Writing the Australian Landscape, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Naomi Klein’s counter-narrative to neoliberalism – and The Disappearing

As I wrote here way back in June, I’m in extreme work mode until the end of 2014 (a writing marathon) and won’t be writing here much, but I do plan to add news now and then, and blog about the classics. So in news this week:

Unknown1. The fantastic, thought provoking ‘Writing the Australian Landscape’ conference I went to at the National Library of Australia last month is now online: podcasts and papers from the 2-day event are available here. I especially loved Bill Gammage’s keynote presentation ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth‘, which drew on his award winning book of the same name. Gammage made some nuanced distinctions between ‘landscape’, ‘country’ and ‘place’ which are important, I think, and very useful for understanding issues of land and sovereignty that continue to plague this nation. Here’s how he opened:

‘Writing the Australian landscape’, a flyer titles our conference, and adds, ‘how do we write about our country?’ and ‘how [do] we imagine and understand place’. In Australia, thinking ‘landscape’, ‘country’ and ‘place’ virtually interchangeable are hallmarks of a migrant society. This is obvious because of the skeleton at our feast, the contrast between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of seeing land. Both can agree that ‘there’s no place like home’, because ‘place’ here means ‘a place’, a particular place, home. But non-Aboriginal writing commonly separates ‘place’ and ‘home’, two centuries ago because that was literally so, now often as proof that Australia is multicultural. I remember Amirah Inglis agreeing that her 1983 book An un-Australian Childhood had a better chance of being published than if she’d had an Australian childhood. ‘Place’ and ‘home’ are far apart in Amirah’s book. Sometimes mind does follow body to a new home, but equally some, born here and not, accept being migrants. This splits us all from the land, making us as likely to equate ‘country’ with ‘nation’ as with ‘place’. Immigration turns us sideways: the national effort focuses on integrating them with us, rather than us with the land. That’s been broadly so for 225 years now, and it’s why most of us live in cities, whereas most Aborigines don’t, or if they do it’s commonly because a city has come to them. It takes time and memory to convert ‘landscape’ to ‘a place’, then to ‘place’, and finally to ‘country’. We have far to go.

Unknown-12. Alexis Wright’s third novel, The Swan Book, was published last month. I reviewed it for the Sydney Review of Books. It blew my mind. Wright will be talking about The Swan Book with Sophie Cunningham on Thursday 10 October at the Wheeler Centre, which has just announced its new programme (which is so exciting it makes me wish I lived in Melbourne).

3. Naomi Klein gave a brilliant speech this week which outlined a powerful counter-narrative to neoliberalism. I think she nailed it. A small ray of light in a week of unmitigated Australian Federal election dread and despair. (Mine.)

4. I heard this week from the multitalented Tamryn Bennett about The Red Room Company‘s new app and poetry project The Disappearing. As the website says, it’s ‘an ambitious new app that maps all of Australia with poetry’, using poetry and technology to explore Australia’s hidden, disappearing stories. What a beautiful idea.

5. I’m heading to Hobart on Sunday for a fascinating interdisciplinary ‘collaboratory’ – ‘A History of Heritage: Emotions in Blood, Stone and Land‘ – where I’ll be talking about Alexis Wright’s first novel Plains of Promise and Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin Award winning Benang: From the heart. Two extraordinary novels.

And up next – next week I hope – another extraordinary novel about heritage, among many things: Henry James’s Wings of the Dove.



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