Colonial History and Post-Colonial Fiction : The Writing of Thea Astley

Throughout much of her writing career Thea Astley has been concerned with the traces of colonial history. In novels like A Kindness Cup (1974), Beachmasters (1985) and It's Raining in Mango (1987), she has interrogated the workings of memory and the impact of the past on and in contemporary Australian and Pacific cultures. While these Astley novels can be seen as paradigmatically post-colonial, constituting an engagement with colonial history, and taking up the cultural legacy of colonisation, they fit less easily into a post-colonial politics which has at times sought to reify an authentic indigeneity which can produce a downplaying of white dominance. Astley's novels have a tendency to reject the recuperation of resistance that has been the major task of much post-colonial literary and cultural criticism, and to emphasise both the devastation caused by colonialism on indigenous populations, and the lasting refusal of colonial regimes to recognise the causes or effects of that devastation.

The relatively early novel A Kindness Cup, which focuses on the massacre of a group of Aborigines and the efforts made to forget and to remember this violence at a town reunion twenty years later, is marked largely by the rage and frustration felt by its central character who seems to mirror Astley's horror at the genial amorality that pervades some rural communities. Her most recent novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, likewise focuses on an actual historical event in north Queensland that is shaped by relations between whites and indigenes. It is, though, a more nuanced retelling of the historical event, this time violence perpetrated by a white man. Like her previous works, this novel both is part of, and represents, the struggle to reconcile the weight and material damage of history with the relative impotence of those who embody that history. It also raises complex questions about the role played by fiction, history, the body, and landscape in shaping contemporary understandings of 'being a Queenslander'. A reading of it strongly suggests that while fiction may be hopelessly inadequate for coming to terms with the past, nevertheless it may be one of the best tools available for challenging the simple-mindedly celebratory narratives of colonisation which demonstrate such extraordinary tenacity in the contemporary Australian psyche.

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Published 1 May 1999 in Volume 19 No. 1. Subjects: Australian history, Characterisation, Imagery, Metaphors, Narrative techniques, Symbolism, Use of language, Writer's craft, Writer's inspiration.

Cite as: Dale, Leigh. ‘Colonial History and Post-Colonial Fiction : The Writing of Thea Astley.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.9b0ca6f2cd.