Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Learning to Love A Sunburnt Country, or Australian Fiction for Newbies.

So last week Laura reviewed one of my favourite books, Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. Ethel Turner is a bit of a hero of mine. At a time when "Australian" children's books were mostly written by British dudes who had never been to Australia and were always about a recently transplanted English kid who tumbles through the bush and finds himself at the pointy end of an aboriginal's spear and does some Boy's Adventure stuff and ends with a rousing game of cricket. Ms Turner called bullshit on this because Australian children are not like British kids, as she details in the intro to Seven Little Australians.
If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to 'Sandford and Merton' or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are. 
In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks may be paragons of virtue, I know little about them. But in Australia a model child is--I say it not without thankfulness--an unknown quantity. It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children's spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history. 
There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children.
And in a single introduction an entire national identity was born. Well, we had our national identity pretty well sown up before this book was released in 1894 but it reiterates the most important parts pretty spectacularly. And the book only gets better, so read it please. All of this is a long way of saying that it is thanks to Laura and Alley that I'm writing this post because they both said they were devastated they hadn't read more Australian fiction and were weeping rivers of tears and asking would I please help them? Or at least that's how I remember it happening.

I actually touched on this subject earlier this year in an Armchair BEA post about children's literature. I wrote specifically about picture, children and YA books written by Australians, although not necessarily take place in Australia. So I might use that as a jumping off point, and write a series of posts which cover the early history of fiction in Australia (because it's fascinating), as well as looking at more contemporary authors and culminating with the mother of all lists. I'll try to keep from going overboard but I spent A LOT of time at university studying just this so it's possible I'll go too far (sorry not sorry). Also, because I'm pretty proud of a lot of our female writers (did you know the first novel published in Australia was written by a woman?) it's possible this will be a super biased list and you should probably check out the Australian Gov site for a more complete history.

So even if you only really want to read contemporary Australian books you should probably still read some of the writings of our bush poets. Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson are the two main dudes in this category. You've all heard the song Waltzing Matilda right? Well that's a Banjo Paterson poem and along with The Man From Snowy River is probably one of the most famous Australian bush poems.  Paterson and Lawson were pretty different when it came to their writing, Paterson favoured a romantic approach to working and living in the bush, seeing it as a motivating strength to our national identity while Lawson was more of a realist and tended to be a little bit more political with his poems. If you have some time you should check out the shit they used to throw at each other either through their poems or the articles they wrote for Australian papers. Also, Henry Lawson was the son of noted suffragist and feminist Louisa Lawson which is probably why Henry turned out so damn stellar, and is still considered Australia's greatest writer.

Speaking of feminists and Henry Lawson. Miles Franklin (pseudonym for Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) is probably one of Australia's most noted female authors. She's best known for her 1901 novel My Brilliant Career which she wrote as a TEENAGER. She then passed it on to Henry Lawson who gave it to his publishers and BOOM. She bequeathed her estate to create the Miles Franklin Literary Award which is THE award to win if you're an Australian author, and a pretty good place to look if you're after books that are about Australia and by Australians. And still speaking of feminists and Henry Lawson, READ BARBARA BAYNTON. She's amazing. She basically grabbed all of the bush poets by the ear and said "what about the ladies huh? How do they fit into this idyllic view of life in the bush?" (except Henry Lawson whose short story The Drover's Wife covered similar ground - told you he was stellar). If you read anything in this list make it her short story The Chosen Vessel, (originally titled The Tramp) which is basically a harrowing gothic-esque short story about a woman alone on a bush homestead who is harassed and threatened by a passing tramp. It's terrifying and reminds me a lot of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. If you want to read more of Baynton (and I suggest you do) get hold of Bush Tales which is a collection of short stories that includes The Chosen Vessel and Squeaker's Mate (equally good and terrifying). This review from ANZ Lit Lovers covers more than I could ever hope to.

 Joseph Furphy writing under the name Tom Collins published the novel Such is Life which remains one of Australia's best known and regarded novels. It's written in the vernacular of the day, so it can be tricky to get into (think Trainspotting) but it's a humourous, realistic (realism being the 19th century genre du jour) novel that presents something of an all encompassing look at the Australian way of life. The title, by the way, comes from Ned Kelly's supposed final words as he was about to be hanged. David Unaipon was 1000 kinds of awesome. Not only was he a writer and an inventor (trivia fans -he's on our $50 note) but he was indigenous. And this is a big deal because he was the first published indigenous writer, and he was responsible for breaking through a lot of the "savage native" stereotypes that existed at the time. He was often referred to as the Australian Leonardo Di Vinci which is a killer compliment to give a scientist.

Ruth Park is technically from New Zealand, however she began writing after she moved to Australia to marry author Darcy Niland. She was a prolific author, owing apparently to the lack of books in her life growing up. Her book Playing Beattie Bow was a favourite of my mums and she passed that down to me as soon as I could read. However I think her book The Harp in the South was probably her most famous novel both in Australia and internationally. And because I'm completely shallow, you should check out her picture because dayum the lady was stunning.

Who else needs mentioning? Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) was a novelist best known for her 1910 coming of age novel The Getting of Wisdom. Marcus Clarke's novel For the Term of His Natural Life explored life as a convict in early Australian settlement. May Gibbs wrote the beloved Snugglepot and Cuddlepie children's stories and Dorothy Hewitt was a poet, playwright and novelist followed by controversy. Then of course there is poet Dorothea McKellar whose second verse of her poem My Country gave Bill Bryson the title for his travel book on Australia.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
And I think I'll end this post here, not only because it is already HUGE but because you can find most of these authors online and for free (especially the short story and poetry writers) and the next bunch will necessitate library and book store searches. But hopefully this has been somewhat interesting and you don't feel like I've just regurgitated a bunch of essays at you. This is actually my favourite era of Australian writing because it's so fundamental to the writing of contemporary Australian authors and contemporary Australian society. I don't think people tend to think of Australia as a place for progressive thought especially early in our history (and for the most part, as a country, we weren't) but the most prolific authors from this era were all republicans, nationalists, communists, feminists and were constantly challenging the societal norms of the day. And that's something to be proud of.

Next week I'll look at authors who published after WW2, and I'll follow it with a final post that'll basically just be a list of books to read I think. If any Aussie bloggers are reading let me know if I've missed anything out or gotten any of the details wrong.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...