On January 1, 1901, Australia became a nation; six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania—joined to form the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time of Federation, debates raged over who or what constituted a new national type; the forms best suited to convey the values these figures represented; and the proper settings for their stories. These arguments were had not only with aesthetic interests in mind but with a conscious awareness, or conviction, that literature had a special role to play in establishing what was (thought to be) unique about this new nation. Alliances between literature and the Australian nation have been observed, perpetuated, and contested since at least the last decades of the 19th century, and the result has been multiple imaginings of Australia with many conflicting ideas and interests at play. From the notion that Australia, as a “new nation,” might present white women with the opportunity to shed oppressive gender identities to indigenous knowledge systems questioning the very idea and authority of the nation, literary imaginings of Australia speak to national myths and political interventions alike.
Few chapters of Australian history reveal more about the shifting social, cultural, and political climate of a nation torn between its European roots and its Asian destiny than the story of Chinese migration and settlement. From the Chinese diggers in the gold rush of the mid-19th century, through the long period of discrimination and exclusion during the White Australia policy (1901–1970s) to recent decades of mass migration and extensive transnational traffic, China has been, and arguably remains, Australia’s privileged Other, and Chinese Australia a barometer for testing the nation’s commitment to the policy of multiculturalism. Chinese Australian writers imaginatively trace and interrogate this history, at the same time reflecting the heterogeneity of the community and debating their allegiance to the host nation and to a real as well as mythical China.
The first literary writing to emerge from the Chinese community in Australia was published in the Chinese language press in Sydney and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. It reflected the community’s passionate involvement in the political events of China in the lead-up to the republican revolution of 1911, but also their opposition to the White Australia policy and efforts to educate the lower classes to abstain from cultural practices unacceptable to the Australian mainstream, such as gambling, opium smoking, and polygamy. After a long hiatus, Chinese-language writing again blossomed in the 1990s, a direct consequence of the new wave of migration from mainland China following the opening-up policy of the 1980s and the crushing of the protest movement in 1989. Once again, this writing was community oriented, reflecting both their attitudes to the political climate in China and the challenges facing the new migrants in their integration into an at times hostile host culture.
The story of Chinese Australian writing in English is quite different, in terms of both the writers’ background and the nature of their output. The majority of writers are ethnic Chinese who arrived in Australia from Southeast Asia or Hong Kong, often educated in English and conversant with Western as well as Asian cultures. For these writers, and for those born in Australia, China is a distant, often ambiguous, cultural memory, and questions of identity are tied up with complex individual histories and hybrid ethnicities. From positions at the same time inside and outside the dominant culture, they engage with identity and belonging in innovative ways, writing into being a “Chineseness” that owes less to cultural roots than to their negotiation between community expectations and personal memory. Refusing to be pigeonholed or confined to conventional themes of diasporic writing, Chinese Australian writers respond to their diverse cultural and literary heritage and lived experience by inventing selves, voices, and stories that reflect the complexity of contemporary life at the intersection of local, (multi)national, and global perspectives.
While the relationship between humans and environment in Australia stretches back some 50,000 years, the colonization of the continent by Europeans in the late 18th century dramatically altered Australia’s ecology. Creative literature has responded variously to the encounter that colonization precipitated. In particular, modulations appear through successive epistemological and ideological paradigms: Enlightenment rationality, romantic sensibility, nationalist celebration, and ecological alarm. While early conservationist impulses are visible in the colonial period, in the middle of the 20th century, the birth of the modern ecological consciousness understands that not only particular species or habitats are at risk, but the entirety of nature seems to suddenly face a historically unprecedented vulnerability. In this sense, it is methodologically useful to separate Australian environmental texts between those that are “pre-ecological” and those that are “post-ecological.”
Contemporary Australian literary culture is formed through networks of institutions that support writing and reading. This infrastructure, itself shaped by Australia’s history as a former British colony and its current status as a medium-sized market in a global book industry, creates specific conditions for the production and reception of Australian literature. Institutions do not comprise the whole of Australian literary culture, and many individuals and groups position themselves as outsiders, or as members of counter-networks. Nonetheless, the work done by literary organizations enables significant acts of writing, access to reading, and debates about the role of literature in contemporary Australian society.
Six networks are key to Australia’s literary culture. First, publishing in Australia is structured by a mix of local offices of multinational companies and independent presses, whose list building—and consequent effects on Australian authors and readers—is influenced by their market position and capacity for digital innovation. Distribution of books in contemporary Australia occurs through libraries and bookshops; book retail is predominantly a mix of online bookshops, independent bookstores, and discount department stores, following the closure of many Australian big-box bookshops and chain stores in 2011. Australia has a growing network of literary festivals, including flagship events that attract tens of thousands of readers as well as focused events that nurture particular genres or groups of writers. Australia’s calendar of literary prizes also supports writers, builds canons, and maintains the visibility of literary culture. These expansive networks are complemented by the smaller, though influential, readerships of Australian literary magazines, which foster new writing and drive cultural debates. Finally, schools and universities institutionalize Australian writing through their curricula and increasingly provide training and employment for writers. Together, these active networks provide an outline for the form of contemporary Australian literary culture.
Travel writing has been an important form through which Australians learned about their own culture and their place in the world. Indigenous cultures of place and travel, geographic distance from the imperial metropole, and a long history of immigration have each made travel a particularly influential cultural practice. Nonfictional prose narratives, based on actual journeys, have enabled travelers in Australia and from Australia abroad to explore what was distinctive and what was shared with other cultures. These are accessible texts that were widely read, and that sought to educate and entertain their audience. The period from the inauguration of the Australian nation in 1901 to 1960, when distance shrank because of technological innovation and new forms of identity gained ascendance, shows the complex ways in which Australians defined their country and its global contribution. Writing about travel to Britain and other European locations helped authors to refine the Anglophone inheritance and a sense that Britain was Home. Northern-hemisphere travels also made some writers intensely feel their national identity. Participation in global conflicts during this period shifted Australian allegiances, both personal and governmental. At the same time, a new tourist industry encouraged Australians to travel at home, in order to learn more about remote areas and the Asia-Pacific region. Travel writing both abroad and at home reveals how particular forms of emotional allegiance and national identity were forged, reinforced, and maintained. This has been a particularly influential genre for a nation based on colonial migration and indigenous displacement, in which travel and mobility have been crucial.
Surveying Pakistani-English drama, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry from the inception of Pakistan in 1947 to 2015 reveals how Pakistani-English writing developed and changed over the years, from a small marginalized genre in the early years of Pakistan to the dynamic, growing body of work in the 21st century. Bringing together writing by Pakistan-resident writers as well as those in the diaspora demonstrates both contrasts and links among them. Early writers such as Shahid Suhrawardy and Ahmed Ali and the role of Taufiq Rafat in the birth of a new contemporary poetry in Pakistan are included alongside a discussion of the extensive writings of Zulfikar Ghose, an early diaspora writer. This article covers the critical writings of Alamgir Hashmi, Tariq Rahman, and Muneeza Shamsie in defining and developing a new canon. The internationalism of Tariq Ali and the new multi-cultural British identity asserted by the writing of Hanif Kureishi—and indeed Kureishi’s links to his Pakistan-resident family—poet Maki Kureishi and the journalist Omar Kureishi are pointed out. The extensive English-language non-fiction written in Pakistan ranging from autobiographies, collected editorials, and newspaper columns to writings on art and literature are also given space, as are the creative memoirs of Sara Suleri and others, the plays of Ayub Khan Din and Ayad Akhtar, the poetry of Moniza Alvi and Imtiaz Dharker, and a wide range of fiction writers from Aamer Hussein and Daniyal Mueenuddin to Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie as well as newer voices such as Roopa Farooki, H. M. Naqvi, Fatima Bhutto, and Maha Khan Phillips.
Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets such as Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from the Second World War until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde: representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly, there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period (as there was in Britain and the United States), but in Australia, this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist and so exacerbated a sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged with the questions of their time but also dealt with the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial,” overcoming a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider the poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies, acknowledging that Australian poetic modernism, while it remains contested, may also be distinctive.
Within the literary connections between Australia and the United States, the more traditional notion of “influence” gained a different kind of intellectual traction after the “transnational turn.” While the question of American influence on Australian literature is a relatively familiar topic, the corresponding question of Australian influence on American literature has been much less widely discussed. This bi-continental interaction can be traced through a variety of canonical writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Brockden Brown, through to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. These transnational formations developed in the changed cultural conditions of the 20th and 21st centuries, with reference to poets such as Lola Ridge, Karl Shapiro, Louis Simpson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with novelists such as Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee.
To adduce alternative genealogies for both American and Australian literature, Australian literature might be seen to function as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of cultural formation it might have become if the American Revolution had never taken place. Similarly, to track Australian literature’s American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational connections have always been integral to its constitution. By re-reading both Australian and American literature as immersed within a variety of historical and geographical matrices, from British colonial politics to transpacific space, it becomes easier to understand how both national literatures emerged in dialogue with a variety of wider influences.
Frontier colonial Gothic literature in Australia gives expression to the experience and aftermath of violent encounters between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier. This includes “hut literature” about shepherds in remote locations and the way in which these stories worked toward the establishment of colonial settlement and authority. Colonial development distances the Gothic from the frontier, to which it returns in belated and spectral ways. The post-frontier colonial Gothic can be considered in these terms, in stories by Francis Adams, Hume Nisbet, and Marcus Clarke. Clarke also provides examples of convict Gothic literature in colonial Australia, in particular with the serialization of His Natural Life (1870–1872). In Gothic bushranger narratives and some colonial Gothic poetry, the symbolic distance from the frontier brings with it an increased “occultization” of the bush. Marcus Clarke’s famous account of “weird melancholy” evokes spectral Aboriginal presences linked to the Lemurian novel in Australia, a popular version of the post-frontier Gothic. Some narratives by Rosa Praed, including the novel Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and “The Bunyip” (1891), offer images of frontier violence that produce a range of effects among settlers, from excitement to disorientation. “The Bunyip” in particular throws a shadow over the prospect of a settler colonial future; this is typical of the kind of melancholy project represented in later examples of the colonial Australian Gothic.