Sometimes it takes a writer

Flicking through an old issue of Overland (edition 182) I came across an essay by Malcolm Knox entitled ‘Pushing Against the Real World: The Case for “Original” Australian Fiction’. It sparked my interest – I was grappling with similar ideas at the time – especially by mentioning a paper delivered by Mark Davis in 2005 in which he argued that the ‘Australian literary novel’ is suffering a slow and inevitable demise. Substituting ‘original’ for ‘literary’ (on the grounds that originality is more ubiquitous than concepts of the literary allow), Knox makes a persuasive case for the importance of originality in Australian fiction. After some reflection, I would like to extend his argument to include not just fiction but all writing in Australia and, most particularly, writing about Australia.

First we need a means of distinguishing the original from the ‘popular’. Following Knox, I’ll appropriate David Foster Wallace’s definition: the popular tells us what we (think we) already know, whereas the original aims to transform what we know. Popular writing is formulaic and clichéd: it acknowledges audience expectations and faithfully meets them. It bears no relation to the real world, Knox writes, because it is writing that apes other writing, rather than reality. Original writing, on the other hand, confronts our expectations head-on. It describes the world in ways we have never heard it described before, and thus transforms our understanding. Knox is at pains to stress that the two can happily coexist. Original writing may be found in books that, for all intents and purposes, would otherwise be viewed as popular, and vice versa. But above all, Knox concludes, the world needs original thinkers: artists rather than ‘content suppliers’.

Let me narrow the focus slightly: Australia needs original thinkers. And again: Australia needs original writers.

The nature of the need is twofold. On the one hand it relates to politics. I can’t have been the only Australian to feel I had been thrust into another world while reading Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man. Cocooned in my metropolitan upbringing, I had never in my life imagined the Australia that is an everyday reality for residents of Palm Island and the Gulf Country. How many hundreds – thousands – of other Australias are there? As a country we are profoundly deluded. Catchcries like ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’ nestle hard up against shocking disparities between the average living standards of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Parochial ideals of ‘Australian-ness’ remain firmly entrenched in political vocabulary despite our remarkable cultural diversity. And the little Aussie battlers of this nation seem astonishingly reluctant to honour the extraordinary efforts some people will go to in order to seek asylum on our shores.

Then there is the tradition of writers as guardians of cultural history. Their centrality to the task has admittedly dissipated over the past hundred years with advances in image and sound recording technology, but I would argue nonetheless that their importance has not diminished. Writing can capture the evanescent spirit of an age in a way few other mediums can. Think of D H Lawrence’s England or Joyce’s Dublin. Think of the insights into Australian cultural history afforded by the works of Patrick White. And think of the hundreds of Australias you and I will never experience, some of which (as Hooper’s book reminds us) it would behove us to know rather more about.

And here I will narrow my focus for the last time, if somewhat awkwardly: Australia needs original writers of place. By place I refer to all the elements – social, environmental, historical, political – that collide to situate us in this specific location at this specific point in time. Often these elements are invisible to us. Sometimes it takes an outsider to spot them. Sometimes it takes a writer.

These, thankfully, appear to be flourishing. Like Michelle de Kretser, whose 2007 novel The Lost Dog refreshes any tired expectations readers may have of Melbourne and its surrounds. There’s the view of the city from Punt Road hill, described as a ‘jewelled fist raised nightwards in defiance’. Or this evocation of Swan Street: ‘golden-eyed tramfish glided through tinsel rain. There were the oily dabs of streetlights’. In a single breath de Kretser posits Swan Street as aquarium, Christmas and oil painting. The imagery of trams as fish is startling, yet – somehow – utterly apt. With ‘the concrete punch cards of a superseded technology’ de Kretser deftly pots the outmoded aura of Richmond’s public housing towers, while the cranes on new construction sites are ‘colossal needles knitting up the future’. De Kretser does not simply evoke ‘settings’ for her narrative; she creates a tangible sense of place that transforms any personal experience readers may have had with the locations in question.

Likewise, Sonya Hartnett brilliantly evokes the monotony of Australian suburbia in her 2009 novel Butterfly. The unnamed suburb inhabited by the protagonist, Plum,

is muted and leafy, tall-treed and tile-roofed. Many of its residents have survived well beyond their necessity … Once in a bluish moon, an ambulance pulls up outside one of the houses; generally, however, the neighbourhood is a place of non-event. The loudest noise comes from mynas chastising cats, and from motor-mowers.

There are the ‘rooftops in their scaly thousands’, ‘a cricket field where cricket is never played’ and in the nearby shopping strip (beside an ‘almost-busy road’) ‘a hairdresser who deals with hair as an abattoir deals with life’. Hartnett doesn’t just describe a suburb; she captures the paradox at its core: the way a place can be at once stiflingly parochial and seemingly endless. Its namelessness enables the suburb to stand for any off the long rollcall of Australian sprawl. And although a successful evocation of Plum’s suburb is key to Hartnett’s narrative, it nevertheless serves as an effective and original cultural record of Australian suburbia in the early 2000s.

Never does the evocation of place take on such importance as when it must do battle with entrenched prejudice. With 95 per cent unemployment, chronic violence and phenomenal levels of alcohol consumption, Palm Island is a place most readers of The Tall Man would find confronting in the extreme. Yet Hooper’s writing draws you past surface appearances to the problems underscoring the dysfunction. Descriptions of the weather pervade the entire book in a literal rendering of a heat that ‘attacks like a swarm of insects’. Even the rain is imaged as an oppressive force. Of the wet season Hooper writes ‘water lay pooled on the ground. Plants looked close to drowning. Vines entwined fences as if intent on suffocating them. Out in the bay the rain had filled a boat and sunk it.’ In her hands, tiny details assume the symbolic dimensions of two worlds colliding: ‘[a] stray horse put its head through the door. Wind rushed in and riffled the Coroner’s papers … The inquest had collapsed. The Palm Islanders asked each other what had happened, while the lawyers packed their wheelie bags with documents and headed for the airstrip.’ Hooper has a remarkable ability to sketch poignancy in the midst of extreme dysfunction, and it is at these moments her voice is strongest:

Lately the craze for the island kids was to cut the power cords off people’s whitegoods, then fray the plastic coating at one end to make a whip. People couldn’t use their washing machines, but boys and girls of all ages were wandering around the streets swinging the cords with the skill and grace of stockmen. All the petals on the white spiderlilies that had come out with the rain had been lopped off. At night you could hear flowers being beheaded with whip-cracks that sounded like rifle shots.

Between the physical destruction of whitegoods and the metaphorical destruction of beauty and growth and hope, Hooper inscribes a far more unsettling analogy: the comparison of modern-day Palm Island youth with that ever-popular symbol of colonial Australia – the stockman. The irony is devastating.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at a more ‘formulaic’ piece of writing. Andrea Goldsmith’s novel Reunion (2009) is, like The Lost Dog, set in inner Melbourne. In fact, the book reads like a catalogue of Melbourne landmarks: Lygon Street, St Kilda Road, the Melbourne Cemetery, the Aquarium, the State Library, Flinders Street. The attention Goldsmith pays to mapping her characters’ peregrinations would do Melways proud, so easy is it to picture their location at almost any given time. However, her evocations go no further than the name itself accompanied by a description of the weather or the passing people. For example:

[Ava] … crosses Lygon Street. She resists the temptations of Readings bookshop and goes directly to the Italian food store at the corner … People walk past alone and in pairs, some with shopping bags, others pushing strollers, some dressed for business, others for leisure, and plenty of students lugging laptops.

Or the same character’s view from Melbourne University:

The day was cold, with one of those saw-blade winds unique to Melbourne and a sky murky with cloud; it looked as if it would rain. Ava … could see the towers of the residential colleges, and beyond them … Melbourne’s town centre of shops and churches and Victorian buildings and the lovely jumble of bluestone lanes.

Not once does Goldsmith use language to evoke a sense of place, relying instead on the power of the names themselves to summon locations in the imagination of the reader (for whom, Goldsmith seems to suppose, Melbourne is familiar territory). Flicking through Reunion fifty years from now, readers will learn that Acland Street was ‘crowded’, Bourke Street at lunchtime featured cafes filled with ‘lunchtime eaters’ and shops filled with ‘lunchtime shoppers’, that there was a bookshop on Lygon Street named Readings (‘tempting’ and filled with the ‘hush of books’) and another on Bourke named Hill of Content. They will learn that the city centre comprised shops, churches, Victorian buildings and a ‘jumble of bluestone lanes’, and that the Prime Ministers’ Memorial Garden at the Melbourne Cemetery was a quiet, shaded place suited to clandestine liaisons.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Goldsmith should have written her book any other way. As a work of popular fiction it fulfils its brief admirably. I use her text merely to illustrate my point: such writing will never transform readers’ conceptions of the places she describes. It appeals to what readers already know, with language that they already use to describe what they already know. Which brings me to another point: the potential for such writing to create hierarchies of experience. That might seem counter-intuitive – after all, the ‘popular’ is usually understood to be that which is the most universally accessible. But let’s look again at Reunion. At best, Goldsmith’s continual name-dropping is so much superfluous text for the reader not familiar with Melbourne geography. At worst, it excludes them. By not evoking the place alongside the name (as de Kretser does), Goldsmith divides her readers into three groups: those who could follow her signposting with their eyes closed, those who have seen enough of bustling metropolises to approximate an understanding and those who, whether by a disjunct of time or location, are too distant to get any real sense of place from the novel. I think of the boy from Palm Island visiting Townsville, awestruck by the tallest buildings he’s ever seen – they are eight storeys high – and can’t help but ask: if Hooper does not expect her readers to be familiar with the Australia she is writing about, why should Goldsmith?

At this point one could legitimately ask whether it really matters. Hooper’s treatment of place, after all, serves a distinct function: to induct readers into the Australia that is Palm Island so we can fully grasp the implications of the (non-fictive) legal case in point. Goldsmith is simply telling a story in language that comes second to narrative flow. Does it matter if she doesn’t create a timeless evocation of place along the way?

In the grand scheme of things, probably not – but it serves my point. Melburnian readers can pick up The Tall Man and get a tangible sense of what it’s like to be on Palm Island. I very much doubt that an untravelled Palm Islander would come away with an equivalent feel for Melbourne after reading Reunion. In other words, popular writing can never foster transformative evocations of place, because the popular is the language of stereotype. It is the language of nationalist imaginings and entrenched ideals of what Australia ‘is’ and what it is to be ‘Australian’. It is the domain of political ideologies and appeals to the mass imagination. It is the instigator of hierarchies between those who are a part of this imagination and those who are not.

Original writing, on the other hand, will endure as a window into Australia as we know it today. More importantly, it may serve as an instrument of change. Only by promoting an understanding of our own country and subverting current ideologies can we hope to address some of the gross injustices manifest in our own society. As Hooper writes, ‘I had wanted to know more about my country and now I knew more than I wanted to.’ If only more of us felt that way.

Marion Rankine

Marion Rankine is an Australian writer currently based in London. Her work has appeared in the TLS, FLUX Magazine and Grouch, amongst others.

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