Type
Essay
Category
Reading
Writing

The forest and its undergrowth

A country’s bounty is the shared stories that have created pride and its strength of culture … Very little will penetrate the thinking, attitudes and values of a family blinded by the bright light of its own stories … it is a good idea to evaluate what is new in the archives from time to time, to understand what our stories might be doing to other people. To face the realities of who we are, what we have become …

Alexis Wright

The PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature has attracted ill-judged criticism from reviewers who would have preferred a treasury of great writing rather than the comprehensive picture that this collection gives us of 225 years of Australian writing. The new Cambridge History of Australian Literature, on the other hand, has been received much more calmly. It contains several excellent essays, but as a whole does not provide a single perspective on the achievements of our writers. Rather, its contributors are divided between those who see literature as an imaginative response to history or direct experience and those who see it as a response to the expectations of readers and the demands of publishers.

The way a story begins determines the way we accept it. This is as true for collections as it is for histories. Admittedly, most readers of the PEN/Macquarie Anthology will approach it selectively, making their own collection from the choices that match their particular purposes and interests (or those of their teachers). But for anyone who works through the PEN/Macquarie Anthology methodically, its ordering makes a clear statement about the canon and the place of Aboriginal writing within it. The anthology starts with the First Fleet and attempts at communication between the invaders and Indigenous peoples. Unlike its predecessor, the Macmillan Anthology of Australian Literature, the PEN/Macquarie Anthology does not offer traditional songs through the work of translators like the Berndts. Instead, we see the original inhabitants through the eyes of the settlers. These initial pieces are variously curious, apprehensive or sympathetic, but they have the effect of denying an Aboriginal past preceding settlement. Apart from a brief note from Bennelong, we are more than fifty years into the anthology’s accounts of settlement before we come across any direct Indigenous voices in the form of two letters to the colonial secretary of Van Diemen’s Land. The inclusion of letters, petitions and speeches allows readers to follow the process by which Aboriginals acquired and shaped English, as well as used it to meet and challenge European cultural expectations. As we come closer to the present, the collection presents more formal Aboriginal literary texts, thus showing them as autonomous actors shaping their own destiny as well as white perceptions of them. The anthology therefore represents not a European tradition extended by Aboriginal writing but the potential of a tradition brought together from both communities.

It could be argued that the same broad approach to writing should have been taken in relation to other non-English migrant cultures. The anthology has no letters from nineteenth-century Irish migrants or twentieth-century Afghani boat people, nor does it offer any petitions from the centres in which they were detained. Yet successive generations of non-English-speaking migrants, even if themselves in some cases illiterate, have come from literate cultures, and they or their children have given us writing that records their adaptations to a new land and culture. One glaring omission is Π.O., whose poetry records the vernacular of migrant communities that have manipulated English to make sense of their new experiences. Neither is there anything from Fotini Epanomitis or Beth Yahp, writers who both directly confront the peasant cultures from which their families came, nor from Gillian Bouras, herself a stranger as she follows her husband back to his people.

Writing in Australian Book Review in September 2009, Peter Craven condemned the PEN/Macquarie Anthology’s inclusion of writing, particularly Aboriginal writing, that does not fit the traditional conventions of the ‘literary’ (which he does not attempt to define or explain). His identification of the anthology’s purpose as introductory rather than canonical assumes that there is already an accepted canon and fails to recognise that the act of introduction is part of the process of establishment. As Robert Dixon explains on the anthology’s accompanying disc, the canon is a form of collective memory that is continuously changing and evolving through ongoing debate. Dixon illustrates with the examples of Patrick White, who fifty years ago challenged the ‘dun-coloured realism’ of traditional Australian writing, and Indigenous writing, which is now central to Australia’s literary culture. Craven refuses to acknowledge this second point, criticising not only the quality but also the quantity of Aboriginal writing included. He claims no American anthology would include a similar proportion of work by African American writers, thus seriously understating the importance of their work in American literature.

In a review in the Australian, Ivor Indyk showed a similar unease about the way the PEN/Macquarie Anthology extends the boundaries of the literary, but recognised the necessity of including less literary works as a context for those with more conventional merit. Yet we should take the argument further. An anthology is not merely a collection of great or not-so-great works; rather, it is a collection of individual pieces of writing that cohere to give an account of a society making sense of the reality it constantly reconstructs. Bennelong’s faltering attempts to adapt the English language to his social situation are as much a part of this as White’s account of the visiting Englishman’s attempts to understand Laura in Voss, even though White has the artistic ability to also summon the scene and moral context.

By contrast, the Cambridge History follows the pattern of The New Penguin Literary History of Australia, which first introduced to Australia the idea of a thematic general history rather than an account of successive writers and their influence on each other and their times. The Cambridge History firmly grounds its story of Australian literature in the European enlightenment and, particularly, the English tradition. Thus it opens with Ken Stewart’s examination of the monstrous and romantic allegorical images of the Southland within the European imagination and the neoclassical British roots of Australian literature before the gold rushes. Elizabeth Webby similarly explores how the construction of a local tradition began amid English models. Penny van Thoorn then provides an account of how Indigenous Australians used their own technology of literacy to refashion pre-existing practices for preserving and communicating lore and knowledge, thus interpolating new forms of Aboriginality. Van Thoorn establishes Australian culture as the product of separate traditions that continue to conflict in the present and, incidentally, makes nonsense of Clive James’ ignorant assertion at the launch of the PEN/Macquarie Anthology that Aboriginal society was ‘not noted for its literary tradition’. This essay establishes Australian culture as the product of separate traditions that continue to conflict in the present, rather than as the endpoint of the continuing, if interrupted, succession that Stewart and Webby have shown.

Although the essays by Stewart and Webby are both important for drawing attention to the global origins of Australian traditions, other settler societies, particularly in North America, have similar histories. Indeed, Australian writing of discovery, exploration and settlement shares with the American tradition an emphasis on hardship and disappointment. On the other hand, Australian writing lacks what Wayne Franklin, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, has identified as an ‘endurance of wonder beyond any disappointment’. Instead of visions of heroic freedom, Australian colonial intellectuals inherited a tradition of both Arcadian idealism from eighteenth-century pastoralism and genteel liberalism from Mill. These led to revulsion at the dirt and vice believed to characterise the cities and to a desire to withdraw into landscapes where nature is neither hostile to human purposes nor tamed to their achievements. In the PEN/Macquarie Anthology, we find the first of these tendencies in Paterson’s famous ‘vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended/and at night the glory of the everlasting stars’. Lawson, amongst others, rejected this affirmation, instead celebrating a stoicism that is close to despair. His classic ‘The Drover’s Wife’ records endurance against hardship, as the ‘sickly daylight breaks over the bush’. This qualifies any feeling of satisfaction in the temporary victory the woman has won over the constant threat of death. The feeling of imprisonment in a hostile land is even stronger in Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, in which the bush wife is the more vulnerable because she is a woman isolated in a harsh masculine environment. Miles Franklin’s Sybylla is similarly trapped by both the harsh land and the demands of family, but escapes by refusing to surrender to either. This gloom pervades the collection until well into the twentieth century, from Barcroft Boake’s deserts of dead men to Christopher Brennan’s romantic endurance of despair and the enlightenment scepticism of Henry Handel Richardson’s characters. Steele Rudd lightens the gloom with humour as he shifts attention from the nomadic workers to the settler and his family, and Ethel Turner takes clear delight in an urban family, but only John Shaw Neilson transcends the hardship to discover pure joy in the natural world.

In the Cambridge History, Tanya Dalziell explores questions of origins backwards from the present. Her examination of ‘Fiction in Australia to 1890’ opens daringly with a discussion of Nick Cave and John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition. She shows how nineteenth-century constructions of settlement and civilisation continue to shape perceptions of Australian history. The film gives an impression of historical authenticity only because its images are those we have learned to accept as representative of the colonial past. Such images entered Australian fiction, and thus the popular imagination, from the ideologies of imperialism and science and from the expectations of contemporary readers who were interested in learning about exotic places and possible emigration destinations. Even writing about colonial literature was motivated by the desire to collect, describe and classify and to distinguish truth from fiction. This was also, she argues, a part of the process by which science came to be seen as separate from the humanities and the factual truths of history as separate from the imaginative truths of literature. Fiction was valued both for its humanistic generalities and for its local specificities, values that Dalziell sees as conflicting. The colonial market was so limited and was largely controlled by British publishers who demanded that writers produce the popular images of Aboriginals, convicts, the Irish and the bush that continue to make demands on the politics of the present. Through these we fashion a contemporary identity in the glass of a fictive history.

The fashioning of an Australian literary identity remains a central theme in the following chapters. Richard Lansdown shows us the Enlightenment myths of a universal humanity that governed the first settlers yielding to the individualistic psychology of romanticism, and its optimism giving way to the realism of the harsh landscape and horror at the supposed savagery of its inhabitants. An important chapter by Robert Dixon, ‘Australian Fiction and the World of Letters 1880–1950’, notes the extent to which writers developed their images of Australia in response to the lure of Europe and the exigencies of publishing, dominated as it was by the captivating imperial metropolis of London. He contrasts the figures of Christina Stead and Nettie Palmer, who travelled together to an international meeting of intellectuals against fascism in 1935, but otherwise journeyed in opposite directions. Stead became an international writer and lived in Paris, London and New York, mixing with the leading literary figures of the time and writing of Europe and America; Palmer, on the other hand, regularly visited London and learned from its thinkers, but returned to Australia and encouraged the development of a national literature within which writers would compete for international recognition. Dixon traces the way successive generations took part in this struggle between the national and the cosmopolitan. Imperial sentiments and the dominance of British publishers ensured that, although individual writers worked to emphasise national values, London standards prevailed for judging both a book’s literary worth and its Australian values. Australian nationalism was itself a form of modernity, satisfying an international interest in the development of a new nation. Dixon quotes Palmer’s recognition that the real conflict was not between nationalism and internationalism, but between the provincial and the cosmopolitan: ‘A society is provincial’, Palmer wrote, ‘only when it looks to some other centre to set its standards.’ Yet this is exactly what Nettie and Vance Palmer and their contemporaries were doing when they demanded international recognition for the Australian subjects they prescribed.

The actual contrast that Dixon shows is not so much between nationalists and internationalists as it is between writers who celebrated Australian traditions and those who were either critical of it or used it to provide a perspective on the global. In the case of PR ‘Inky’ Stephensen, this led to extreme nationalism and eventually to a kind of proto-Fascism based on an inward-turned provincialism. Peter Morton develops Dixon’s theme by tracing the careers of those Australians who settled in London permanently or for long periods of their careers. This was, he points out, comparatively easy in the period before separate Australian citizenship, a period in which many Australians thought of themselves as British. Yet while Britain mirrored their expectations, they did not always fit in, leading to a sense of a distinct Australian identity among the expatriates. Eventually, even Patrick White, perhaps the most famous of them, returned to Australia, where he again took up the great themes of settlement and exploration in ways that gave them a significance far beyond realism.

These chapters are important for what they show about the fashioning of an Australian literary identity by factors beyond actual writing, yet there is a strange absence from them. They deal with books and their readers, but not with what shaped these: in particular, war and depression. And there is a lack of engagement with the actual books, rather than with the critics who mediated their reception. The chapters show a history of literature, but they reduce Australia to a literary construct. They do not provide a literary history of the kind suggested in the earlier chapters dealing with poetry, short fiction and drama where individual texts are placed in their context.

This limitation certainly does not apply to the following chapter, in which Clare Bradford traverses the whole field of children’s literature to examine both the conditions that have shaped its production and the changing conditions of Australia that have engaged the writers. Starting her essay with an English narrator showing young Australians how to behave and prosper in a new country, she finishes with a writer from Asia showing, in narrative and symbol, the manifold ways Australia may present itself to the newcomer today. The books she examines construct many Australias, but together they present a narrative of change from imperial dependence to globalisation and from a fixed social and moral order to one of openness and plurality.

Robin Gerster then shows how Australian writers, until the last fifty years, represented Asia as a challenge to the moral security we find in early children’s writing. In identifying with British imperialism they absorbed its ugly racism. Although after the Second World War young Australian novelists, travel writers and journalists came to look to Asia for redemption from the evils of Britain and America, Gerster suggests that these attitudes are grounded in similarly racist assumptions about difference. He looks forward to a time when Australian writers born in Asia may have made all such distinctions irrelevant.

David McCooey explores how issues of identity have preoccupied autobiographical writing from the first colonial diarists, who were concerned with conveying information about this strange country, through the works that sought to establish a nationalist image, to the most recent autobiographies that examine the formation of identity among Indigenous Australians, women and immigrants.

David Carter investigates the institutional changes that occurred after 1950, examining the desires and interests compelling writers, publishers and editors through the period of post-Second World War nationalism and through the consolidation of national literary interests within universities; the establishment of canons of great writers and professional associations; the challenge to the national tradition and the separation of popular and professional modes of reading; the emergence of a festival and celebrity culture; and the dissipation of the national in the global. He concludes that Australian writing will continue to be produced, but that the idea of an Australian literature will retreat to a few niche publishers.

The chapters that trace developments in the different genres since 1950 explore the ways that the nationalism that dominated the postwar years was challenged first by a critical modernism associated particularly with Patrick White, then by postmodern challenges to both individual and national identity, and finally by increasingly various responses to cultural globalisation. Dennis Haskell organises his account of post-1950s poetry around the contradiction that as poetry has reached out to wider ranges of experience, so it has alienated the readers who might respond to it. The relevant distinction here is between valuing poetry for its intellectual complexity and for its accessibility. As he notes, this is also the contrast between the experimental form and the well-made poem that shares its feeling directly with its readers. John Kinsella writes of poetry as a part of the struggle for freedom in an age when globalism is robbing words of meaning. In a dazzling chapter in which his ideas spring ahead of his arguments, Kinsella writes of recent Australian poetry as a contest between those who form groups and those who strike out on their own, and resolves the debate between national and international by using the term ‘international regionalism’ to describe those who respect regional integrity while building conduits between regions and cultures of resistance and cooperation. He rejects Kenneth Slessor as the herald of modernism in Australia, giving this role instead to Ern Malley, thus ignoring the effect of this hoax in discrediting modernism. The chapter concludes by tracing the variety of poetic responses to change, dispossession, migration and globalisation. Susan Lever gives a similar account about recent Australian fiction, although she notes that as Australian writers have turned away from nationalism and from the land to the city, they have retained a distinctively Australian style, characterised by an extravagant and untutored narrative voice or by a trust in language rather than narrative to reveal meaning. This has gone alongside a renewed concern, prompted by the strength of Aboriginal writing, in the critical reinterpretation of Australian history. Richard Nile and Jason Ensor extend the study of Australian fiction by examining the way it has been moulded by the publishing industry, including pulp publishing, and the changing tastes of readers. Finally, Philip Mead questions the continuing usefulness of national identity as a concept for interpreting individual works or literary forms. Instead, he shows how the idea of the nation is being questioned by the recognition of diversity and broken into the local and the regional as the concept of country succeeds the idea of the land. Yet he concludes his survey by noting that writers have ‘always had slippery and distrustful relations to entities like nation’ and that their responses to the specifics of Australian places and traditions will continue to require historians and critics to rethink their theories and understandings of location.

The PEN/Macquarie Anthology gives readers the opportunity to rethink these ideas of identity. Great fun can be had debating particular inclusions and exclusions. Peter Craven does so at great length, and hints at the interesting anthology of great writing he might produce if given the opportunity. I agree with many of his preferred choices and deplored omissions. But he misses the point of this anthology, which is to give an account of Australian writing as a whole, not just of its high points. As well as the giants of the forest, it shows us the undergrowth without which the forest would not exist. It shows settler writing progressing from an interest in the new land and visions of the future, through hardship and compensatory ideals of democracy, to assertions of identity and its later disintegration into explorations of diversity. Provoked by this growth at their expense, Aboriginal writers have written a separate story of the destruction of Aboriginal society and the development of an Indigenous literature in English. This emerges as a complex body of writing and performance that reconstructs history and tradition to make strong political demands on the present. The biographical note on Bill Neidjie, whose native language died with him, reminds us of the cost of this development in the loss of so many particular cultures. The rise of Indigenous writing from members of his and following generations reflects the emergence of an Aboriginal nation from the many nations that had existed at the time of settlement. The anthology intertwines this work with settler writing, from the anonymous author of ‘The Native’s Lament’ to Judith Wright’s elegies for a defenceless, gentle people and Xavier Herbert’s savage indictment of the building of ‘civilization’ on ‘the most fertile and pleasant part of the coast and the bones of half the Karrapillua Tribe’.

The first real turning point in the settler narrative in this anthology is Patrick White. The extract from Voss takes language to a new level of meaning. We come to it through the classicism of AD Hope, the realism of Judah Waten and the jewelled prose of Hal Porter, each of whom is concerned with the doubleness of life: Hope with the divided self, Waten with the divided society, Porter with the division of surface and interior. With White there is a simultaneous division of perception and the self. We can see this the more clearly because the extract is torn from its context in his novel and presented instead in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries. The land appears in it, refracted through Laura’s vicarious memory, not saturated in human experience and spiritual significance, as in Judith Wright, nor as hostile and destructive, as in Baynton or Lawson, but as an indifferent environment where individuals find their own truth.

Although many writers after White continued to follow the bush tradition, his work opened readers to new approaches, and so writers increasingly came to show the land, the cities at its edge and the people they have bred as troubling or, in the words of the history, ‘uncanny’ and ‘unhomely’. Francis Webb and Vincent Buckley find a metaphysical or spiritual dimension to new-world cities. Jacob Rosenberg makes his testimony to the Holocaust a part of our narrative in a way that Patrick White, writing as an observer (in a fiction not included here), could not. Fay Zwicky juxtaposes Karl Marx and Tiananmen Square as she reflects on the sources of modern violence. In another poem, recollecting how she varied the traditional trip home to Europe by making a voyage on a Dutch tramp steamer to Indonesia, she shows how the individual is implicated in the whole history of their time:

it’s possible to be in one place, also somewhere else,
possible to let things happen over and over, possible
to stick in silence to pain’s colours and, if it’s in you,
transmit poems, burning, angry, frightened, loving, yearning

Aboriginal writers like Rita Huggins provide an idyllic view of their life in their country before settlement and of the brutality with which this life was uprooted and the children stolen. Dorothy Hewett renews the democratic tradition, but then widens it to rewrite European mythology in feminist terms. Donald Horne, writing nostalgically of his childhood, finds in the Anzac spirit a sign of failed nationhood. The inland deserts that had tried Voss become for Horne a symbol of this failure: ‘the dead frontier, the land of the dogged gesture’.

As the concern with national identity dissipates, there is an increasing awareness of the formation of individual identity. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, swinging in a darkened park, considers how ‘things exist supremely; all our values cohere in things.’ Barry Humphreys recalls the brutalities and class enmities of his short but bleak experience of state schooling and how it implanted a lifelong wish for vengeance that may explain the tone of much of his satire. In a deeply felt essay on the place of his childhood, David Malouf explains how ‘the elements of a place and our inner lives cross and illuminate one another, how we interpret space, how we mythologise spaces and through that … find our way into culture.’ His description of the vivid, sometimes threatening reality of Brisbane, the effect of wooden houses where everything is open and at the same time secret, contrasts with Humphreys’ descriptions of the cold, brick houses of his childhood Camberwell and puts paid to any idea of a single Australian type.

The theme of universal violence implicating Australia through its origins and participation continues in Randolph Stow’s picture of a peaceful childhood shadowed by images of a distant war, Thomas Keneally’s complementary pictures of people controlled by the tyrannical whim of another in a convict colony and a wartime ghetto, and Bob Randall’s song lamenting the fate of a ‘Brown Skin Baby’. This theme takes phantasmagoric forms in Inga Clendinnen’s account of the spectres of war and death that visit her as she endures deep surgery and its consequences. Her recollections could have been written anywhere, but not at any time. The violence now occurs within the mind and body of the writer, who becomes a site for a history that simultaneously threatens her being and accuses her of complicity in the state of the world. Her completely personal memoir can be read as a metaphor for a contemporary Australia that finds itself in a world beyond forgiveness or understanding.

The second turning point of the anthology comes with the ‘Generation of 68’. However, the arrangement of the collection obscures this change, with authors scattered across its pages as a result of being arranged by date of birth. Before reaching John Tranter, the reader first encounters Thomas Shapcott and Les Murray, who both revert to the pastoral tradition, although with interesting differences. Shapcott’s ‘City of Home’ is childhood nostalgia, but also a place of nothing, either because it has been emptied or because it has never existed. His tribute to Judith Wright finds in her words landmarks that lead him to the spiritual significance of the land, which possesses and is possessed, even if not owned. For Murray, the country is not merely an escape from the city, but a complex metaphor for the possibilities of modern life for both good and evil. In prose fiction, Frank Moorhouse renovates the short story to accommodate one form of modernism. Like Lawson, he writes in a style that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, author and narrator. His story takes us into the bush, but a very different bush from Lawson’s dry country. The bush where Moorhouse flees is sanctioned wilderness, which he uses to enter into dialogue with his disapproving family and himself. At the end he is driven away not by drought but by rain, escaping back into the urban accoutrements of his car, bourbon and the radio. By contrast, Gerald Murnane employs a solipsistic prose that seeks to follow the rhythms of images and feelings that originate in his inner self and shape themselves to a meaning that explains nothing: ‘it only shows me how complicated everything is.’

These writers are followed by the wave of feminists who had been freed to write as they did by the counterculture and the rise of feminism globally, and in Australia by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Greer is represented by an extract from her much later Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, where she directs her invective against the destruction of the values of rural Australia by modernity, symbolised by road trains and rubbish. The measure of her criticism is a surprisingly nostalgic affection for the people of the bush. Elizabeth Jolley and Olga Masters started publishing later, but because of their birth dates both appear earlier. Masters writes realist fiction, but with a twist to a woman’s perspective. Jolley, writing of night nursing back in England, shows a woman successfully and mischievously escaping the constraints forced on her by the conventions of her job. This apparently objective style is taken even further by Helen Garner, who tells of a man sending his child to sleep by telling her a comforting fairy tale, only to reveal in the last line his feeling of the vulnerability of her innocence in a male world. In another story, the disconnected paragraphs force the reader to supply the connections that the characters refuse. A third, in her mode of fiction as reportage, focuses on mortuary attendants, with the writer as observer, maintaining sanity only by keeping at bay the strong emotion the story nevertheless invokes.

The writers who started publishing in the seventies break with tradition and few are passionate nationalists. Robert Dessaix writes of a city that is both completely real and a creature of his imagination. Others care deeply for particular places. Apart from Robert Adamson’s romantic invocations of the Hawkesbury and Robert Drewe’s brief mention of the surf off Cottesloe, there is little mention of the coast. Peter Carey turns to small town Australia, at the same time writing a grim warning for people who see art imitating life. Barry Hill recalls with affection, but not nostalgia, an urban childhood lived in the shadows of adult struggles and the refinery that killed his mother. Tranter himself, famed for his non-referential language, writes a long, playful poem that is constantly referential, as the speaker carries on a conversation with Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane, as well as with poets from both Australia and America.

After this generation, the only constant is variety. Aboriginal writing becomes more mainstream in its forms of literary expression, but also angrier. The concern of many other writers with the unreliability of language is expressed in different forms. Kevin Hart moves from a precisely realised moment to suggest the inexpressible. Kim Scott’s narrator is both a participant and a detached narrator of a story that brings together white and Aboriginal experience in an otherwise realistic context. Ania Walwicz presents an apparently incoherent monologue that, as we listen to it, becomes a migrant’s indictment of the new land. In controlled and all too comprehensible protest, Ouyang Yu inveighs against Australians who expect gratitude from migrants they continue to exclude from their society. Hannie Rayson’s characters try to recall an idyllic past that didn’t exist. Tim Winton builds a story around his father’s axe, which he uses to symbolize the strength of family ties and a neighbourhood that retains old Australian values. Philip Hodgins also celebrates older, rural virtues from which he draws the stoicism that enable him to face his own death sentence. A long narrative by Lionel Fogarty seems to stretch language in an attempt to capture a history that remains elusory. This would no doubt be read very differently by someone familiar with the particular events and with the rhythms of the Aboriginal English in which it is couched. Samuel Wagan Watson writes in a very different, but equally dense, manner, bringing mediaeval imagery and modern literature to bear on the current situation of a people caught between the attempts to valorise their traditional culture and the contemporary reality that makes them performers in a dance of death. Finally, a sequence by Chi Vu, who arrived as a boat person in 1979, takes us back to Vietnam, where she is caught between being a tourist and recovering her own past.

So where does this leave the reader? Unlike the Cambridge History, the PEN/Macquarie Anthology offers a picture of Australian writers increasingly confident of themselves and their capacity to address their fellows. It is comprehensive and gives a reasonable sampling of Australian writing over two centuries. Different editors may have given us a different selection of writers. The choices made from individual writers are not always the most representative of their work. But the selection the editors have made tells a story of Australian writing broadening out from a narrow concern with what is strange and distinctive about this land and its people to a variety concerned with the nature of the modern world and the place in it of particular people who have travelled to or from this country or lived their lives here and the society they have constructed in a global world. It shows a literature grounded in colonial origins, but becoming increasingly post-colonial in its attempts to break from these origins, redress their wrongs, and live fully in the contemporary world.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

John McLaren started writing for Overland in 1957. He is the author of three books on education and eight on literature. His most recent publication is Melbourne: City of Words.

More by