By Austin P. Sheehan.
As a writer, we want our books, our stories, our worlds to have some kind of impact or influence on our readers. We want our readers to be moved or inspired by our characters. As a rule, if a person decides to become a writer, one can assume that they’ve read something that has changed their life.
And that’s true for me. I can think of several books that have had a profound affect on me. But there is something that has perhaps had a greater impact on my life, and as a consequence the books I write and the worlds I create. That is Australia, our Great Southern Land.
Firstly, as an Australian writer, identity is important. The English-speaking world is dominated by American and English cultures, which don’t always resonate strongly with Australians. For example, when I was twelve I remember lying amongst a grove of gum trees near a creek in my home town, considering the story of Saint George slaying the dragon, and asking myself what that had to do with me, how can that be relevant or part of my culture or identity, millennia away from either knights or dragons. And to this day I still shudder whenever the Americanised “mom” appears in a novel.
I knew that the story of St George was part of the folklore of England, where my father is from. You could say I went through a process of assessing these elements of foreign cultures and dismissing the ones that were too far removed from the world that I had grown up in. And I think it’s fair to say that everyone does that to some extent, and continues doing that throughout their lives. But the more isolated you are, the greater the disparity becomes with your reality and that of the stories.
But there’s much more to living in Australia than distance and isolation. The natural beauty of it’s coasts and mountains, it’s deserts and rain-forests, it’s rivers and stone formations all mask it’s harshness, it’s underlying menace. It’s actually quite subtle in it’s way. There are no apex predators. Anything that can kill you is happy to lie in wait, lurking just below the waterline or hiding in plain sight. And consider the platypus, a cute and cuddly bundle of sleek fur, otter’s tails, duck’s bill and webbed feet. And venomous.
If I’m ever asked “what books best sum up Australia?” I would say ‘Wake in Fright’ (Cook, 1961) ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (Lindsay 1967) ‘Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence’ (Pilkington 1996) ‘He Died With a Felafel in His Hand’ (Birmingham 2000).
‘Wake in Fright’ is a wonderful yet terrifying tale, about the divide between city and country, about the harsh nature of life in these remote towns, presenting not only the country itself but those who live in it as menacing. ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is a wonderful mystery set in rural Victoria, which I discussed in this list of books and movies that I love. It’s sinister, it’s brooding and it captures rural Australia so well. ‘Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence’ shows us one of the many horrors of Australia’s colonisation, the forced removal of First Australian children from their families. The argument here is that the darkness and cruelty of Australia lays within the culture of it’s white colonisers, and is hard to refute. ‘He Died With a Felafel in his Hand’ is a more comedic look at the country through stories of living in shared houses. As funny as it is, it’s still grim. What each of these books capture is the harshness of the heart of Australia, and the hardness deep down in each of us.
Many great Australian writers have written Speculative Fiction; Isobelle Carmody, John Marsden, Sara Douglass and Garth Nix just to name a few. Personally, I don’t read books just because the author is Australian. I often look into who they are a bit more if their books particularly grab me. But every now and then when reading a book, a uniquely Australian landmark will appear, or an Aussie slang expression or turn of phrase will be used, and then you just know the author is Australian.
I am not going to go out and say that the best Speculative Fiction Writers are Australian, but I will say that we have an advantage. It’s easy for us to write about post-apocalyptic wastelands or desolate alien planets, barren environments and the types of people who thrive amongst the hardships and the types of people who succumb to the horror of it all. That is something we understand more deeply than the heroics of ancient knights, because that is our reality.