Special Issue: Contemporary Australian Literature
By International Editor John Kinsella
Though I have been international editor for the Kenyon Review for over fourteen years now, this is the first chance I’ve had to compile a selection of Australian work for the journal. Although I have recently enjoyed editing The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry for an American audience, it’s particularly edifying to be able to present a range of “genres” in this special issue.
Selected in conjunction with my friend and the Review’s editor, David Lynn, the work that follows gives a cross section of one of many different collective interpretations of contemporary Australian literary practice. It is easy to make a claim that a country’s literature is going through a rich period of creative energy; in essence, this is de rigueur for the collector, collator, or anthologiser to claim. Most often this is probably true if enough people have desired and bothered to produce such a selection. I present this selection not so much in an aesthetic light (which I always suspect as being more curatorial and illustrative than generative) but rather in the light of necessity, of compulsion.
I feel there’s a drive, an enthusiasm, and a shout-out in Australian writing at present that demands it be heard. It can be political, ethical, and moral in its orientation, but it can also be a case of “look and see and judge for yourself”—an investigation of a country constantly struggling to come to grips with collective identity when so many identities have been denied, or hidden, or disparaged, or, for that matter, highlighted as authentic.
In some ways, Australia undergoes literary processes similar to those in the United States, of questioning the relationship between written literary language and the languages of the place itself. Australian literature is perceived as an English-language literature, but that’s only part of the story. It is an English that is “dominant” and “official,” but it’s a multicultural English and lives in an often tyrannical relationship with the languages that have been forced into its ambit.
The strength and power of indigenous languages which have survived, often against great odds, and many of which are being reclaimed and in fact “grown,” are a vital underpinning and agency in their own right. And there are many migrant languages forced into English-language literacy that are reembodied and change English itself; to which I say, thank goodness, hopefully edging English away from its colonial footholds into something universally respectful if not—and we surely don’t want it to be!—“universal.” Literature is language, and language is liberation, and herein we have poems, stories, and an essay that use language to its fullest, that bend the rules and offer new points of departure. That’s what I look for in a creative work, be it “clear” or “obscure”—terms, in fact, I doubt and avoid.
Some of these works speak their minds clearly, others offer new terms for what they consider. Some are of place, and some might lead us to question how we “define” place. All are of Australia in some way or other—“expatriate” in the case of, say, Clive James (or, indeed, Tracy Ryan, who though living in Australia has lived so many years “away”), or of people whose ancestry extends back through millennia and who count indigenous culturality as the spiritual and material embodiment of their relationship to country. There are works by writers born “elsewhere” who have embodied themselves in “Australia,” always aware of the breadth of culturality that they carry with them and help inform, added as conversation to the polyphonous conversations that become “Australia.”
I am profoundly antinationalist, which is why I am an international editor and not an Australian editor at large. The Western Australian wheatbelt is who I am, even if I am tormented by the fact of living on stolen land, of my culpability in what I (and others) perceive as an ongoing injustice in terms of reconciling land rights claims of Aboriginal Australians, and this is an identity I carry with me all around the world. I believe in place and people but not government labels, not government propaganda of allegiance, and razzamatazz that puts others down in putting oneself up.
My loyalties are local, my loyalties are internationally regional, my loyalties are to those who don’t get a fair go or a right to speak; my loyalties are to community, and my loyalties are to language itself, which I see as the key to liberty on personal and broader levels. Where there is exclusion on the basis of faith, ethnicity, material “worth,” gender, sexual identity, or any other falsity looking to differentiate for empowerment, then language and literature need to travel to challenge and undo.
This issue is part of a conversation we all need to be having in a time of rising global fascism, the exclusion of “others,” a breakdown in both international spirit and local integrity. Each of the authors whose work has been selected here articulates a “different” aspect of an “Australian literature,” and each has very different (I am sure) attitudes on many subjects and issues, but they are likely also to overlap in many expected and maybe surprising ways. It might not quite be a case of Gang Gajang’s 1985 song of memory and reorientation, “Sounds of Then,” which says “This is Australia,” but it’s one possible version of Australia out of the infinite number of Australias there are and might be.
Another version of Australia I am listening to as I write this is the Warumpi Band’s 1996 remake of their brilliant deconstruction of racial differentiating in Australia, “Blackfella/Whitefella,” with its lines “We need more brothers if we’re to make it, we need more sisters if we’re to save it.” This collection is compiled in such a spirit—a sharing of one country’s literature with another country in the hope of extending community, sharing the generative possibilities of language and literature.
On the Cover
Makinti Napanangka (c. 1930-2011) was an Indigenous Australian artist from the Western desert region. Posthumously, she is also known as Kumentje. A member of the Pintupi group, she first began painting in 1994 with a community art project at Minyma Tjukurrpa (Kintore/Haasts Bluff Project). By 1997, her work was acquired by many galleries and collectors. She painted continuously the rest of her life to help support her extended family. Her style evolved from orderly, careful brushstroke compositions into more spontaneous, bright iconography. The only time Napanangka put down her brush was when she had a cataract operation in 1999. Post surgery, her canvas included thicker lines, and her polymer colors became more light-infused. She was awarded the Telstra Award in 2008, and her work was selected for inclusion in the 2012 Sydney Biennale shortly after her death.