Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookprint, Australian-style

Have you heard of the term or concept of bookprint? I came across it in a December 2019 article in The Conversation titled “5 Australian books that can help young people understand their place in the world”. The Conversation credits the term to African-American educator Alfred Tatum who, according to the University of Illinois’ Today website, coined it to describe “one’s memory of personally influential books”. It goes on to say that Tatum believes “most young black males need to acquire a bookprint outside their school-assigned reading”.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusConsidering this concept, The Conversation authors Larissa McLean Davies, Sarah E. Truman, Jessica Gannaway and Lucy Buzacott, came up with their list of five books for young Australians. They are:

  • Clare G. Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review) – for ages 16+
  • Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The tribe (Lisa’s review) – for ages 13+
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review) – for ages 16+
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Growing up African in Australia (Lisa’s review) – for ages 15+
  • Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s (ed) Meet me at the intersection – for ages 15+

To see their reasons for choosing these books, please click the link to the article in my opening paragraph. The authors make the point that “historically underrepresented people including Aboriginal writers, writers of colour, migrant writers, queers writers and writers living with disability are particularly underrepresented” in school curricula. Clearly – and with good reason – this is what they mostly address in this list.

Of course, what’s “personally influential” is, by definition, deeply personal, but this list looks to at least encourage young people to look outside their own box, to walk for a little while in the shoes of others – and that, it is presumably hoped, will develop empathy with and tolerance of others.

For me …

… the works that were “personally influential”, those I often find myself remembering, included those which confronted me with moral choices, those which helped me develop the moral code I (try to) live by. Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, and the characters in Albert Camus’ The plague (my review), for example, had big choices to make, choices that could mean life or death for them or for others, choices that involved behaving selfishly or selflessly, choices that exposed the moral codes they lived by. What Australian books would I recommend that encourage this sort of thinking, that confront students with choices about how to live?

Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) could be one. While there is an overall narrator, we see several perspectives. We also see characters making choices and, sometimes, reflecting on the validity or implication of those choices. Thea Astley’s An item from the late news (my review) is another. There is meaty moral discussion to be had here, and, as in Shakespeare’s big tragedies, our protagonist is deeply flawed while also seeing what is right and wrong. In John Clanchy’s In whom we trust (my review), the protagonist has a big decision to make, one that would right poor decisions earlier in his life.

This is a topic that could go on forever – and I could certainly suggest more titles – but at this stage, having introduced the topic, I think I’ll pass it over to you, my Gummie brains trust. So …

Do you have books that were personally influential to you and/or what would you recommend for young people (and why)?

Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Navigating our future

MWF logoI didn’t think I’d get to this session, but when my regular Thursday evening commitment was cancelled, I knew exactly what to do …

Navigating our future (Thursday 13 August 6-7pm)

This intriguingly titled session was described as follows:

Australian literature provides a means through which we might better understand ourselves, and our relationships with our region and the world. Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is joined by Professor Ken Gelder from the Faculty of Arts to explore the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools. With an introduction from Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature. (Supported by University of Melbourne, Faculty of Arts)

Alexis Wright introduced it, explaining that it was the Boisbouvier Oration, but here’s the thing, it wasn’t an oration, but a conversation. Hmm … just as well I like conversations. Wright, herself, gave the Boisbouvier Oration in 2018, which was reported by The Sydney Morning Herald:

It was Alexis Wright who threw out the challenge. Australia must create great expectations of building a visionary literature for our times, she said. We should put some money into buying rocket fuel rather than just topping up the gas barbie bottle.

Richard Flanagan gave the inaugural “lecture” as The Monthly reported it in 2016. His and Wright’s focused in some way on the value or power or role of writing, and this is how the 2020 oration-cum-conversation was framed too, though it didn’t quite go where I expected it to. Instead, it focused more on the practice of teaching Australian literature in Australian schools today – in what’s being taught, in the challenges of teaching our literature, and in how things might be improved. It felt like the advertised topic – exploring “the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools” – was a given rather than a topic to be discussed. And, that’s ok.

So, the session … it did work as a conversation, though Ken Gelder was primarily in the interviewer role, and Larissa McLean Davies in the interviewee one.

Role of Australian literature in Australian schools

Gelder commenced by saying that the things covered would include how literature can assist young people to navigate their futures, strategies for teachers, and the urgent need to prioritise the teaching of Australian literature in these challenging times. He noted that our current challenges include bushfires, COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement which, in Australia, has focused on the failure of government to end institutionalised discrimination, including the ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody issue. It is a time of climate and social crisis.

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in AustraliaMcLean Davies exemplifed the importance of literature by saying that the recent Black Lives Matter protests brought attention to the need for indigenous stories to be heard. She said that it resulted in books by indiengous authors, like Anita Heiss’ Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), and books about racism being sold out. Wow, that really says something, doesn’t it, about the value of awareness and consciousness-raising to book sales. People do want to know these stories!

These stories, she argued, help us negotiate the crises we face. The stories become part of our own subjectivity and help us negotiate our own place in the world. This was one of the most powerful things she said in the session.

Status of Australian literature in the schools

The conversation then turned to the current situation regarding the place of Australian literature in schools. McLean Davies explained that the creation of the national curriculum in 2007/8 made the teaching of Australian literature mandatory in the curriculum, requiring teachers to select and teach an Australian text (at least one) at every year level. It’s rare for such compulsion to be in school curriculums internationally, she said, which suggests the fragility of our national literature.

However, we don’t know how these texts are being taught, nor what texts are being taught (except for year 12 which has set texts). We don’t, she said, know how many Australian texts are taken up and how many are written on in the exam. In other words, there is no mechanism for assessing this mandatory teaching of Australian literature. This is the research she is doing. (How fascinating. I hope we get to see the results of her team’s research.)

The selection of texts

There are text setting panels, often setting them for 2 years, though for the obvious practical reasons – teacher familiarity, the development of resources, and the economics of availability – they will usually stay on the list for 3 to 4  years. We don’t know, however, whether these books are treated as marginal or main texts for study. The texts student will write on in exam will get the most attention – of course.

Diversity in Australian literature school texts

Gelder talked about the importance of setting suitable texts at times of crises, and diversity in literary studies. Do works by writers like Alexis Wright, Tony Birch, Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Charmaine Papertalk Green, and Ellen van Neerven have visibility, he asked?

McLean Davies said they did, because, for example, in Victoria, there are set texts for year 12, but in other years, teachers have choice, within guidelines. However, their choice depends on teachers’ personal reading diets, the professional learning they are undertaking, and the time they have to engage in new reading (given the increasing administrative work pressure teachers are under.) So, there’s opportunity but …

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusShe talked about the issue of “engagement” and that in trying to achieve this for diverse classes, teachers will often resort to more standard “white”, often neo-colonial texts. But young people are interested in indigenous issues, climate, etc, she said. Teachers would do well to turn to, for example, Claire G Coleman (Terra nullius) and Alexis Wright to bring these issues into the classroom. We need to think about what engagement means for Australian school students.

On being nimble in text selection

Gelder noted that quite often texts on school lists look like they’ve been there forever, but syllabi need to be nimble if they are to reflect the now. He’s found that some of his overseas students have read more Australian literature than local students have. We need to “sell our literature” he suggested.

McLean Davies said there is the issue that teachers often rely on their own reading experiences and learning. A multi-pronged approach is needed to support teachers, including looking at undergraduate degrees, and supporting teachers to develop new intertextual understandings of literature. Teachers need to learn how they can use literature to contest their own views. They need to develop new intertextual networks that enable new Australian writing to be accessed in the classroom. She quoted a colleague who said that “you don’t read a text, but a text reads you”. It is fundamental that teachers have the confidence to sell a text. They need packaged resources, and need knowledge about literature that they may not have in their own background.

Cultural cringe?

Gelder made the lovely statement that students need to be swept away by literature but teachers provide the broom, but is there cultural cringe? Australian literature tends to be characterised as white and inward-looking. Are we still resistant to, or defensive about, diversifying our understanding of our literature?

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyMcLean Davies concurred to a degree, but gave a nicely nuanced response, evoking a complex understanding of culture cringe:

  • There is resistance from teachers because Australian literature is seen as too white, as buying into the  Right’s rhetoric about nationalism. Teachers fear buying into the colonial monolith, into notions of nation. There’s some mismatch between what teachers want to do re diversity and the Right’s leaders wanting to focus on “nation”. That homage to Australian colonial origins is still there in the discourse, and this makes teachers anxious.
  • Cultural cringe is evident in text selection. A recent survey, 2017/8, her team did of texts being taught brought responses from 700 teachers. Only one Australian text, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, appeared in the top 10 (at 8). The others included Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, To kill a mockingbird, Animal farm, Hamlet, Outsiders (SE Hinton), 1984, and Othello. This gave us a “cause for pause” she suggested!

A place for colonial writing?

Gelder wondered if there was a place for colonial writing, particularly given it can contain its own critiques. He talked quite a bit about colonial writing, which has been his interest for ten years, but I want to move on … However, he did say, and has a point of course, that quite a lot of indigenous writing “works over” our colonial heritage, refiguring and remapping the colonial period. Is there goodwill towards colonial literature, he asked?

McLean Davies said there’s not a lot of colonial literature on syllabi in more senior years, but agreed there is potential for rethinking colonial ideas through colonial texts. She referenced the wonderful To be Continued database of short stories published in Australian newspapers, which provides access to colonial texts. Publicly available resources like this represent a wonderful potential for engaging students in literary enquiry. Teachers could use geospatial modelling to find stories set in places where students live, providing an opportunity to think about stories about those places and about the implication of those stories for their current lives. She commented that pedagogy – how we teach – is as important as what is taught. In this period of lockdown, teachers need access to digital content, but education hasn’t fully mobilised these tools in literature.

On the value of local, versus global?

Gelder talked about the conflict between the local (particularly obvious in these lockdown times) and the push for a more global/cosmopolitan outlook. (He cited Alexis Wright’s interview with expatriate Australian writer Peter Carey, and his novel Amnesia).

McLean Davies agreed, and suggested now is a good time to think about the place we are occupying and our relationship to it.  She talked about the value of speculative fiction, like Coleman’s Terra nullius and what happens if you don’t take notice of place. She also suggested that the problem is that we are continually reaching for the global, but the role of the local is very important. She mentioned Growing up Asian in Australia and Alice Pung’s wanting to read people who were like her, proving again that the local and the personal are important. It’s not one or the other. Teachers need to thing about the breadth of what they are selecting, need to look at global and local, because students need to read all those stories.

Supporting teachers

The session ended on the important issue of supporting teachers. Their challenge is to find time to develop new understandings of Australian literature. She’s involved in a project – partnership with the Stella Prize – which involves asking teachers to select a text from the longlist and then think about the text and their students, about that text re other books, and re other cultural artefacts. It’s a good opportunity to bring past and present texts together. But, the fundamental issue is that teachers need time and professional learning. They need more professional development that recognises them as intellectually interested and able to develop own new knowledge about text. Yes!

So, this is not quite the session I was expecting but, as I’m interested in both education and the teaching of literature, it ended up suiting me perfectly.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is also posting on the Festival, as is Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes).

The Griffyns “play” music

Musical Instrument Playground

Some of the instruments, including the Bicycle Hurdy-Gurdy.

We always say that musicians play music, or play their instruments, but the Griffyns took this to a whole new level last weekend when they presented their “Giant All-Ages Instrument Playground” concert. Were we surprised? No, because this was the Griffyns, after all …

However, being prepared to be surprised also meant that we didn’t know what to expect. Here are some of the descriptions they used to promote this concert, which, they explained, was created by them and their “crackpot team”! You get the drift:

Griffyn have brought in Jim Sharrock (famous for his Musical Mushroom Gardens), and visual artist Byrd (one of Canberra’s pre-eminent mural and graffiti artists) to join West Australian Mark Cain (of AC/PVC fame), to collaborate in making this unique collection.


We’ve transformed satellite dishes, PVC pipes, foot pumps, balloons, skis, tin cans, fence-posts bicycles, wooden boxes, garden utensils, and more into some of the most incredible musical instruments you’ve never seen!


The Circularsawruses have come to town – Roll up to Belconnen Arts Centre to experience the launch of the Griffyn Ensemble’s Instrument Playground! The Griffyn Ensemble have assembled a crackpot team of musical musicians and makers from across the country and the Canberra community to create and compose on some of the most curious sounds to have ever hit the capital. Hear such wondrous musical inventions such as the wintry Ski Bass, the Bicycle Hurdy Gurdy, and the Flutes of Many Mouths.

Although this concert has been in Griffyn director Michael Sollis’ mind for some time, its timing was perfect because it followed the recent three-part ABC documentary, Don’t stop the music, on the importance of music education for children. One of Sollis’ hats is Music Viva’s Artistic Director for Education, a role which involved him, at least in the beginning, working with the late (wonderful) Richard Gill.

Anyhow, some of the concert was beautiful, some exciting, and some – yes, we have to admit – challenged the ears, but it was all good fun. It started with fun, in fact, with a musical pun sort of fun, when soprano Susan Ellis, supported by other members of the ensemble, entered the performance space singing a “Walking Bass” complete with hiking poles. From there Susan Ellis featured again, singing Cold Chisel’s “Flame trees”, with Kiri and Michael Sollis on “flutes”, and Holly Downes on her quad bass – but look, there were, at my rough count, some 13 or so pieces performed, so I’m not going to list them all. Instead, I’ll just share some representative highlights.

Performing the Little Drummer Boy

The audience was flummoxed when asked to identify the Bicycle Hurdy-Gurdy version of the Beatles “Blackbird” and was entertained by the Flutes of Many Mouths (or was it Many Hands?) version of “The little drummer boy”. The Surgical Glove Bagpipe was a sight for sore eyes – and, well, what it was for the ears depends a bit on your attitude to the bagpipes – but I recognised the tune, which was a start! Most of the pieces were familiar, or recognisable, which was probably a good thing given the instruments were all invented. Best to ease us in gently!

However, there were some original pieces, such as Michael Sollis’ “Baloons” (the spello remaining because, he said, it’s hard to erase highlighters, in which the music was written). It was performed by Holly Downes, Michael and Kiri Sollis, and Chris Stone on their chosen, more-or-less appropriate-to-them instruments. Audience members had copies of the colourful score and were asked to identify which “line” was for which instrument. We passed – just – I think!

There was, in fact, quite a bit of audience participation. Jim Sharrock, on a sort of slide-guitar-with a tin-can soundbox, was joined by Susan Ellis, to lead us in “Tannenbaum”. Towards the end, young students from Aranda Primary School, who were scattered around the audience, joined in, playing their parts, as conducted by Michael Sollis, on tiny wind instruments made of PVC pipes.

And I must mention an appropriate piece for the time of year, “Cicada”, composed by Paul Kopetz, and from his Australian Backyard Suite. The words go:

A hazy Australian summer. A scorching stifling day. All creatures of water, bush, and sky are still, awaiting the coolness of sunset. All except one – the cicada. His relentless tune defies stillness and is stillness. His metronomic song drips from gum trees. His symphony of survival deafens our senses.

It seemed well-suited to a “buzzing” performance on the Griffyns’ invented instruments. (You can hear a version on YouTube.)

This might all sound a bit “silly” but it wasn’t. It was fun – and it was about serious musicians showing us how you can make music out of just about anything, and how it’s more important to give it a go than to stay on the side and watch (as we did, skedaddling before the audience was let loose on the instruments at the end. We did, in our defence, have another event to go to.)

For a little introduction to what we experienced, check out this promo video:

Once again, it was something completely different from the Griffyns. It wasn’t the most restful concert we’ve been to, but it was one of the most joyful, not to mention inventive. And we can all do with a bit of joy and invention in our lives, can’t we?

Griffyn Ensemble (and Friends): Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes, Susan Ellis, Kiri Sollis, and Chris Stone with special guests Jim Sharrock, Mark Cain, the Circular-sawruses and some children from Aranda Primary School.

Vale Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway, The road from CoorainJust before Mr Gums and I set off for our Arnhem Land holiday in early July, I came across an obituary for the Australian-born academic, educator and writer Jill Ker Conway (1934-2018). She had died on June 1, but I hadn’t heard. Why not? Her first memoir, The road from Coorain, was a best-seller, and I think her second one, True north, was also well received. I’ve read, and enjoyed, them both, but long, long before blogging. Her final memoir, A woman’s education, a slimmer volume, is on my TBR.

Those who know Jill Ker Conway will know why her passing didn’t make big news here. It’s because she made her name in the USA … added to which she was a woman. Or, am I being too paranoid?

So, who was Jill Ker Conway? Well, for a start she was born on a sheep station her parents named Coorain (Aboriginal for “windy place”) in outback New South Wales. Although more often hot, dry and dusty than not, Ker Conway loved it, as she shares in her first memoir.

Now, though, I’ll quickly summarise her career. She was, says Wikipedia, “an Australian-American scholar and author”. She was “well-known” for her autobiographies/memoirs, particularly for The Road from Coorain, but she also made history by becoming the prestigious Smith College‘s first woman president (1975-1985). She made history, of course, because she was its first woman president, but it’s fascinating to me that she was also Australian. She was 40 when appointed to this role, and in her first year was named Time magazine’s “woman of the year”. That’s impressive.

She was, later, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004, she was named a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project, and in 2013 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. She was, in other words, a bit of a mover-and-shaker!

I have, though, exaggerated the lack of news of her death here. There were some reports, including two in The Sydney Morning Herald. To give you a sense of how she was viewed, here are some of the titles of her obituaries:

Did you notice the odd one out? Yes, the SMH Business section report which identifies her as “chairman and trailblazer”. Chairman? Apparently, in addition to being an educator, academic, author and historian, she was a “business woman”. She was, in fact, “the first female chairman of global property group, Lendlease”. The Sydney Morning Herald says of her business career:

Dr Conway served on the boards of businesses including Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive and Lendlease. She was also a former chairman of the American Antiquarian Society.

In 2000 she was appointed as chair of Lendlease at a time when the company needed a firm hand.

Interesting woman eh? For an excellent obituary, do read the SMH National Section one.

She was also one of that wave of Australian intellectuals who left our shores in the 1960s and never really returned, mostly because of the stultifying academic lives they found here. Others included Germaine Greer (1939-), Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Clive James (1939-), not to mention writers like Randolph Stow (1935-2010). They went to England, while Ker Conway made the USA her home.

Ker Conway chronicles exactly why she left Australia in her first two autobiographies/memoirs. It was because she was regularly overlooked for significant jobs – or any job – in favour of men, and because she could not find the sort of intellectual enquiry she sought. Here she is, near the end of The road from Coorain, describing Sydney’s academic circles around 1959, and the group she thought most interesting because they were “iconoclasts, cultural rebels, and radical critics of Australian society”:

When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others. I didn’t know then that I was encountering the standard Australian left view of women, but I could see that the so-called sexual revolution had asymmetrical results.

By the end of True north, she had her Harvard degree in history, and was living with her husband in Toronto when the Smith College job came up. She writes:

I’d been pushed out of Australia by family circumstances [all chronicled in the first memoir], the experience of discrimination, frustration with the culture I was born in. Nothing was pushing me out of this wonderful setting but a cause, and the hope to serve it.

Jill Ker ConwayAnd what was that cause? Well, as she also writes in True north, her main consideration when choosing whether or not to accept Smith College’s offer was “where my work would have the greatest impact on women’s education”. That “impact”, she explains, was not just about numbers. It was about proving that a woman’s institution was not only valid but valid and relevant in a modern world, and about the potential for making it “an intellectual centre for research on women’s lives and women’s issues, research that could have influence far beyond Smith’s lyrical New England campus”. She was there for 10 years, and made her mark.

Ker Conway was, then, a significant woman whose achievements I’ve only touched on. Check the Wikipedia article linked above for more, including a list of her books. Meanwhile, I’m ending with her final words in The road from Coorain, as she’s departing Australia:

Where I wondered would by bones come to rest? It pained me to think of them not fertilising Australian soil. Then I comforted myself with the notion that wherever on the earth was my final resting place, my body would return to the restless red dust of the western plains. I could see how it would blow about and get in people’s eyes, and I was content with that.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s (National section) obituary concludes:

Her love for her two worlds was reflected in her final wishes. Half her ashes will rest in a small private cemetery with John’s, near their beloved house and garden in Massachusetts. The other half are to be scattered by the big tree beside the roadway into the house at Coorain.

How good is that?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in Australian schools

As I was trawling my little collection of ideas for Monday Musings, I lit upon a paper by the late educator Annette Patterson titled “Australian literature: culture, identity and English teaching”. Bingo!  I had my answer, because it will contribute to a discussion I took part in on Guy Savage’s His futile preoccuptions blog. The discussion concerned the following statement in Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel The life to come: “It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book.”

Patterson’s article was published in JASAL (the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature) in 2012, so it’s reasonably up-to date. The article’s abstract describes says:

The development of the Australian Curriculum has reignited a debate about the role of Australian literature in the contexts of curricula and classrooms. A review of the mechanisms for promoting Australian literature including literary prizes, databases, surveys and texts included for study in senior English classrooms in New South Wales and Victoria provides a background for considering the purpose of Australian texts and the role of literature teachers in shaping students’ engagement with literature.

Patterson starts by arguing the importance of literature to cultural or national identity, stating that this link is expressly made by several of Australia’s major literary prizes. These awards, plus other indicators such as the growth in resources to support the teaching of Australian literature, demonstrate, she says, “the health of Australian literature”.

She then reports on a survey of Australian secondary teachers regarding the factors affecting their selection of Australian texts for teaching. A major factor was one of the main points I made on Guy’s blog: “the availability of the text in the school storeroom”! This was one of the reasons my son’s high school teacher gave me for teaching Steinbeck’s Of mice and men, and not an Australian book.

And then, interestingly, she provides an historical perspective on the teaching of Australian literature in Australian schools, pointing to concerns about the issue dating back to the late 19th century. She writes about the use of Royal Readers back then which included some reference to Australia but were, overall, firmly grounded in the northern hemisphere. She quotes an inspector of schools, H. Shelton, from 1891:

I have often wondered how the Wimmera farmers relish the statement in the Second Book [of the Royal Readers] that ‘it is a pleasant sight to see wild rabbits running over the fields.’ This lesson should either be struck out, or the other side of the picture be given for the benefit of young Australians.

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airMoving on in her paper, we get to discussions about texts being studied by senior secondary students in NSW and Victoria. I’m going to focus on prose fiction, though she includes non-fiction, poetry, plays and film. So, for example, of the five prose fiction texts set for the 2010 NSW Higher School Certificate, only one was by an Australian, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review). Things were better in those other forms I mentioned.

Patterson focuses her study, though, on Victoria. She tabulates the occurrence of Australian texts and directors listed for study for the Victorian Certificate of Education from 2001 to 2010. Again, I will focus on the prose fiction – listing those that appear three of more times in order of frequency:

  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories (4 times)
  • Tim Winton’s Minimum of two (short story collection) (4 times) and The riders (1 time)
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home (4 times)
  • David Malouf’s Dream stuff (short story collection) (3 times) and Fly away Peter (1 time)
  • Christopher Koch’s The year of living dangerously (3 times)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (3 times)
  • Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (3 times)

Hmm, a fascinating list. Not a bad one, but there’s not a good gender balance here, and there’s only one indigenous writer (who happens to also be the only woman!) It’s also interesting to see the preponderance of short story collections – and that the novels are mostly short ones. Does this mean students won’t read full novels?

Anyhow, Patterson concludes that the lists she presents provide clear evidence of the important place of Australian literature in school curricula, formally at least. But, quite rightly, she notes that being listed doesn’t mean the works are actually “taken up”. Through a process which she describes briefly, she identifies only one work of prose fiction on the most popular list for the period in question. It’s Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (which, interestingly, “was voted one of the Top 40 Australian books of all time by members of the Australian Society of Authors”), although other works, including the films Lantana and Look both ways, also appear on the list.

Several prose works appeared on the least popular list:

  • Larissa Behrendt, HomeShane Maloney’s The brush-off
  • Amy Witting’s I for Isobel
  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories
  • Julia Leigh’s The hunter (though she may mean the film adaptation, she doesn’t clarify)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home
  • Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories

Disappointing, but Patterson is encouraged because:

  • more Australian works appeared on the most popular lists later in the decade indicating a “positive shift”; and
  • “top scoring students appear to be working with Australian texts” – including Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories.

In the last part of the paper she discusses the value of including the study of literature, and particularly Australian literature, in the curriculum – and the theoretical underpinnings for the arguments. They are fascinating, and clearly presented. I loved, of course, her conclusion that

In teaching Australian literature, teachers do a great deal more than teach about the quality of language or the characteristics of a genre. English teachers teach techniques for living, ways of behaving and responding, building empathy, promoting tolerance and developing responses to texts that are considered appropriate within current social and cultural contexts.

She ends by returning to her study, and arguing for the value of undertaking ongoing research into text lists, and their use.

However, I’ll return to Guy’s blog discussion and say that Patterson’s paper reveals that Australian texts are being taught in Australian schools – and have been for a long time. However, whether all schools teach them, and whether all students in the schools that do actually “take them up”, is another question. There is, in other words, sure to be some truth in the statement in de Kretser’s book, but I sure hope it’s not 86%!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Australia

You know how when you go to a conference you pick up all sorts of pamphlets and brochures advertising this and that? Well, at the Writing the Australian landscape conference I attended back in August, just before I went overseas, I picked up an interesting leaflet from Australia’s Copyright Agency. The leaflet is titled: Reading Australia: Sharing great Australian stories. I decided then that it should be a Monday Musings topic so, here I am, nearly three months later telling you about it.

Reading Australia’s aim is “to promote the study of Australian works in the classroom”. It has kicked off with “the First 200” works selected by the Australian Society of Authors. The selection includes

stories from Indigenous Australians, from the colonial past and rural epics through to the cosmopolitan melting pot of the cities … classes and new favourites

The list, which is available on the Copyright Agency’s website, covers fiction and non-fiction, drama and poetry, and includes selections for primary and secondary schools. From these they have selected a subset of 20 – split 50-50 for secondary and primary schools – and created teacher resources which they say will be trialled “later in the year” (which must presumably be now).

English: Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper. (Photo credit: Ottre, released to Public Domain via Wikipedia)

The selection for secondary students, which is the area that most interests me, is nicely diverse, and is not dumbed-down. It includes the major forms (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, short stories), classics and contemporary titles, and works representing indigenous and multicultural Australia. The ten are:

The project is an initiative of the Cultural Fund of the Australian Copyright Agency, with the Australian Society of Authors and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature as partners.

I was disappointed by the dearth of Australian literature taught to my children at school and so am delighted to see this initiative.  I don’t know, however, how well it is being promoted, how easy it will be for teachers to incorporate into their existing curricula, whether schools can resource providing the books, but I do hope it gains traction.