OWNERSHIP? IN FICTION?
Anna Tambour, guest blogging
Apologies beforehand. I don't blog because I never wanted to rave online, but this is a rave.
Grace Dugan's thoughtful picture and musings about Australian fantasy uncover an aspect of Australia that is, in my opinion, as damaging as a continent-wide seeding with cluster mines: the many cultural cringes that inhibit expression and stunt the freedom to think--and to love.
"I think a lot of people are reluctant to write fantasy in Australian landscapes because that would involve dealing, in one way or another, with the fact that We Don’t Own This Land," Grace wrote, and that "fact" has not been challenged, for it is, in fact, the prevailing "truth", in a nation that tends to swallow too many givens as fact.
When this We Don't Own This Land meets creativity, the very heart of imagination, it boils my blood.
Land in fiction, just as cities in fiction, are places. A place in the heart, or not. The history of people on this planet is the history of migration, of living to the extent of the nature of the technology of those people, and of--for the most part--not being the stuff of noble sayings, which must, like the famous quote of Chief Seattle, be stuffed into a dead man's mouth.
Ben Payne's comment was so appropriate, I thought: "I wonder if one of the things that puts people off using local landscape is its one-dimensionality... I've read elsewhere that where the wilderness of other countries is a 'threat' to be 'conquered' or 'mastered', the Australian outback's main approach is to bore people to death."
And so it does, to most people who treat is as one would a character--a cardboard puppet with a role to play. And even the forgetfulness of the threat, the need to conquer to live, the need to master in order to live. This isn't a land of reaching out and plucking an apple from a tree, Robin Hood style. I recommend Kim Mahood's excellent and unsqueamish, autobiographical "Craft for a Dry Lake" , to get a non-fiction take on modern relationships with the land, in central Australia. I remember being in an environmental-NGO meeting when the problem with traditional owners wanting to make deals from uranium mining came up.
Throughout history, the vast majority of people did not own the land they lived on, technically. But that didn't inhibit their story-telling. They didn't own the tenements they lived in, either. But that didn't stop them telling stories based in cities, either. Story-telling, myth-making, comes from the heart when it is good; and though fakelore is fakelore, it has been created for many purposes. Paul Bunyan is a fake, but I for one think those stories are a gift, and did no harm. The majority of real myths and traditional fantasies have morals that show society as much more complex and (horrors!) immoral by the should-be standards of today. There is a fakelore industry that I think should rightly be condemned. Eliot A Singer's article, "Ethics, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children's Literature" is spot on in its criticism of the demeaning of people (who typically, become this amorphous glob) in misguided "respect".
Grace wrote further: "Fantasy is a very rich and flexible tradition, even if it might not always seem like that. There must be more inventive ways of literalising this metaphor of the red-orange-yellow town in the big grey-green landscape. The fact that our mythology does not match our landscape should not be an obstacle, or something to be avoided, it should instead be the subject of fiction. What does colonisation mean for mythology? What is its affect on magic? There’s no reason why this can’t be the stuff that ripping yarns are made of." I applaud Grace's reminder of the richness and flexibility of fantasy.
But this landscape, to most people in Australia, means nothing. They have no connection with it, so why invent one because they somehow should? The big grey-green landscape is not that to people who are in its midst and feel its complex pull on them, or not. The urge to create something that isn't strict reality should come from individual experience and fascination--not anything pre- nor proscribed--creation should come from what a person feels, including every other story that person relates to, personally. Ancestral stories can be boring to a person who is shoved into the box of being essentially, a reteller--a person without the option of being a person. Both the bush and the city can look like big grey-scapes, when one isn't in the midst of their thrall.
Colonisation? Another irrelevance. And another cringe-mine. If you want to write about colonisation, then fine. But this continent is a continent of migrants--of diasporans--none of whom should have some higher legitimacy when it comes to imagination and fiction, if it is genuine and not put forth fraudulently.
Of course We Don't Own This Land. No-one does, when it comes to stories. Only when we get out of the way of this ownership mentality can we truly allow what imagination needs: to allow a place and a state of mind and magic itself, to Own Us.
For most people in this country, that place is the City. If so, then it can be a place of fantasy, if the writer feels it. If not, then trying to make it so, is a false as writers who set stories in New York city because they think they should--or people of any ethnic group who are expected to write "ethnic"--because the story/author then has legitimacy to readers. Ben Peek's Sydney and his expressions of history are alive as a stepped-on snake, precisely because he feels them so much. If contrasting city/country/past is a construction--not a natural expression--why do it? Why write anything unless it is something that comes from deep inside--the gut need to tell tales that just must come out--stories that have nothing to do with cool calculation, with constructing to fit a market, to teach some moral in ways we accuse the Victorians of?
So from my point of view, if it's from the heart, write it. Scrape your soul and smear it on the page. It doesn't matter who was where you are before you. It doesn't matter where you came from, what your original language was. Nothing matters at all except the truth of what your heart feels. And if you don't write from that, why bother anyone with more words.