Thursday 26th August, 2016
I do think that Australia is above all place: a landmass surrounded by sea, an island, which ties it to Oceania and directly to an ancient people’s. Australia is also colonised land. It’s exile too. And for some of those who seek a homeland it is as ‘fatal’ as Robert Hughes had told, the antithesis of asylum. But, I guess these are the political machinations of place and not the place itself. Gwen Harwood’s poem, Looking Toward Bruny, beautifully tells of Australia’s central story, a place of unique variety, of mineral rich earth, flora, fauna, of enduring hardness, of softness too and the rhythm of migrations. Harwood’s poem also speaks persuasively of a history steeped in violence through colonisation and of the atrocities committed against our first peoples.
‘Terra Australis Incognita’ was how the first European visitors tried to get a grip on the place: to name it was to claim it: New Holland. This was the first political act, which in turn set into motion a story of violence and nationalism. I think Australia still suffers under the weight of these thought fragments of unlawful ownership. It makes me wonder if the act of un-naming Australia might finally lead us to a post-colonial consideration of place, or of country. After all, our first peoples understood that great landmass as part of a vast ecological system of islands in close proximity to Micronesia, Fiji, Polynesia and possibly New Zealand, which brings the focus its geographical status as an island, rather than a geopolitical zone. The term continent has a patriarchal inference I believe. It says above all mainland and seems to lord something over the idea of island, perhaps a lingering colonial sentimentality, a patriarchal constraint put on an otherwise paradisiacal land of plenty.
It’s interesting that I should find myself pondering Australian identity while newly displaced, having come to live in Holland of all places: from so called New Holland to Old Holland. The other day while sitting on the tram travelling through the charming historical urbanity of Amsterdam, a sudden feeling of claustrophobia, or rather an overwhelming desire for space, sea, bush, open sky. It’s as though I’ve taken the Australian landscape within me as a kind of factotum of a spiritual homeland, and feel the acute loss of it.
Here in my limited dealings with Amsterdam natives thus far I’ve had it said to me several times ‘Oh, you’re from Melbourne. It’s the most European city isn’t it?’ To which I’ve responded in some form of impassioned ramble: ‘Well, of course there’s the colonial history. But, Australia’s geographically part of Oceania and far closer to Asia than Europe. It’s a large island and the sea is what defines it most really. Well, that, our Indigenous population, the natural habitat and its red centre. Oh, and the skies. They’re bigger down south of the world.’ For me the landscape is what most defines Australia and the fact that it is an island and geographically part of Oceania. In fact, I don’t care for being compared to Europe. The implication is that an over-reaching and lingering colonial strain of influence still impacts Australian life. Of course, European cultures have also vastly enriched Australian life.
It makes me think of that sardonic statement penned by Donald Horne: ‘the lucky country,’ a term used in the popular media to celebrate Australia’s distance from the rest of the world, its natural resources and climate, although misinterpreted. Horne actually meant to point to Australia’s plundering of its resources and to its apparent complacency, or lack of innovation in industry in 1960’s Australia. His sardonic use of the phrase ‘lucky country’ also feeds into Paul Keating’s later used phrase about Australia as a ‘banana republic,’ by which Keating meant to refer to our apparent lack of economic savvy required to go ahead in the world in 1980’s Australia. It makes me wonder what defines Australian life in the 2010s.
It seems that a deeply held concept of a fair go for all and mate-ship no longer characterises Australian life, that is, in light of asylum seeker human rights abuses. I was so moved by Stan Grant’s speech on the impact of colonisation and discrimination in Australian culture. The fact that the so-called ‘Australian dream’ is fuelled by racism: is an Australian Aboriginal nightmare which originates with our murky colonial past and continues to proliferate through atrocious asylum seeker policies. Australia is currently enforcing a fascist offshore detention policy, which is extremely alarming to me. The physical and psychological damage to asylum seekers is spirit crushing and absolutely un-acceptable. It’s horrendous.
I think poetry can scratch under the surface of Australian identity, come to the core of the idea that place can get under the skin, has gotten under the skin of many Australians. Judith Wright, Judith Beveridge and Sarah Holland-Batt are all wonderful Australian poets who have written about place. Les Murray of course also explores place in his work. In The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, he observes the yearly holiday ritual amidst a rural landscape of New South Wales. He conjures that relief of reconnecting with the landscape at holiday time. Poetry is an important medium for engaging in a political discourse on the current state of Australian life.
It seems obvious that white invasion remains a psychic blemish on Australia’s collective consciousness, particularly as we have not properly cut ties with the colonial authority. What is this co-dependency that Australia harbours for Britain? Undoubtedly, Australia needs to divorce itself from sovereign rule and become a republic, which may also require a ceremonial un-naming of the country. Conversely, a collective remembering of place, of our spiritual connection to it, serves to bind us in a non-nationalistic way to a concept of country, so that we can seek to honour and celebrate, rather than fritter away the richness of its resource. Australia is an island part there of Oceania, which brings the focus back onto its unique and varied habitat.