Back in 2019, I wrote a Monday Musings on the Stella judges’ call for more “narratives from outside Australia”. I teased out a little what that might mean, but, a couple of years down the track, I think it worth further exploring the questions it opens up.
Commenting on that post, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote:
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.
We talk a lot in the blogosphere about some of the contemporary issues surrounding literature. In Australia, this particularly revolves around diversity and “own voices”. Enabling more people from our community to tell their stories makes for a richer community, but don’t take it from me … here is an interesting article by Julianne Schultz in The Guardian in 2017 (which is an edited version of Griffith Review 58 piece). Schultz quotes Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole on the importance of stories to nations:
“Nations tells themselves stories … They are not fully true, they are often bitterly contested and they change over time. But they are powerful: they underlie the necessary fiction that is ‘us’. And at the moment, it is not quite clear what the Irish story is.”
She goes on to say that O’Toole’s description could apply equally well to Australia where
the old stories have also become threadbare, and increasingly fail to capture the contemporary reality or the complexity of the past.
She backs this up with facts which demonstrate that contemporary Australia is more diverse and complex, less isolated, more accessible, than before, and yet we struggle, she says, to define exactly who we are and what the values of this new Australia are. We pride ourselves on our “multiculturalism”, supported by old values like “egalitarianism”, but, in fact, we are not particularly unique in these regards. She says:
So when political leaders praise multiculturalism but make citizenship more difficult to attain, or when they talk about preventing desperate refugees from dying at sea but leave them to languish in offshore refugee camps, or when they promise to recognise Indigenous rights but call a measured discussion about first settlement “Stalinist”, the message is clear and hypocritical.
For cultures to flourish, rather than simply survive, she argues, “they need to be tended and nurtured”. Telling stories is one way of doing this, “stories about people and place, about belonging and being out of place, of changing and staying the same, of interrogating history and locating those who were once left out”. Do read the article; her thoughts are cogent, and she makes an important political point about the role our leaders should play. Meanwhile, let’s move on to what those stories could be …
Stories we need
Lisa has a point about “an *awareness* of the rest of the world and of the cultures that make up our society”, and we could add to this the big concerns of our time, including human rights (across the spectrum of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, age), climate change, and increasing social and economic inequity. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact they make most sense, tell a richer story, when they jostle against each other in the works we read.
Things are changing. We are seeing more fiction and poetry by First Nations Australians, Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women and non-binary Australians, and so on. However, we are not there yet. During the 2020 pandemic, writer Lin Li Ng decided that she wanted “to only read books written by Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) writers or non-BIPOC female writers”, but when she looked at her TBR bookshelves, she was dismayed to find that only around 10% were by BIPOC writers and 25% by non-BIPOC female writers.
And yet, in her Master of Writing and Publishing studies, Lin Li had written “a thesis on the experiences of Asian-Australian women – writers and publishing professionals – in the Australian trade publishing industry” so she knew the issues. What surprised her, then, was her own choices, that although she “had recognised the systemic barriers and failings of the industry”, she hadn’t realised how much she had absorbed the message that English and Western literature and art are ‘quality’, and had been convinced that works by BIPOC authors weren’t as good as those by non-BIPOC authors. But, she wants to see herself, her experiences and her values in the literature and art she engages with, and concludes that as a POC female reader, she is “part of an audience that deserves diverse stories that appeal to it”.
Yes! So, I’ve highlighted “herself, her experiences and her values” because this is the crux, isn’t it. The question is what does she, and what do we, mean by these?
When I say “myself” and my “experiences”, do I just mean, in my case, a middle-class, older white woman? Or, do I mean an Australian moving around in a diverse, multicultural society? I probably mean both. I want to read about people just like me, who are grappling with the specific challenges people like me are confronting, but I also want to read about how we, as Australians, are living in our modern society. What are its challenges and how can we make it work better?
When I say “values”, it gets more complex, and, I think, more interesting, but how to talk about them without getting bogged down. I’m going to be simplistic and suggest there are two types of values – the personal, which is the moral, ethical code by which we live, and the social, which encompasses the values that we believe in as a society or culture. By this latter meaning, liberal western democracies have a certain set of values to do with individualism, progress and freedom, accompanied by an uneasy nod to the common good. By contrast, First Nations people have very different values grounded in community and sharing, and, for want of a better word, an interdependent connection to country. I’m not going to elaborate all the cultures in Australia, but Muslim cultures have their own values, and so on.
This is all a bit simplistic, I realise, but it’s hopefully enough to make my main point, which is that some of these values work well together while others are in direct conflict, and yet, here we are all living together. Platitudes about our being egalitarian and a “successful multicultural society” don’t really cut it – any more, anyhow. This, I think, is where many of us are looking to Australian literature, if not for answers, at least for questions and reflections.
There is literature doing this, writing that tackles head on the challenge of clashing values, like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post), AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (my review) and Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). These books are very different in style and form, but each forces us to look at who we are and to think about who we want to be.
There is so much more to say about this, so many angles to explore literature and storytelling from, so many broader and narrower questions to consider, but I’ll stop here for now, and just ask,
What do you think?