Pages of Us – Introduction
Australian Literature. Does such a thing exist? That was the response from my Head Teacher at the UK school where I taught English. ‘Christina Stead . . .’ , I began to respond but, in the face of her hoots of incredulity, I stopped. Any feelings of inadequacy I may have been experiencing, in the face of teaching the English canon to the English, did not require further reinforcement.
Smarting as I was, my passion and my curiosity for our national literature never dimmed. To this day, I still become excited introducing Garner or Harrison or Winton to the students I tutor. My words speed up, my hands fly in front of my face because it is ‘us’. Us on the page. Us in the images. Us in the colloquial. ‘So what?’ they ask me. So what?
Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s in Newcastle was an uneasy time for me. Overweight and still wearing the cat’s eye glasses on trend at the time (there were no other options) my fit on the wide sandy plains of Nobby’s Beach was not organic. I don’t think I ever ‘fitted’. But I did find acceptance of myself in the books I read. There, between the pages, existed other plain girls, other girls who liked to read and found it difficult to make friends. I discovered my ‘unfitted self’ amongst the personalities and, therefore, I was. I was George in The Famous Five, I was Judy from Seven Little Australians, Laura from The Getting of Wisdom and Jo from Little Women. While these novels were chosen from various western cultures, the point is, through the reflection of my own character in those texts, I determined I wasn’t the only one who preferred a library to a netball court. And this of course is not an uncommon experience.
I draw the same analogy about our sunburnt nation. Our identity developed from and alongside the literature that reflected our unique environment, our vernacular and our irrepressible character. Charles Harpur, our first genuine Australian poet, who lived for more than a decade in the Hunter Valley, is renowned for being the earliest writer creating images inspired by the Australian landscape. John Miller writes he was ‘the only poet of the time who achieves an original Australian voice’. While other poets imagined nymphs and the green rolling hills of the old country, Harpur deliberately wrote what he saw.
The other legend to whom I believe we owe so much is Henry Lawson. Perhaps now out of fashion, he is undoubtedly the poet who, for me, best tries to capture the spirit of the early settlers. His beautiful and profound depiction of the resilient drover’s wife, who alone ‘rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying [her] dead child’, still quietens the 21st century noise around me. Reading Lawson’s work reminds me of how tough it was in Australia not long ago and from where our empathy for the underdog originates. But more than that, these early Australian writers placed us on the page and provided every European Australian the opportunity to be. The magnificent aspect of reading is that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says, ‘you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ So, for a country as isolated as we are, our own literature is profoundly important.
Of course I cannot finish without stating that the mirror Australian literature holds up for me is different to the First Australians’ experience or the experience of those living with a disability or the LGBTQIA experience. And I do not attempt to represent that experience. But I can begin to hope that, for all Australians, our literature starts to reflect more varied experiences because accepting oneself partly requires recognising oneself on the page.
Identity is linked inextricably to Australian literature.
Susan Francis’ memoir is to be published by Allen and Unwin and will be available early next year. She discussed a brief part of this book on ABC Conversations. You an listen to that here: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926
Susan has been published in various anthologies, most recently The Newcastle Short Story Award 2019. Her work has been short and long listed for competitions around Australia, including the E.J. Brady Award and the Margaret River competition. Susan has a Masters Degree in Australian Literature and a half finished PhD sitting in her garage. She is a former High School English teacher. Susan is currently working on her second book.