Last night I had the pleasure of listening to Peter Temple give the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award Oration. I knew Peter to be a great speaker. I was also interested in his subject, “Reading the country: Thoughts on becoming an Australian writer”.
What it means to be an Australian writer has been on my mind ever since I applied for an Australia Council literature grant. The grant writing process required me to address questions such as how my proposed work would develop me as a writer and advance Australian literature… As my friend Sulari Gentill quipped of the exercise, ‘Thank goodness I know how to write fiction.’
I had to submit 10 pages of work to support my application. I combed through my two published novels and chose a piece from each, both told from the point of view of Thai characters. Christos Tsiolkas suggested I substitute one with a piece told from an Australian point of view and seeing as how he’s a previous winner of an Australia Council grant, I figured I’d take his advice. But I struggled to find a piece that was, at least to my mind, as engaging and lyrical as those I’d written from the point of view of Thai, Indian, Canadian even American characters.
Christos says I was being too harsh, but it got me wondering why don’t I feel inspired to write more about Australia and Australians. I read droves of Australian literature. And my central character Jayne Keeney is Australian. But both my novels to date are set in Thailand, and Jayne’s Australian-ness is defined largely by the ways it clashes with Thai culture. While my novels are not autobiographical, like Jayne I spent many years living as an expatriate in southeast Asia. And I continue to be drawn back, in part by the allure of the region, and in part by the sense I’ve never been able to shake that I don’t really belong in Australia.
Where this sense of estrangement comes from is something I plan to explore in future work. Meanwhile, the chance to hear Peter Temple’s thoughts on becoming an Australian writer was an opportunity too good to miss.
The oration was wonderful: witty, self-deprecating (“There’s no good reason to give novelists prizes–it only rewards narcissism”), erudite and insightful. Several of Temple’s observations resonated for me. He described Australia as having “a long history of newcomers failing to read the country”, and coming to a new country in mid-life as “like becoming a child again.” He was drawn to Melbourne and says, “in finding my city, I found my writing.”
Melbourne, my hometown, Temple described as “a city with a very long memory. It does not forgive or forget… ‘Vulgar’ is a Melbourne word, as are concepts like irony and paradox and out of bounds on the full… In Melbourne, there’s no dignity in success. It’s failure that confers dignity.”
I put it to Temple in the Q&A session that it’s not just Melbourne for whom failure confers dignity but for Australians in general, our commemoration of defeat at Gallipoli being perhaps the most vivid example. He conceded there was something to that, notwithstanding the heroism we also commemorate at Gallipoli. “Australians do not boast of successes and are most resistant to big noting,” he said. “They are more likely to speak of failures.”
It strikes me that one reason I don’t always feel like I belong in Australia is because I don’t share this reification of failure. I hate settling for defeat. I was brought up as a Fitzroy supporter in the 1970s and 80s and I simply lost interest in football. Continual failure was not dignifying to my mind. It was just boring. I’m no fan of big noting either. But surely there must be alternatives to undignified boastfulness and dignified defeat.
Temple is right: Australians have a unique capacity to celebrate failure. I stumbled across a wonderful example of this during a recent visit to Red Cliffs in Victoria’s Mallee region. Red Cliffs’ main tourist attraction is Big Lizzie, the largest tractor ever built in Australia. Her story essentially one of monumental failure. The 45 ton wonder was built by engineer Frank Bottrill in Melbourne over a 12-month period, with the idea of replacing the camel trains that carried loads of wool and other goods over sandy terrain. Why Bottrill thought he needed to improve on nature in this regard is not known.
With a top speed of 2 miles an hour, Big Lizzie left Melbourne in early 1916, expecting to be in Broken Hill by early 1917. She never made it that far, breaking down, forcing bridges to collapse under her weight, turning back from flooded rivers. Bottrill’s great-nephew Les Gates told George Negus in 2003 Big Lizzie “didn’t make money for three years, and Uncle Frank had been declared bankrupt because it was impossible to make a living with it.” In the end she was deployed for one of the largest land-clearing exercises in the country, flattening 6,000 hectares over four years around Red Cliffs to provide 700 Soldier Settlement blocks for World War 1 veterans, with disastrous consequences longer-term for the Murray-Darling Basin.
Yet a committee formed in 1971, the year of Red Cliffs Golden Jubilee, saw fit to rescue Big Lizzie from the scrap heap and restore her and one of her trailers to their former glory. She now occupies pride of place in the town sqaure. To their credit, the city fathers knew what they were doing: the day I visited, Big Lizzie was being admired by a mob of blokes who’d arrived by minibus on tour from Mildura.
“Rusted, worn but proud” reads the plaque on her flank.
It could well be our national motto.