Review of Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature, edited by Nicholas Birns, Nicole Moore and Sarah Shieff.

This collection is, at its best, like a conversation with colleagues over a shared meal after a stimulating conference, something all-too-often dreamed about and longed for but far too rarely experienced. There are shared interests and enthusiasms to discuss; ideas are circulating; suggestions and counter-claims mingle in an unfussy and informal way. The strutters and big-noting boofheads have headed elsewhere, off to the next keynote address, leaving behind more modest, self-effacing, but serious company. These essays are shop-talk of the best kind: twenty-seven scholars, all able to draw on wide reading and their own research, offer insights from their own classroom experiences and outlines for how the reader might bring Australian and New Zealand literary material to life in stand-alone courses or as part of more general literary studies programmes.

Frequently autobiograpical and drawing on specific experiences of assigning and teaching Australian material, the essays are no less intellectually rigorous and critically stimulating for all that. Several, indeed, contain what feel like impromptu close reading demonstrations, and Susan Sheridan’s ‘Portraits of [Christina Stead] as a Young Woman’ (111) had me taking down The Man Who Loved Children from the shelf with new thoughts for my classroom next year. Wenche Ommundsen’s ‘Teaching Australian Multicultural Literature’ (77) reads, on a first glance, as if it were typed up in a spare hour between classes. But it takes decades of reflection and steady professionalism, of course, to be able to treat a subject so lightly, and Ommundsen is generous with her experience. The ‘main lesson’ she has ‘taken from teaching multicultural writing for over twenty years’ is ‘not to contextualize a text out of existence’ (84), a nice example of the collection’s welcome focus on the literary nature of Australian and New Zealand literature. Aimed at a North American market and oriented to the graduate seminar room, there is much in the collection that will also be of interest to English teachers preparing students for the Year Twelve Higher School Certificate and its equivalents in the Australian state systems.

Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature is divided into five parts. Part one, Histories and Contexts, is something of a grab-bag, holding chapters on ‘colonial Australian print culture in the digital age’; nineteenth-century writing from and about New Zealand; a single-author study of Witi Ihimaera as an example of ‘teaching international postcolonialism’; a chapter on ‘frontier fictions’; and another, as mentioned, on ‘multicultural literature’. The reader may fossick here productively, to be sure, but the assortment feels somewhat random. Part two, on frequently taught authors, surveys the star players: New Zealand representative writers are Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and Allen Curnow, while Team Australia is comprised of Christina Stead, Patrick White, Les Murray, David Malouf and Kim Scott.

Elizabeth McMahon’s chapter, ‘Identity, Perversity, and Literary Subjectivity: Teaching Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair’ is particularly satisfying. McMahon draws out the complexity of White’s text and its different forms of narrative, sexual, and literary ‘disclosure’ (139) but is careful to link each of her readings to spurs for classroom discussion. Melissa Kennedy’s survey of Witi Ihimaera’s varied oeuvre is equally stimulating, and a good illustration of the merits of its own case against ‘the trap of reading Indigenous fiction as ethnographic truth or as thinly disguised politics’ (61). While Kennedy explores the politics to Ihimaera’s works sensitively, his later re-writings in particular, she also emphasises the complex, contradictory, formally restless qualities of Ihimaera’s prose.

Part three covers ‘global connections’, with reflections from Chadwick Allen on teaching Māori and Aboriginal texts in global Indigenous contexts, stand-alone chapters on Nam Le’s The Boat, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Sally Morgan’s My Place and a more general set of observations by Claire Jones on how ‘teaching from the postnational space’ (223) might be a way of ‘liberating Australian literature’ (223). Part four offers more practically-oriented course models, from general guides to teaching ‘Aboriginal literature in the classroom’ (237), a particularly welcome chapter by Jeanine Leane, to surveys of New Zealand young adult fiction and Australasian crime fiction. Two single-author studies in this section, Julieanne Lamond on Miles Franklin and Claire Bazin on Janet Frame, sit somewhat awkwardly with their companions but have insights of their own.

The final section provides links to journals, blogs, and bibliographies in Australian and New Zealand literary studies, and is least likely to be of interest to ALS readers. The writing across all five parts is of a high standard: chatty without being careless, straightforward without being simplistic, learned and lucid. This is a pedagogical manual rather than a set of critical studies and so, even if one is unlikely to turn to any of the chapters here for readerly pleasure, they all offer the enjoyment of professional spurs to new teaching.

If Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature has the virtues of a well-run conference, it shares some of that conference’s in-built vices. We have all attended sessions with intriguing names lashing together an incongruent group of presenters, and I wonder if ‘Australian and New Zealand Literature’ might be doing that job here. The editors insist that ‘cultural distinctiveness is far harder to find than it may have been fifty years ago’ (3). I am not sure. Almost one-fifth of New Zealanders live abroad, most of them in Australia, and yet close to forty years of Closer Economic Relations has brought no real alignment between the two literary cultures. Modernism happened differently in both places, and Australia has no ‘problem’ (89) like Katherine Mansfield in its literary history. Cultural nationalism, for that matter, occupies a quite different decadal structure in each country’s history, and New Zealand’s nationalist-modernist 1930s can be compared more easily with Canada’s than with Australia’s. The greater visibility of Pasifika cultures in New Zealand society (and literary publishing) make for very different kinds of multiculturalism; Māori writing in English is produced in an officially bilingual state and alongside a revival of Māori language writing and expression. There are no courses on Australian literature offered at any New Zealand university. Put more crudely: no one reads Australian literature in New Zealand, and the special New Zealand issues of Griffith Review (2014) and Overland (2015) recently make me suspect the same must be true of New Zealand literature in Australia. Chapters in the collection accordingly write past each other. There is fine work on teaching Australian literature and fine work on teaching New Zealand literature, but nothing really on teaching Australian and New Zealand literature. The editors’ opening lines about the two countries being ‘linked’ by ‘shared histories of hope for cultural diversity and social equality’ (3) seems more Obama-era North American good manners than any real connection. It is not, at any rate, how I remember Frank the Poet describing Moreton Bay.

A more serious objection is to do with audience. For whom have these essays been written? Maggie Nolan and Rebecca Weaver-Hightower tell us that ‘anyone teaching an Australian novel at a university in the United States can be confronted by students’ lack of knowledge about Australian history and culture’ (202). The problem is not new, and Elizabeth Webby opens The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) by acknowledging a similar dilemma. Their recommended reading, Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore and Stuart McIntyre’s Concise History of Australia, contains implicit recognition that teachers as much as students may lack some of the essential historical and social knowledge needed to properly appreciate and engage with the ethical, political and aesthetic achievement of Australian literature.

This uncertainty around audience produces occasionally frustrating imprecisions. Some authors take the problem of knowledge as their main subject, and Jeanine Leane and Chadwick Allen both offer practical outlines of the difficulties involved in teaching Indigenous Australian literature in non-Indigenous settings. The volume gives a ‘note on the use of Maori’, explaining why the editors have not italicised Māori words, a common enough feature of New Zealand scholarship. But then current Māori orthography is not followed, and the missing macrons stand metonymically for the volume’s general uncertainty. Other writers bat the problem away, pointing to ways Australian texts can be connected to pre-existing theoretical frameworks familiar to the North American seminar room (Homi Bhabha is a frequent point of reference) or to contemporary American cultural concerns.

I do not disagree with the editors that ‘scholar-teachers working outside Australia and New Zealand can generate new perspectives on this material, acknowledging the local and specific while aspiring towards the transnational’ (3); the worry, with a collection such as this, however, is that the ‘local and the specific’ become seen as so many obstacles blocking the road towards the ‘transnational’, a space which can often seem suspiciously similar in its intellectual furniture to the transit lounges of US thought. Who would oppose transnationalism and world literature? Paul Sharrad had some sceptical remarks to make in his chapter in Scenes of Reading: Is Australian Literature a World Literature? (2013), and this volume reinforces suspicions. The editors describe a critical division in which ‘transnational and transverse rubrics – genre, gender, style – are a meaningful way to read Australian and New Zealand texts without either working up or subscribing to essentialist nationalist definitions’ (6). This surely is a furphy. What is the point of producing a volume on Australian literature without thinking on the ways in which the literature written in this political construct is shaped by its particular history, difficulties, economics, and ideology? One need not be a nationalist to see the need for some accounting for the nation. As Claire Jones puts it in her chapter, ‘national and territorial borders are political, not cultural or artistic … [but] by reading through and outside borders we can create a more dynamic scholarly and readerly space’ (224).

Thinking about this space must somehow, though, attend to both the act of crossing and to the borders allowing ‘crossing’ itself to be thought. Many contributors are, rightly, reluctant to repeat the reductive gesture of ‘identifying … texts as generically postcolonial’ (248), but what transnational criticism puts in this pedagogical place is something still in formulation. Local attention need not mean restriction, either. I agree with Rod McRae that Les Murray is a major poet, but when he writes, straightforwardly enough, of ‘Murray’s push to refortify the development of Australian national solidarity’ in ‘antielitist’ and ‘anticolonial’ (148) ways, he passes over a whole area for debate. The intricacies of Quadrant’s Cold War history and the Culture and History Wars may take some retelling, but they are hardly, in the era of Trump, without resonance elsewhere.

Australia has, in politics if not literature, anticipated the United States in horror and its normalisation. Mandatory detention, the separation of parents from children, the flouting of international conventions on refugees: wo Howard war, soll Trump werden. Australian literature, in turn, has been obsessed by ethical and historical questions paralleled in other settler colonies. Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature is a timely and welcome contribution, then, offering the chance to think with Australian literature outside its own borders. In an era of renewed nationalisms and self-congratulatory myths across the white settler colonies, such border-crossing is pedagogically and politically important. If the details of that ‘new postnational space through which … literature can be projected’ (10) are not yet fully clear, that may well be a symptom of our current critical-political impasse as much as any weakness in this useful, sturdy study.

Published 2 November 2018 in Volume 33, No. 3. Subjects: Australian literature - Study & teaching, Literature - Study & teaching.

Cite as: McNeill, Dougal. ‘Review of Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature, edited by Nicholas Birns, Nicole Moore and Sarah Shieff..’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.2b1579d264.