What Is an Australian National Literature and Who Creates It?

Nam Le on David Malouf and the Violence of World-Building

Long before “Australia” was a British “possession,” it was an act of imagination.

Speculation about a great southern land exists on record as far back as Aristotle. It’s still thrilling to see the first printed mention of “Australia” in an astronomical treatise published in 1545, in the middle of an exquisite twelve-wind rose. On different maps, in different musings, this southern terra was variously ignota, incognita, nondum cognita and, latterly, infamously, nullius. Unknown, yet to be known, no one’s. Laid out like a virgin for a good thorough civilizing.

Despite hazy reports of first contact with Indonesians and Chinese, “Australia” has always been a European dream, deeply tied up with European naval-gazing. For centuries, European ships pressed south, searching for land, while back home their people ventured fantasies about what they might find and what it might mean. Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and French all came, or came close; then the English finally slapped up against the south-eastern coast and claimed the entire nondum cognita. In Peter Porter’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Hesiod,” he teases, “who would have thought / Australia was the point of all that craft / Of politics in Europe?” Indeed, it must have been a blow to many an excitable mind when the Brits—to the question of what a new continent might augur by way of example, or even utopia—answered penal colony.

Hesiod, as it happens, is much on Malouf’s mind. In an interview with his friend and fellow writer Colm Tóibín, then subsequently in his Neustadt Lecture, Malouf likens the situation of a contemporary writer in Australia to that of Hesiod in Boeotia: “at the beginning” (echoing, of course, Genesis). The land, he marvels, is “a real gift” to the writer, as “everything”—or “the real making”—is “still to be done.” D.H. Lawrence, in Kangaroo, looking through similar eyes at this country, sees: “Tabula rasa. The world a new leaf. And on the new leaf, nothing.”

Tabula rasa. (Terra nullius.) What a gift, what a temptation, for a writer of ambition! Australia, annexed through invasion and occupation, nevertheless supine and primed for “full possession,” as Malouf puts it, by poets and fictioneers. (Penal colony indeed.) In his Boyer Lectures, he asserts:

What we did when we came here was lay new knowledge, a new culture, a new consciousness over what already existed, the product of so many thousands of years of living in, and with the land.

Parapraxis by preposition again: the relationship of European consciousness to the land is dispensed as over (not to, or against, or through, let alone, as attributed to the indigenous population, in or with the land). In Malouf’s short story “The Only Speaker of His Tongue,” the English language is said to “set all this land under another tongue.” (“Language,” of course, coming from the Latin “lingua” for “tongue.”) The English tongue, with its “gift for changing and doing things,” kills off the old land. I’m guessing Malouf allows himself uncharacteristic bluntness here because he’s speaking in fiction, in implied translation, through the arm’s-length persona of a Norwegian lexicographer. Laid over, set under—the metaphor is one of benign smothering, snuffing out. And as apt as it may be to describe the action of colonialism, I find it describes, even more arrestingly, the way Malouf handles the subject of colonialism in his work.

Narratives are dangerous things.

There is, in Malouf, a tendency towards wholeness. He creates tension through binaries (self/other, mind/body, past/present, human/non-human, human/world, European/Australian, Australian/Aboriginal, civilized/primitive, center/periphery, adult/child, experience/innocence, inside/outside, white/black, fate/free will, etc.) and then yearns, and seeks, naturally and inexorably, to syllogize them—often through lyrical transcendence—into reconciled wholes. At bottom, this is his entire method. At its best, it results in writing that is surpassingly beautiful, moving and profound.

This therapeutic cant, however, bangs up badly against the concrete blocks of colonial history. Malouf would have us write our way towards a “collective spiritual consciousness that will be the true form of reconciliation.” Without new literature, new myth, without imaginative re-creations, he argues, the wounds of colonialism cannot be healed. But an imported language is no more impartial or innocent than an imported law. British possession was legitimized by British law; violence more than took care of the rest. Ours is a land done in by deeds and deeds. In Remembering Babylon, Malouf refers, in passing, to a massacre of Indigenous people as a “dispersal.” The euphemism abjures itself—but it is still a euphemism.

This, I think, typifies the paradox of “national” literature. Once you set out to purify the dialect (plagiarizing T.S. Eliot) of your nation, to justify its existence (A.D. Hope), you enthrall yourself to the idea of a national narrative. And narratives are dangerous things. They contort and concoct and clean up in the service of concertment. Malouf hints at this in Harland’s Half Acre, where Frank Harland, the painter, is depicted as a kind of holy fool, while his father, the storyteller, is a trickster—a fraud who defiles sacred breath with each word. My preceding account of high school, my family’s history—things didn’t happen like that—not really, not only. Narratives will do just about anything to make things cohere. Writers especially should not be trusted with them.

Even the best writers. Malouf has called for the making of a new Australian mythology—a new national sacred—pointing to the Aboriginal capacity for adaptiveness, reminding us of “the extent to which Aboriginal notions of inclusiveness, of re-imagining the world to take in all that is now in it, has worked to include us.” As if that work wasn’t done with a gun to the head. As if work so done could be said to validly express the attitude of the doer. Let’s be clear: Malouf, as citizen, co-authored the 1999 draft Declaration of Reconciliation; his intentions are only creditable. But it’s hard for me to believe, pace Malouf as writer, in his concept of “full possession” of a place. (An Imaginary Life: “It is our self we are making out there, and when the landscape is complete we shall have become the gods who are intended to fill it.”) And it’s impossible for me to get behind a notion of “reconciliation” that exhorts further imaginative “possession” of an already expropriated place. That isn’t palimpsest—it’s overwriting. It’s just another dimension of dispossession. And if our new national myth can only be rooted in—and feed off—our oldest open wound, how is it meant to heal us?

*

Writing is world-making, and world-making takes violence. Malouf would be aware that cosmogonic myths are overwhelmingly gorged on murder and rape, mutilation and dismemberment. The parallel with colonialism is not accidental. The word “Europe” comes from the Ancient Greek “Érebos,” meaning “darkness”; the European civilizing mission spurts forth from a heart of darkness where white men rear themselves up as gods over the inferior races.

“Australianness” is alien to me because I’m still alien to Australia.

By pitching Australia as “a real gift” to writers—”with the real making still to do”—Malouf openly tints his work with neocolonial motive. It’s a genteel form of frontier madness: why take 50 acres (30 more for wife and each child) when you can take possession of the whole bloody continent? Malouf’s body of imaginative work, which he’s forthright about curating, stakes out the largest moments and themes in Australian history: first contact, colonial settlement, the Western Front, the fall of Singapore, Changi, the Thai-Burma Railway, the myths of the white man gone native, the bushranger, the prisoner of war. World-making takes ego. And make no mistake, David Malouf—as mild and modest as he’s famed to be—and no doubt is in person—is megalomaniacal in his work. He names, more than once, Goethe, Mann and Hugo as true voices of their national literatures, personifications of their languages, musing that this conceit “has no equivalent in our literature culture.” (Interesting, that “our,” given it was a talk in London to English PEN.) Meanwhile, for half a century now, he’s been carrying out his own sedulous, stupendous project of nation-writing. Writing is “public dreaming,” Malouf has said; if so, his dreams are become public works. And when he’s not dreaming our nation, he’s increasingly crafting and clarifying it in argument. Malouf is probably our living writer most concerned and perspicacious about what it means to be an Australian writer. His Boyer Lectures were subtitled “The Making of Australian Consciousness.” The man is, need we remind ourselves, a National Living Treasure.

Which leads me, finally, to wonder: what am I missing? Why can’t I get interested in Malouf’s campaign of cultural nationalism? I’m as avaricious, I reckon, as the next Aussie scrivener; as smitten by the opportunity to make myth. Why does “Australianness” as call to linguistic arms or literary subject feel so inert—so alien—to me? Could it be as simple as my usual reactance to corporatizing thought? To policed parochialism? Or could it be that this jingoism of national identity recalls too closely, for me, the asterisked boosting of “ethnic” identity? Whatever the answer, it doesn’t lie with the new trendy label, “transnational,” or the old soiled one, “cosmopolitan.” Both tags acquiesce to an order I dispute and disclaim. And no, I can safely say I’m less “deracinated” than simply aware that to be rooted arbitrarily is, as we say in these parts, to be rooted.

The plain answer, I fear, is this: “Australianness” is alien to me because I’m still alien to Australia.

*

The birth of Australia as a nation coincided almost exactly with the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. This legislation codified what everyone knew, as summed up by Prime Minister Edmund Barton:

I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races—I think no one wants convincing of this fact—unequal and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.

Later three-time PM Alfred Deakin (I was vice-captain of Deakin House at school) wrote of:

our distrust of the Yellow races in the North Pacific and our recognition of the entente cordiale spreading among all white men who realise the Yellow Peril to Caucasian civilization, creeds and politics.

All that said, I don’t see myself as a victim of Australia’s past.

Thus was the White Australia policy kicked off—on the platform of Yellow Peril. (Pre-Federation colonies did their bit with a plethora of anti-“Chinese” Acts.) W.K. Hancock, our magisterial national historian, called the White Australia policy “the indispensable condition of every other Australian policy.” PM Billy Hughes (in 1919) described it as “the greatest thing we have achieved.” Arguing for conscription in 1916, he equated the “spirit of Australia” with “the spirit of our race.” One world war later, PM John Curtin (in 1938) affirmed that Australia would remain forever “an outpost of the British race.” (“We intend to keep this country white,” PM Stanley Bruce declared in the interim, reassuring a skittish public that Australia was still 98 percent British.) The nation’s first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, said (in 1947), “We have 25 years at most to populate this country before the yellow races are down on us.” (This from the same man who said, “Two Wongs don’t make a White.”) And PM Robert Menzies (in 1955), having mulled over “oriental countries,” blithely said, “if I were not described as a racist I’d be the only public man who hasn’t been.”

Know thyself! The point I’m making is simple: being non-white, I’ve always been—will always be—an outsider in Australia. There’ll always be some reason why someone’s neglected to loop me into the entente cordiale. The White Australia policy may have been abolished in the 70s but all non-whites know it’s as deeply situated in our DNA as our Western inheritance. (Yes, I said, and will say, “our.”) We’re not over it. Maybe things will be different for my kids—I hope so—though I’m not unduly optimistic. Think of it this way: the proportion of American history in which blacks were not legally dehumanized (under slavery or segregation) matches up closely to the proportion of our history post–White Australia policy. Who would dare argue that American racism towards black Americans is a thing of the past?

For people of color, moreover, the reality is exclusion not only from belonging but from the binaries of contested belonging—European/ Australian, Australian/Aboriginal, white/black. Indigenous Australians may be execrably treated in a thousand ways but they’re generally safe from accusations of “Un-Australianness.”

And here’s the thing. All that said, I don’t see myself as a victim of Australia’s past. Nations (like families) are not fair. They’re all sorts of trouble and wrong. It should be possible to see, and call out, and work towards repairing wrong without being defined by it. Sook and snarl are ultimately as limiting as cringe. There’s power and beauty in what is, and there’s agency in exclusion. Part of this attitude in me is temperamental, I suspect, and some part must spring from background: I was born in a country that proudly (if head-scratchingly) takes as its national icons things brought in or radically co-opted by colonizers: áo dài, bánh mì, phở, romanized script with diacritical marks. Whatever works! (This might also explain my puzzlement at a Western progressivism that happily amputates its own intellectual heritage for being unwoke.) Whiteness theory posits that the dominance of whiteness in Western nations arises from its being the unacknowledged, invisible norm, but this is not at all true for refugees, who clearly see and acknowledge whiteness as power but who hope and trust that such power may be checked by self-declared political principles and practices. Work with what you’ve got! As a refugee myself (what unassailable safety to write those words! what authority! what impunity!), I’d hate to be admitted into a Western nation where white identity is under siege, and then be press-ganged into the militant “multicultural” ideology that’s seen as the enemy. Better things to do. Other fish to fry. Leave me out of it, please.

Could it be that whiteness, for David Malouf, is both blindingness and camouflage?

*

David Malouf’s essay “The Kyogle Line” is one of the few places he writes in a personal vein about race. It’s a revealing essay, more for what it omits than what it says. He writes about his paternal grandfather, who came to Brisbane in the 1880s from “greater Syria; itself then a province of the great, sick Empire of the Turks.” At the time, “greater Syria (as opposed to Egypt and Turkey proper) was declared white—but only the Christian inhabitants of it.” It’s under this regime of almost farcical arbitrariness that Malouf’s never-named grandfather scrapes in. He never makes an effort to learn English, and never naturalizes, which leads to his being interned when Lebanon becomes a Vichy dependency.

His son, Malouf’s father, on the other hand, “was as Australian as anyone could be—except for the name. He had made himself so. He had played football for the State, and was one of the toughest welterweights of his day.” Elsewhere, Malouf writes of his father establishing his Australianness “with his fists.”

Just beneath the surface of nation, violence—always violence.

Is it a stretch to hazard that Malouf may have inherited (or at least self-inculcated) this urge to establish his Australianness? In “The Kyogle Line,” Malouf belatedly realizes that his father must have “grown up speaking Arabic as well as he spoke Australian . . . But I never heard him utter a word of it or give any indication that he understood.” What extraordinary discipline—and, one imagines, extraordinary loss—to have so interred your parents’ language. And what extraordinary danger must have been intuited to necessitate such discipline. I think of my children, what it would communicate to them were I to never again speak Vietnamese, never even show—to my parents, say—that I understood it. In “The Only Speaker of His Tongue,” our lexicographer describes the passing down of language through the generations: “We recapture on our tongue, when we first grasp the sound and make it, the same word in the mouths of our long dead fathers, whose blood we move in and whose blood still moves in us. Language is that blood.”

Language is that blood. What, then, might it signify that Malouf speaks and reads four languages—none of which is Arabic? That, in his writing, he has transfused the blood of his “long dead fathers” out of his body? That he has, in fact, ex-sanguinated himself of this entire (Lebanese, greater Syrian, Middle Eastern) half of his heritage? I know it shouldn’t matter. And mostly it doesn’t. It hasn’t. The man should be free to write whatever he wants, however he wants, on his own terms. The work he has given us is tremendous. But still, to me, the spilled blood screams. The site of excision remains raw, livid. And the terms of Malouf ’s work invite a heuristic of making (and making sense of) present through past, selfhood through inheritance. In calling for a new Australian sense of itself, Malouf has been searching and stirring about its Western and British inheritances; he has made it his life’s work to keep delving into this “matter of Australia.” In one long essay, he laid out the many ways in which Australia (and he) was “made in England.” Malouf is, incontrovertibly, a writer in the business of identity.

Only not, it seems, one half of his own.

Here’s a crazy thought. Could it be that whiteness, for David Malouf, is both blindingness and camouflage? That out of temperament, intuition, reflex, survival and ambition, he has suppressed his brownness—as his father suppressed his Arabic—in order to “pass” as white? This sounds preposterous, I know. And I’ll probably get in trouble for it. But the thought, once thought, is hard to unthink.

For non-Anglos, non-Europeans, non-whites—whiteness is our “bush.”

In his poem “Notes on an Undiscovered Continent,” Malouf writes, “The nineteen tongues of Europe / migrate to fill a silence.” Only the tongues of Europe wag. By private erasure as well as public policy, Australia is white. (Alfred Deakin: “Other races are to be excluded by legislation if they are tinted to any degree.”) Only a white Australian (the young, ambitious, half-Lebanese Malouf would have understood) could hope to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of “his” race. Only a white Australian could assert standing to “make” this nation—to fully “possess” this land. To advance Australia fair.

In Johnno, Dante’s friends decamp for Europe even as he decides to stay in Brisbane. “I was determined, for some reason,” he says, “to make life reveal whatever it had to reveal here, on home ground, where I would recognise the terms.” Such complacent unconcern, such assurance. Dante/Malouf expects to belong where he is. It’s home ground. But no non-white, I expect, no matter how long, how deeply rooted in Australia, would so casually describe it that way.

*

The action of “The Kyogle Line” is simple: Malouf and his father walk a Coffs Harbour train platform in 1944 and come upon a crowd gathered around three caged prisoners of war:

The three Japs, in a group, if not actually chained then at least huddled, were difficult to make out in the half-dark. But looking in at them was like looking in from our own minds, our own lives, on another species.

This is David Malouf writing in 1985, at the center of his career, the height of his powers. A writer who considered his second book, An Imaginary Life, to be his last—”an old man’s summing up, a late meditation on death, on continuity and change, the possibility of transformation”—and every book afterward to be a “filling in.” And what filling in since—what curiosity and empathy, how prodigious his traversals of time, place, sex, age and class. Here was a writer who dared venture, in fact, into the consciousness of animals, of the natural world—even the cosmos.

And yet here he is, stopped short, finally, by this other—Asian—”species.” By a “vast gap of darkness”—between the crowd and the Japanese men. Between Australia and Asia. Malouf registers: “The moment you stepped out of the crowd and the shared sense of being part of it, you were alone.” The boy witness could have known no better. But the mature writer, this mature writer, 40 years on, alone with his memory and conscience, in full possession of hindsight and decades of ethical and imaginative praxis, might have been expected to look at these men and see them as more than “other” or grotesque “object,” to at least assay the “possibility of transformation.” I will admit that reading this account (especially straight after reading Malouf ’s stock “culture shock” account of a trip to India) left me in a state of mild dejection. Forty years on from White Australia and not even a glimmer, from our most conciliatory writer, of imaginative “reconciliation.”

*

Something else. The stunned, tense silence of these Australians staring at three “Nips”—it feels familiar to me. In more than a personal way, in a way that has nothing to do with race. After a while, I realize the déjà vu is aesthetic: it mirrors almost exactly the attitude—and language—of a different category of Australian writing. Not about people, but about the landscape—specifically “the bush.”

Remembering Babylon gives it form as:

the abode of everything savage and fearsome, and since it lay so far beyond experience, not just their own but their parents’ too, of nightmare rumours, superstitions and all that belonged to Absolute Dark.

The land harbors “illimitable night.” “Even in full sunlight it was impenetrable dark.” In Johnno, Australia is “what begins with the darkness at our back door.” “What the vastness of Australian spaces evokes,” Malouf declares in his Neustadt Lecture in Norman, Oklahoma—the most tornado-prone area on the planet— “is anxiety.”

Settler Australians, of course, had reasons to be anxious. Their public dreaming was its own strain of prairie madness–cum-colonial nightmare—haunted by irretrievable Albion, revanchist first peoples, an unforgiving land. They were not invited and they were never welcomed. The bush became their giant imago of fear and guilt. Always there, just on the other side of the sill, just beyond the last European syllable—a vast gap of darkness. Even a century and a half later, in a large city, the young Malouf would find himself drawn to the crawlspace underneath his family’s stilted weatherboard. The mysterious dark between European edifice and immemorial earth. As though, even then, he knew his work must issue from this anxious space.

And here I’m forced into another admission. Try as I might, I have never been able to properly access this anxiety – this shared apprehension of Australia, described by Malouf in “Jacko’s Reach,” as “the dark unmanageable.” A lifetime here, and I’m still outside even this primal sense of being outside. When Malouf praises Slessor’s poem “South Country” as a breakthrough in Australian consciousness, I can admire its technicality, but feel as emotionally removed from its portentions of a “monstrous continent of air” with “black / Bruised flesh of thunderstorms” as I do from the hokiest bush ballad. The Australian landscape, to me, is many things, but it is not monstrous, and it is not malevolent. I mark no ancient fear in it—it poses nothing but itself.

And that’s when it hits me. For non-Anglos, non-Europeans, non-whites—whiteness is our “bush.” Whiteness is our surrounding, seething reality, the autochthony we yearn for and can never achieve. (If we seem to come close, it’s only ever because we’re “industrious and imitative.”) Whiteness is the perpetual engine of our anxiety. And this, in the end, is perhaps the most enduring lesson I’ve received from Malouf. He and I are both self-made, but here, in this country, he’s able to pass, has passed. (And, I believe, it may have cost him.) I cannot. I’m tinted by my face, cruciated to my hyphen. And I realize too that this is the land’s real gift to me. It’s okay. I no longer have to try.

__________________________________

This is an extract from Writers on Writers: Nam Le on David Malouf. Published by Black Inc. in partnership with State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne. $17.99, out May 6.

Nam Le
Nam Le
Nam Le is the author of The Boat.





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