Thursday, September 24, 2009

Clive James and Australian Literature

I was invited to Australia House the other night for the launch of a new Anthology of Australian writing. It's a very exciting book - a fantastic range of different sorts of literature, and a clear decision to resist the "progress" narrative (which would have constructed Australia as Terra Nullius, waiting to be turned into the sunny happy land of today by the colonists...). However, Clive James, who was one of the Aussie luminaries paraded to launch the book, seems still to live under such delusions. Even though he was on a platform where his remit was surely to praise the book, he started laying into it for having "too much Aboriginal writing".

Now, what does this mean? Does it mean that there is too little "white writing"? But, of course, the idea of "white writing" is absurd - it ranges from James's own comic reminiscences to the profound engagements with history and landscape found in Thomas Keneally or Louis Nowra. But doesn't that rather explode the concept of "Aboriginal writing" too? After all, Jack Davis is not the 19th century Aboriginal woman Tasma, and she is not Sally Morgan, and Sally Morgan is not Lionel Fogarty. So was Clive James in fact saying that "once you've got one Aboriginal, you've got them all"? I suspect that is the logical conclusion.

Given that only 12% of the book represents the words of the country's indigenous people, it seems little enough to me. After all, what is Australian culture if it isn't Aboriginal culture?

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