While an absolute definition of settler literature may remain elusive and evolving, it is generally thought of as a body of texts distinguished by the nation-state in which (or about which) it is written and distinguishable from post-colonial literatures [for more on this, see Tony Hughes-d'Aeth's article Cooper, Cather, Prichard, 'Pioneer' : The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism].
In simplest terms, settler literature is storytelling that emerges out of settler colonialism, which is a specific form of colonialism occurring or having occurred in certain geographic locations. Nation-states formed out of settler colonial projects include the United States, Canada, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. It is important to note that, from Indigenous perspectives, settlement (or, put another way, invasion) is ongoing, meaning that settler colonialism and settler literature are still active today. That is, as Lorenzo Veracini has said, we find ourselves now in The Settler Colonial Present. In other words, while we rightly think of the works of A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson (both pictured above) as settler literature, there are rich potentials for analysing contemporary literature as part of the same process that shaped those seminal works of Australia's national literary tradition. An example of precisely this kind of comparison is included in this exhibition, tracking Lawson's short-story The Drover's Wife through twentieth- and twenty-first century Australian theatre.
Some may consider settler literature to refer strictly to texts produced by settlers at the time of settlement. On the other hand, because settler colonial projects involve multiple generations and several groups–Indigenous peoples, immigrants (voluntary and involuntary), migrants, and settler populations, we might also consider how texts by groups marginalised by settler colonialism shape settler colonial projects, nonetheless. Indeed, many of the most influential creative and scholarly texts on settler colonialism and decolonisation have been written by authors who are not themselves settlers. For that reason, this exhibition presents settler literature as a cohesive cultural production representing a variety of perspectives on the processes of settlement and ongoing colonisation.
As a discipline with specific methodologies, settler literary studies is still very much taking shape. In his formative essay 'The Anxious Proximities', Alan Lawson asks several important questions about the nature of settler literature which suggest analysis strategies: 'What kinds of stories does the settle tell? Is it possible to think of a cultural narratology, a cultural rhetoric? How do we find a way of talking about the mode or manner in which these settler stories function?' Scholars such as Lawson, Larissa Behrendt, Jeanine Leane, Tony Hughes-d'Aeth, Odette Kelada, Anna Johnston, Tamara S Wagner, Mishuana Goeman, and Alex Trimble Young have made significant contributions to the field, however.
This exhibition demonstrates just one way of envisioning what contemporary Australian settler literature might mean. In this case, contemporary generally refers to works published since 1990. This particular scope reflects monumental political and cultural events that have determined Australia's settler colonial present: court cases over Native Title, reconciliation and apology agendas, and identity politics. These factors helped shape a unique bibliography that brings together well- and lesser-known works of creative writing, from internationally best-selling novels to poetry collections from small printing houses. Click here to see the publication dates of major works in Australian creative writing placed on a timeline along with important historical events of the last thirty years. There are also central themes and motifs that link these works: captivity, belonging, representations of blackness and frontier violence. These are discussed in greater detail here. These themes and motifs, along with the section on connections between Australian and US settler literatures make up a number of resources for teachers who are interested in promoting critical, comparative discussions amongst their students.