Sunday, October 02, 2005


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.

So Europe

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.


At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Ben Payne said...

Phew, this spam is pretty subtle in its marketing!

And Grace, Several elephants in the room? What?

I've just started reading a novel called Nightpeople by Anthony Eaton which so far seems to use the local landscape...

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... its unrelenting nature, which contains an inherent drama/conflict in itself, but which differs from the travellog approach that a lot of fantasy uses, of the travelling band questing through a shifting landscape...

At 5:30 AM, Anonymous Paul Jessup said...

Interesting thought. Esp when you compare it to US fantasy, which holds the same basic problems (ie: we do not own the land or mythology we live on).

An interesting take on all this is in American Gods, which may or may not help the Aussies as well. I'm not sure if I agree with Gaiman's solution (eg, Gods do not grow in American soil- explain to me the insane popularity of the Wiccan movement right now then...).

The interesting idea here, I think, is that landscapes themselves hold the language and the lineage of mythology. Other cultures have centuries upon centuries of evolution for their own fantastical mental landscape, where it sits in the ground and grows.

Of course, you have it far worse than us in the states. Our Natives are also emigrants (Asian emigrant descendants, I think, but I am not an Anthropologist), while yours have probably been there since the Paleolithic era. A time when man was forging myths from the very stone he carved.

I think I might just be rambling now, so back into the caves I go...

At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shit. Someone do something about all this fucking spam! It seems like a blight on Blogspot!

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Dave Cake said...

I feel I should be writing a spam like marketing message for anti-spam tools, but anyway...

There was a panel I was on at Continuum about Australian fantasy and use of aboriginal legends that I thought was very good. Much mention was made of Patricia Wrightson, who was a favourite of mine in high school. The Nargun and the Stars is the best known, but she has written several, of which The Ice Is Coming and sequels are perhaps the most interesting. I reread it recently, holds up well and still had interesting things to say. One interesting aspect of it is right from the start Wrightson talks about three cultures in Australia, the Aboriginal, the Rural, and the Urban. Perhaps its not so much that we are not aboriginal, as most of us are city folk.

Also, just thought it was worth noting -- my uncle was Jack Davis, the aboriginal playwright, and he actually wrote a play for children exploring the meeting of an aboriginal spirit and a leprechaun. Its obviously a motif with some appeal.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Brother Roy said...

Joseph Paxton

At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Grace said...

Ben said: "And Grace, Several elephants in the room? What?"

You know, as in things that I'm avoiding talking about because I don't want to, even though they're relevant to the topic.

Ben said: "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... its unrelenting nature, which contains an inherent drama/conflict in itself, but which differs from the travellog approach that a lot of fantasy uses, of the travelling band questing through a shifting landscape..."

I have to agree with Anna that a lot of people don't seem to have any connection with The Bush. It's one of those things that I have to believe because t here is such overwhelming evidence, but I do find it difficult.

On Saturday I came back from the Bunya Mountains, through Toowoomba, to Brisbane (by car, but I wasn't driving). The Bunyas is an elevated area of lush subtropical rainforest. The Bunya pines themselves are one of those species of Australian conifers which have been around since Gondwanaland days. The ones up there are really, really big, like 70m tall, two metres wide at the base. They also have strangler figs, which wrap themselves around other trees, choke the trees to death, then take over their structure and grow upwards into their own tree. Not to mention Stinging Trees, which have large heart-shaped leaves with holes in them, and are like nettles only ten times worse. I've never touched one, but apparently the stinging lingers on for some time. Scary stuff.

The Bunya Mountains also have odd treeless patches at the top, called Balds, which are natural, not the result of logging, and contain various endemic species. Plus at the edge of this rainforest you get groves of grasstrees, some of which are up to five metres tall, which means they are hundreds and hundreds of years old.

So we drove out of this landscape, down onto the plains around Oakey and Jondaryan, which were dry and flat and dusty. The humps of orange termite mounds could be seen poking up through the grass. There were also some pretty big areas that had been burned probably a few years back, in one of those bad fires that destroys all the gum trees as well as the grass and undergrowth. Then we hit Toowoomba, and the lantana-lined, semi-rainforest descent from the range. Then the green hills of the Lockyer Valley, and finally back into the jacaranda-dotted western suburbs of Brisbane.

I'm guessing you're already bored.

I just don't see this one-dimensionality thing. I think even the word "outback" implies that it's all very boring and not important, that it's a nowhere. (What does outback mean, anyway? I always think of it as being desert or mulga country, and I've never been to either of those.)

At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Anthony Eaton said...

ben payne said...

"I've just started reading a novel called Nightpeople by Anthony Eaton which so far seems to use the local landscape..."

Glad to know somebody's reading it! Hope it lives up to expectations, Ben.

I was interested by your comment about the one-dimensionality of the local landscape. I've always thought the Australian landscape to be a particularly rich one, though perhaps more subtle in its nuances. For me, it's definately a landscape that forces one to look inside themselves as they travel through it, rather than outwards, and I think this lends a great deal of potential to any writer using it as a setting for their characters.

I also agree with Grace, in that Australian writing generally has struggled in the face of a continent and culture so large and so ancient that we have had trouble dealing with it within a eurocentric framework, and so we tend to either ignore or compartmentalise it into managable images. There are, as she points out, some notable exceptions, and my feeling is that Australian writers, especially in the speculative areas, are starting to explore the potential of this landscape in more complex ways. Sean Williams' trilogy "the books of the change" is an example that springs readily to mind. It was certainly one of my objectives when I started mapping out Nightpeople six years ago.

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