2-birchtA National Literature

Keynote address given by Tony Birch

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Tony Birch keynote text: ‘A Post-National Literature?’

I want to thank the Melbourne Writers Festival for allowing me the opportunity to recall my discovery of the post-national novel, which occurred on North Richmond railway station in 1971 when I was fifteen years old.  I had been expelled from school after falling through a shop window in a fight with another boy.  I was slight but never bullied as my father had taught me to box and punch above my weight.

While his training held in good stead in the street, it equipped me for little else.  I was an angry teenager, prone to settling all disputes with my fists.  I was taught by the Christian Brothers in primary school.  I was a good student and thrived in the highly regulated atmosphere as opposed to the chaos of my home life.

Such was not the case at the state high school I attended.  We were left to our own devices (and vices) by a group of young teachers, fresh out of university, fueled by the politics of the anti-war movement.  Although I learned little in high school, I remained a voracious reader.  I’d held a public library card from the age of five, and picked up secondhand paperbacks whenever I could.  My train was cancelled that day and I had a further half hour to wait.  I retrieved a novel from my bag that I had borrowed from the library.

Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave was published 1968.  It is set in the depressed working class north of England, geographically a long way from inner Melbourne.  Those around him – a bullying older brother, schoolyard thugs and psychopathic teacher – repeatedly whack Billy Casper, the slightly built boy at the centre of the novel.  His respite from violence is discovered in his love for a bird, a headstrong but graceful kestrel, and in the wonder of a nearby wood, itself a relief from the grime of coal mines, slag heaps and narrow overcrowded terraces of the town.

I had read many novels by the time I picked up Kes.  My older brother was a champion of many pursuits, including football, handball, marbles, any game requiring skill and sharp reflexes.  But he was no student of literature.  So, despite my relative delinquency, I was his scholarly proxy, devouring his English school texts, including Catcher In The Rye, Travels With My Aunt and To Kill A Mockingbird.  I penned his school essays and would have sat exams in his place had I been half a foot taller.

No book left the impression on me that Kes did.  I was convinced it had travelled the globe to find me.  From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him.  I was sure I was Billy.

When my train finally arrived I continued reading, and after I got off the train and headed home, open book, I found myself walking into light-poles.  Buried deep in the novel I went to my bedroom and finished it.  Closing the final page, I rushed from the house, ran through the narrow streets of my life.  I didn’t stop until I reached the banks of the Yarra River, which, at the time was a maligned and neglected stretch of water, home to car wrecks, the homeless and neglected, and water rats.  I lay in the long grass on the riverbank and thought more about the book until I became so excited I ran back home and read it again.

That night I broke the expulsion news to my mother.  She shrugged her shoulders dismissively.  Clearly, the information was of little surprise to her.  She sternly instructed me to ‘get a job in a week or I’ll find one for you.’

I found gainful employment, as a telegram boy, riding a pushbike across the city.  Whenever I could pinch a few minutes I would ride along a back lane and sit and read.  I was never without a paperback in my pocket.  I was arrested around this time out the front of a local dancehall.  Along with some mates I was lined against a brick wall and patted down.   The subsequent police discovery included half bottles of vodka, flick knives, a touch of mascara and lipstick to enhance the collective glam-rock persona, and a suspicious article in the back pocket of my powder-blue flares.

A copper pulled it from my pocket and shoved it in my face.

‘What the fuck’s this, hard boy?’

‘Ahh … it’s a novel, The Outsider, by Albert Camus.’

He hit me over the back of the head with the book.

‘Never heard of him, smartarse.’

This potted history of my life of crime, punishment and books does little more than state the obvious.  Good fiction has traditionally impacted through its ability to transcend boundaries of class, ethnicity and collective identity, even, as is the case with Kes, a story deeply embedded and invested in the regionalism of northern England.  Barry Hines and Billy Casper touched my heart in a manner that no Australian book had done at the time, or has achieved since.  I understood the challenges of inequality that Billy faced with clarity.  Sadly, I related most strongly to his sense of shame.  It is the shared emotion of people relegated to the social and economic scrapheap.  You keep your head down, just as Billy does, ashamed of your own identity and burdened with the discrimination society becomes strategically blind to.

Therefore, we don’t require a national literature to draw attention to issues of the human condition – or the heart – in Australia.  As my experience of Kes indicates, good writing migrates and finds a home.  Granted, there have been important novels published in recent years in Australia that draw attention to important issues from a domestic perspective.  Michelle de Kretser’s multi award-winning Questions of Travel is such an example.  And of course, it will travel and impact on global readers interested in good writing and the plight of the globally stateless.

A particular issue to a discussion of both national and post-national fiction in Australia is Aboriginal writing and writing about Aboriginal people (which can be both inter-related and mutually exclusive).  Historically, Aboriginal writers of fiction have produced, if not definitively anti-nationalist writing, a sharp critique of an inclusive and collective sense of identity that pervades popular culture and the politics of populism.

White Australia’s twentieth century approach to the so-called ‘Aboriginal problem’ was dominated by the twin policies of child removal and limited assimilation.  In attempts to legitimate dubious and often cruel policies, successive governments, national and state utilised the spectre of the ‘half-caste menace’ to support the violence underpinning assimilation.

Not surprisingly then, Aboriginal writers have often focused on issues of identity, the politics of colour, and the hypocrisy of miscegenation, first interrogated in the seminal Wild Cat Falling, by Colin Johnson in 1965; a novel presenting an unflattering and tragic portrayal of the modern ‘half-caste’, understood through the experiences of a young man emotionally and culturally detached from society.

The novel represents the failure of an obsessive national identity project.  No other writer in Australia, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal would apply a similar literary critique to the assimilation project until Kim Scott’s award winning Benang was published in 1999.  This novel, which ranges across the period of ‘Aboriginal Protection’ under the leadership of A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, is subtitled from the heart.  And it is with heart and humour and pathos that Scott lances the festering sore of assimilation, exposing its devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.

Other Aboriginal writers have since produced intelligent and engaging portraits of the nation, through fiction that defies the nation.  This list includes Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe and Melissa Lucashenko, amongst others.  Wright, in her novels Carpentaria (also a Miles Franklin winner), and the recent The Swan Book provokes Australians to come to terms with the impact of British occupation on Aboriginal land and people. Her writing provides far more than a critique of a dominant national story.  She is offering us another way of engaging with place and people, be they the first inhabitants of this land, or as with de Kretser’s work, the plight of the displaced.

Such novels are perhaps a version of national fiction looking beyond the nation.

In recent years the wider literary community in Australia has celebrated Aboriginal writing, although it also continues to be received and consumed defensively, within a mindset stuck in the colonial imagination.  I call this the ‘disloyalty effect’, whereby some critics, commentators and readers respond to what they feel is a negative critique of the national story; an act of ingratitude.  The degree of disloyalty is compounded when delivered by ‘mixed-blood’ Aboriginal writers, who are, after all, the wayward children of the benevolent nation.

There are those of course, who understand the potential for Aboriginal writing to productively shift the national story.  Geordie Williamson, literary critic of The Australian newspaper, in his review of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book commented on the ‘urgent importance’ of the novel and the themes it tackles, going far beyond the borders of a national story, dealing with issues such as climate change, refugees, and the outsider.

The Swan Book is an ideal example of post-national fiction.

Both Scott and Wright are widely read outside Australia, particularly in Europe, where their work has been translated.  Global readers have little or no investment in ensuring that our fiction underpins an unwritten patriot act.  Accepting that my belief here is largely anecdotal, but based on international readers I have engaged with largely as an academic, a global engagement with Aboriginal writers increasingly locates the writing in a global context.

Let me be clear, Aboriginal writers in Australia are not alone in this achievement.  To argue such a point would invalidate the impact that A Kestrel for a Knave had on a fifteen-year-old boy both lost and in love with books.  It would also display a deep level of disrespect for both the writers and readers enjoying this festival.  I would argue though, with confidence, that too many Australians remain ignorant of the creative and intellectual reach of Aboriginal writing, knowing little beyond the degree to which it serves us and fits within a national narrative.

In February this year I was invited by Screen Australia, along with a group of Aboriginal writers, to spend a week at Uluru with the acclaimed film writer and novelist, Guillermo Arriaga.  Amongst other achievements, recognised with a BAFTA nomination and the Cannes festival award for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006), Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.  He has visited Australia previously, and has a passionate interest in Aboriginal storytelling, through both writing for film and fiction.  In several conversations I had with Guillermo, he returned to the same point.  While he is excited that Aboriginal writing has introduced him Australia’s domestic story, it spoke directly to, and resonated with him most particularly as it provided him with an additional insight into the story of his own country, Mexico.  He was not referring to indigenous issues, but human issues.  He is also adamant that Aboriginal writers in Australia were some of the bravest he’d met, when choosing how subject matter is shaped into story.  ‘It speaks to the world,’ he said over and over again.

Before concluding with a comment on two books that have influenced me greatly I want to briefly discuss the elephant in the room.  This elephant impinges on discussions of both Aboriginal writing in Australia and writing about Aborigines.  I want to offer a position that I hope is helpful and pertinent when contemplating both a national and post-national literature in this country.

I have been teaching at university for close to twenty years now.  I also regularly appear at writer’s festivals.  It is rare for an event concerned with Aboriginal writing to pass without the question coming from the floor, ‘can non-Aboriginal people write an Aboriginal character?’

Let me dispose with the mundane and move onto a (hopefully) productive response.

Firstly, the point is moot.  Non-Aboriginal authors have been writing about Aboriginal people for more than 200 years now, and enough of them will continue to do so in the future.  As a writer and educator I’m interested in questions such as, in what ways do non-Aboriginal writers portray Aboriginal characters in fiction?  And what might be the intellectual and creative motivation behind this writing?

Secondly, and problematically, many would-be writers who ask the question are seeking absolution and endorsement; a misguided notion on two counts.  If the Aboriginal writer endorses their ‘right to creative expression’ a beaming smile appears on the face of the would-be writer.  He or she has been saved, cleansed and become ‘entitled’.  If an endorsement does not follow the question, perhaps with the blunt comment ‘don’t do it’, the would-be writer is prone to either break down in tears or verbally attack the Aboriginal writer.

My advice is simple.  Please do not ask as refusal may offend.  If I were to offer advice it would be that the responsibility for what is written sits with the author.  Totally.  Whenever I feel uneasy about subject matter I come to a clear decision to tackle the material and, hopefully do it justice.  Or leave it alone when I don’t feel equipped to write well.

This, by the way, is the reason I don’t write sex.

What I would like to say, which I hope is a more generous point, one that I hold with conviction, is that there are many non-Aboriginal writers in Australia who have produced vitally important novels dealing with Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships.  Just a few of these writers include Randolph Stow, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville and Peter Goldsworthy.  Other writers have failed the task miserably, unable to rise above two-dimensional stereotypes, sentimentality, moral superiority or guilt, sometimes in the one book.

But our measuring stick must be novels of quality, the stories that attempt to question and shift the culture.  I guess I want to have a bet each way here.  I like stories about this place, this country.  But not those that do little more than mimic the rah-rah of the sporting field.  Nor those that want to uphold a shallow lie about this country, even when posing as fiction.  I also want to read stories that travel, like a bird I adore, the Arctic Tern, which bravely navigates the globe each year to nest on the beaches of southern Australia.

Finally, I want to mention two heroes.  When I read Junot Diaz’s first book, his 1996 linked story collection, Drown, I had a similar experience to that on discovering Kes.  I was a lot older, calmer and more settled.  Here was a book set in both the Dominican Republic and New Jersey that again spoke to my heart and head.  Once I had put the book down I understood that it was time stop scribbling around with the occasional poem and short story and try to become a writer.  For better or worse, Diaz is partly responsible for my first book, Shadowboxing, a linked story collection following the life of Michael Byrne, from the childhood badlands of inner Melbourne to an adulthood of resolution.  Drown, as with Kes, as with other books I am sure people in this audience have read and will always transcend the nation.  Clearly, a post-national literature has always been with us.

While preparing for this festival and this event I have been reading a new book, Ali Alizadeh’s Transactions.  It is a story cycle that traverses the globe, dealing with the greed and cruelty of rampant capitalism, the displacement and exploitation of vulnerable people, and the yearning for a home that exists, not in a slogan, a t-shirt, or a pledge of loyalty, but in the blood that flows through the body, in the spiritual resonances that we sometimes attempt to deny.  While Transactions has been favourably reviewed in Australia, we have also been reminded that it is ‘bleak’.  It is not.  It is a book of love that refuses an easy exit.  It is fiction that exposes the prejudices and violence of society.  In doing so Alizadeh generously offers us a better ‘way of seeing’ the world and ourselves.  It is truly a book without borders.

© Tony Birch 2013