I imagine him – serious and funny and knowledgeable and totally honest. I read his short story collection The Fat Man in History while studying Aust Lit III as a standalone subject at Sydney U in 1984. For me – among his best – Parrot and Olivier in America – (Alexis de Tocqueville the key). I recall reading Janette Turner Hospital back in the 1980s – possibly a time she was recently back in Australia and I had seen her on TV or heard her on radio interviews. Shirley Hazzard – The Transit of Venus – a beautiful book of a long ago Australia – and the attraction of the world beyond. My time in Japan – as I think I’ve said here or elsewhere – as a critical filter to her otherwise much acclaimed The Great Fire – had me wincing at several places (of no great moment to most readers I feel sure – but it is that aspect of getting cultural matters as realistically/genuinely as possible that Peter Carey speaks of which is so important for those who know the setting. Kate Jennings – I’m afraid only a name I recognise though she must have been wandering the campus at Sydney at the same time as me – latter 1960s. Thanks for the introduction.

    • Thanks Jim for your responses to the post and the writers in particular. If you haven’t read Jennings, you might like to check her out some time. Her speech at a moratorium (I think) rally at Sydney University – 1968? – is seen as marking the beginning of the second wave of feminism in Australia. (see the film Brazen Hussies.)

      I have never head of the story collection Time of the peacock, nor the author Mena K Abdullah. You have me intrigued.

    • Thanks Jim. Ray Matthew I don’t know at all. I liked Peter Carey’s early work but think that he tried too hard to be a world writer when he moved to NY. I had to look up my review to see what I thought of Parrot & Olivier “.. not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.”

      • Ray Mathew really did fly under the radar here, I’d say.

        I remember really liking Parrot and Olivier, but I was in the minority as I recollect. I suspect it spoke more to me because I’ve lived in the USA a couple of times. I was intrigued by what he was doing. Story, schmory! It’s the ideas that interested me! As I recollect.

  3. Who knew there was such an illustrious Australian literary diaspora? Not me. I could name Clive James and Germaine Greer but never knew Geraldine Brookes hails from Australia.

    Interesting to see the different responses to the question of whether those expats still think of themselves as Australian.

    • Haha, thanks Karen! Who knew indeed, unless of course you’re Australian! If you’re not there’s a good chance, as you say, that you wouldn’t know! But, clearly you do know some who went to England, like James and Greer.

      I suspect when and why you left Australia has some bearing on how you think of yourself.

        • Also, if you left because you found Australia stultifying – like many did in the 1960s – you may be unlikely to think of it as home. Whereas if you left to accompany, say, a partner and ended up staying away, you may still feel a strong attachment to your origins? “May”, though, being the operative word, as every individual has their own response I’d guess!

  4. As someone who was an expat in London for almost 21 years, I have *thoughts* on this. I always felt Australian in the UK… my values / outlook did not always chime with the people around me and I often found I came at things from a completely different angle to my English counterparts. I did not move to the UK until I was 29, so I do think it’s the place where you grew up that informs your value system.

    • Oh thanks kimbofo, I’d love to hear some examples. I’ve lived in the USA twice – not for the extended time you did in the UK – but it was enough to teach me that as much as I really enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t my home. It gave me a whole new understanding of people who emigrate, and particularly of those who emigrate because they need to for safety rather than because they want to.

      • It’s hard to think of examples, it was more a feeling about certain things. But one thing that always amused me was the British response to a bit of sunshine. They’d go crazy when the sun came out — it’d be 20C and women would be lying on almost any public patch of grass in their bikini and blokes would be walking around topless and even after 20 years I could never get used to that although I understood why they behaved that way. The class system was also something new to me. I worked on some publications that were for upper class Brits but I got away with it because no one could work out my class from my Australian accent. I was once asked at a client-facing dinner what public (ie private) school I went to and what my father did. When I said I went to a government school and my father was a school teacher, no exaggeration or a lie, the chap TURNED HIS BACK ON ME. This is what I mean about always feeling an outsider.

        • Thanks kimbofo. First example is easy to understand, but that class one, and the response to you is astonishing to us Aussies. We are not classless, but that sort of behaviour just wouldn’t be accepted. (That said, I was looking at a fancy resort website today – not because I’m planning to go there but because someone had mentioned it and I had never heard of it – and was amused to find that it had a dress code: “resort elegant”. I decided that I could immediately imagine the sort of people that might be there and how uncomfortable I’d feel amongst them in my “comfortably casual” dress!

        • I think the classes here are much less rigid and because it’s “new” money not quite so ingrained. In Perth it’s clear to me that the working class, tradies, miners etc, are actually richer than anyone else.

  5. I can’t imagine what it’s like to move to an entirely different country and have to think about how you identify. In the U.S., we’re quite fussy about which state we relate to. I grew up and lived in Michigan for 23 years. It’s a democratic, union-loving, outdoorsy, musically-innovative, automotive, half-way Canadian kind of place. Then we move to Indiana, right next door on the map. Very conservative, republican, anti-progressive (gay rights, abortion rights, race equality, etc.), Christian, and has a poor public school system. After 13 years here, I still think of myself as a Michigander. Maybe not only because I’m not from here and don’t understand the mentality, but because I don’t want to associate with some of the state’s values?

    • Interesting Melanie. You make sense though in my own experience of state-affiliations in the USA. I’d say we have a little of that here. It’s more tongue-in-cheek than serious, most of the time. However, there are some political things that can exacerbate the differences at times.

      It sounds like your change of states is an uncomfortable one.

      • We do! I grew up in Victoria, then moved to Queensland for two years to do my masters and it was a shock to the system! Now I’m in Western Australia and the mentality is completely different again; the east coast is so far away it almost feels like living in a separate country.

      • True. Each state is like it’s own little country, but we all have to work together to be one nation. And then Texas wanted to do their own little Brexit, that is, until it snowed there and now they want the federal government to give them money.

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