Children’s literature advancing Australia

Children’s literature advancing Australia

Johnston, Rosemary Ross

Much of Australian literature has been obsessed by the nation’s search for its identity. National identity is a part of personal identity: subjectivity-awareness of self as a locus of beingness and meaning-is intricately negotiated from encounters with what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls “lifeworld.” A child’s life-world may be focused on the house image, the place that, in Gaston Bachelard’s words, “shelters daydreaming…protects the dreamer…allows one to daydream in peace.’2 It must also, as Jack Zipes notes, referring to the Marxist idea of communality, focus on the people it contains. Meaning cannot be achieved by a human being alone. The dependence on other beings must be acknowledged if the individual is to raise himself and stride forward in an upright posture toward home, which, as we know, is the beginning of history, a realm without alienating conditions.3

This “realm without alienating conditions” is in its broader sense country or nation, and the “other beings,” fellow countrymen and women. Australian children’s literature forms a vital part of the wider cultural context of Australia. It has contributed to the conceptualization, in both a national and personal sense, of home, but home as country/nation rather than as house of abode. Home, which is intimately linked with personal identity, is more than a place and is either implicitly or explicitly conceived within a national context. It is life-worldtime and space-as focused by the subjectivity that is both the perceiving center and the “owner.” Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, literally the time-space that represents “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships as expressed in literature,”4 is a convenient way of expressing the nature of this relationship. Michael Holquist notes that the distinctiveness of Bakhtin’s concept is that neither the time aspect nor the space aspect is privileged, but that they are completely interdependent. Significantly, Holquist goes on to say that the chronotope is “an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring” (in Bakhtin, Glossary 425-26). Applying the chronotope in this way is particularly helpful when we consider representations of home, in the broader national sense, in Australian children’s literature, particularly picture books.

Finding an Identity in the New Land

Literature in Australia historically reflects a mixed bag of ambivalent representations: first, of Australia as home and, second, of what that home looks like. The ideological shift in views about wilderness is not limited to this country, but it has a particular relevance here because our literature is saturated with the interrogation of relationships between home and country/nation and between home and wilderness; with the binary oppositions between civilization and exotic wilderness; with the duality of alienation (exile) and belonging (reconciliation); and with a richly textured mythology of cultural identity that has grown out of that specifically Australian wilderness, the bush.

In the early days of the colony, home was commonly a place left behind, a place spoken about with yearning but, increasingly, never actually seen or experienced. When it had been experienced, there was often an irreconcilable sense of exile; the other place is the one that feels like home. In Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1946), the protagonist is a solitary figure without home and without country; he sees himself as ever an “outcast and a wanderer”; when he is in Australia he is in “exile,” yet as soon as he arrives back in England he feels himself to be “outsider and alien” (416).

Home in the new land was sometimes a place of exile, but sometimes it was a utopia, a paradise place. The bush was an exotic wilderness, frequently hostile, a place away from civilization, where fearful things happened and where misfits lurked, but gradually this very hostility and roughness became something to be celebrated as uniquely Australian. The complex ambiguity of cultural views of the bush and its relationship to home is clearly expressed in two well-known early children’s novels: Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894; London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1912) and Louise Mack’s Teens (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1897). Seven Little Australians tells of the escapades of a Sydney family, the seven children of the irascible Captain Woolcot, whose first wife (mother of six of the children) is dead and whose second wife, Esther, is only twenty years old. The book emphasizes the nationality of its children in the title, and in the first few paragraphs overtly declares national difference and particularity, noting that it is this “lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion in nature here” that, depending on circumstance, will “go to play will o’ the wisp with the larrikin type, or warm the breasts of the spirited, single-hearted, loyal ones who alone can `advance Australia”‘ (2). This story is set in the city, but if we “x-ray” the cultural ideas implicit in the narrative chronotope, it is easy to see that the bush, despite its dangers, is represented as exotic, different, charged with both fierceness and beauty; it is the mythic heart of the country that is both loved and feared. The bush is the backdrop to the tragedy; when the children visit Esther’s family property, Judy-the wildest child-saves her baby brother (Esther’s son) from a falling tree but dies from a broken back before help can arrive. The children’s picnic is in the deep bush, and in its “strange silence” (243) Judy dies. It is significant that later her body is enclosed against its terrors in descriptive words that evoke comforting images of a different place and a different culture:

This is where they left little Judy. All around it Mr. Hassal had white tall palings put: The short grave was in the shady corner of it.

The place looked like a tiny churchyard in a children’s country where there had only been one death. Or a green fair field, with one little garden bed. (251)

Louise Mack’s Teens is subtitled A Story of Australian Schoolgirls” and tells the story of Lennie, a Sydney doctor’s daughter, as she goes to high school and makes friends. Like Seven Little Australians, the text declares its “Australianness” and evokes images of a gentler Sydney, but it is the nature of what the chronotope reveals about attitudes toward the bush, and subsequently toward the country itself, that is interesting when placed in a broader literary context. While both texts have urban settings, there is a significant sense of a wide brown land beyond, which is not yet quite home and which is potentially frightening. The children in Teens only venture as far as the Blue Mountains for “fresh air” ( 192), but there is a real sense of the antiquity of the land and of its mystery and its size: “Their eyes, with the dream of youth in them, were gazing out into the great, silent stretches of mountains rolling back against the sky” ( 198). Although the bush that the girls creep through to see the sunrise is “black and still and shadowless,’ its mythic power is there: in the “heart of the Blue Mountains” (206) the sunrise is “a transfiguration” (205).

The twentieth century continued these trends. In the fifteen books in the Billabong series, Mary Grant Bruce creates a homestead haven, a world within itself-“a big red house with wide verandahs, surrounded by trees” (Billabong Riders [Ward, Lock & Co., 1946], 16)-and taps into the bush tradition in an idealized way to illustrate its mythic power. Billabong is in the bush but not of it; it also has a rose garden, a proud emblem of the order and beauty of the old “civilized” world, which is maintained by a Scots gardener. The chronotope here reveals an opposition between what is civilization and what is wilderness. The heat and the dust and the flies are implicitly represented as part of Billabong’s difference, its wild exoticism; the rose garden is part of its achievement of civilized “normalcy.” Norah, the “little bush maid” who is the heroine of the series, and all the gang are portrayed as well-behaved and well-bred little Australians advancing Australia by achieving civilized lives in the bush.

Norman Lindsay’s flamboyantly Australian The Magic Pudding (1919; Angus & Robertson, 1971) depicts different sorts of characters. Bunyip Bluegum, a koala bear, leaves an equally safe, enclosed, and delineated place-his treehouse-and goes off to see the world. His companions are Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff, who are traveling across Australia with a “cut-an’-come-again-Puddin”‘-a steak and kidney pudding that walks and talks and loves to be eaten, restoring itself whenever a slice is cut. The celebration of the bush is at the heart of the Puddin’ world, a world that, as Bunyip Bluegum says, “may stand excused from a too strict insistence on verisimilitude, so that the general gaiety is thereby promoted” (n. pag.)

However, this emphasis on the bush created an artificial construct, a metaphor of an Australianness that many Australians would never actually experience. Life in the bush became the stuff of myth and legend, integral to ideas of nationalism, national identity, and home. The Magic Pudding is only one of many texts that emerge out of a tradition that sees the bush as “the very spirit and essence of Australian character” and to a greater or lesser degree as home, even though most Australians live near major cities. “We have this bush tradition, but for God’s sake, we’ve been an urban nation since 1788, so I don’t have a lot of truck with bush mythology,” declares Libby Gleeson,5 whose contemporary children’s texts are celebrations of the inner-city environment. In contrast, there is a growing publication of texts by Aboriginal writers that reflect a sense of being trapped in an urban environment. In Do Not Go around the Edges (Broome: Magabala Books, 1990), Daisy Utemorrah writes:

I am thinking of the mountains,

Memories tumbling out of my head

Now all is gone.

What must I do?

Good times and bad I spend in civilisation.

Will I go back to my hills and mountains

and hear the whistle of the curlews all night long,

echoes of the rushing stream,

the wind rustling by and the owls calling.

The fire croaks and sleeps,

I long to see the stars smile down at me! (27)

Aboriginal literature, like Aboriginal art, comes within its own cultural frame; its semiotics are pervasively mythic. A number of children’s books by non-Aboriginal writers also attribute a spiritual dimension to the landscape. Authors such as Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, and more recently John Marsden use bush and desert as spaces for allegories of self-discovery.

Contemporary Picture Books

The picture book has played a distinctive part in the development of ideas of home and what it looks like in contemporary Australia. The illustrations in a picture book-images of both time and space-are a pictorial representation of the literary chronotope:

In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope. (Bakhtin 84)

A picture book is a sequence of moments, a set of verbal and visual “snapshots” focusing on a particular time-space or a series of time-spaces. It has a cultural immediacy that is both spatial and temporal; its prolific illustrations usually seek to capture an authentic now-time and an authentic nowplace-thisness-by concentrating on the specific particularity of small things. The gentle “classic” with its universal time and dream space has been superseded to a fair extent by the exigencies of representing the here and now. There is an urgency in the picture book, and its moment is inherently fleeting; in the fluidity of constant becomingness, its imagery will be continually challenged by new and developing discourses, as earlier discourses about exploration and taming the wilderness are challenged today.

The aggressive Australianness implied in presenting the bush as the exotic heart of home, as that which is distinctively colonial, as the essence of national identity, would be difficult to perpetuate in a visual chronotope that purports to be of the here and now. My Place (Sydney: Collins Dove, 1987), by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, explicitly demonstrates national becomingness, redescribing reality in terms of “a practical theoretical consciousness that sees the life-world as being creatively located not only in the making of history but also in the construction of human geographies.”6 My Place unravels the story of a particular house from 1988 to 1788, allowing the story of each decade to be told by the current child of the house. Time changes in sequential flashbacks, decade by decade; place remains the same, but space is continually altering. The text clearly demonstrates the interconnectedness of the geography that is location, place at its most rudimentary level; the temporal specific that is time; and the larger containment that is culture, and metonymically country.

My Place, like Window (London: Random House, 1991), by Jeannie Baker, represents what John Stephens would call “moments of transparent advocacy” constituting “in effect a dialogic relationship between, on the one hand, what the writer conceives of as a current and dominant situation or attitude and, on the other hand, a desirable direction of change already taking place within society”7 Window depicts the changes over a child’s growing-up time as viewed from one window-the process of urbanization. Both picture books advocate the way change should go, each making a politically correct plea: Window for the environment (meanwhile also throwing open to question the dualisms of civilization and wilderness, and of home and the bush) and My Place for inclusiveness and indigenous land rights. There are many books we could refer to here, but it is a different text by Rawlins that shows how real is the shift in concepts of home in contemporary Australian children’s literature. Digging to China (Gosford: Ashton Scholastic, 1988) plays with ideas of the everyday and the exotic within a contemporary suburban time-space. In the Australia of the late twentieth century, cacti and China are exotic, as are “Arab tents and elephants and giant tortoises.” “Digging” evokes the old idea of Australia as “down-under” but there is no cultural cringe-the historical predisposition to perceive things Australian as inferior-in this text; it is simply that “China’s on the other side” of a world shaped like an orange. The cozy urban Australia evoked in both the verbal and visual narratives is as implicit a depiction of contemporary cultural reality as was the earlier picture of the historical desire to “colonize” and plant a rose garden in the middle of the Billabong bush. Alexis, the little girl who decides to dig to the other side of the world, follows a long tradition in Australian literature of both voyaging and exploring. The interplay in the visual subtext-awnings billowing like Arab tents, giant tortoise pots, reaching China and climbing out at the other end-is enlarged in this context beyond fantasy and dream into a “country of the mind.” Alexis, the little Australian, and Marj, her elderly friend, sitting on the back steps eating cake, have found their paradise place and are living, for the moment at least, in their own utopia.

In twentieth-century Australia, immigrants from all over the world have struggled to overcome “the tyranny of distance” and have attempted to find their own meaning of home in a different and sometimes hostile land. “The homeland is the place of the grandmother’s stories,” writes Elizabeth Yahp, “it is the place where the many stories meet”8 “Is homeland just a way of naming memory perhaps?” ponders George Papaellinas.9 Peggy Nightingale, discussing historical perspectives in the new literatures, quotes remarks about concepts of place as having gone through several phases: of being perceived as “overseas exotica,” as “distinctively colonial,” as “national identity,” and as “marginal multi-cultural environment”10 The label of exotica has been redoubled and its curious refractions play along each other when it refers, as it has in Australian literary history, to both that which is most uniquely a part of national identity and that which is most removed from it. The notions of marginality, of insiderness and outsiderness, are similarly refracted. When the idea of Australia as home becomes a literary trope, an inspiring and revealing metaphor, different “worlds” are, to quote Paul Ricoeur, “opened up or disclosed:”

Nancy Viviani, in an analysis of the Vietnamese experience in Australia, suggests that Australians need to rethink multiculturalism and shift to an inclusive nationalism based on the notion of citizenship. “Citizenship and equality,” she writes, “can encompass the multiple identities that all Australians share.”12 Picture books are giving face to these multiple identities, snapping shots of moments that reflect more than assimilation, and more, I would argue, than multiculturalism, as part of a process of becoming that is now oriented toward such a notion of citizenship as Viviani describes.

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), xvii.

2. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: Orion, 1964), 6.

3. Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (London: Heinemann, 1979), 148. 4. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 84.

5. Quoted in Agnes Nieunwenhuizen, No Kidding: Top Writers for Young People Talk about Their Work (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1991), 53.

6. Edward Soja, “History: Geography: Modernity,” The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London: Routledge, 1993), 136.

7. John Stephens, “Images of Australian Society in Australian Children’s Literature,” Gunpowder and Sealing Wax: Nationhood in Children’s Literature, ed. A. Lawson Lucas (Market Harborough: Troubador, 1997), 17. 8. Elizabeth Yahp, in Homeland, 26 Australian Writers Compare an Idea of Homeland, ed. George Papaellinas (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991), 223. 9. George Papaellinas, ed., Homeland, 26 Australian Writers Compare an Idea of Homeland (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991), x.

10. Peggy Nightingale, ed., A Sense of Place in the New Literatures in English (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1986), 2.

11. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. R. Czerny, with K. McLaughlin and J. Costello (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 319. 12. Nancy Viviani, The Indo-Chinese in Australia 1975-1995: From Burnt Boats to Barbecues (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996), 146, 148.

Rosemary Ross Johnston, director of the Centre for Research and Education in the Arts at the University of Technology Sydney, teaches language and literature and has published both nationally and internationally. She is secretary of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature and associate secretary of the Bureau of the Federation Internationale des Langues et Litteratures Modernes.

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