Australian literature characterises what it means to be Australian, from colonial times to the modern day. It deals with the bush and the city, often in contrast, experiences of war, convicts, bushrangers and pioneering, as well as family sagas, and the outcomes of floods and bushfires. It has also dealt with Aboriginal people, the Irish and lost children, all images that have contributed to what is seen as the collective Australian identity that is constantly changing and evolving, something that can be seen through the stories told by Australians.
Early Australian literature, in the form of novels and poetry were predominantly concerned with life in the bush, and the struggles and hardships these experiences handed out to the early Australian colonists. Like any nation’s literary canon, Australian literature tries to evoke what it is to be Australian and what Australia has come to represent to people across all walks of life, and the history that has brought about the traditions in literature still explored and enjoyed today. Prior to the development of Australian literature, early colonial Australia, and indeed well into the early twentieth century, Australians had access to British literature. Young children were encouraged to read British literature and act like the British children in the stories. However, it was novels such as Ethel Turner’s 1894 novel, Seven Little Australians that broke this mould and wrote about Australian children, rather than British children.
Australia’s first true novel is said to be Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel, My Brilliant Career. As Australian literature has developed, each author who has contributed has helped to shape the Australian national identity through words, just as any author of any other nation uses their writing to shape their own nations national identity and cultural landscape. Australian children’s stories feature prominently in the landscape, often integrate historical events, and make these accessible to a younger audience.
Bush poetry has also played a role in shaping Australia’s literary landscape. A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, whose most famous poems include The Man From Snowy River and Waltzing Matilda, Henry Kendall with Bellbirds, and Henry Lawson with The Drover’s Wife… These three poets and others captured their love of the bush and the romanticism and danger of bush life. The closing lines of Waltzing Matilda speak of the ghost of the swagman still haunting his billabong. The tragedy of what the bush gives and takes is echoed in these poems.
The themes of colonialism and the convict era continued to be explored, mainly by white writers in the post World War Two period, but were re-examined in light of social existence and perhaps started to explore how this early period shaped Australia and what it had become in the early twentieth century. Two key works by Thomas Keneally, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Schindler’s Ark were some of the first Australian works to highlight the plight of marginalised groups in society. These two books, though Schindler’s Ark is not specific to the Australian experience, highlight that there is more to Australian literature than colonialism, bushrangers, and pioneering.
Most Australian publishers are open to submissions from anyone, publishers specifically promoting Indigenous, such as Magabala Books, have opened up in recent years, giving a once highly marginalised group a much-needed voice. Just as there are key white Australian authors, who captured the bush identity for us, there are Indigenous authors who have captured the beauty of their culture to represent and share it with the nation. A recent prominent Indigenous author though nonfiction is Stan Grant. Talking to my Country, identifies the struggles and highlights the conflicts Indigenous Australians have felt and gone through. Indigenous writing and literature can only enrich the already present canon of Australian literature that Australians access and read. Other stories Indigenous Australian authors have told include adaptations of their myths for children, or stories about their own experiences, whether using fiction or non-fiction to express these, and communicate to wider society what their identity is through literature.
The role that Australian literature has played in shaping who we are has come far, and there are authors of all ethnicities and colours contributing, in their own way, to our literary landscape. Though it is small, it is one where, if you find the right books and authors, a whole new world can be opened up to you. It is a world of colonialism and the bush, the struggle to find what it means to be Australian, regardless of whether one is Indigenous, white, an immigrant or whether one was born here.