Thoughts on becoming an Australian writer

big lizzieLast 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.

Big Lizzie in Nhill, 1930. Museum Victoria Collection

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.

Big LizzieTemple 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.

A transcript of Peter Temple’s Miles Franklin Literary Award Oration should appear soon on their new website. Meanwhile, you can check out my lives tweets of the night by searching #PeterTemple.
Updated 9 June 2011: Thrilled to have this post featured on Thursday’s best-of-the-web on the Wheeler Centre website.
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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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11 Responses to Thoughts on becoming an Australian writer

  1. PM Newton says:

    Excellent job live tweeting this, Angela. And also blogging up your response to the talk. I’m sure that this is just what the oration ought to do, get us thinking about it, not just absorbing it like sponges.

    Like you, I was a traveller long before I sat down to try and write a piece of fiction. And like a lot of Australians, my early travel consisted of Europe and America to see the old stuff and the new stuff.

    It was only later that the urge to travel to a place for something beyond big buildings took hold. For me it was Mali, West Africa, and it was music that drew me there and kept me there. Then later it was India and the promise of learning something profound that saw me stop and sit down there for a bit.

    But underlying all that travel, the old and the new, the short term and the immersion, underlying it all was, I now see, a sense of not really belonging to this country.

    However, what I eventually discovered was that I did not belong in the old country, or the new country, or the far countries, or the wise countries either.

    All that travel, all that living in other people’s lands, people who seemed to fit their landscapes, made me rethink my relationship to this country. This was, I came to realise, home. From the height of the sky, to the migraine thrum of cicadas, the glow of a forest of angophora in December’s afternoon light and the scent of the cestrum on a summer night, this was what felt like home.

    I started to understand that it wasn’t that I didn’t belong to this country, it was that I didn’t feel like I had a right to belong to it.

    When I accidentally tumbled into a story and began to write, these were the painful ties to country that were demanding my attention.

    I think I’ve spent a lifetime reading the country, much of it from a distance, much of it subconsciously. In fact I didn’t realise just how much I’d been reading it until I started writing it, and saw what came out about place and race and history and land and the longing to feel like you had a right to bury your feet in the sand.

    I had to travel before I could write, but it’s this place that I want to write about now.

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    • As they say on The Wire, PM, “I feel you.”

      I share your experience of feeling like I had no right to belong to Australia, like I was trespassing.

      I just read this today in Beyond White Guilt: The real challenge for black-white relations in Australia by Sarah Maddison: “White Australia was settled on a land that did not belong to us. Deep in our hearts every Australian knows this to be true.”

      How can you feel like you belong in the face of such heart-sickness?

      I take heart from the promise in the title of Maddison’s book. I’m going to make this my non-fiction read of the year.

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  2. Maxine says:

    Thanks for the tweeting and post about this marvellous author. Sadly I have never visited Australia but his books are marvellous. The English do not exactly “celebrate failure” but are self-deprecating and (perhaps over) tolerant.

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  3. Hi Angela

    I too have been thinking about his subject a lot of late, for a variety of reasons.

    It’s funny, unlike you and Pam I was not born here, but I do feel like I belong – is that a paradox or irony? (And when did those concepts become exclusively Melbournian?)…I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel truly Australian. For me it was never really about a sense of place but a sense of people and perhaps even a sense of humour. I always felt that Australians were connected by a love of the absurd…and I think that may be at the heart of our celebration of failure. I’m not sure that what we actually celebrate is the failure itself, but rather perseverence in face imminent failure. We seem to admire both the courage and absurdity of it…from Big Lizzie to Gallipoli.

    I like to think that what we Australians honour most is a victory of spirit in place of more conventional victories in war or commerce or even common sense. It just so happens that the undefeated spirit is more recognisable in face of failure, and so it seems as though it is the failure we laud.

    You know that one of the scenes I love most from The Half-Child is that in which Jane Keeney is posing as a missionary, which she does by wearing a cross (which she appears to keep for the express purpose to transforming into a missionary), and repsonding to everything with “Praise the Lord”…it was gloriously absurd and such an Australian thing to do. I think it was in these pretending-to-be-a-missionary moments that I felt closest to Jane.

    I did have an interviewer comment recently that I had employed a particularly Australian voice in the Rowland Sinclair books. My response was simply that it was my voice, and so, of course, it was Australian.

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  4. Hi Angela, it wasn’t until I started working alongside and becoming friends with Noongars, Yamatji, Mardu, and Wongi people and the odd Wiradjuri fella that that heart-sickness you mention started to abate – something that I hadn’t anticipated. The generosity of spirit, unasked for, some of the welcomes to country, the basic human-to-human acceptance, the teaching of another way of viewing Country, the bloody humour! In spite of all that has happened, has made me feel like I can belong here again. Which is a bloody gift beyond measure, as far as I’m concerned (after having spent a third of my life travelling/living overseas, but not finding anywhere else I really felt at home.)
    And as for failure – as Les Murray quipped in one of his poems – it was the first word to rhyme with Australia….

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  6. Anthony Mouse says:

    G’day Angela, Anthony here.

    I suppose I should apologise first for not agreeing with you, but why would you want to be called an Australian writer. And why would you want one of those grant things.

    I’ll bet Frank Bottrill didn’t get a grant to build “Big Lizzie”. The bloke had an idea and he had a go. Maybe it broke down on the way to Broken Hill, but clearing all that land was a pretty decent job. And those soldier settlers were probably pretty thankful for it, before the depression.

    Now I know you’re going to say that it was a bad thing for the environment but Frank didn’t know that then. Providing a bit of land for the blokes who fought OS seemed like a good idea at the time. Me mates at work refer to the bloke who always knows best as Captain Hindsight. Always sees thing pretty clearly he does.

    And you gave up on Fitzroy. Jesus Christ! An Aussie doesn’t give up on his team just because they don’t win. I mean we might be a bit critical, we might call them bludgers and nancies and such, but we don’t give up on them – that’s half the fun. Keeps you honest. If you’ld waited the odd decade you might have enjoyed the Lions winning a few grand finals in a row.

    i don’t know. Maybe its the whole writing thing. Big noting really. Thinking you know better or maybe that what you say is important. Truth is that that your mates will let you know if you’re a decent bloke. You don’t have to tell everybody about it.

    And, I’m sorry, but tweeting? its like a budgerigar with a mirror. Might be ok for Ashton Kucher and Madonna, but its not really Australian.

    What I worry about is that the idea of the ordinary bloke is being lost.

    When I grew up, just being an ordinary, decent bloke was enough. It was respected. You had a job, put food on the table and (despite some of the propaganda) you loved and respected the missus. You cuffed your son affectionately and told your daughter she was beautiful and would make any man proud.

    You let the politicians run the country and so long as they didn’t interfere, you let them get on with it, because when it mattered, your mates would help out. We also had unions that stood for something. Not that I always agreed with them, but sometimes you needed them to sort the boss out. I don’t know, seemed like there was a sort of balance.

    Now i keep on reading in the media, that I need to be special. That its not good enough to be ordinary. My car has to be better or I need to wear snazzy clothes. or fuck me, I have to send my kids to a private school because the public system isn’t good enough.

    Where the fuck does all this shit come from?

    Once I felt i belonged. That I was Australian and that was ok. That being a decent bloke was something to aspire to. Now it seems its not enough.

    I suppose I don’t like the idea of being an “Australian” writer. Writer is fine. I mean the blokes at Gallipoli were proud to be Australian, but they distinguished themselves because they were good not because they were Australian. It was crazy, being there in the first place, but they coped. They volunteered. I suppose you could say they got a government grant to get there, but that’s probably an ironic joke that an Australian might smile at.

    I haven’t travelled much. Maybe that’s a difference. I look at the bush and enjoy its familiarity. Burnt and stark, after fires, the wattles in August. Tired and magnificent gums sheltering mobs of sheep. Wombats in the snowy highlands. Bandicoots in the Daintree.

    Being Australian has nothing to do with success or failure. Its about not being ashamed of being ordinary.

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  8. I don’t know that I agree with you about Australians celebrating failure. My feeling is that most Australians are reluctant to comment, and particularly reluctant to praise. Of course, there are exceptions, and I suppose that, when we come across those who are willing to spotlight others in a positive way, we tend to realise how great they are.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Margaret, I can’t take sole credit for the idea that Australians celebrate failure. Peter Temple put it into my head. Temple is South African born, which perhaps gives him a more anthropological view of things about Australian culture that us locals can take for granted.

      I agree with you that Australians do not hand out praise lightly — except when it comes to sporting heroes. I credit this in part to our Protestant and Irish Catholic origins: bestowing praise is frowned upon in both traditions, either because it gives people ideas above their station and/or tempts fate. As a consequence, we’ve tended to grow up as a country unaccustomed to accepting compliments.

      Could this be part of the reason we fail to see just how lucky we are, relative to almost everywhere else in the world?

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