Everything Returns to the Land

Caitlin Maling

When I moved from Western Australia to Houston I brought only two books with me: the novel Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, and a photography book, Silence, by Brad Rimmer. Choosing these books to fit within my very limited luggage weight was difficult, but in very similar ways they both allowed me to bring Home with me and serve as reminders of what it means (at least to me) to be an Australian writer. Since being here in Houston people often question me about Australian literature and the broader state of the Australian arts, questions I am only marginally qualified to answer. However, when pushed to answer these questions I think back to my two books, and the word that comes to mind is Land. In Cloudstreet, Tim Winton writes about the Swan River upon which my hometown Perth is built:
The river was broad and silvertopped and he knew its topography well enough to be out at night, though the old girl would have had a seizure at the thought. He never got bored with landmarks, the swirls of tideturned sand, armadas of jellyfish, the smell of barnacles and weed, the way the way the pelicans baulked and hovered like great baggy clowns. He liked to hear the skip of prawns and the way a confused school of mullet bucked and turned into a mob. From the river you could be in the city but not on or of it. You could be out there on the water and see everything go by you, around you, leaving you untouched.
Throughout Cloudstreet, Winton writes the language of this river into his narrative. Even when he is not writing directly of the Western Australian landscape, it appears in the vernacular his characters speak. Similarly the reciprocal relationship between land and people is at the heart of Brad Rimmer's Silence. In her introduction to the collection, Susan Bright writes of the individual's appearing in Rimmer's work that:
[It] is not to say they are not good people, it is just that the land, its vastness, the harshnesses of the weather and the essential need to work seem to beat them down in a way that does not exist once one is in a city, or even a suburb. Fires, storms and the insufferable heat of Western Australian can be controlled when you move towards the coast. Here, it is just you and the land together trying to make it work the best way you can.
Australian artists of all genres seem to be drawn, even inadvertently, towards trying to map the geographic features of the country we occupy within our work. In my first week in Houston I received a letter from a friend studying creative writing at an Australian university which illustrated this perfectly. In it he contained the following quote by the Victorian writer Kevin Brophy, from the textbook used to teach creative writing within a majority of Australian institutions. Brophy writes that:
Prose lies on a page before us as the sea lies under a great bird flying from one continent to another. The sentence is no more a distinct unit of language than the wave is distinct from the ocean. Sentences of prose move down the page in lines just as the waves of the pacific move on to the Australian shoreline. They are a surface phenonmenon; they tell us something of what might be happening underneath the surface; they have their own storms and moods; we read them because we birds, moving from the continent of birth to the continent of death, must feed off what is swimming just below those waves.
Upon reading this it seemed to me that even in the teaching and learning of the creative arts, within Australia, everything returns to the Land.

Comments (2)

  1. Vicky:
    Nov 16, 2011 at 01:14 AM

    I agree with you, but I don't know if I see it as a necessarily positive thing. Don't you think it's strange, the way that we have trouble reconciling ideas and images of 'the Urban' and 'the City' with ideas of Australia or Australianess, given that more 70% of us live in coastal cities? I feel like 'the Land' and the insistance on rural Australia being the 'real' Australia, or somehow its 'essence' cuts out a lot of stories, urban stories, immigrant stories, that are just as Australian and just as valid as the rural experience.

    1. Caitlin Maling:
      Nov 24, 2011 at 05:58 AM

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are correct in proposing that the rural experience often overtakes the urban in the popular consciousness of wider Australia (and even in our voting practices). However, one of the things I personally enjoy about Australian literature is the way that this often functions to create a 'Land'scape from within a city or urban setting. For example in this instance Cloudstreet is largely set in a city.


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