TEXT review

Australian literature goes mobile

review by Jay Daniel Thompson


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Southerly: Modern Mobilities: Australian-Transnational Writing
Brandl and Schlesinger, Sydney 2011
ISBN 9781921556272
Pb 250pp AUD29.95


The key themes of the most recent edition of Southerly are suggested by the subtitle Modern Mobilities: Australian-Transnational Writing. In her editorial, Elizabeth McMahon reports that this issue will explore ‘modern mobilities and how they dismantle and re-create notions of identity, home, family, nation and literature’ (7).

The contributions include poems, scholarly essays, short stories and reflective pieces. They engage with such themes as travel, photography and immigration, and the experiences of Australian authors working overseas. The collection concludes with reviews of several recently published Australian titles.

A personal highlight is Jessica White’s story ‘The Country of Boats’. The chief protagonist is a mermaid, but this piece is a long way from Disney. White provides a subtle and beautifully-written treatise on the horrors of colonialism. Consider the following passage, in which the mermaid witnesses ‘fair people’ overtake the land upon which she has been living:

…they pulled down trees and built roads and huts, then houses of mud that they painted white… When the dark people became angry at the fair people’s deeds, they were killed. It was a sorry thing to do, the mermaid thought, hovering by the shore and flinching at gunshots in the bush. (14)

‘The Country of Boats’ nicely demonstrates the politically subversive potential of fairy tales and fantasy.

Also commendable is Hayley Katzen’s story entitled ‘Postcards’. This piece focuses on Richard, a married man who is spotted kissing another woman by a friend of his wife’s. This friend, Avril, ostensibly heads away on an overseas trip and regularly sends postcards to the couple. Richard is relieved that Avril has left Australia – until he spots her in a Sydney pub. Katzen’s story provides a perceptive and at times psychologically unnerving study of guilt, desire and dishonesty. The characters are well-rounded, and the events described throughout the narrative are entirely believable.

On the non-fiction front, I was impressed by Maggie Nolan’s essay on Gordon Matthews’ autobiographical book An Australian Son (1996). Matthews was adopted at birth and came to identify as Aboriginal, largely on account of his olive skin. In his early thirties, Matthews ‘began searching for his biological parents in order to verify his Aboriginality’ (89). He was unsettled to discover that his biological father was, in fact, Sri Lankan and that there was no Aboriginal blood in their family. I was previously unaware of Matthews’ text, and Nolan admits that it has received scant scholarly attention. Nolan convincingly argues that An Australian Son bears out Peter Sutton’s observation that ‘true reconciliation can only be “a state of being between persons, or a resolution of issues within one’s consciousness”’ (102).

The most ambitious contribution to this Southerly is provided by literary studies scholar Bill Ashcroft. A crucial trope of Ashcroft’s essay is what he refers to as ‘the transnation’. This ‘appears at first to be a familiar term based on the idea of the transnational’ (19). However, Ashcroft explains that he has

coin(ed) the term to refer to much more than “the international”, or the “transnational”… “Transnation” is the fluid, migrating outside of the state that begins within the nation. This “outside” is geographical, cultural and conceptual, a way of talking about subjects in their ordinary lives, subjects who traverse the various categories by which subjectivity is normally constituted, who live “in-between”. (19)

Ashcroft’s essay touches on a broad range of themes: national identity, cultural memory, utopianism, whiteness, Aboriginality. He supports his points with reference to literary texts such as Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade (2001), as well as the work of Deleuze and Guattari.

Indeed, I suggest that Ashcroft’s conceptualisation of ‘transnation’ is deserving of a book-length study. Such a study could perhaps give clarity to passages such as the following, in which Ashcroft borrows Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘smooth space’:

Smooth space takes form when the striated space of government institutions, fixed concepts and essentialized peoples are broken into their composing forces, caught up in a swirling whirlpool that is capable of mixing these forces in new ways to produce monsters that may defy the categorizing machiners of the institutions of striated space. (20)

Who or what are ‘essentialized peoples’? What are these ‘monsters’ that ‘defy the categorizing machiners of the institutions of striated space’? Ashcroft does not really provide answers to these questions, but he might have room to do so in a monograph.

Similarly, Lucy Sussex’ essay could be developed into a much-longer work, or a collection of works. Sussex looks at Agnes Murphy, a little-known Australian writer who moved to London in the late nineteenth century and sold her only novel One Woman’s Wisdom (1895) to Routledge. Sussex rightly argues that Murphy was an ‘unconventional and remarkable woman’ (141). Sussex mentions the homoerotic elements of both One Woman’s Wisdom and Murphy’s life, and suggests that this novel does ‘prefigure’ ‘later lesbian writing’ such as that penned by Australian authors like Finola Moorhead (141). A useful avenue of enquiry would involve investigating the similarities and differences (stylistic, ideological) between One Woman’s Wisdom and more contemporary lesbian fiction. In pursuing such investigation, though, I would caution against falling into Sussex’ trap of actually labelling Murphy as ‘lesbian’. There is no suggestion in Sussex’ essay that Murphy ever used that term to describe herself.

This edition of Southerly provides a diverse collection of insights into Australian literature and the complex roles it plays in the world, particularly during an era of globalisation. The contributions present a plethora of fascinating topics and ideas to contemplate and research further.



Dr Jay Daniel Thompson holds a PhD in Australian Literature from the University of Melbourne. He currently works in research administration at La Trobe University.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo