How we found our own voice
Australia is a settler nation. This is a truth that is loudly and proudly proclaimed by some, loudly and angrily bemoaned by others, while most of us shuffle along behind, guiltily or indifferently accepting the fact. Australian literature ostensibly grew out of both this physical settlement and out of the English literary traditions, adapting them, and later European and American forms, to describe, celebrate, or question the new culture that was arising here.
That is one way of looking at it: the self-consciousness of what we know as Australian literature is usually taken to be part of the process of claiming ‘‘our’’ form of these traditions for ourselves, throwing aside the cringe, and so on.
Poet Michael Farrell, in Writing Australian Unsettlement, a dense, scholarly but also revelatory and enlivening book, shows us an alternative literary history of colonialism in which the process was at least as much one of unsettlement.
All kinds of expressions and attempts to communicate sprang up during Australia’s early history, it transpires, mostly unknown and forgotten, but each with a genuine claim to be part of any canon that might be compiled, if such a foolish undertaking were to be attempted.
There is for example, Dorothea Mackellar’s secret, coded diary. There are the signs and notices written by cattle drovers on trees and water tanks, one especially fabulously obscene and dramatic.
The most well-known of the texts Farrell quotes is Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter. It is fabulously rambling and rhetorical, making it easy for the reader to be swept along by it, enjoying Ned as a surprisingly poetic rogue. Farrell, by slowing us down and examining different aspects of it, makes Ned a hundred times more interesting, and with more mythic power, than the bush Fenian/blue singlet glove puppet we have had foisted on us for so long.
The elemental violence of Kelly’s language reflects that of settlement, and as Farrell writes: Kelly’s letter is an unsettling mixture of goodwill and scorched earth policy. Though Kelly continually draws on the agricultural for his language and logic, he suggests devastation is the proper alternative to an unfair society. It is a stump, or vernacular, speech that reduces everything to a stump, and then burns the stump out.
This book is a scholarly one, (Farrell’s PhD thesis, in effect) and contains much scholarly language, but always balanced by writing as straightforward and lyrical as the above.
The question of settlement arises quite naturally in academic writing, with words and concepts developed by French theorists, and having their most apt expression in French, trying to ‘‘settle’’ in the intellectual terrain of another tongue.
For example, the term ‘‘assemblage’’ (from the French ‘‘agencement’’) that Farrell uses to describe the way texts, histories, even landscapes, are written, edited, arranged or rearranged, or presented in different forms. Whereas ‘‘unsettlement’’, though an intellectual construction, immediately offers a guide to its uses, whenever the word ‘‘assemblage’’ pops up the text there is a kind of shudder of the lens and the brain has to do some frantic focus-pulling to recalibrate.
Farrell offers, perhaps unconsciously, a reason for this when he writes: ‘‘Translation is, in a sense, a parodic exercise, where texts are repeated with a difference.’’
He says this while discussing another text, the Ngarla Songs, which were written by indigenous stockmen about station life in the Pilbara, translated, and published in 2003.
They were later presented in court as evidence of the Ngarla’s long association with the land, helping them to win their native title claim.
As Farrell says, ‘‘This is an amazing example of songs … achieving a literal reterritorialization through the deployment of a textual assemblage of desire: to retake control of country.’’
Farrell takes the visual presentation of texts just as seriously as their cultural, semantic and
FARRELL’S READING MAKES NED KELLY A HUNDRED TIMES MORE INTERESTING