When the Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature was published in 1985 it defined the Australian literary canon as a high art that was created by European settlers and their Australian-born descendants. The volume noted the presence of Aboriginal people and their “long oral tradition” but did not include any literary production by indigenous Australians, or for that matter any other writings that did not readily fit into the definition of literature as the pursuit of the educated classes.[i] Yet even the most well-known Australian writer in whose name the richest and most prestigious Australian literary prize is named, Miles Franklin, did not make it into this 585 page volume.
How different the Australian literary canon looks nearly one quarter of a century later in the Nicholas Jose edited Norton’s Anthology of Australian Literature published in 2009. Here the definition of ‘what is literature’ and literature, at that, deserving of inclusion in a national anthology is entirely redefined. The great movements of post-colonialism, feminism and multiculturalism that have reshaped Australian life over the past twenty-five years are deeply reflected in the choices of works selected. Miles Franklin takes her place in this 1464 page tome, alongside numerous other many other women writers whose work had been previously overlooked.
The most notable difference between the two anthologies is that the total absence of Aboriginal voices in the 1985 anthology has been entirely reversed in its 2009 counterpart. From the first letter written in halting English by the famous Bennelong to his friends in England in 1796, the history of Aboriginal political and social struggle in white Australia is traceable up to the most past. Similarly, the voices of the lower classes – convicts and uneducated rebels – are to be found here that likewise flesh out the cultural history of Australia since 1788. Ned Kelly, the bushranger who was hanged in 1880 at the age of twenty-five makes numerous appearances in this volume from his dictated Jerilderie Letter of 1879 (Kelly was illiterate) to literary incarnations of him across time that emphasize, despite his continued controversy, his enduring centrality to Australian myth.
Immigrant writings, particularly after World War II are also predominant. The volume’s consistent attempt to decenter British descendants within the Australian literary canon is also demonstrated by the choice for the final entry, that of the Vietnamese-Australian Chi Vu, who writes about visiting Vietnam as a tourist and seeing her birth place through estranged, Australianized-eyes. It is a fitting counterpoint to the first entry, that of George Worgan, who came to Australia with the founding British settlement in 1788 and was one of the first to write in the English language in Australia. In his writings, he records the strangeness of the new land and its indigenous peoples. Here the volume contests the dominant version of national-type as British stock, for Worgan saw Australia as a foreigner, whilst Chi Vu sees it as home.
The traditional forms of literature are, of course, here: stories, poems, book chapters. But in this volume they compete with letters, petitions, radio broadcasts, political manifestos, song lyrics and speeches that redefine ‘literature’. So too does their content that is often more significant for what it says than the skill in which it was rendered. Such inclusions are necessary to capture the scope of Australian cultural history from 1788, and the volume’s editors should be commended for their efforts to expand and enrich popular understandings of Australian literature. All entries are accompanied by comprehensive biographies of the writers and their works that make this an accessible, informative and comprehensive work.
Yet for all its many merits, there are aspects of this literary history that remain absence or have been muted. We get a clear sense in this volume that Australian literature is a fusion of traditions and experiences from Europe, indigenous Australia and Asia, yet the Pacific is almost entirely absent. This is despite a plentiful tradition of writings from Australians living, traveling, working and governing that oceanic frontier of Australia from the 1790s to the present. Also absent are the voices of Pacific Islanders whose ancestors were brought to Australia as indentured labourers on Queensland sugar plantations from the 1860s, and tell a unique tale of living in a white Australia. Australians also fought in the Pacific during World Wars I and II, but these wars, especially World War II, are muted here as seismic episodes in Australian cultural history. The editors of this volume are quite correct in foregrounding the tensions around race, for instance, as a spark for Australian literary production, but this should sit alongside the convulsions of war that were so instrumental in realigning the gamut of perspectives of Australia, its society and its surrounding world.
Despite these absences and oversights, the Norton’s Anthology of Australian Literature is a significant achievement in Australian literary history that holds innumerable delights for those familiar with Australian literature and those not. It conveys the richness of Australian writing without obscuring the historical forces that have inspired and challenged writers to write.
[i] Leonie Kramer and Adrian Mitchell ed.s, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1985), p. 5.