Since the late 1990s, complaints about the status of poetry, and the parlous state of poetry publishing, have been commonplace in Australia and other Anglophone nations. Concomitant with this discourse of decline (a transnational discourse with a surprisingly long history) is a discourse of return, in which poetry is presented as returning to public culture (often through the literalized voice of the poet) to reoccupy the place it putatively held in earlier, if not premodern, times. Poetry’s engagement with public themes and the public use of poetry continue to be important, if sometimes overlooked, elements of Australian literary culture. Indeed, despite its apparent marginality, contemporary poetry could be said to have what may be called an “ambiguous vitality” in public life. While other forms of media continue to dominate public culture, poetry nevertheless remains public, in part by occupying or being occupied by those other forms of media. In other words, contemporary poetry’s ambiguously vital presence in public culture can be seen in the ways it figures in extra-poetic contexts. Such contexts are manifold. For instance, poetry—and the figure of the poet—are mobilized as tropes in other media such as films and novels; poetry is used as a form of public/political speech to articulate crisis and loss (such as at annual Anzac ceremonies); and it is used in everyday rituals such as weddings and funerals. Public culture, as this list suggests, is haunted by the marginal discourse of poetry.
In addition, poetry’s traditional function of commenting on the body politic and current political debates continues, regardless of the size of the medium’s putative audience. Recent poetry on the so-called “War on Terror,” the Stolen Generation, and asylum seekers illustrates this. But contemporary Australian poetry engages in public life in ways other than the thematization of current public events. Poets such as Jennifer Maiden, John Forbes, and J. S. Harry exemplify a group of poets who have figured themselves as public poets in a self-consciously ironic fashion; acknowledging poetry’s marginality, they nevertheless write poetry as if it had or may have an extra-poetic efficacy.
Michael R. Griffiths
Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.
A history of reading in Australia needs to go beyond the question of what Australians have read in the course of their history (though this question in itself is important) to tackle the more elusive question of how they have read. This question implies a recognition that reading is not a single, uniform activity but a congeries of “literate techniques” that are spread unevenly across the reading population at any given moment, and that are themselves subject to evolution and change as new cultural, political, and educational pressures exert their influence on how people read. The multiplicity and heterogeneity of reading practices are especially evident in the first half of the 20th century, particularly between World War I and World War II when reading itself came to be problematized as never before by the rise of advertising, cinema, popular culture, and political propaganda. It is important too to consider the ways in which reading as an institution in its own right, something above and beyond both the texts being read and the activity of reading them, has developed historically. Here the question is not so much what people have read, or how, but why. What values—positive and negative—have been attributed to reading, by whom, and in association with what social ideals, purposes, and anxieties? Also relevant here is the changing place of reading in Australian society more broadly. In particular, its changing relationship with writing as a valued component of Australian culture is of interest.
Globalization and global travel have existed for centuries. It is over the past century in particular, however, that travel has become truly global, in the sense that most and not just some travel can in some way or other be said to globalized. Indeed, with the invention and spread of new technologies of mobility (like jet travel), and new technologies of information (like the internet), as with the increasingly invasive impact of human activity on the planet at large (like global warming), it is difficult to conceive of travel in the 21st century that is purely “local.” Travel in the age of globalization, then, is at one and the same time both more widespread yet also more irrelevant than ever. As humans, goods, and information move around in ever-increasing quantities, and at ever-greater speed, it seems that mobility is at an all-time high in human history. On the other hand, as a rising number of people and places are interlinked through ever-faster travel and various forms of communication technologies, the local and the global are becoming harder and harder to distinguish.
In this, travel writing has faced a range of challenges that are both old and new. With contemporary travel writers facing a global reality that is very different from the colonial legacy of a traditionally Eurocentric genre, travel writers in the age of globalization have been forced to radically reconsider the itineraries, the destinations, the purpose, and the identity of the traveling subject. Traditionally defined as a white (European) male, the global traveler of the 21st century can take on many forms in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. At the same time, however, a large number of contemporary travel writers have found it hard to break with the mold of old, desperately continuing to pursue the exotic adventure and the untouched “otherness” of the blank spaces of a map that, in the age of Google Earth, satellite navigation, jet and space travel, global warming, and an explosive growth in human population, are no more.
Lars Boje Mortensen
Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
What language is adequate to describe the coming into being of the new South Africa? What literary forms does newness take? What promises does the new “postapartheid fiction” deliver (or fail to deliver)? For many observers, the May 10, 1994, inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa captured the optimism of the political settlement that ended apartheid. Writers finally seemed able to suspend the imperatives of a literary culture oriented primarily toward political struggle. Yet while regime change informs “postapartheid fiction” in the literal sense of the term, literary and political periodization do not wholly coincide. The divisive legacies of racism are not easily dismissed. This understanding informs a category of writing often called “transitional literature” that emerges in tandem with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 1996–1998) as the site where the new nation comes into being. Often autobiographical or confessional in tone, it remains bound up with the country’s racist past. Transitional literature thus points toward the ambivalent nature of the “post” in “postapartheid fiction,” which scholars argue functions here much like it does in the term “postcolonial.” Both prioritize the continued unfolding of a long historical sequence rather than a punctual transition that abrogates the reckoning with the past.
“Post-transitional literature,” in turn, includes fiction dating from roughly the second decade after the beginning of the political transition. A layered engagement with earlier writing and with the immediate past preserves the porous negotiation of temporality already at work in transitional literature. However, black writers in particular have stressed that the continuities between the apartheid regime and its democratic successor pertain less to the intertwining of temporalities than to political economy—given the nature of inequality in South Africa where class remains tightly bound up with race.
Postapartheid fiction is not merely the preserve of continuity, however. In South Africa, the preoccupation with race has given way to other vectors of subjectivity involving gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, youth culture, and autochthony or foreignness, as well as their intersections. New concerns focused on gay and lesbian subjectivities, HIV/AIDS, or on the possibilities of conflict and conviviality opened up by the desegregated and increasingly cosmopolitan character of urban spaces, have accompanied a changing literary market. Newness proliferates through the devices of creative nonfiction, eco-fiction, and genre fiction. Crime fiction has become more popular. Partly serving as the index of social disorder in South Africa and partly as the arena where this disorder is worked through in fictional form, crime fiction tacitly offers the prospect of redress—however remote. Speculative fiction similarly pits utopian aspirations against dystopian skepticism, in dialogue with Afrofuturism elsewhere on the continent. Intra-African lines of influence, and indeed of migration, announce new pathways for literary expression in English. Afrikaans literature has similarly come to assimilate transnational and diasporic motifs. Using the idea of “postapartheid fiction” to convey the exceptionalism—rather than distinctiveness—of contemporary South African writing may thus have run its course. This is itself a telling marker of how far South African literature has come since the fall of the apartheid regime.
Susan K. Martin
Reading practices and tastes were transported to colonial Australia along with European colonists. Access to and circulation of books and newspapers in the colonies were subject to the vagaries of distance, travel, and transport, and these had a concomitant impact on reading patterns and access, as well as on the development of local writing and publishing. Trade routes, and the disjunction of inland versus sea routes, may have had some influence on localized reading and distribution. The early history of libraries and booksellers in the Australian colonies, publication patterns, and marketing give clues to reading patterns. Examining the reading accounts and movements of individual readers, and individual texts, provides further detail and context to the environment and situatedness of reading in the Australian colonies, as well as the impact of transport as an idea, and an influence on texts and reading.
“Women’s poetry” as a marketing and pedagogic category emerged in the 1970s alongside second-wave feminism. To map the emergence of women’s poetry in and of Australia requires exploring the role of gender in poetic authorship and how the field of Australian poetry has changed in light of feminist movements and theories. Women have used poetry to cross between public and private spheres, to assert an individual and often collective voice, and to critique gender’s intersection with other constitutive identities such as nation and race. While poetry has provided a highly significant means of linguistic transformation and social activism, it has sometimes been viewed as too limiting for feminist writers. Similarly, while the category of “women’s poetry” was strategically empowering in particular periods, it has also been viewed as generating exclusions and marginalization. Feminism has developed both historically and culturally, with the valency of various feminisms in Australia being tested through processes of institutionalization and social change at both a local and global level.
Literature in Singapore is written in the country’s four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The various literatures flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of print culture in the British colony, but after independence in 1965, English became emphasized in both the education system and society at large as part of the new government’s attempts to modernize the country. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil were seen as mother tongue languages to provide Singaporeans with cultural ballast while English was regarded as a language for administration, business, and scientific and technological development. Correspondingly, literatures in other languages than English reached a plateau in terms of writerly output and readership during the 1970s and 1980s. However, since 1999, with the state’s implementation of the Renaissance City Plan to revitalize arts and culture in Singapore, there have been various initiatives to increase the visibility of contemporary Singaporean writing both within the country itself and on an international scale. Translation plays a key role in bridging the linguistic and literary divides wrought by the state’s mother tongue policies, with several works by Cultural Medallion winners in different languages translated into English, which remains at present the shared language in Singapore. Literary anthologies are also invaluable forms through which the concepts of a national literature and national identity are expressed and negotiated. A number of anthologies involving Singaporean authors and those from other countries also highlight the growing international presence of and interest in Singaporean literature. Several anthologies also focus on the topic of urban space, city life, and the rapid transformation of Singapore’s physical environment. Writings about gender and sexuality have also become more prominent in single-author collections or edited anthologies, with writers exploring various inventive and experimental narrative forms. A number of poets and writers are also established playwrights, and theater has historically been and continues to be an extremely vital form of creative expression and cultural production. Graphic novels, crime and noir fiction, and speculative and science fiction publications are also on the rise, with the awarding of the Singapore Literature Prize to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye signaling that these genres merit serious literary consideration. A number of literary publications and materials related to Singaporean literature can be found on the Internet, such as the journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the website Singapore Poetry, and the database Poetry.sg. Various nonprofit organizations are also working toward increasing public awareness about literature through events such as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the Singapore Writers Festival and National Poetry Festival, and also through projects that exhibit poetry in train stations and on public thoroughfares.
As Australia and New Zealand gradually emerged as independent nation-states around the turn of the 20th century, the serial issue of literature became steadily less prevalent and influential. During the colonial era itself, with the local book industry still in its infancy, periodical publishers assumed a crucial role in the distribution of literary material and the formation of cultural identity. Trends already apparent in the metropolitan print market in the later 19th century were thus found in even more marked form at the Australasian periphery. Though prose fiction was by no means the only literary genre to be issued in installments, novels and short stories dominated to an overwhelming extent. And, while monthly literary magazines also had a significant qualitative role to pay, general weekly newspapers (or, more accurately, “news miscellanies”) were quantitatively the much more important venue in terms of both supply and readership. It is necessary to distinguish three major sources of provision, each constrained by distinct business practices and intellectual property regimes:
(A) metropolitan fiction, initially supplied through informal “borrowing” from British periodicals, but later distributed in broadcast fashion by British syndication bureaus like Tillotson’s of Bolton, supported locally by agents such as Gordon & Gotch in Melbourne;
(B) colonial fiction of local color by local authors, often for little remuneration, and typically flagged by phrases such as “specially written” for the local press; and
(C) other peripheral fiction, including from the British provinces, from other British colonies, and, last but not least, because of the lack of international copyright protection, from America (with New York story papers such as Robert Bonner’s Ledger or Street & Smith’s Weekly common sources).
All three types represented important influences in the process of negotiating community affiliation during the lengthy transition from colony to nation, but, though the first was undoubtedly most pervasive, in literary terms at least the second was by far the most valuable. The historical details concerning the cultural role of the press indeed serve to cast doubt on the more generic theorization concerning center/periphery relations found in the work of scholars advocating a “world literature” approach, who tend to focus exclusively on the market for books. To sum up in the words of Clara Cheeseman (1852–1943), a New Zealand serial novelist of the final decades of the 19th century whose fiction was exceptional in finding an outlet among the London publishers: “It is to the old newspapers that we must go if we want to see the beginning of colonial fiction . . . there are in the dusty files of these [the Australasian and the Sydney Mail] and other journals many stories of colonial life which have never struggled out of the papers into book form” (“Colonials in Fiction,” NZ Illustrated Magazine 7 (1903): 273–282, here 274). As early 21st-century research in this field attests, with the long-term commitment of both governments to making their press heritages digitally accessible via the “Trove” and “Papers Past” websites of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, respectively, this task has now become a good deal less formidable.