How we found our own voice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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


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