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Post Colonial Literature - Australia

As in ancient times, European powers expanded their empires during the 18th and 19th C. by invasion and imperialistic territorial claims over 85% of the globe.  By the early 20th C. most of these colonies began to assert their independence and autonomy.  Post Colonialism is the interactions and reactions of the colonies and the imperialistic powers. 

As Stephen Morton, Professor of English at University of Southampton comments:         

English History is this complex and often unsavoury history – a history of conquest, dispossession, and violence.

Much of the unrest in former colonial areas such as the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia is a direct result of patronising and paternalistic policies of imperialistic powers.  An excellent example is the 1980 film The Gods Must be Crazy.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe used the formal conventions of narrative prose in novels such as Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God to register the complex society and history of Igbo life. He did so in a way that encourages readers to question the cultural stereotypes of African cultures that circulate in 19th century English literary texts such as H.Rider Haggard’s She or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a text which Achebe famously criticised).

Literature which reacts by challenging the content and form of colonial influence and expresses its ideas in its own voice and vernacular language, is deemed to be Post-Colonial.

In 1989 a new book by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin entitled “The Empire Writes Back…..” analysing the effects of the disintegration of these empires and the ramifications.  Any Post Colonial response can exhibit one of the following traits:


·        Power relationships between colonies and mother country.

·        Influence of dominant cultures over emerging immigrant minorities

·        Forms of resistance against colonial influence and control

·        Finding our stories, myths, legends and our voice.

·        Revising our history by changing our perspectives. 

Post Colonialism in Australia

Early composers were imitative and derivative.  This means they depicted Australia in British terms.  Painters portrayed Australian scenes as they were in England while writers modelled their descriptions of the landscape using the styles and language of English Writers. 

For more info on Australian painters go to:  http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/painters/ 

In Literature, Henry Lawson was one of the first to write about Australia using the Australian vernacular (language, idioms, slang…) and to describe the bush in realistic terms.

See: http://nebo-lit.com/novel/lawson/lawson.htm

In Poetry early forms were copied from English poets and sensitive to English judgement.  It was not until the 1890’s that Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson gave the Australian voice an airing in their bush ballads assisting us to express ourselves in our own terms. This early Australian writing is characterised by its “larrikin” energy, laconic style, sardonic humour, focus on life on the land and nationalist self promotion.  For more:  http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/poetry/

The ravages of the First World caused a retreat to more inward looking, insular or parochial concerns of our heroic past.

Brilliant Creatures on the ABC with Howard Jacobsen

In the early 1960’s Australia quietly emerged out of a cultural, intellectual and economic backwater which had stifled a number of aspiring intellectuals, including Robert Hughes, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphreys found stifling and boring. They discovered “overseas” and became celebrated ex-patriots in the Mother country.  Howard Jacobsen had a difficult time understanding this as they made an instant splash in Britain as he went from Britain to Australia to teach in what he describes as a dynamic iconoclastic intellectual environment at Sydney University. 

“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through desert go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.”   Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Aesthetics of Nature

Jacobsen speculates about this paradox; perhaps it was the pressures of boredom, that a stultification produced such diamonds, Exhilarating dullness, such beauty and exhilaration.  He points out that Australia the contradiction that reveres its writers more than England does, yet Australians are suspicious of tall poppies.

Colonial Australia has a larrikin nature about it. Jacobsen describes them as raw, hedonistic and bloody-minded, outlandish, hoodlums in the playground with a healthy disrespect for vaunted authority.

The Australian language is one of verbal acrobatics - kangaroo cuckoo, not mealy mouthed but honest and unpretentious. The language of extremism, full of exaggerated, over blown, overstating things; pushing the language of hyperbole. 

Most Plays were British manuscripts or based on them until the 1950’s when “Summer of the 17th Doll” by Ray Lawler allowed the Australian cadence, vernacular and issues to be performed on stage.  This play documents the transformation from an emphasis on rough raw ocker physical heroes to more cultural urbane characters and cosmopolitan issues. Since then many other playwrights have given us our own predicaments and voices including David Williamson, Alex Buzo, …. 

Cultural Nationalism:

John Bell it is said grew up in the dusty cultural landscape of post war Australia. In the 1970’s just before Whitlam, there was a swing toward cultural nationalism.  David Williamson and Alex Buzo promised to tell our stories in our accents with our voices.  Theatre had become too plush, comfortable, formal and frozen.  

It needed to be livened up; liberated.

David Williamson particularly, hated by the “elite” critics but loved by the multitude, is often regarded as Australia’s answer to Shakespeare in that he captures the essence of our age and provides a mirror not only to its issues, but gives voice to our national character.  His play The Removalist, raised the thorny concerns of creeping corruption that permeates society at all levels and became the catalyst in tackling this issue.

It was the challenging novels of Patrick White during the 1950’s to the 70’s that helped us see ourselves as the rest of the world might.  It ridiculed our attitudes to the less privileged, the blacks, outcasts and reflected the philistine nature of much of our culture.

Robert Dixon writing on: Tim Winton, Cloudstreet and the field of Australian Literature in the Journal: Westerly, Imprint: 2005, Volume 50, November, Pages 240-260 has this to say:

In Australia it was not until 1950s that the universities began to teach Australian literature and to shape its values. In the case of the secondary school classroom, it was not until the 1960s or even 1970s that Australian novels, poems and plays made their appearance alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and TS Eliot. Prior to this time — roughly the mid-twentieth century — it was more likely to be the journalists and free-lance public intellectuals who had the greatest influence. This was the situation Patrick White wrote about in 1968, recalling his return to Australia from London in 1947:

In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is.

As recently as 1958, then, Patrick White was lamenting precisely the absence of the complex and mature literary system I've just described. Ironically, it could be argued that academics today are once again losing ground as arbiters of literary taste, as general readers look to other sources such as newspaper reviews, radio and reading groups.  (Today it is web blogs.)

Stephen Morton, Professor of English at University of Southampton comments on

The British concerns over national texts:


Reading postcolonial literature not only makes us better readers and writers, it can also help us to better understand the history of British colonialism – warts and all. Indeed, it was this intimate relationship between literature and empire that the literary critic Edward Said articulated in his reflections on the worldliness of texts and his injunction to critics to speak truth to power. It is precisely such an understanding of British culture and history that the current political establishment would prefer us to forget. 

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker-prize winning text ‘Remains of the Day’ has made the cut. 

Amnesia about imperialism 

If Michael Gove’s ideas about British imperial history are amnesiac, he also seems to forget that English literature was always worldly. In a well-known essay on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the literary critic Gayatri Spivak wrote that “it should not be possible to read 19th century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English”. One might say the same about Shakespeare’s The Tempest – a play that stages the politics of colonial dispossession and cultural imperialism using the conventions of a courtly masque.

Reading English literature from the postcolonial world can help to shed further light on the ways in which narrative, genre and metaphor areimplicated in Britain’s colonial history. It is no accident that Jane Eyre compares herself to a slave and a “suttee” [sic] in Charlotte Brontë’s  eponymous novel.  Yet, as Spivak suggested, it is only by reading this novel in conjunction with Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea that one can begin to identify the ways in which Jane’s narrative of upward social mobility is made possible by the spoils of empire. One of the striking achievements of Rhys’ prose was to evoke a Caribbean landscape and history that resisted the authority of the English language and called into question civilising myths of British imperial culture.

Secondary school students, their parents, and most of all their teachers understand very well that a national English literature syllabus has always been shaped by the political agendas and interests of the powerful. What is perhaps less clear is the way in which reading literature should be both a critical and a worldly activity: one that encourages readers to think about literary texts in imaginative ways that speak truth to power.


Phillip Adams spent many years getting Australian film-making up and running -- in line with the opening paragraph of his one-page report to Gorton that led to its revival:

"we hold these truths to be self-evident ... it's time to tell our own stories, hear our own voices, see our own landscapes and dream our own dreams."

Art and Painting:

The term, Heidelberg School was coined in July 1891 by local art critic Sidney Dickenson, reviewing the works of Melbourne-based artists Arthur Streeton, depicting a unique Australian self and landscape – “seeing Australia for the first time with Australian eyes”. 

We all have a sense of who we are – of what makes an Australian and of what makes Australia. A musician explains it with sound, a writer with words, artists with paint and pigment, clay and canvas, camera and film. Art invites us to see things not as they are, but as they appear to artists – full of meaning and emotion. Australian landscape art invites us to see our land through the eyes of artists. Indigenous, colonial and contemporary artists have all created a rich reaction to the drama, the beauty, the harshness of Australia’s landscape; their art is ours to share.  Those who have drawn inspiration from the shapes, colours, light and shade of our landscape attempt to record and chronicle our times.  Hanging Australia GEM

Flaws or limitations in Post- Colonial Views

Not all indigenous composers consciously react to colonialist influences.  They merely respond to some compelling urge to express their experiences in their native contexts and give voice to their concerns. 

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