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The La Trobe Reading Room, State Library Victoria
La Trobe Reading Room, State Library Victoria
Contemporary Settler Literature: Resources for Students and Teachers

(Status : Public)
Coordinated by Travis Franks
  • Selected Bibliography

    While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it does include representative works of  settler literature in Australia since the 1990s. Similarly, rather than attempting to summarise the chosen text in its entirety, annotations are presented with the hope that users will 1) encounter new authors or works, 2) explore their interests further by following the links provided, and 3) potentially make new connections between texts. Finally, emphasis has been placed on contemporary texts and issues, though this should not imply that Australia's pre-colonial and early-colonial cultural histories are less valuable. This list focuses on particular themes: constructing settler belonging on Aboriginal land, depictions of landscape (particularly representations of the bush and pastoralism), writing the violence of colonial history back into Australia's national narrative, trauma, reconciliation, and Aboriginal modernities. 

    Texts are grouped by genre and listed alphabetically, according to the primary author's surname.

  • Drama

  • Holy Day, The Dreamers, The 7 Stages of Grieving, Stolen, Nowhere

    Andrew Bovell, Holy Day

    A contemporary five-act play set on the nineteenth-century Australian frontier. Seeking justice for a destroyed mission and a missing child draws the cast together, but their dark secrets and predilections for violence drive them apart. Includes themes of faith, innocence, sexual violence, racism, and betrayal.

    Jack Davis, The Dreamers

    A two-act play set predominantly in the home of an Aboriginal family in contemporary southwestern Australia. Members of the family struggle with alcohol abuse, financial insecurity, hunger, and the declining health of Worru, the patriarch. As Worru comes closer to death, he also experiences a renewed connection to pre-colonisation life ways.

    Ben Ellis, These People

    Situates the debates over refugee rights and the protection of Australian borders within a domestic framework–the suburban home of the 'typical' Australian family. Highly surreal, this play blurs the lines between the deeply serious and the absolutely absurd as a form of political commentary about blind nationalism.

    Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, The Seven Stages of Grieving

    A one-woman play that maps the stages of grieving onto Aboriginal history in Australia, from Dreaming to Reconciliation. A major accomplishment in Indigenous theatre, this play demonstrates settler colonialism's ongoing negative effects on Aboriginal people, including police violence in the contemporary moment, and the complex ways in which Aboriginal individuals and communities process and persevere these unique hardships.

    Jane Harrison, Stolen

    A one-act play simultaneously dramatising the different experiences of five members of the Stolen Generations whose lives are connected by having spent time at the same orphanage. Demonstrates the myriad responses Aboriginal people have had to this particular trauma, particularly as they relate to the struggle to feel a sense of belonging.

    Dorothy Hewett, Nowhere

    A two-act play centring around the fragile coexistence of three homeless misfits: an elderly ex-Communist, a violent Vietnam veteran, and a young Aboriginal woman running from a life of physical abuse, prostitution, and heroin addiction. The group manages to make themselves a place out of nowhere, but not before each of them undergoes a violent confrontation with their pasts.

    Noelle Janaczewska, This Territory

    Deals explicitly with the 2005 Cronulla riots and how different perspectives determined by gender, ethnicity, and nationalism shaped witnesses's experience and their memories of a violent episode over which they've been summoned to give testimony. Driven primarily by dialogue, the play attempts to place contemporary arguments about racism and belonging in Australia within a larger context of history, ideology and desire. Especially interesting are the passages in which dispossession of Aboriginal peoples is used to challenge the idea that white settlers have a greater claim to belonging in Australia than do immigrants.

    Leah PurcellThe Drover's Wife

    Purcell's play is a continuation of Henry Lawson's iconic short story The Drover's Wife, dealing much more directly with the sexually- and racially-motivated frontier violence that Lawson's story only hinted at. The characters who appear in this work, black and white alike, are complex beings, reflecting Australia's own complicated history.   

  • Poetry

  • Ruby Moonlight, I'm Not Racist, But..., Subhuman Redneck Poems, Small Town Soundtrack, Smoke Encrypted Whispers

    Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight

    A novel in verse that captures a brief period of time in the life of a young, nineteenth-century Aboriginal woman who, after surviving the massacre of her entire clan, is torn between a relationship with an unlucky Irish miner and a powerful dancer from another clan. This brisk read is full of love, violence, loss, and regeneration.

    Anita Heiss, I'm Not Racist, But... : A Collection of Social Observations

    A collection of poems written between 1997 and 2004 that speak out against white supremacy and political apathy amongst Australians, this text includes observations on literary misrepresentations of Aboriginality, belonging, reconciliation, and the slow movement toward national apology and Indigenous recognition.

    Les Murray, Subhuman Redneck Poems

    Murray is arguably Australia's most recognised poet of the modern era and, while this is not his most esteemed work, it was released at an important time in his life and in the nation's history (1996). Poems such as "The Family Farmer's Victory," "A Brief History," and "The Beneficiaries" demonstrate Murray's nationalist-rooted political views against academics, multiculturalism, and modernity.

    Brendan Ryan, Small Town Soundtrack

    Most of the poems in this collection explore the emotional connections of a middle-aged father returning to the isolated regions of Western Victoria he experienced as a youth. His particular attachment to place is shaped through the labour he performed on his family's dairy farm, the music he listened to, and football. Particularly of interest in terms of settler colonial identity are "Hexhan," "Glenormiston," and "Succession."

    Yothu Yindi, "Treaty"

    The first song by Aboriginal performers to chart nationally and internationally, "Treaty" was written in response to the unfulfilled promise made by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988 to have settled a treaty with Aboriginal peoples by 1990.

  • Prose Fiction

  • The Secret River, Mullumbimby, Journey to the Stone Country, The White Earth, That Deadman Dance

    Larissa Behrendt, Home

    A multi-generational saga brought about by a young urban Aboriginal lawyer's return to Country. The narrative focuses on Candice's family history beginning with a massacre of her people and her grandmother's experiences as a member of the Stolen Generations. Deals with the legal components of dispossession and erasure, as well as the social and psychological effects of colonisation.

    Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang

    A highly stylised, first-hand account 'written' by the infamous bush ranger himself in order to combat the media reports that, he believed, wrongfully vilified him. Important for the ways in which it captures inter-ethnic relations between British and non-British whites in Australia's pre-federation days, particularly the desire for land, capital, and power.

    Felicity CastagnaNo More Boats

    Set in Parramatta in 2001, and taking place during the matter of weeks that separated the arrival of the MV Tampa in Australian waters and the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the US, this novel chronicles the disintegration of the Martone family. Patriarch and post-war Italian refugee Antonio suffers the loss of a friend and sustains serious physical trauma during a workplace accident that he blames on unskilled labourers who have immigrated to Australia from Asian and Arab-majority countries. After the ghost of his deceased friend tells him to paint NO MORE BOATS in front of his home, Antonio becomes a media sensation and is co-opted by a far-right nationalist group. His wife, daughter, and son all struggle with the 'new' Antonio, who feels that the Australian Dream he worked so hard to attain has been taken against his will, leaving him no place to belong in his adopted homeland.  

    Richard FlanaganGould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish

    A complex, fantastical representation of the colonisation of Tasmania in the nineteenth century. The novel is particularly interesting because of the ways in which it draws into question the recorded history of Australia's colonial period and the truthfulness of the written record. It also touches on important issues such as the treatment of convicts, the elimination of Aboriginal people, and the dangers or interracial relationships. Another underlying theme of note is the disparity between believing that the world is inherently good and reconciling with the terrible things that happen so that life can progress. 

    Kate GrenvilleThe Secret River

    Likely Australia's most-taught novel of historical fiction at the moment, The Secret River chronicles the life of William Thornhill, impoverished Londoner turned convict turned Australian landed gentry. The plot builds on tensions between settlers like Thornhill and the Aboriginal inhabitants  of his land claim, culminating in a massacre that is subsequently covered up. While has been largely been lauded as a progressive and honest account of Australia's settlement, it has also received criticism for reinforcing regressive identity politics. See the works by Jeanine Leane and Odette Kelada below.    

    Gail Jones, Sorry

    Though set in Western Australia around the time of the second world war, this 2007 novel is often associated with contemporary Australia's reconciliation policies and, in particular, Kevin Rudd's apology speech. The central tension involves the death of young Perdita's father and who is to blame--Perdita herself, her manic-depressive mother, or the Aboriginal servant Mary, the latter of whom is arrested for the murder. Thematically, the novel deals with silence as a result of trauma--for much of the novel Perdita has a terrible stutter--and the long process of reconciling with past violence. In this way, the novel is seen as an attempt at reconciling the historical violence enacted upon Aboriginal Australians, though, as has been the case with criticism of Kate Grenville's The Secret River, some have found Jones' novel problematic as well. 

    Thomas Keneally, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

    A fictionalised account of a historical incident involving Jimmy Governor, an Aboriginal man hanged just days after Australia celebrated federation at the dawn of the twentieth century. In the novel, Blacksmith is driven to murder after a series of racially-charged encounters leave him disillusioned and enraged with the white society that never recognises his humanity.

    Richard King, Carrion Colony

    A dark satire chronicling the demise of fictional Australian penal colony Old & New Bridgeford, this text is stylistically very post-modern, bending the rules of what a novel can or should be. King's allegorical critique of colonisation juxtaposes settlers' ecological devastation with their propensity for physical violence. This is largely a novel of soldier-versus-convict, with Indigenous peoples rarely showing up in character; it could be argued, though, that the massacre of a local bird species, the Kurrapuuk, is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the many massacres settlers committed during this time (this isn't to suggest that the comparison of Indigenous peoples to birds isn't itself, highly questionable).

    Wanda Koolmatrie (aka Leon Carmen), My Own Sweet Time

    A literary hoax perpetrated by Leon Carmen, a white man posing as an Aboriginal woman. Though it is entirely fictional My Own Sweet Time was published as a coming-of-age memoir of a young black woman who, adopted by a white family, never feels a sense of belonging until she travels around Australia, joining the 1960s counterculture movement and writing lyrics for an American rock band. See Philip Morrissey's article below for more on the controversy surrounding this book and its place in a long history of cultural appropriation.

    Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby

    Told from the perspective of Jo Breen, a single Indigenous mother determined to raise her daughter and restore a small patch of her traditional lands, this novel depicts the many entanglements of history, family, land ownership and belonging. Mullumbimby is particularly important to critical thinking about Native Title claims, as Lucashenko demonstrates that court-recognised claims to country can drive a wedge between clans and extended families. Another striking feature of this novel is the relationships Jo forms with animals, from the horses she loves as if they were people to the many birds who offer her guidance in her most difficult and confusing moments.

    David Malouf, Remembering Babylon

    Set in a nineteenth-century Australian colony, the novel revolves around Gemmy and his brief return to white society after having been rescued by Aborigines when shipwrecked. Gemmy is held in disdain by many of the white settlers, who see him as a sort of race traitor and, perhaps, the realisation of their fears concerning their own 'civilisation' on the frontier wilderness.

    James Vance Marshall (Donald Gordon Payne), Walkabout

    Outside of the controversy over its actual authorship, Walkabout has had a popular shelf life, having been taught widely in Australian schools. Two young American children are briefly stranded in the bush when their air plane crashes. Soon, a young (and unnamed) Aboriginal man completing his rite of passage into manhood comes along to lead them to safety and teach them survival skills. Mary, the elder of the two young Americans, distrusts their rescuer, however, and fears his perceived sexual savageness, and this distrust leads to his tragic end. The novel is highly romantic and features the noble savage trope.

    Andrew McGahan, The White Earth

    Set predominantly in the 1990s around the Mabo v. Queensland case that realised terra nullius as a legal fiction and acknowledged native title, the novel depicts an elderly settlers' lifelong obsession with owning a one-great cattle station now in ruins. As the elder statesman of the family, John McIvor attempts to teach his young grand-nephew William to love the land he has struggled so long to own, driving both of them to the point of physical and emotional crises.

    Alex Miller, Journey to the Stone Country

    A novel of reconciliation in which the protagonist, a white woman, finds a new sense of self-fulfilment out bush through her relationship with Bo Rainey, an Aboriginal man determined to reclaim his ancestral lands. Confronting Australia's colonial history is a major theme of the novel, and Miller's depiction of this theme has been a source for a great deal of scholarly inquiry.

    Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance

    Scott's beautiful novel depicts contact between English settlers and the Noongar people of Australia's southwestern shores. Through the character of Bobby Wabalanginy, the novel briefly imagines what might have been had colonisation turned out differently and coexistence through mutual respect maintained. As an elderly man, Bobby reenacts for white tourists the violent history of his peoples' dispossession through song and dance.

    Tim WintonDirt Music

    Set in Western Australia, Dirt Music is, on the surface, a novel about two star-crossed lovers, Georgie and Lu, and the long, circuitous route they take to one another. Essential to both characters, however, is their relationship to the land, sea, and society, and, in that way, the novel can also be read as a quest for belonging that is shaped by the sense of attachment both characters feel to place and space. Winton is well-known for his poetic treatment of coastal terrain, and this novel is a prime example of his distinct style.

    Alexis Wright, Plains of Promise

    Like Behrendt's novel Home, this is also a multi-generational family saga that links past to present, as well as Country, mission, and urban life through the homecoming of a contemporary Aboriginal woman. Aboriginal religious practices and belief factor heavily into the novel's development, and colonial violence against black women is a consistent theme.

  • Creative Non-Fiction

  • Thicker than Water, Talking to My Country, Searching for the Secret River, Am I Black Enough for You?, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

    Cal Flyn, Thicker Than Water

    A contemporary account of a young Scottish journalist's attempt to uncover the details of her ancestor Angus McMillan's life and then reconcile herself with his leading role in violent massacres of Aboriginal Australians. Interesting as both an engrossing introductory survey of settler colonial history in Australia and a personable account of reconciliation as a means of dealing with grief and shame.

    Stan Grant, Talking to My Country : The Book That Every Australian Should Read

    A beautifully written meditation on contemporary Indigenous belonging in Australia from one of the nation's premiere journalists. Grant writes about belonging from an Aboriginal perspective, which not only includes connection to country through the Dreaming but also racial divide that has plagued Australia since contact.

    Kate Grenville, Searching for the Secret River

    A personal account of Grenville's genealogical research leading up to her writing the well-known novel The Secret River. Part memoir, part craft guide, this text is particularly interesting in that Grenville writes about being confronted by Australia's colonial history and, in return, she seeks to better understand her identity as a white settler and descendant of a man who violently dispossessed Aboriginal peoples.

    Doris Pilkington Garimara, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

    Having also been made into a feature film, this is already an iconic text in the Australian literary tradition. Relating the experiences of the writers' mother, this epic of removal and escape by three young members of the Stolen Generations also adds insight and texture to our understanding of the individuals who carried out removal policies in Western Australia.

  • Secondary Works

  • Finding Eliza, White Mother to a Dark Race, The White Possessive. Settler Colonialism, Settler Society in the Australian Colonies

    Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza : Power and Colonial Storytelling

    An extended analysis of the narratives that emerged after Eliza Fraser's purported captivity among an Indigenous tribe. To a greater extent, Behrendt surveys misrepresentations of Aboriginality across the Australian literary tradition, paying particular attention to how gender shaped these characterisations.

    Tony Birch, The Last Refuge of the 'Un-Australian'

    Presents the argument that, generally, any expression of political difference, particularly by Aboriginal people, is seen as unpatriotic in Australia. Countering this way of thinking, Birch demonstrates that dominant history is based in white supremacy against Indigenous peoples and immigrants. Ultimately, he argues that the practice of Aboriginal self-determination in Australia must include protecting the rights of refugees as visitors to Indigenous country.

    Rob Garbutt, The Locals : Identity, Place and Belonging in Australia and beyond

    This cultural studies text considers the ways in which white Australian settlers have produced a group identity that signals a particular kind of indigenisation. Particularly interesting is Garbutt's argument that, even though 'the locals' are not themselves Indigenous, they nevertheless use their status as locals to label later immigrants as 'foreigners', 'outsiders', and 'others'.

    Paul Giles, Antipodean America : Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature

    Presents new readings of some of the US's most prominent national literary figures (including Emerson, Twain, and Melville, just to name a few) in order to argue that Australasia represents yet another uncivilised 'other' against which American culture has defined itself through literature. This rather long text includes a number of chapters that are author-specific and can be read individually.

    Tony Hughes-d'Aeth, Cooper, Cather, Prichard, 'Pioneer' : The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism

    Makes the case for comparative criticism of settler literatures from the US and Australia. In terms of methodology, the analysis revolves around common features and tropes of settler narratives, in this case the figure of the pioneer, which is a powerful symbol in the colonial and national myths of both countries.

    Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race : Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940

    Places the history of the Stolen Generations in conversation with American Indian removal policies and examines the role white women played in Indigenous dispossession in both cases. An important model for how to conduct in-depth relational analyses of two different settler nations without flattening contextual differences. Jacobs work is also important in that it argues that, along with race and property, gender roles (as expressed through motherhood) are a fundamental property of settler colonialism and must be a part of our critical inquiry.

    Odette Kelada, The Stolen River : Position, Possession and Race Representation in Grenville’s Colonial ‘Worlds’

    A thorough critique of perhaps the most widely encountered Australian novel of recent years (The Secret River), Kelada argues that Australia’s 'reconciliation' discourse relies, at least in part, on essentialist stereotypes of Aboriginality that have been useful in carrying out previous colonial political agendas. Therefore, she contends, reconciliation should be considered a regeneration of colonial ideology rather than its conclusion. Analysis of settler literature that engages reconciliation as a motif should consider ways in which texts imagine contemporary modes of settler belonging that minimise the risk of decolonisation.

    Jeanine Leane, Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature

    Like Moreton-Robinson and Kelada, Leane builds off of American novelist and critic Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, which surveyed representations of 'Africanist' presences in white-authored literature. Leane's article looks at representations of Australian Aboriginality over the last two centuries, arguing that, while white writers have imagined black characters in a variety of ways, they have, by and large, all done so in order to reaffirm settler belonging in a nation they view as their own.

    Tom Lynch, “Nothing but land” : Women’s Narratives, Gardens, and the Settler-Colonial Imaginary in the US West and Australian Outback

    Considers the role that Australian and US women have played in advancing settler colonial agendas by altering native ecosystems through European-inspired gardens. Also posits the settler-colonial imaginary as a means of analysing settler identity.

    John McLaren, A Haunted Land

    Demonstrates that settlers’ relationship with land has been a continuing motif in Australian literature, with the two most common representations depicting land as promise or land as isolation. McLaren argues that contemporary white Australian writers have picked up on the trend of representing the geography as “strange” but, unlike their predecessors, the sense of strangeness is rooted in history of frontier violence. McLaren also notes that suffering on the frontier was mutual for settlers and Aboriginals, and that suffering “haunts” recent fiction by white writers like Christopher Koch, Alex Miller, Carmel Bird, and Michael Meehan.

    Philip Morrissey, Stalking Aboriginal Culture : The Wanda Koolmatrie Affair

    In addition to explaining the Wanda Koolmatrie literary hoax, Morrissey details how his name came to be associated with the text despite his concerns over its authenticity. More helpful for general students of settler colonial literature, he lists and explains several ways in which this particular instance of white appropriation of Indigenous culture contributes to a larger, ongoing process of colonisation and erasure.

    Elizabeth Strakosch and Alissa Macoun, The Vanishing Endpoint of Settler Colonialism

    Submits the premise that Australia is a settler colonial nation (as opposed to a post colonial nation) and that, therefore, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples is an ongoing practice. Written from the perspective of two legal scholars, this article is particularly enlightening in discussing the many approaches state and federal governments in Australia take to dealing with Aboriginal people, arguing that, by and large, none of these approaches allow for political difference but, rather, attempt to enforce assimilation and subservience.

    Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism : A Theoretical Overview

    Veracini's scholarship builds on Wolfe's earlier formalisation of settler colonial studies as a distinct academic discipline by incorporating and developing theories outside of anthropology and history. A later monograph, The Settler Colonial Present (2015), includes more examples of how to apply settler colonial theory for critical readings of literary texts, as well as other cultural events.

    Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native

    More accessible than his seminal book Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology : The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, this article from Wolfe lays out his most popular concepts, such as 'the elimination of the native' and settler invasion as 'a structure not an event,' while also discussing genocide as a feature of, but not necessarily a synonym for, settler colonialism.

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