White Apology and Apologia: Australian Novels of Reconciliation by Liliana Zavaglia

Abstract

From at least the early 1990s, when the Hawke Labor Government introduced reconciliation legislation into the Australian parliament, the concept of reconciliation has attracted criticism from both the political left and right. While some have complained of it as a predominantly white undertaking, others have seen it as a threat to the unity of the Australian nation-state. Following the election of John Howard in 1996, reconciliation met fierce resistance from the Federal Government itself, with Howard rejecting the recommendations of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report and refusing to apologise to Indigenous Australians for their ongoing sufferings at the hands of British colonialism. This is the political climate that provides the backdrop for the five novels, all written between 2002 and 2007, which Liliana Zavaglia examines in White Apology and Apologia: Australian Novels of Reconciliation (2016). In her book, Zavaglia deliberately chooses to focus exclusively on works by Anglo-Australian writers to examine how whiteness operates in contemporary Australia. Though she conceives of her primary texts as characteristic of a liberal whiteness that ‘worked to counter [the] political attempts [by the Liberal government] to silence the Indigenous rights and reconciliation movements’ (1), she argues that they, at the same time, articulate the ‘double movement of apology and apologia’ (3) typical of whiteness in Australia. Etymologically, ‘apology’ and ‘apologia’ are cognates of the Greek and Latin apologia, respectively. Despite their common roots, however, they differ significantly in terms of meaning, for while the first implies remorse, the latter, a later borrowing of the Latin form, indicates defence and justification. By identifying moments of both apology and apologia, Zavaglia suggests, the novels she discusses reveal the ‘discourse of liberal postcolonial whiteness [to be] a riven and conflicted site, driven in a hopeful quest to heal its relations with the other, even as its normative traces continue in the legacy bequeathed to it by its colonial foundations’ (21). What then follows is an elaborate investigation of this divided and disrupted nature of Australian whiteness, as it manifests itself in contemporary Anglo-Australian fiction.

From at least the early 1990s, when the Hawke Labor Government introduced reconciliation legislation into the Australian parliament, the concept of reconciliation has attracted criticism from both the political left and right. While some have complained of it as a predominantly white undertaking, others have seen it as a threat to the unity of the Australian nation-state. Following the election of John Howard in 1996, reconciliation met fierce resistance from the Federal Government itself, with Howard rejecting the recommendations of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report and refusing to apologise to Indigenous Australians for their ongoing sufferings at the hands of British colonialism. This is the political climate that provides the backdrop for the five novels, all written between 2002 and 2007, which Liliana Zavaglia examines in White Apology and Apologia: Australian Novels of Reconciliation (2016). In her book, Zavaglia deliberately chooses to focus exclusively on works by Anglo-Australian writers to examine how whiteness operates in contemporary Australia. Though she conceives of her primary texts as characteristic of a liberal whiteness that ‘worked to counter [the] political attempts [by the Liberal government] to silence the Indigenous rights and reconciliation movements’ (1), she argues that they, at the same time, articulate the ‘double movement of apology and apologia’ (3) typical of whiteness in Australia. Etymologically, ‘apology’ and ‘apologia’ are cognates of the Greek and Latin apologia, respectively. Despite their common roots, however, they differ significantly in terms of meaning, for while the first implies remorse, the latter, a later borrowing of the Latin form, indicates defence and justification. By identifying moments of both apology and apologia, Zavaglia suggests, the novels she discusses reveal the ‘discourse of liberal postcolonial whiteness [to be] a riven and conflicted site, driven in a hopeful quest to heal its relations with the other, even as its normative traces continue in the legacy bequeathed to it by its colonial foundations’ (21). What then follows is an elaborate investigation of this divided and disrupted nature of Australian whiteness, as it manifests itself in contemporary Anglo-Australian fiction.

Zavaglia’s approach is drawn to, and from, whiteness and trauma theories, with Robyn Wiegman’s notion of ‘liberal whiteness’ and Ghassan Hage’s concept of the ‘field of Whiteness’ featuring most prominently. From trauma theory, Zavaglia selectively uses concepts that underline her argument. The concepts of ‘perpetrator trauma’, which is the ‘inherited trauma that descends from the violent acts of one’s own ancestors’ (15), and Dominick LaCapra’s ‘empathic unsettlement’, which highlights the importance of the role of the witness in the telling of traumatic experiences, are noteworthy in this respect.

The novels on which these theories are trained include Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country (2002) and Landscape of Farewell (2007), Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth (2004), Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) and Gail Jones’s Sorry (2007). The argument that Zavaglia develops around them is that all of these novels disclose both moments of apology and apologia with regard to Australia’s colonial past and contemporary attempts at reconciliation. In Journey to the Stone Country, the apology plays out through the novel’s polyphonic structure, which offers an empathic unsettlement through which the past becomes not disconnected from, but a vital element of, the present. Zavaglia argues that Landscape of Farewell, by juxtaposing the case of Australian frontier violence with the Holocaust, demonstrates how genocide expresses itself in an emotional as well as physical form of unsettlement, which manifests itself in the Australian context in the destruction ‘of the sacred Dreaming’ (193). While exhibiting the profound desire to apologise, the texts also display moments of apologia, as for example when Journey to the Stone Country remains silent on the Stolen Generations or when Landscape of Farewell positions both the Indigenous fighter Gnapun, who defeated white colonists attempting to take his land, and Max, the son of a Nazi culprit, as ‘guilty perpetrator[s]’ (200). Both Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell highlight a form of perpetrator trauma that haunts contemporary Australia and which Zavaglia reads as ‘a national pathology of forgetting’ (178).

For her analysis of The White Earth, the author draws on Hage’s notion of the ‘field of Whiteness’. According to this reading, the novel displays both inclusive and exclusive forms of whiteness, personified by the characters of Ruth and John McIvor respectively. Though inclusive whiteness, on the surface, seems to be more open to apologies than exclusive whiteness, the text eventually illustrates the similarities between both forms of whiteness in that they are less concerned with the position of Indigenous Australians within the nation than with ‘competing for power between themselves within the “field of Whiteness”’ (85).

In The Secret River, the apology manifests itself in an acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession and the novel’s treatment of ‘the colonial fear of “going native”’ (137). Zavaglia reads this gesture as an allusion to the 1996 Wik decision and a critique of the subsequent steps taken by the Howard Government to limit its possibilities. In this sense, it stands ‘for what was lost, not only in the past, but in the recent history of black/white relations in Australia’ (138). However, through the character of William Thornhill, who is both victim and perpetrator at the same time, the text falls prey to the ‘familiar confusion of victimhood’ (19) already observed in Landscape of Farewell. By picturing ‘settlers as occupying a spectrum of ethical positions’ (19), Grenville performs another form of apologia in which Thornhill’s whiteness appears much more humane and hence acceptable than other forms, personified by characters such as Smasher Farrell and Sagitty Birtles. This greater humanity consequently downplays his role in the massacre.

Lastly, in Sorry, the apology voices itself through the Aboriginal girl Mary, who is removed as a child from her mother and so is recognised by the novel’s readers as a figure of the Stolen Generations. Drawing on Foucauldian theory, the author interprets Mary as an embodiment of ‘a heterotopic place of otherness’ (155) that can be accepted through its emphasis on ‘grief’ and ‘compassion’, rather than ‘guilt’ (155). Yet, the novel also includes moments of apologia when it is Perdita, the white protagonist, who is traumatised, rather than Mary, though it is Mary who is wrongfully convicted of Perdita’s father’s murder.

One of Zavaglia’s greatest strengths is her awareness of the socio-political context in which the texts are situated. Not only does she offer concise summaries of significant historical moments shaping contemporary Australian literature in her introduction, but she also frames her textual analyses with what she calls ‘literary’ (17) readings of the 1992 Mabo decision and Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 2008. In these readings, as in her textual analyses, she accentuates movements of apology and apologia. By connecting the extra-literary with the literary sphere, Zavaglia is able to substantiate her argument, made at the beginning of her study, that the primary texts under discussion are best understood ‘as a form of cultural history’ (2). In addition to her disclosure of the links between textual and extra-textual worlds, the author also distinguishes herself through the highly nuanced readings of her primary material. Since Zavaglia is interested in the portrayal of both apologias and apologies in the novels, she offers balanced literary analyses that illustrate how far the texts present signs of hope with regard to the acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession, without ignoring potentially problematic moves and their impact. Although the study is ordered chronologically and each chapter is dedicated to a different novel, the individual readings complement each other. This structure culminates in the afterword, in which Zavaglia integrates various passages from the primary texts to demonstrate the ambiguities that are evident in Rudd’s national apology. The question of the position that ethnic minority writing occupies with regard to white apology and apologia and the issue of reconciliation remains. Much non-Anglo-Australian writing would fail to fit into the definitions of whiteness used by the author, though whiteness is a constantly changing and broadening category which now extends well beyond the Anglo-Celtic. This limit does not in any way undermine Zavaglia’s stimulating focus on settler culture or her well-selected range of primary texts. Considering that she explicitly justifies her exclusion of Indigenous fiction, however, an explanation on what grounds she has omitted white ethnic minority writing from her analysis and how far it differs from Anglo-Australian literature in terms of its relation to reconciliation would have extended her achievement. The book would also have profited from a more careful proofreading, since it contains several typographical errors.

Nevertheless, White Apology and Apologia: Australian Novels of Reconciliation makes an important contribution to our understanding of how whiteness operates in contemporary Australia and how recent novels by Anglo-Australian writers voice the complexity of Australian whiteness through their contradictory moves of apology and apologia. It represents a most welcome addition to the much-lauded Cambria Australian Literature Series.

Published 28 April 2020 in Volume 35, No. 1.. Subjects: Pioneers & settlers, Whiteness, Liliana Zavaglia, Trauma theory, Indigenous history and culture.

Cite as: Klik, Lukas. ‘White Apology and Apologia: Australian Novels of Reconciliation by Liliana Zavaglia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.eed868d4da.