I don’t often read fantasy, but Michael Ende’s Neverending Story takes pride of place on my bookshelf. In my thirties it was one book that I could not put down and have never forgotten. As a child, I’d have loved to have an old man see the grief and loss I experienced, anyone really. That old man did eventually come, in the shape of my psychiatrist who gave me that book and gave me every book he could to inspire and encourage me to read and write. For years we’d meet in his home library where he’d sit in one big chair in the corner and I’d sit in the opposite corner, separated by a small coffee table, surrounded by books. It’s there that he learnt of my childhood and I learnt of a wider world. After every visit, I’d leave with a book in my hand, feeling loved.
You see, I’d only read four books in twenty years, since my mother took me out of school to work with her in an old people’s home: Roots (Alex Hayley), Mandingo (Kyle Onstott), Uhuru (Robert Ruark) and Exodus (Leon Uris). Engaging, informative life-giving stories, all of which helped me to grow into the woman I am today. These writers were sensitive to the appalling use and misuse of power over vulnerable people and it was this, very like Ende’s story that ultimately gave me the courage to face my own life and the world beyond my domestic confines where my main concern was to survive while raising a family.
My psychiatrist was not the only one to give me books. My English teacher in an Adult Education class did, too. One day in his office, he gave me a collection of C.S Lewis’ Books: The Great Divorce, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and The Problem of Pain. He was a little concerned that people would think badly of him for giving them to me. Teachers, giving their students such gifts, were frowned upon, like today. He thought that others would think that something funny was going on between us. Not so. Apart from receiving books as Dux prizes in Primary School, his gift was the first gift of books I’d ever received. His generosity and these books meant more to me than anything on the reading list we had to tackle in his classes. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was an unwelcome chore, teaching me nothing other than how terrible it was to get my head around such difficult language. Solzhenitsyn’s, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was a different story. It left its mark as I connected with what it means to challenge oppressive regimes.
Since then the writers I’ve come across in my university studies and as an English teacher, have been many and varied. Even so, there are few that stay with me. Huck Finn, being a favourite, along with many others. Looking back, the ones that have made me feel as if I do not want to leave them in order to go to work, are always those where I feel as if the writers speak to me, especially Australian. Like the book I have just read, The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson (2012), a collection of essays that focus on Australian authors that have been pushed to the backblocks of Australian Literature.
Given the fact that Australia’s National Curriculum strongly encourages a return the ‘classics’ it is an important read. One needs to question the nature of those ‘classics’ and what they mean for Australian writers, and High School students. As an English teacher it seems that the push is to return to the literature students were given to read in the 1960’s. Primarily British and sometimes American. Not Australian. Why not? Australian authors and their work were too often deemed to be inferior, which meant that often, authors ended up going overseas in their efforts to be recognised. This shift in focus, brought about by the National Curriculum is a concern to me and what Williamson writes affirms my concerns. The big question I have is why so many of our authors are being shunted out of what constitutes good literature.
The opening page to Williamson’s book reads as follows:
‘This book is inspired by anger and hope. The anger comes from watching as Australian literature is dismantled by the people charged with preserving the best of writing for future generations. And the hope? It grows out of a sense that neither academics nor publishers will rescue our collective literary achievement—it falls to ordinary readers to do what they cannot.’
Some of the writers to which he refers, I do know: Xavier Herbert, Christina Stead, Patrick White, Olga Masters, Thomas Keneally and Randolph Stow. I’ve learnt about these writers and read some of their work during the course of my extensive studies. But there are others about whom I have never heard: M. Barnard Eldersaw, Dal Strivens, Jessica Anderson, Sumner Locke Elliott, David Ireland, Elizabeth Harrower and Gerald Murnane. Williamson’s concern is that the current Australian canon is ‘an exclusion zone designed to protect the power, status and cultural norms of a narrow elite’ (p3). I think he is very right and what that means, as I see it, is that those who challenge the status quo will be left in the dark. That’s a sad state of affairs, not only for Australian literature but also the people that our literature represents.
Being Australian myself, born into a poor family, to read of our diverse culture via literature is to affirm me and give me a sense of place, a sense of history. This is not to say that I do not find such affirmations in literature that is written beyond our shores. I do. But what I find is that ‘safe’ Australian literature gains kudos, that which puts me to sleep and does little to inspire or encourage me to continue to write.
Williamson, like my psychiatrist and my first English teacher, has give me something to seriously contemplate, a gift, which says to me as an author, "You count."