SOME THOUGHTS ON AUSTRALIAN FANTASY: Part Two
Grace Dugan, guest blogging
Now, I know my previous post on this topic may have seemed more like indulgent nostalgia than actually having anything to do with Australian fantasy, but I do have a vague feeling that this time I’m going to get round to something more relevant.
But starting with another reminiscence. In April 2003 I was in Katoomba, staying at Varuna, a wonderful writers retreat. April in Australia is autumn, and Katoomba, being in the Blue Mountains is cold by Australian standards. Thus, it has plenty of European trees which turn pretty colours, and plenty of the kind of gardens which my mother loves (in fact, she was in Leura, the next town over, a couple of weeks ago and told me about all the beautiful magnolia stellata). Most of the Blue Mountains is a big national park, with the towns kind of strung through it along the railway line. In the autumn the deciduous trees made the town stand out from the national park around it. It was as if someone had applied one of those dyes that only sticks to one thing, so that you can see it better (for example under a microscope). This time it was sticking to European Settlement of Australia: a small red-orange-yellow patch in the middle of a vast expanse of grey-green bush.
It became clear to me that this was either a metaphor for something relating to the Australian condition, or it was the beginning of a story idea. Probably both. Have we in fact created little pockets of Europe here to comfort ourselves? Are our heads still in the Northern Hemisphere, even though our feet are here?
(Aside: a few months ago in Brisbane we had the most spectacular hailstorm of all time. Streets in the inner city were filled with a metre of hailstones. People were making hailmen on the lawn behind Lang Park. Even my back deck was covered with an inch of it, and the pavement out the front was covered with a green paste of shredded poinciana leaves. Two days later, I heard a couple of students talking about in on the 412 bus. ‘It looked like snow,’ one of them said. ‘It was so Europe!’)
I think we are, in many ways, a nation of Europhiles (even if we are, like everyone else, inundated with US culture). Most Australian fantasy is based on the European model. There are notable exceptions, of course, and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with either the exceptions or the norm. If people want to write and read Arthuriana, or quest narratives which involve struggling through snow and sleet, that’s fine by me. It’s just interesting.
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. As a nation we like to generally ignore indigenous culture (Australia is a vast, open, harsh [and empty] land. We are young and free. We live in a land of great natural beauty and wilderness, etc.), except where it relates to something specific and easily understood, like Aboriginal art, or didgeridoo music, or the injustices that have been perpetrated against indigenous people. I’ve seen several stories in workshops which are based on the premise that the Aboriginal “spirits” who inhabit the landscape are somehow analogues of Irish fair folk, or that an Irish-descended person might see them and understand them that way. May Gibbs made up the characters of snugglepot and cuddlepie, the gumnut fairies (and a host of other European-style fairies based on native plants). I’ve also seen, or heard about, stories which are about Irish fairies or leprechauns who come to Australia with the immigrants and find it an odd place.
It seems to me, though, that these “solutions” to the “problem” of Australian fantasy are only the tip of the iceberg. 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.
Clearly, I haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, yet, because if I had then I’d be secreting it away in a notebook somewhere and not rambling all over someone else’s blog.
(Aside: there are several elephants in the room. One is The Nargun and the Stars, by Patricia Wrightson. I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s a YA fantasy based on Aboriginal mythology, written by a non-Aboriginal. Another is Land of the Golden Clouds, a fantasy novel written by Aboriginal author Archie Weller, which I’ve also not read. Alas, it was marketed as a literary novel, with little success, or so I heard. Perhaps others can comment?).
Part Three coming (I think)
Grace Dugan has a trad-fantasy story called “The Conqueror,” forthcoming in Eidolon I.