‘Australian Literature’ is dead. Long live Australian literature.

Wellington, NZ

I’m just back from the 2012 conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which was held in Victoria University’s Rutherford House in Wellington, New Zealand, from 4-6 July. It was my first academic conference – and it was fascinating, thought provoking and very fun.

It also confirmed for me what I’d suspected: that despite reports to the contrary, ‘Australian Literature’ is alive, well and kicking in the universities of Australia. It’s being read and taught by passionate academics and studied by keen, intelligent students. The conference papers ranged from discussions of 19th century writers such as Rosa Praed to the novels of Alex MillerKim Scott and Alexis Wright, with papers on the films (made and unmade) of Patrick White and the fiction of Christina Stead and Shirley Hazzard among many others.

There’s no way I can cover the whole conference in one blog post – and there were three sessions run concurrently so I could only attend 1/3 of the papers – but here’s my overview of some of it.

Wellington airport, runway

1. By way of setting: a magnitude 7 earthquake struck just as we were going to bed on the first night. So far, so unnerving. And thus I learnt that Wellington is built on a fault line or two. Wellington is also extremely beautiful. From the air its airport runway appears to be the only piece of level ground for miles around – and, like Wellington, it is surrounded by water.

2. On the first morning there was a two-hour workshop for postgrad students. We discussed our work, our progress, our sense of the endlessness of our research, directed by academics Brigitta Olubas, our New Zealand host Lydia Wevers, Elizabeth Webby and David Gilbey.

Brigitta noted that all our work happened to be focused on ideas of space and place, themes that might not have come up in Australian literary studies ten years ago. Although, as she added, perhaps that was due as much to the conference theme – ‘The Colonies’ – as to any sea change in research interests. We were all also concerned in some way with hauntings, the gothic, ghosts. Elizabeth Webby said there was a ‘return of the repressed’ in Australian literary studies and literature.

Brigitta asked whether there was a gendered relation to space and writing about it: whether men set out to write the big picture, the nation, while women wrote the local, the particular – although both ultimately addressed similar themes.

We concluded that place and space had taken over as ways of defining national literature rather than a literary canon – which is interesting in light of recent discussion about Australian classics (eg by Text’s Michael Heyward) and calls for a clearly defined Australian literary canon (as Ken Gelder recently discussed in response to an Age editorial).

Lydia Wevers said that in New Zealand two cultures coexist – the Maori and the Pakeha – always in a space of negotiation. And that it’s very good for human beings to feel unsettled about our place in the world.

3. We were given an official Maori welcome – a Powhiri – in Victoria University’s Te Herenga Waka Marae, a beautiful building whose interior was lined with carvings of Maori ancestors, woven panels, carved beams. The history of the building and the stories of the people associated with it – including of the master carver – were fascinating and inspiring. I was also intrigued to learn that the initial funding for the building came not from New Zealand but from American private benefactors.

4. At the conference welcome function Gillian Mears was awarded the prestigious ALS Gold Medal for her novel Foal’s Bread.

5. Martin Edmond gave the Barry Andrews address about trans Tasman relations, which he called ‘The Village’. He ranged far and wide, weaving together the many complex threads – human, literary, artistic, geographic, historical – which bind Australia and New Zealand together, starting with the New Zealand painter Colin McCahon. He talked of McCahon’s first impressions of Australia. The landscape inspired him: trees with no undergrowth, the distance, blue trees, soil tinged red. But the painters did not. Australian painting disappointed him. At the National Gallery of Victoria he was struck by paintings by Cezanne, Rembrandt, Pissarro, Turner – ‘the rest don’t count’.

Edmond noted that several maps published in 16th century Europe gave Australia the Polynesian name Ulimaroa; that in the 1890s New Zealand was invited to join the Australian federation; that Patrick White sent Janet Frame a fan letter in 1963 but she was so overwhelmed it took her over 20 years to reply.

Edmond quoted John Tranter on New Zealand and Australia: ‘If we’re so alike, why don’t we influence each other more? Because we’re so alike. Because we’re so different.’ And concluded by quoting Jung: over time colonising people inherit the unconscious of the colonised; and with this powerful observation: ‘Now I know that the only place any of us can really be at home is in the world.’

Elizabeth McMahon (L) and Elizabeth Webby (R)

6. Elizabeth Webby gave a brilliant and hilarious talk on Patrick White and film – mostly about films that weren’t made, based on either his novels (especially Voss) or his screenplays which are now in the Patrick White archive in the National Library. Webby hopes to publish her paper, which will require permission from the Patrick White estate. I really hope it is published, because it included quotes from a screenplay in which White spoofed Margaret Fink’s film of My Brilliant Career, as well as the cheesy abomination he was convinced would be made of Voss should it ever reach the screen (the rights were sold to Harry Miller in the 1960s). Possible actors once mooted to play the German explorer Voss included Donald Sutherland, with Diana Rigg as Laura Trevelyan, directed by Tim Burton.

7. Elizabeth McMahon gave an extraordinary keynote speech, the Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture, called ‘Australia the Island Continent: A new literary geography’. She started by thinking about the fate of national literatures in a globalising world – ‘many things challenge the fate of national literature in this moment which we call postnational’ – noting that literature’s origins lie not in classical rhetoric but in literary modernism and literature’s institutionalisation in 19th century colleges and in universities after the First World War. The institutionalisation of Australian literary studies is even more recent. The first chair in Australian literature was founded at the University of Sydney in 1962 by private benefaction.

I’ll have to devote a whole blog to McMahon’s speech, it was so rich and wide-ranging. As Elizabeth Webby so succinctly summarised it:  it began with despair and despondency and ended with wonder.

8. ALS president Bernadette Brennan announced a new Australian literature initiative, in partnership with the Copyright Agency’s (now CA, formerly CAL) Cultural Fund, the ASA and the University of New England: ‘Reading Australia 200‘, an online resource which will provide comprehensive information about 200 works of Australian literature. The list of 200 works has been chosen – and covers novels, short stories, drama, poetry, children’s books, narrative/history, opinion, memoir, biography, essays, anthologies and miscellaneous – but the project will be launched with three works: Anna Funder’s Stasiland with an introductory essay by Malcolm Knox; Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air with an essay by Kim Scott; and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

9. There were so many other fascinating papers, including Brigitta Olubas’s ‘The last curve of the globe’: Wellington in The Great Fire, on Shirley Hazzard and Wellington; Fiona Morrison’s ‘Modernist/Provincial/Pacific: Christina Stead, Katherine Mansfield and the expatriate hometown’; Kenneth Stewart’s ‘A Portrait of the Modernist as a Young “Exile”: Henry Handel Richardson and James Joyce’ (which proposed provocative connections between the two exiled writers, including their shared love of Ibsen, whom Joyce first read in a translation by one E. Robertson, who would later take the pseudonym of Henry Handel Richardson); Julieanne Lamond’s ‘Australians and Americans: they are all the same’: Rosa Praed, colonial identity and America (from which I learnt that Rosa Praed was the very first Australian writer ever to be published in the United States, and prolifically); and Lucy Treep’s ‘The written word as Outsider Architecture: A sense of place as representations of vulnerability/resilience’, in which Treep considered Eve Langley’s novels as outsider architecture, as a ‘rustic hut’ she built to reside in (psychically), which I thought was a most resonant and apt observation. Treep also said ‘imagining a home is as political an act as imagining a nation’.

I hope to have time to write more about these and other papers – but suffice it to say, this conference convinced me that Australian literature is in excellent hands. Wellington rocked.

A Wellington bar, after midnight

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20 Responses to ‘Australian Literature’ is dead. Long live Australian literature.

  1. Oh dear, now I’m horribly nostalgic for ASAL. Thanks, Jane, great summary of the conference. (I wrote my PhD thesis on ‘place and displacement’ in Australian fiction. It was submitted in 1980, pretty much pre-Theory and a horribly unfashionable topic back then.)

    • That’s fascinating Kerryn – I really must track down your PhD thesis. What writers did you focus on?
      I hope your nostalgia will inspire you to go to ASAL 2013, being held in Wagga, NSW, almost near Adelaide.

  2. Susan Lever says:

    Thanks for this great summary, Jane. The pedant in me has to say it’s E. Robertson, not Robinson.

    • Thanks SO much Susan. I love the pedant in you. I did try to check the name ‘E. Robinson’ last night because it didn’t sound quite right, no wonder I couldn’t find it. I’m very pleased you corrected me!

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, and yes please, more please!

  4. perkinsy says:

    Great overview of the conference! I look forward to your future posts about the conference. I’m heading to the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide tomorrow. I’m sure there will be similar themes arising there. We’ll be tweeting away on #OzHA2012 and I’m sure there will be blog posts come out of it (I’m planning to write some).

    A question – Given the society’s interest in New Zealand (the conference was in NZ and included NZ presenters and NZ literature) why isn’t it called the Australasian Literature Society?

  5. Thanks so much for letting me know Yvonne, how fascinating that you’re heading to a similar conf in Adelaide. You wear many hats. (Are you also an accountant?!) Will keep my eye out for the tweets and blog posts.

    And very good question. This was the first time the conference had been held in New Zealand and had a broad trans Tasman scope. Which did give rise murmurs about the possibility of extending the name to ‘Australasian’.

    • perkinsy says:

      I moved on from accounting many years ago, but I find that the accounting experience has given me skills which I continue to use today.

      • Yes, I’m sure (that you continue to use skills you learnt through accounting experience). I suspect I should have known you’d moved on from accounting and into history. And I’ve just found your wonderful blog. I love your thoughts on sharing academic knowledge with wider world. So important. 🙂

  6. Nathanael O'Reilly says:

    Thanks for the great summary. I have been wanting to attend an ASAL conference for years, but I haven’t yet been able to make it fit into my schedule. Wagga is quite an interesting choice for next year! My Ph.D. also focused on space and place, coincidentally.

  7. Fascinating, Nathanael, that your PhD is also focused on space and place. I hope you can make the conference in Wagga next year for more discussion. Where are you studying?

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  9. Rowena Lennox says:

    Hi Jane, thanks for this update – it’s very informative and upbeat, and good to know, too, all the organisation name changes!

  10. Rowena Lennox says:

    Thanks for the links, too, to Michael Heyward’s and Ken Gelder’s articles. I liked Gelder’s response to Heyward’s piece (I read it and wept) but it was, I think, as Gelder says, probably a bit disingenuous. Is it just me or is there a lack of organisational cooperative spirit in Australia? I’ve noticed it in all sorts of facets of life: booking trains (as compared to Canada), activist circles (as compared to Britain), commuter cycling (as compared to Britain). Sometimes I think this lack of cooperation is related to ego, sometimes to inertia. Of course there’s a huge amount of generosity of spirit and zest for life here that is unique and unsurpassed but in some ways it seems that in Australia we have to reinvent the wheel every time we do something…

  11. Thanks Ro. And very interesting your question about ‘lack of organisational cooperative spirit’ in Australia. And your experience of more of it in Canada and Britain.
    In relation to Australian literature, it seems to me there’s a range of parties interested in it and its reading, study, promotion – publishers (trade as well as academic), schools, universities, the media, cultural institutions like the Wheeler Centre – who don’t seem to work in concert enough. Whether this is particularly Australian or not I have no idea.
    I was very interested to hear at the conference that ALS is actively promoting more conversation between secondary and tertiary teachers about Australian literature and what and how it’s taught (which was one reason the new Chair of Australian Literature was given to UWA http://www.uwa.edu.au/person/philip.mead), which seems an excellent idea to me.

  12. Rowena Lennox says:

    That sounds like a great idea – promoting conversation between secondary and tertiary teachers about Aust lit… It’s an ongoing thing. It’s so long since I studied literature at school and uni, but it would be great to come at it without the cultural cringe (that Heyward wrote about in his article). Also without trumpet blowing, too, I hope. Reading an article on the weekend about how well Australians organise themselves in relation to sport… Shame it can’t carry over to other areas. Maybe it’s about funding, too.

  13. Yes, it’s such a great idea to promote the secondary-tertiary conversation. I met two impressive former high school teachers, sisters, at the conference who are now at UWA and doing just that: Clare and Joanne Jones (Joanne’s also the secretary of ALS). I spoke to Clare more because she was at the postgrad workshop and she had fascinating things to say about national/transnational literature and the place of Australian literature in new (forthcoming) national curriculum.
    Totally agree would be wonderful to study it at high school w/o cringe or hyperbole. Not sure I know many who’ve been so lucky.
    Don’t even mention sport.

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  15. Pingback: Bookending 2012: From women’s writing to … Australia’s forgotten women writers | bookish girl

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