Chrystopher J. Spicer: Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (#BookReview)

I love thinking about place in literature, so I was intrigued when Chrystopher Spicer, cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at North Queensland’s James Cook University, offered me his book Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature for review. Unfortunately, I’ve taken a while to get to it.

Place can be a contentious issue for readers, and I’ve become embroiled in many discussions over the years on the topic. However, this is not going to be one of those, not because I have nothing more to say, but because Spicer’s book looks at place from a different angle. His focus is, obviously, cyclones, and was inspired by the fact that he lives in northern Queensland, a tropical region known for its often highly destructive cyclones. Despite this, people stay. How do they incorporate their experience into their sense of place, and, more significantly, into their understanding of who they are personally and as a community? Cyclones bring chaos and destruction, but, paradoxically, they are also part of the fabric of place they destroy.

It is in this context that cyclones (and similar “nature catastrophes”) can be catalysts for literature. It specifically was for Susan Hawthorne’s eco-poetry collection Earth’s breath. Spicer wanted to explore whether such literature provides “a means by which individuals and societies can cope with and integrate these events into their lives, culture and place” and how weather catastrophes like cyclones “speak of our relationships with place and the people in it”. Concluding his introduction, he identifies his objectives as

to explore how we integrate a violent, chaotic, and destructive weather feature into our culture through the use of storytelling and structure. At the same time, I hope to convey a sense of the connectivity and commonality of people search for meaning amid the meaninglessness of chaos and catastrophe.

“in with through” (Hawthorne)

Spicer explores all this through eight chapters. The first two and the last are devoted to general discussion about cyclones, cyclones and place, and cyclones in literature. In these chapters in particular, Spice draws on academics, critics, and other writers to provide a theoretical underpinning to his argument. The fundamental point is that stories shape the places in which we live and that in the same process people and place are mapped by those stories. He adopts the word “terroir”, traditionally used to describe wine regions, arguing that it encompasses both the tangible habitat and the spiritual sense that is imbued in that habitat from living within it. Weather, he argues, is inseparable from the physical and experiential aspects of the landscape. As poet Susan Hawthorne writes:

I am in with through the cyclone
which is inside with through me

The book’s other five chapters explore his ideas through specific works set in or around Queensland and its cyclonic environment: Vance Palmer’s Cyclone (Lisa’s review), Thea Astley’s A boatload of home folk (with references to other works including The multiple effects of rainshadow which I’ve reviewed), Patrick White’s The eye of the storm (Lisa’s review), Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath, and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post).

Storms and cyclones have, of course, featured in literature as long as people have been telling stories, and Spicer provides many examples. Their “propensity to be intense life-changing personal experiences” naturally leads to their use in literature, often as metaphor for “epiphany and revelatory apocalypse”. I’m sure all of us have examples from our reading. For me, Shakespeare stands out.

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

The five authors Spicer explores use cyclones in different ways, but there are recurring ideas. Epiphany, revelation, with a corresponding opportunity to change or start afresh, underpin the stories. Serpents and similar monsters feature frequently, whether it’s Palmer’s Leviathan, or Hawthorne’s ouroboros, or Wright’s Rainbow Serpent. I’m simplifying here but, essentially, their role varies from being the monster that embodies and explains the chaos to something that is more organically part of the process of chaos and renewal. Somewhat related to this, but separate too, is a cyclical view of nature and thus life. This idea is particularly developed by Hawthorne and Wright, in whose works the apocalyptic event contains the cycle of beginning and end, of life and death and life again.

For White, the image or metaphor is a little different again, but also related, with his using the spiral and the mandala or circle. For his protagonist, it’s in the “eye” of the storm, or the “still point” of the spiralling word, that revelation is found, and epiphany achieved. Astley, too, suggests Spicer, sees us as all being “part of a swirling, spiralling, cyclonic universe”. However, instead of going into the eye, her characters try to escape the cyclone, something which Astley herself said, “is not possible”. The main Astley book that Spicer explores, A boatload of home folk, has been criticised as awful, unlikeable, but Spicer disagrees, arguing that, ultimately, Astley, like the other writers, “uses the elemental cyclone as a trope of apocalypse that is both an instrument of destruction and a catalyst of revelation.” It is what the cyclone draws out of the despair in the novel’s characters that is significant.

In the end, there are two main ideas I took from this book. One is that cyclone literature helps us to understand the event, to incorporate the resultant chaos into our lives, and thus, to “integrate nature catastrophes” into our sense of place, or terroir. While Spicer’s focus is cyclones, he also mentions “nature catastrophes”. Consequently, I’d argue that his argument holds for places which frequently experience other such catastrophes, like bushfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and recurring long droughts. People who live in places frequented by such catastrophic events, and who choose to remain in those places, must surely “integrate” the experience in some way into their identity as a person of that place, and into their understanding of how to live in that place. Spicer’s discussion of Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath addresses this idea in depth.

The other idea relates more generally to how writers use cyclones/storms to explores broader ideas. In a way, this extends beyond Spicer’s specific goals regarding place. Whether or not writers are inspired by actual cyclonic events or purely imagined ones, in real or imagined places, they can and do use cyclones to explore spiritual and/or psychological upheavals in their characters’ lives. Spicer’s selections are all Queensland-related, so place is quintessential to the stories, but his analysis shows that cyclones in literature also transcend place to encompass something more universally human.

In the final section of his book, “The Cyclone as Universal Trope”, Spicer writes that –

Such events and the stories of them can challenge previous human experience, thereby providing opportunity to move forward and rebuild, opportunity for the emergence of the new.

– with “the new” embodying both the tangible and the intangible aspects of our lives.

Spicer’s book is well-researched and thorough in its analysis, and is supported by an excellent bibliography and index. I found it fascinating. It’s not for everyone. However, it makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the tropes of Australian literature, including reminding us that it’s not all about “the bush”.

Lisa also reviewed this book.

Chrystopher J. Spicer
Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020
202pp.
ISBN: 9781476681566

Review copy courtesy of the author

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): Place, Family and the Weekend

I have now written three posts on last weekend’s Yarra Valley Writers Festival (which you can find on this linked tag). Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also wrote up several sessions. Given Lisa has also covered the last three sessions I have yet to cover, I will, as I did in my last post, try to focus on a few key ideas or thoughts that I came away with, mainly to document them for my own benefit.

The three sessions are:

  • Place in the New World Order: Alice Robinson (The glad shout), Meg Mundell (The trespassers), Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter), with Elizabeth McCarthy
  • How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be?: Alice Pung (Her father’s daughter), Rick Morton (One hundred years of dirt), Richard Glover (Flesh wounds), with the ABC’s Michael Mackenzie (and again, I missed the beginning of this one)
  • The Weekend: Charlotte Wood (The weekend) with the ABC’s Amanda Smith

(Links on the author’s names will take you to my posts on them.)

Place in the New World Order

Place is one of those aspect of literature that most interests me, so I loved this session.

On COVID-19’s effect on the writers. All said it has affected their creative output. Viggers admitted to feeling “stymied”, while Robinson finds her time limited by needing to care for her primary school-age children. Mundell said she feels less isolated because she is now surrounded by people. She’s not getting any creative writing done but is writing grant applications because “things have fallen over”. Mundell’s latest book is about a pandemic. She initially felt guilty for writing entertainingly about something so serious, and said it feels “surreal”.

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterOn whether the pandemic is affecting their thinking about their writing. Viggers, a practising vet, said she is still consumed with the summer bushfires. She is interested – horrified? – to see how politicians have engaged with scientists on the pandemic, when they haven’t done so regarding climate change and bushfires. Her writing content is not really affected. Robinson said it’s tricky trying to write about something unfolding at present, and she feels sheepish saying she’s trying to write about it. Mundell commented that she’s been obedient when she’s usually not, and has felt paranoid when others haven’t been doing the right thing. This made me laugh, as I tend to be obedient but I haven’t felt at all paranoid!

On how place impacts their writing. Viggers, saying that place is vital in a lot of writing, also said that place can be things like a location, an event, a home, a community. She uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us to reengage with the natural world and each other. One of the great challenges is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and how we have failed to care for it. Mundell said she related to both Viggers’ idea of place as being what gets you in, and Robinson’s idea of place being where you start. She’s currently interested in an iconic place, a quarantine station which, being a border, is a place that contains memories. She’s also interested in “home”, which she explored in the anthology on homelessness she recently edited. She’s interested in the dynamics of places.

On enmeshing social justice in their writing, in a way that feels native to the text, not didactic. Robinson admitted she had to push the ideas – climate change, indigenous-settler issues, gender roles – to the back, recognising she needed to show her ideas through character’s relationships. Her second novel, The glad shout, was easier: the ideas started to manifest in the story and she found it easier to illustrate them metaphorically, or allegorically. A story, she said, can convey the ideas so the reader will feel them. Viggers agreed. You can’t tell readers what you want them to think, but you take them on a journey. In most cases, she presents a values argument regarding, say, the ethics of animal rescue (The stranding) or of kangaroo culling (The grass castle). She likes to use the different perspectives of her characters to convey different ideas, and gently add information the readers may not know! (I love that! I like to learn “stuff” from novels, though I also recognise that we readers need to assess what “stuff” authors tell us is fact and what is fiction.)

On ability to focus on reading right now (a problem I’m facing though not because of COVID-19). Mundell said she can’t sleep without reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and that she mixes it up with more gruelling books. Viggers is finding reading a bit of a struggle, but is reading Mundell’s and Robinson’s books.

There was a Q&A, including:

  • one responder suggesting to Mundell that grant writing is creative writing.
  • positive takeaways from the current lockdown: our writers suggested appreciating small things, like relationships, that you matter to friends, and the connections people have made (Mundell);  the creative ways people have connected, and that people might think about how we’ve learnt not to consume too much, to touch lightly (Viggers).
  • Tasmania’s Gothic setting suited to Viggers’ novel: she said she loves the south, loves southern light and atmosphere. It speaks to her but she doesn’t think of it as gothic.
  • stories about COVID-19 appearing: Mundell thinks there may not be so many COVID stories, but she’s interested in some of the themes that have come up, in the stories we haven’t heard, the people left behind (like the homeless). Viggers commented that it is hard to write when you are deep in a lived experience.

How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be?

I missed the beginning of this session, unfortunately, and, time being what it is, I have not managed to catch it up via the link sent me, but Lisa covered it in her post (see my opening paragraph.)

Book coverI joined during the discussion of intergenerational trauma. Morton shared his mother’s statement, “I don’t hate your father, I feel sorry for him”. You do inherit these things, he said. He wrote his book carefully because he wanted to show the impact on him but didn’t want to make his father a villain. (How generous and understanding!) That said, he, his mother and sister have determined they “will never let this cycle of abuse continue”.

Glover talked about his mother not being an affectionate person. She eloped with his English teacher, after which his father fell apart and left home! Rick’s story, he said, is Angela’s ashes, while his isn’t, as he was left with a big house and a pool. A friend said, “Richard never really left home, home left him.” Glover talked about the man his father organised to look out for him, Steve Stephens (sp?) who was a “huntin’, shootin’, poetry writing Australian man”. This man looked out for him many times through his life.

Pung Her Fathers Daughter Black Inc

Pung, whose brother committed suicide, talked about how love can’t save a person. She noted, however, that your love is often imbued with your own fears and insecurities. Regarding how her brother’s suicide has affected her own parenting decisions, she said it has made her reprioritise, to look at the nature of love, and, most of all, to let children be who they are and grow into who they’ll become.

A favourite scene in Glover’s book is a short speech from his sister about their father. She said, “If you knew what my father had been through and yet how beautiful he had been to all of us,” and then burst into tears. That’s life, he said, “to turn darkness into light”. This sort of philosophy appeals to me.

The Weekend

Interviewer Amanda Smith started by quoting a description of Wood as “one of our most original and provocative novelists”.

On whether friendship in your 30s is easier than friendship in your 70s. Wood saw the novel as a sort of cautionary self-portrait re what kind of older person she wanted to be. When you are young friendships are fluid, she said. There can be a chemical attraction and romance with friends when you first meet them, but after a while you find flaws. You go through stuff together, some people change before others, and some don’t want others to change at all. We want to hang onto our friends the way we know them. She also talked about observing older women who are friends, and the frictions she sometimes sees. They are enmeshed, and behave much like they might with their siblings.

Book coverOn whether the women are true friends given the evident tensions. This is an issue discussed in my own reading group, but we felt exactly the way Wood responded. Yes, she said, they love each other. Their remarks about each other are a reflection on their own anxieties. Some readers, she said, don’t think her characters are likeable. Grrr … this is an issue that really bothers me. Why do characters have to be likeable? Smith asked the right follow-up question …

On whether fictional characters have to be likeable. Wood said it depends on what you think is likeable! She likes “spiky people”. Also, she said, there are all sorts of layers to our relationships with each other. Her characters are all grieving, they are like a three-wheeled car. She likes her characters (as do I.) She talked about how women she meets associate with the characters, with many telling her “I’m Jude”! Some say they are Wendy. (It didn’t seem like many admit to being Adele!)

On what vicarious experience of ageing Wood brought to the novel, given she’s only in her early 50s. Sometimes you don’t understand what you are writing until you get to the end of the book, Wood said. Both her parents died in their 50s, so she’d never really considered what it would be like to be 70 or 80. She wanted to enter the imagined space of being old. One of the reasons she writes is to understand how to live, to work out how to be in the world. In this book, this concerns how to be if you live to 70 or 80. (I must say that with a nearly 91-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father, I don’t see 70 as old!!)

Wood said that a Jungian philosopher says that the purpose of ageing is to become our real selves. What, she said, does that mean for friendship.

On women transitioning out of careers. All her characters have been defined by magnificent careers but don’t seem to have accepted the end of those careers; they haven’t reimagined themselves, or found their essential selves. Wood said she wanted to write about women getting older who weren’t defined by their families, because most representations of older women are as mothers, grandmothers, matriarchs, in their family hierarchy. She wanted to write about women who were not like that. Only Wendy is a mother, but she doesn’t really get on with her children. These women still feel they have work to do, still have their faculties, but the world is moving on from them.

This led to a discussion about self-delusion. People can be exceptionally self-deluded throughout their lives, but these women confront some of their self-delusions. Wood said that this generation of women belong to the first group of women to face the end-of-career challenge that men have been facing for a long time. Interesting point. I hadn’t really thought of that.

On Finn (the ageing dog). Wood talked about her Judy Harris Fellowship, which involves a writer working with scientists. She said Finn was a response to a scientist saying he’d like to see some evolutionary biology in her novel. He mentioned how ageing is more accelerated in animals than in humans. She wanted to write about ageing she said, but her women didn’t think they were ageing, it was irrelevant to them, so how talk about it? An old dog could do that, she realised. Each character has a response to his decay, each also has an epiphany related to Finn. Finn creates tension between people but he also became a useful thematic/narrative device.

On the role of the house. Wood said that houses are really wistful in novels: they can convey a primitive sense of self, also a sense of turf and territory. However, this house does not belong to any of the characters, though each feels a kind of kinship with the house, and thinks the others aren’t doing it right. The house is not fancy, in fact it’s quite ramshackle. Wood felt she could “do stuff about oldness and newness, what is salvageable”. (Oh! My reading group and I didn’t pick this up!) She talked about the fancy white sofa that Jude had bought for Sylvie (the dead house owner.) Wendy thinks the sofa spoils the house, while Jude thinks the house spoils the sofa. Great point!

There was a Q&A but I’ll leave it here … and conclude my posts on the wonderful Yarra Valley Writers Festival!

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM
Livestreamed

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading Victoria

The inspiration for these Monday Musings posts comes from all sorts of places, but mostly from online sources and print media. Today’s, however, comes from a catch-up I had last week with my group of litblogger mentees (at which Angharad and Emma from 2017 met Amy from 2018.) It was delightful. You won’t be surprised to hear that a main topic of conversation was reading and writing – during which Emma mentioned Reading Victoria and the stories that have been lobbing weekly into her email inbox. How did I not know about this? Ah well, I do now – better late than never!

Reading Victoria is a Melbourne City of Literature initiative, created in 2018 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Melbourne’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. The aim was to publish “a new piece of writing each week, free and online, themed around a suburb or town in Victoria. From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, the only constant was the titles.” By “constant”, I think they mean that the titles comprise, simply, the name of the place being written about – nothing fancy, just, say, Mallacoota or Ramsay Street. The place, as you say from these examples, could be pretty much any physical place. The About page, linked above, says that by the end of the 2018 they will have published 60 pieces. (Hmmm, lucky Victoria. They seem to have found 8 more weeks in their year. Wish I could!!)

Anyhow, the main page on their simple, clear, website is their Suburbs & Pieces page, which so far lists 57 pieces. It’s now well into 2019 so will there be 60, or have they stopped? I’ve subscribed so will soon find out. It would be lovely if the project continued. The site implies it was just for 2018. It doesn’t say how it is funded and whether the writers (and the editors, Sophie Cunningham, Andre Dao, Elizabeth Flux, Omar Sakr and Veronica Sullivan) are paid? It would be good to know these things?

Meanwhile, back to Suburbs & Pieces. Have you clicked on it already? I probably would have. However, on the assumption that you haven’t, or that you’re not Australian and would like a little more context, I’ll describe the pieces a little more to give you a flavour.

The content is wonderfully varied. I picked some at random to look at – based either on places or authors I know. The first one to catch my eye was Wangaratta (Week 6 by Andy Connor). Wangaratta is an attractive little country town on the Hume Highway between where I live and Melbourne. Connor’s piece is non-fiction, a little memoir, reflecting on all the reasons he had for wanting to escape it and wondering why, upon a return visit, he found you can ” feel nostalgia for a place you never felt you belonged”. Fair question.

Sofie Laguna, The chokeAnother non-fiction piece is Sofie Laguna’s Echuca (Week 14), which is on the Murray River near when she set her novel The choke (my review). Her piece is moving, but I particularly like this which gives you a sense of the novelist’s ear and eye:

I read about the Barmah Choke – a place in the Murray where the banks come closer, flooding at certain points in the year, contributing to the wetlands environment. I liked those words – Barmah and Choke and the way they sat together – the first so round, lifting at the final vowel, and the second so tight, hemmed in by biting consonants. The words seemed to contradict each other.

These two pieces are non-fiction but there are also fiction pieces, poems, small plays, interviews. Many well-known published authors are here including Tony Birch, Helen Garner, Alex Miller and Jane Rawson, but there are new-to-me writers too, writers who have been published in journals like Lifted Brow, or are performers, or, even, comic book artists (see Corio, Week 41, Eloise Grills).

Some of the stories have been published elsewhere. At least, I recognised Bruce Pascoe’s fiction piece Mallacoota which appeared, with a few changes and under a different title, in Writing Black. But that doesn’t matter. In fact, one of the great things about short form writing is that it can be “curated” in different places and collections, and that writers can continue to “fiddle” with their pieces for each iteration. Not being a writer, I don’t know, but I’m guessing that sometimes this “fiddling” is to fix up something they don’t like, and sometimes to tailor the piece to its new “home”?

There is of course a very brief bio for each writer at the end of their piece providing their writing background or credentials. That’s particularly useful for writers you don’t know.

For anyone interested in writing about place, this project has a lot to offer. Many of the pieces are gritty, pulling no punches about the places they write about (Sydney Road, Week 38, by Fury is particularly strong), while others are affectionate, or even satirical. There are pieces by indigenous writers (like Tony Birch, Yarra River, Week 46), and by those from migrant backgrounds (like Alice Pung, Footscray, Week 30). When this is published, I will be staying somewhere along the one of Australia’s iconic roads, the Hume Highway, and it is here too: Hume Hwy (Week 48, by Sophie Cunningham).

In some ways this project reminds me of the Library of America Story of the Week program, except that it’s about sharing America’s literary heritage. Reading Victoria, on the other hand, is focused very specifically on contemporary responses to place.

Do you know of any similar initiatives to this – and do they interest you?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (3)

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

Back in August I wrote two posts (here and here) about the National Library of Australia’s conference, Writing the Australian landscape. At the time I said that I would provide a link when the talks became available on-line.

Well, they apparently went on-line a month or so ago and the NLA very kindly tweeted the fact to me. However, I was overseas at the time and having a semi-break from constant on-line connection – and have consequently only caught up with the tweet now. Better late than never eh?

So, if you are still interested in checking out any of the wonderful talks I discussed in my posts, here is the link.

As you may remember from my posts, I found it all excellent, but if I had to recommend some to you, these would be the ones:

  • Murray Bail‘s keynote address on day 1, which was provocative about what he sees as our (Australian) need to define ourselves by our landscape. He concluded by asking readers to be “explorers” and open to new ways of writing, to not expect “landscape” to be the way into Australianness.
  • Bill Gammage‘s keynote address on day 2, which was provocative in a different way, arguing that there is a progression from notions of “landscape” and “place” to “country” which, in indigenous terms, is synonymous with “culture”. He argued that we still “view” the land as outsiders, rather than seeking to relate to it in a more spiritual, organic way, and challenged us to be willing to learn from indigenous Australians.
  • Jeanine Leane’s paper which, among other things, confronted us with our (that is, white/non-indigenous) preconceived notions about what we define as Australian classics. Now I have the paper I can quote directly. It was powerful. She said:

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

It is very hard, Leane showed us, to step outside our own world-view … but that’s why we read, talk about reading, and listen to readers and writers isn’t it? I certainly found my world-view shifting as we went through the weekend. How do I, as a non-indigenous Australian, need and want to relate to this land I also call home. It would be presumptuous to try to relate to it as an indigenous person does. But we are lucky here to have people with such a deep knowledge of and relationship with the land. We can learn a lot from them: practical things about how to care for the land, and, perhaps more importantly, what a true relationship with the land really means and the responsibility accompanying that.

Anyhow, I’m very glad to be able to share the link to the papers, and would love to hear from you if you do read any of them.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

This weekend just gone I had the privilege – well, I paid to go, but still it was a privilege – to attend a conference at the National Library of Australia titled Writing the Australian landscape. You can see why I had to go … wild brumbies couldn’t keep me away.

But if, perchance, the topic hadn’t attracted me, the line-up of speakers sure would have. They included:

There wasn’t a boring one among them. (The full list of speakers, and chairs, is available online) Kudos to the National Library* for putting together an excellent program and to the speakers who had all taken the topic seriously and offered much for the audience to think about. I think I can speak for all who attended when I say that we laughed, cried and winced (though perhaps not always at the same things.)

All that’s by way of introduction. Now I’d better do the hard yakka and share some thoughts and ideas, but that’s not going to be easy.

I’ll start with a little manifesto, if I can call it that. The way I see it, to be a white (non-indigenous) Australian today is to feel a little uncomfortable. Many of us love being Australian, love the land or country we call home, and yet are aware of the cost to others of our being here, of the dispossession we brought to others. But, we can’t be ashamed of being western**. That’s our heritage, that’s what informed our thought processes. However, we can be ashamed of assuming that others think the way we do and, worse, of assuming that others want to think the way we do (or be the way we are). My – our – challenge is to be open to other ways of thinking, to respect them and to learn what we can from them. While almost all the conference speakers were non-indigenous, there was a lot of goodwill amongst the speakers and the audience in the room, a lot of willingness to open our eyes. Please read my notes on the conference with this in mind.

Why write (about) the landscape?

And so, I really do have to start now. The conference got off to a rather provocative start with Miles Franklin award-winning author Murray Bail giving the Kenneth Binns lecture. Speaking from his western-writer standpoint, Bail was concerned that we were even having the conversation. Other western literatures, he argued, are not preoccupied as we are with landscape and, related to that in his mind, with national distinctiveness. Did Tolstoy, he asked, worry about his “Russianness”? No, he said, we read Tolstoy for the moral questions he explores, to learn how to live, be happy, be wise. For Bail, landscape is a New World concern, which that quintessential New World country the USA has now shaken.

Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away. I found this a fascinating idea and will be thinking about it for a long time:

  • Is our fascination with landscape a bad thing?
  • Is our landscape so different, so forbidding, that it will always play on us? (But then, aren’t other landscapes, such as the Siberian desert forbidding?).
  • Does our particular history of occupation and dispossession mean that place and landscape will for a long time yet be a fraught issue?
  • Will the fact that for indigenous Australians morality is tied to the land, to country, mean that considering landscape will always be part of our literature?

What does (the) landscape mean?

Historian Bill Gammage gave the keynote address on the second day. His focus was very much on indigenous relationship to land, to country, which is the subject of his most recent multiple award-winning book The biggest estate on earth. His argument was that “country” is not about nature (about landscape) but about culture, and that non-indigenous Australians could learn a lot about our country by learning from indigenous Australians what they know and are able, within their laws, to tell us. I loved his glass-half-full statement that the point is not how much knowledge indigenous Australians have lost but how much they still know. Gammage, like Bail, recognised we are challenged by our landscape, but his conclusion was not that we should aim to stop writing about it but How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

I will share more from the weekend – including Jeanine Leane’s powerful paper – but for now these two keynote papers nicely encapsulate the weekend in which we explored the progression from Landscape to Place to Country to Culture.

* I understand audio and printed versions of the talks will be available on the NLA’s website. I’ll provide a link when they become available.

** * Yes, I know, not all non-indigenous Australians are western but I’m using this partly by way of comparison, and partly because it’s my heritage. And yes, we can be ashamed of things westerners have done but not, I think, of being who we are.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Place

Place. It’s a complex thing isn’t it?

Arti (Ripple Effects) commented on my recent post on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Spring and Fall” that

… while spring may be a welcome sight, for some strange reasons, I miss winter’s snow. (not the temp. just the beautiful snow scenes).

Would I miss winter and snow? Not on your nelly! Meanwhile, Nigel Featherstone (Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot) wrote in response my comment on a recent post of his:

As to the drive to and from Canberra: most of my trips are through Lake Bathurst; so amazing – all that sky!

But arriving in the ACT is always a good feeling. Though almost immediately I miss my home town.

Isn’t place interesting? So difficult to capture accurately…

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

These comments got me to thinking about my sense of place – and then about place in literature. First me. My love of the Australian landscape came home to me when we returned in 1985 from a two-year posting in Virginia, USA. Like most Aussies, I’d read a lot of fiction from the northern hemisphere and had somehow been imbued with the idea that the loveliest landscape is lush and green and the best houses are two-storey. After enjoying two years in such a place, I wondered how I’d feel about returning home. I needn’t have worried. We drove back into my city and it felt wonderful. I knew then that here, this  browner place with its scraggly vegetation, was my place.

Now for literature. I can think of two main uses of place in literature. One is the obvious one, place as setting, as background for the action. I enjoy reading good descriptions of place, and have shared some in my reviews. My favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to “feel” and “see” the place and its impact on the characters. A favourite example is the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens Bleak House. It’s hard to forget London and its fogs after that.

The other use, though, is more complex. It’s to do with our relationship to place – the way we interact with place, the way we feel about it, the way it interacts with us.

But here’s the rub. Relationship to place is complicated in colonial/settler societies like ours, societies which have taken over someone else’s place. How do we reconcile that? There’s a fundamental conflict between our two different experiences of place, and it’s discomforting. We want to respect and better understand the original owners’ values while validating our own. Literature (and the arts in general) can help us work through these issues –  by directly exposing and exploring the conflict, and more subtly by sharing our respective experiences. For literature to be effective, of course, we need universal literacy – but that’s another story.

Fortunately, more indigenous writers are being published and we are hearing their voices about land, about country. We need to hear it, we need to share and talk. In That deadman dance, Kim Scott tackles head on the issue of land and ownership, of competing values and different understandings, in the early days of settlement. Killam, the soldier, has to give up to the Governor a place he’d taken:

Mr Killam was learning what it was to have someone move in on what you thought was your very own home. He thought it was the last straw. The very last.

Meanwhile, Skelly tramps about the land with a gun in his hand, explaining:

Well, it’s not our home is it?

And entrepreneur Chaine decides, at one point, to give up his farming goal for whaling:

Whaling was better than attempting to work this land with its topsy-turvy seasons  and poor soil, and there’d be trouble with the natives, farming. The best land was their land, too.

For our indigenous narrator, Bobby, land is something known, felt:

And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water. He crouched to it, he touched the stone, and sensed home.

In the end, of course, the “settlers” win and we descendants are left with the legacy of loving land that was not ours. Kim Scott has made an intelligent contribution to the conversation about this complex business of land.

Some years before Kim Scott’s book (2011), Andrew McGahan, a non-indigenous writer, wrote The white earth (2004), a contemporary story set on the eve of Native Title. It’s about the love of land, by both indigenous and non-indigenous people, about greed and putting money and land ahead of spiritual and emotional values. It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s a powerful read. The old grazier believes that:

Ownership could not be shared. Not the power of it, not the weight of it either. It could be crushing that weight, encompassing all the history that the land had ever witnessed, the summation of the lives and deaths of all those who had walked it before. But William [his great nephew] barely even knew the station – he hadn’t smelled it or touched it or felt the terrible age in its bones …

The irony is that this is a man who loves his land, but selfishly and greedily. There are indigenous people who own this land and Native Title is being enacted. His daughter says:

This law is brand new, it has to be interpreted by judges. Maybe the Kuran people haven’t kept up their presence, but if they argue that eighty years ago their entire male population was killed off while trying to – then what? What humane person isn’t going to consider that a reasonable excuse, no matter what the letter of the law might say?

This is a complex novel with no easy ending …

And I have ranged far from what inspired me to write this post but it comes down to this: we have a long way to go before we (non-indigenous people) can feel comfortable about our love of our place. We need the arts to help us through it … I suspect Nigel would agree.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Noongar/Nyungar, and the importance of place

Conceptions of home and understanding of place are the central issues in Noongar author Kim Scott‘s Miles Franklin award winning novel, That deadman dance, which I reviewed last year. From the opening pages of the novel Scott explores notions of home, as the white settlers confront the indigenous inhabitants of the land they are trying to colonise.

Here is the main indigenous character, Bobby:

And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water.  He crouched to it, touched the stone, and sensed home. Something in the wind, in plants and land he’d at least heard of, and increasing signs of home. There were paths, and he knew where there’d be food […] Bobby closed his eyes, felt the wind tugging at his hair and rushing in the whorls of his ears. Breathed this particular air. Ngayn Wabalanginy moort, nitjak ngan kaarlak … Home (pp. 235, 238)

And here is the main would-be pastoralist settler, Chaine:

With no boat Chaine felt his loneliness … It was land he’d hoped for – pastoral country, with good water and close to a sheltered anchorage. But he had tried and been disappointed. It deflated him. (p. 239)

These occur during a long trek which Chaine and Bobby make when Chaine’s boat hits a reef and founders. Chaine thinks Flinders’ journal will provide the guidance he needs while Bobby, in country unfamiliar to him, relies on his understanding of the land’s clues. “This way, we go this way, follow the creek away from this spring and this estuary”, says Bobby, while Chaine insists “they keep to the coast … so he could catch sight of the sea every now and then”.

noongar1

Courtesy John D Croft, English Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All this is to introduce a fascinating seminar I attended today, at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It was given by Associate Professor Len Collard, a Nyungar* scholar researching Nyungar place names, using an ARC research grant. The English title of his talk was “I am creating the knowledge of Country place names: from the past to now and into the future”.  His aim is to document Nyungar place names in Western Australia’s southwest on the basis that naming place confirms or establishes “ownership”. The project aims at

  • supporting reconciliation,
  • encouraging environmental understanding,
  • helping tourism ventures, and
  • “closing the gap of Australianness” by creating a common understanding of local indigenous geography.

You’ve probably noticed the alternative spellings I’ve been using to name the people of this area. Alternative spellings are a significant challenge for both indigenous and non-indigenous people studying indigenous culture.  Collard made an interesting point regarding variant spellings. He says that a common reason given is that  the Nyungar (like many indigenous people) encompass several language groups and that the different spellings could therefore have come from different pronunciations, putting, in a sense, the onus of problematic spelling at the feet of the indigenous people. However, he suggests there is another possibility. His project is based on post-colonial historical records produced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by settlers from a wider variety of countries – England, Ireland, Holland, France, and so on. The different spellings, he suggests, could be due to the way these recorders transcribed, using their own linguistic knowledge, the word/s they heard.

Early in his talk he talked of the “history of constructing the negative” in which indigenous people have been reduced to the role of sidekick in post-colonial Australia. The reason for variant spellings could be read as an example of this. Another is the attitude to indigenous trackers. Their knowledge, Collard said, was critical to the survival of the colony and yet, as Scott shows in his novel, this knowledge was either used ungraciously or, at worst, ignored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, not only for its specific content but also for the way his scholarship intersects with contemporary indigenous literature. Home, land, place … they are important to all of us … recognising and respecting that is a good place to start. I’ll conclude with Bobby near the end of the novel:

On time we share kangaroo wallaby tammar quokka yongar wetj woylie boodi wetj koording kamak kaip … Too many. But now not like that, and sheep and bullock everywhere and too many strangers wanna take things for themselves and leave nothing […] And now we strangers in our special places.