Monday musings on Australian literature: The stories we want or, is it, need?

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?

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

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?

39 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The stories we want or, is it, need?

  1. I’m not sure what I think other than Lisa’s comment is interesting. I’m sitting here wondering in what way any country can produce works that are aware of the world outside of itself, and my brain is struggling. Should the characters travel more? Should they comment on or engage with global news? Then the difference an awareness of other cultures within a society. How does a writer achieve that without seeming like they using token characters?

    I can’t wait to see what others think about this topic!

    • Thanks Melanie. That is a challenging thing to do but I think there are both obvious and subtle ways of doing it. One is to have characters from elsewhere – migrants, visitors – who engage with people of the country and exhibit different ideas, values, ways of doing things? Of course you can have characters discuss world news but that can be tokenistic unless it somehow fits into the delineation of character and the novel’s intention.

      The slight reference to slavery in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a tantalising example from someone often criticised for not discussing the world in her times, as if you have to! And here is where I should mention writers who do the big universal and existential themes which can, in a way, though never entirely, be above it all?

      • I just thought of an example I do like. Have you ever read Chocolat by Joanne Harris? It’s set in France. One of the follow up novels is called Peaches for Monsieur le Curé. In it, a community of Muslims from Morocco settle in the old village where the main character used to live, which is a devoutly Catholic village that hates change. The culture, religion, food, parenting, everything clashes in a way that respects both.

    • Let me give you an example of what I mean. Andrea Goldsmith wrote a novel called The Memory Trap in which the central character has come home from overseas for work as a consultant for a memorial project. In the process, she considers other memorials that she’s seen around the world and the values that inform them, e.g. the Berlin Holocaust memorial and the one to Dodi and Di in Harrods. The novel interrogates why the memorial committee wants to spend its money on the memorial and what purpose it serves, and why we memorialise some losses e.g. Anzac and not others e.g. Indigenous resistance to colonisation. Some of this is delivered via her rebellious musings and some of it via dialogue with the committee as she tries to get them to think beyond their original concept.
      There are many other aspects to this novel which make it memorable reading, but for the purpose of answering your question, I would say that for all that its characters are together in Melbourne and a nearby beach house, the novel is situated in the wider world.

  2. This must be a subject which is right up my alley. After all the literal meaning of the Australian Legend is the stories we tell about ourselves. Politicians say ‘multicultural’ but they keep drifting back to their foundation myth of brave, independent bush men out earning a living for the little wifey back home. Reinforced by ‘suggesting’ that migrants should try and fit in.

    The three books you have named are three of my favourites (You do realize that 33% of them are Science Fiction?) and I think I would add Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau and Heather Rose’s masterpiece, The Museum of Modern Love.

    • Yes, I was thinking this would be right up your alley Bill. I was thinking as I wrote this that Lau might have been an interesting example.

      I will contend with you though about the SF, if you are suggesting that for Carpentaria. I don’t believe Wright would accept that in a minute.

      And yes, I was thinking about the political expectation that migrants should fit in, rather than that we can learn from each other. I think they think that the sharing of “culture” like food, dance, etc is “lovely” and that that’s all it is. It’s complex though isn’t it? There are things we don’t want from other cultures, such as those which don’t respect human rights the way we do/believe we do, but it’s not black-and-white and we shouldn’t be throwing out the baby with the bath water. We should be engaging and open to change, rather than ascribing to that mantra that if you come here you have to be like us holus-bolus. As if we are perfect!

        • Ah, sorry Bill, I misread you and thought you were saying two were SF, but you were saying only one was, which of course I agree with. How did I do that? That it was SF was part of my point about about the three books being very different in style and form.

          BTW Wright does not call what she does MR. For her, what she writes is how First Nations people experience the world – as a continuum, I guess you could say. There is no separation of real and other. It’s all real.

        • Haha, Bill. Not an argument just what Wright says! And no, it’s not MR she says, because it’s all a continuum. You get this continuum strongly in Song of the crocodile too. MR is a construct we are using to explain something different to us. This is where, I believe, we need to try to see, feel, understand with other eyes rather than explain away with ours. Does that make sense? We can never “be” those eyes but we need to incorporate them as being part of our culture rather than try to explain them with our Western terms?

        • I think MR, like SF, is a particular way of dealing with difficult material, and I’m not sure that the author’s opinion on the subject is always (or ever even) mine. Looking at you Ms I don’t write SF Atwood.

        • I thought you’d come up with that author’s opinion argument Bill, and it’s one that has some merit of course, since what they (think they) write and what we see aren’t necedssarily the same. BUT I think you miss the point. Wright would not say this is “difficult material”. She would say this is how it is. We westerners might see it as difficult. For us to label it “difficult” is one thing, because it is to our world view, but to therefore use MR to try to understand or explain it is, I think, reductive and could be taken as insulting.

        • This all requires its own post. My opinion is that spirits and gods are just magic by another name. Lots of people believe in magic. Their beliefs are represented in literature by Magic Realism. The taking up of MR by western writers was a fashion without substance.

        • Yes, I think you are right about the taking up of MR by western writers was a fashion. I know some Aussie writers tried it, because writers will try new things and it seemed interesting, but I think they quickly realised that it wasn’t relevant to our culture’s way of being/seeing. I think it is too broad to say that Magical Realism is literature’s way of representing all those who believe in magic. It is ONE way. It does need its own post. Will you do one?

          Anyhow, this is why I think we should not be telling Alexis Wright that she is wrong about how she describes her work. I think that when we are talking other cultures we respect their worldview. When we talk about our own culture, we can describe spirits in any way we like to engage with our cultural mores and with arguments about our beliefs and values, because that’s our right, but when it’s another culture, particularly one used to having others tell them what’s what, we should be respecting them, and not trying to explain their culture, beliefs and ways of representing them, with loaded terms (like, in this case, “magic”). To say “just magic” seems to convey what you think about all this? There’s no way I can get into the head of a First Nation person, and for me to tell them that IN MY OPINION what they believe is “magic” and represented by “magical realism” in their literature, when they say it’s not seems to me another act of dispossession. I’m coming on a bit strong here, I know, but I feel strongly about it!

  3. This is brushing up against something I have been spending a lot of time thinking about, how we include/make space for/discuss difference. On the page, in fiction. But, from there, how do we share our lives with people who are seeking same-ness, homogeneity, and who see difference as a threat. To more directly engage with the questions you’ve raised, I think it’s one thing to say that every reader should have the opportunity to see parts of their own experiences valued on printed pages of literature: I agree. But what does it mean if we are all choosing to only read and reread those stories, the ones that we define as “ours”, and which we never reach beyond. It’s c-o-m-p-l-i-c-a-t-e-d…

    • Thanks Buried. It was a difficult post to write. I like your framing it in terms of “how we include/make space for/discuss difference”.

      That’s exactly it, the what if we are all choosing to “only” read “our” stories. We do all need to see ourselves reflected on the page at times, but we don’t need it ALL the time, because that can allow as to become complacent and worse. It is complicated, and it partly why I think my “experience” is broader than just someone like me, because someone like me does, either directly or indirectly, a lot or just sometimes, have to confront the other “experiences” in my world, making those part, then, of my “experience”. It’s what First Nations writers do well I think because this is their “experience”!

      • The opportunity to add that bit, “sometimes” is key, isn’t it. Even though I feel as though I am constantly working these days to shift my frame, aiming to avoid polarized and polarizing concepts and ideologies, when I hear statements that are speaking in black-and-white terms, without nuance, my instinctive response is to posit the companion (i.e. other end of the spectrum) idea, and then move towards the centre. Which means that my “reply” is, I believe, as potentially off-putting as the initial statement that I felt didn’t invite a conversation but, instead, a defense. And, of course, typing rather than talking, introduces another level of potential misunderstandings too!

        • Yes! And, moving towards the centre is definitely what I do all the time.

          Typing sure does. So hard to say something “nuanced” succinctly because nuance tends to invite elaboration doesn’t it?

  4. I think that you and Lisa (and Bill) represent readers who invest themselves into what they read and thus get back a far greater amount from it than do those like me, who merely skim across the surface of entertainment and rarely – if ever ! – dip below it.
    Yep, that’s what I think.

  5. I don’t know whether this point has any value for the discussion or not. But I would love to read from all sorts of countries, since most of my books are either from UK, or US. India itself though?

    Whatever literature it had probably died in 60’s.

    • I think it does in a way Tanish, because citizens educate themselves by reading diversely. The more you know about the wider world the better you can understand and contribute to your own, I think, because nothing stands still – particularly in our modern global world.

      Doesn’t India have good contemporary writers? Arundhati Roy (though she hasn’t written a lot), Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai, are just a few I know but I thought there were younger ones now too?

      • The writing here either devolves into steamy romances, or political commentary. I gave a chance to a fantasy series, but it didn’t clicked with me at all.

        Besides, people aren’t encouraged to become writers here anyway.

        • Ah thanks for that insight Tarnish. I must say the ones I’ve read have tended to be political. What a shame about lack of encouragement. I think there are a lot of readers in India.

        • Most certainly. But I would say as a blogger from India myself: they are hard to reach, and often hard to impress.

          But another thing to note is that in any country you look, a youtuber would have more people following them compare to a writer, speaking from purely popularity point.

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