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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
  • This section is intended to suggest connections that exist between Aboriginal- and settler-authored texts, primarily in Australia, but also in the US. Below are groups of primary and secondary texts that can be brought together, for teachers, as units of study in the classroom or, for students, as potential paper topics.

  • Invasion

    If you are familiar with the debates surrounding the History Wars that began in the late 1980s, you'll recognise invasion as a particularly divise terms for naming how Australians (especially white Australians) think about settler colonialism. As a literary theme, invasion stretches back into the formative days of Australia's literary tradition, particularly as it relates to anti-Asian Federation-era propaganda fictions such as  White or Yellow? : A Story of the Race War of A.D.1908 and The Yellow Wave : A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia. Much more recently, John Marsden's popular YA Tomorrow Series relied on similar anxieties over foreign invasion from an unidentified Asian nation. Taking a different tact, Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist and Andrew McGahan's Underground both satirize national fears of radical Islamic terrorism, condemning conservative government surveillance and mass media sensationalism. David Robert Walker's Anxious Nation : Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939 and Catriona Ross's Prolonged Symptoms of Cultural Anxiety : The Persistence of Narratives of Asian Invasion within Multicultural Australia and Paranoid Projections : Australian Novels of Asian Invasion are excellent critical resources for understanding these works.

    Many Aboriginal writers have framed critiques of settler colonisation as an invasion tantamount to imperialism. Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance and Ali Cobby Eckermann's Ruby Moonlight are works of historical fiction that deal with this issue; interestingly, both works imagine invasion, in part, as it related to failed potential for Aboriginal-Anglo European cross-cultural exchange that was never realised because of the eliminatory and possessive logics that drove settlement. Aileen Moreton-Robinson's The White Possessive : Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty is an essential resource for understanding invasion from this perspective. 

    Yet another perspective to consider when thinking about invasion as a literary motif involves those diasporic populations who have migrated or immigrated to--or sought refuge or asylum in--Australia. In this regard, Nam Le's short story The Boat and Felicity Castagna's novel No More Boats are beautifully written works that imagine the hopefulness and horrors that have defined refugee experiences in Australia from the Second World War and into the twenty-first century. 

  • Captivity

    Because it's a rather broad term, captivity can bring several tangentially related texts together from both settler and Aboriginal authors.

    As a starting point, you might consider the captive narrative, a genre of settler literature best embodied in Australia by Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings, and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser , Wife of the Late Captain Samuel Fraser, Commander of the Ship Stirling Castle... [etc]. Fraser's narrative has taken on a cultural legacy in the Australian literary tradition, as it most certainly influenced Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976). Less directly, David Malouf echoes Fraser's story and that of James Murrells in his novel Remembering Babylon (1993).

    Juxtaposing these works by Fraser, White, and Malouf would likely be fruitful in it's own right; in fact, Jeanine Leane discusses A Fringe of Leaves and Remembering Babylon in her article Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature, which maps out representations of 'the Aborigine' in settler fiction of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Larissa Behrendt has done similar work on settler storytelling in Finding Eliza : Power and Colonial Storytelling, which reexamines Fraser's narrative from an Aboriginal perspective informed by critical settler colonial studies.

    Behrendt's book-length critical work suggests, then, that literary studies offers researchers the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives when thinking about a concept. Of course, the theme of captivity resonates in Aboriginal narratives as well, particularly in the case of the Stolen Generations. Juxtaposing works like White's A Fringe of Leaves with Doris Pilkington Garimara's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and/or Alexis Wright's Plains of Promise, then, could lead to some interesting research questions: How is captivity structured? What are the presumed intended outcomes of captivity? What do resistance and escape represent to those telling these captivity narratives?

    Of course, captivity narratives are not exclusive to Australian literature, and those interested in transnational settler literature might include works from the US, such as A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) or the story of Cynthia Ann Parker (c. 1825–1871), which has been depicted in drastically different ways in works like The Searchers (novel and film) and Myth, Memory, and Massacre : The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker (multi-chapter criticism).

    Indigenous American authors (and scholars of American Indian Studies) have written extensively of captivity, as well. Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Gardens in the Dunes (1999) could be seen as a North American correlation to works about Australia's Stolen Generations. Scholar Andrea Smith has published on American Indian experiences in boarding schools, and Margaret D. Jacobs has written an extensive body of scholarship about adoption programs in both the US and Australia.

  • Belonging

    Belonging is arguably the central theme of settler literature; it is also, perhaps, its most complex. As with other themes, like captivity, belonging has multiple meanings within settler colonial paradigms. Along these lines, Aileen Moreton-Robinson's important work The White Possessive : Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty includes a chapter on belonging that distinguishes British settlers' migrancy from Indigenous belonging. The former, Moreton-Robinson contends, is rooted in terra nullius, particularly the right to claim racial supremacy over Indigenous peoples and ownership over their traditional lands. On the other hand, she argues that Indigenous belonging stems from ontological identity through country (which is different than the Western concept of property) and the laws, mores, and customs formed during the Dreaming.

    Rob Garbutt's multi-chapter critical work The Locals : Identity, Place and Belonging in Australia and beyond addresses settler belonging from another perspective. In a chapter titled 'White "Autochthony,"' Garbutt argues that settlers' conflicted sense of belonging in lands of conquest emerges out of the Classical tradition of claiming to have been 'born of the land.' This is, of course, the central dilemma for settlers and their sense of belonging because, as Lorenzo Veracini and other theorists have made clear, settlers are never wholly either Indigenous or immigrant, but in a liminal, in-between space.

    Melissa Lucashenko's Mullumbimby and Kim Scott's True Country are both contemporary sagas about a search for Indigenous identity through physical and spiritual relationships to country in a colonised modern Australia. In the US, this story arc sparked what has been balled "the Native American Literary Renaissance," with seminal works like N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. Louise Erdrich is another prominent Indigenous American author, and her novels Love Medicine and The Round House pair well with Lucashenko's work.

    Andrew McGahan's novel The White Earth is set on a dilapidated cattle station in the period immediately leading up to the Native Title Act, and it tells the story of a settler's life-long mission to own the station and pass the property on to a male heir. Two of Kate Grenville's books–the novel The Secret River and Searching for the Secret River, a memoir about researching and writing the novel–form an interesting case study about present-day settlers turning to historical fiction in searching for their own sense of belonging today. Odette Kelada's article The Stolen River : Possession and Race Representation in Grenville’s Colonial Narrative offers incisive critique on both works.

    Though the historical connotations are different, these Australian settler novels share some interesting elements with a great deal of US settler fiction, particularly William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Philip Meyer's The Son (2013), both of which wrestle with the ideas of estates, settler masculinity, and dynasties. Alternatively, Toni Morrison's short novel A Mercy (2008) deconstructs the myth of the founding father and the symbol of the great house from the perspective of those whose labour was exploited so that those great stations–and, more broadly, the nation, could be built.

  • Literary (Mis)Representation of Indigeneity & Blackness

    Larissa Behrendt's Finding Eliza : Power and Colonial Storytelling offers several chapters' worth criticism of literary misrepresentations of Aboriginals surrounding the Eliza Fraser narrative. Behrendt unpacks the "us versus them" mentality of colonial storytelling, which pits "good" whites against "evil" blacks. She also explains the harm of particularly negative representations of Aboriginal women and the supposedly "positive" noble savage stereotype. Jeanine Leane's article Tracking Our Country in Settler Literature covers the various depictions of 'the Aborigine' in novels by Katharine Susannah Prichard, Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf, and Kate Grenville, placing them within an evolving literary tradition that reflects the dominant culture's changing perspectives on Aboriginality. Behrendt and Leane both develop their critiques of Australian settler culture through their interpretations of famed American author and scholar Toni Morrison's text Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which surveys how white American writers such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ernest Hemingway (among others), have employed black literary presences to define American whiteness.

    Philip Morrissey's article Stalking Aboriginal Culture : The Wanda Koolmatrie Affair discusses in-depth the literary hoax perpetrated by Leon Carmen in his fictitious work My Own Sweet Time, in which Carmen, a white man, published an 'auto-biography' by posing as a young Aboriginal woman. For more on hoaxes in Australia's literary tradition, particularly as they relate to race, see Who's Who? : Mapping Hoaxes and Impostures in Australian Literary History, Notes on the Postmodernity of Fake, and The Art of Eddie Burrup.

    James Vance Marshall's novel Walkabout is a highly romanticised parable of Anglo-Christian faith being tested in the wilderness, and the novel features the sacrificial death of a young–and altogether unnamed–Aborigine character who operates as the noble savage trope. The most well-known noble savage tales in the US literary tradition are in James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales series, which includes The Last of the Mohicans.

    For something a little different, jump to another section of this exhibit and listen to Thomas King's lecture "You're Not The Indian I Had in Mind", in which he discusses his personal experiences with misconceptions of Indigeneity in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. His book The Inconvenient Indian, as well as Philip J. Deloria's Indians in Unexpected Places are more academic accounts of confronting and overturning stereotypes about the Indigenous peoples of North America.

  • Frontier violence

    As a discourse, settler colonialism is rooted in contextually specific analysis, which means that place matters. As a trope of settler literature, frontier violence is especially bound up in the specificity of place because of the events that occurred at certain sites on the settler frontier. Of course, the ways those events are remembered, recovered, or imagined through literature are important for literary criticism, as frontier violence is depicted in different ways depending on genre and intended audience. In other words, it will likely be worthwhile to investigate whether depictions of frontier violence employ realism or romance in imagining, say, Aboriginal-white conflict, pioneer struggle, and/or bush ranger adventure, and why.

    Contemporary works like Holy Day and The Secret River both reimagine violence between settlers and Aboriginal groups around the theme of massacre. Taking a look at recent scholarship on these two works, however, suggests that Bovell and Grenville are using similar material for different ends. Take a look at White Masculine Violence and Exploitation of Faith : Sexuality and the Violence of Colonisation in Holy Day and 'Fear the Bitch Who Sheds No Tears' : The Persistence of the Female Scapegoat in Cultural Representations of Frontier Violence and Stolen Generations, then juxtapose them with Australia's 'Other' History Wars : Trauma and the Work of Cultural Memory in Kate Grenville's The Secret River and The Haunting of Settler Australia : Kate Grenville's The Secret River.

    As this scholarship suggests, the connection between historical frontier violence and the settler colonial present is quite meaningful. Where Bovell and Grenville acknowledge this connection implicitly, a number of important works by Aboriginal writers have produced texts that depict both the past and the present in the same work: That Deadman Dance, Home, and Plains of Promise are just a few.

    If you're looking for more scholarship, Angela Woollacott has written extensively on Australian settler culture, recently publishing a chapter on frontier violence and masculinity in Settler Society in the Australian Colonies : Self-Government and Imperial Culture. Professor Ned Blackhawk's Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2008) is a foundational study in frontier violence in the US.

    In terms of comparative analyses between the US and Australia, pairing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith with American works on Nat Turner could be fruitful in not only discussing how settler colonialism produces multiple forms of violence, including revolt, but also the need to recognise how Indigineity and Blackness have unique contexts in Australia and the US. Juxtaposing Keneally's novel with American novelist William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner could also open up a discussion on the authority of contemporary white settler artists to dramatise the lives of non-white historical figures.

    Alternatively, True History of the Kelly Gang would pair well with American writer Ron Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as both texts complicate their iconic outlaw subjects rather than simply feed the romantic mythos surrounding them. And, if you're up for the challenge, Cormac McCarthy's epic novel Blood Meridian presents a complex deconstruction of frontier violence and nationalism in the US west and Mexico.

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