Australian Literature : Points for Departure

In the conclusion to her germinal study of sex, race and nation in Australian women's writing, Along the Faultlines (1995), Susan Sheridan questions the prevalent orientations of Australian and literary cultural studies. In particular she draws attention to its 'fixed and known directions' in understandings of cultural nationalism. In that book, and elsewhere, Sheridan's work explores the relationship between women writers as makers of cultural meaning, along with questions of national identity. Most specifically, it questions the feminist thesis that women have been routinely or consistently excluded from hegemonic definitions of Australianness by recognising that white women have been accommodated by these definitions, and they have often accepted the terms and conditions of this inclusion.

It is no accident that Sheridan's critique of feminist approaches to cultural nationalism and this awareness of the complicity of white women in exclusive ways of thinking about the nation and national subjects emerged in part from her writing a chapter in the literary history produced for the 1988 Bicentenary. That 'celebration of a nation' has produced an ongoing interrogation of the nation/al. To write a chapter in the Penguin New Literary History of Australia (which was a marker of the Bicentenary) caused Sheridan, among others, 'to confront the question of what exactly we were celebrating in 1988, and who this "we" were' (Sheridan 166). That literary history, like other Bicentenary publications, brought into view the differences between Australian literary and cultural history and the history of Europeans in Australia. It is, probably, the last literary history that will begin (albeit ironically) with the white imaginary, and the arrival of European culture in Australia to the sound of gun and whistle as the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay. In the first chapter of the recent Oxford Literary History of Australia (1998), Adam Shoemaker, like Alan Atkinson (1997) and Grimshaw et al. (1994), begins the Australian story outside of historical time and with Australian indigenous society and culture in view.

This marks a reorientation in thinking about ways of 'making it national'. As Shoemaker's chapter makes clear, including the cultural production of Aboriginal Australians into the literary history unsettles not just ideas about beginnings but also notions of what forms of cultural production, and which artefacts, might be included in thinking about Australian culture. For example Shoemaker reads inscriptions on the body and on rock along with inscriptions on the page into this most recent literary history.

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Published 1 October 1999 in Volume 19 No. 2. Subjects: African literature & writers, Australian identity, Australian literary criticism, Australian literature - Study & teaching, Australian women writers, Defining an Australian literature, Racial identity - Literary portrayal.

Cite as: Whitlock, Gillian. ‘Australian Literature : Points for Departure.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.d609f70001.