The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Vctorian Premier’s History Award – Phil Roberts for ‘Avenue of Memories.’
Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
To limited levels of success, debut novelist Shaun Prescott explores alternatives to this tradition in The Town.
Women and nature to conquer
Voss, an anti-hero, virtually penetrates his immaculate lover, Laura, through telepathy; just as his journey into the “dead heart” of the country is both invasive and seemingly invisible.
Winton’s Pike looks back on a life defined by his own climactic physical drives towards the ocean and women. Despite rarely making sexual references, even Gerald Murnane’s narratives often employ traditional fantasies of women who, similar to his grassy horizons, are distant and mirage-like.
Though not without self-awareness, these stories repeat gendered male quests in which women and nature are analogous. They also reflect colonial visions of unpeopled landscapes for the taking.
Inspiring a new response
Written in the era of the Stella Count – a survey of newspapers, journals and magazines to gauge gender bias in Australian book reviews – Prescott’s The Town joins recent debuts by his peers, Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose (2016) and Tom Lee’s Coach Fitz (2018), in attempting to respond to a moment of intensified feminist and anti-colonial activism.
These novels follow the great renaissance of First Nations fiction led by Alexis Wright, Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko. They appear alongside culturally and sexually diverse settler stories by male authors like Omar Musa and Peter Polites. As a corollary to social change, the future of the white, heterosexual male character in Australian writing will undergo revision.
Murnane’s influence on The Town manifests in Prescott’s minute attention to Australian regionalism. It’s also there in Prescott’s reduction of that locality to abstractions, his narrator speculating:
If there’s a town in the countryside where I belong, it might already be hidden by some impenetrable shimmer.
Ireland’s novels, including A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981), probe the edges of realism and project into dystopian or surreal futures, just as Prescott does in The Town. Like Ireland, Prescott creates a magical realist world of parochial plausibility.
Prescott’s unnamed narrator is attempting to write a book on disappearing Australian towns, when the one he has chosen to research begins to dissolve into blank gaps and holes. This happens both metaphorically, as plazas and supermarkets take over town precincts, and literally as a source of mild terror. It’s all relayed with a bemused, laconic tone of narration:
The shops in the main streets were all closing. Dust set in thickly, brochures and mail littered stoops, and signs lost their colour beneath the gloom of rusted awnings. These losses did not register with the townspeople: they wandered the air-conditioned plazas, entering and exiting via escalators from dark undercover car parks.
Not driven by desire
Prescott ups the ante when it comes to plot. His narrator is searching for purpose. He has no outwardly directed sexual drive and where attraction looks like it could become a motivation, it proves a red herring.
The narrator strikes up a rapport with his housemate’s girlfriend, Ciara, who becomes an ally. While she leaves her boyfriend and joins him on the road, the journey is neither romantic nor sexually tense. They are useful to one another. Her help makes the narrator feel “unqualified to speak”.
By reconstructing character conventions, Prescott flouts a heterosexual questing plot. Instead of sex, his narrator seeks food and drink, an austerely documented yet solo pastime.
Touching on the right to speak at the heart of anti-patriarchal and anti-colonial representations, the narrator’s cultural voice – his manuscript – peters out. A remnant sense of conservative responsibility compels him salvage what he can of the town’s disappearing culture. Ultimately, he comes to reject the goal as foolish and vain.
Alone in a crowd
The narrator ends up in Sydney, living in a car. Anonymity, incoherence and lost community define his experience of the city. Alone in the crowd, he observes an Anzac parade, a fleeting celebration of “unanimous sadness”. He concludes that collective cultural identity is a temporary truth. The man in the landscape, once silently independent, is now confused, homeless and deferential.
This is where the frame of the novel buckles. Prescott’s narrator must speak – a lot, and to us – so he remains our interpreter of the world. While he relinquishes anthropological detachment, he also encourages himself to let go of the town as a subject to be recorded.
The novel’s protagonist exceeds its fictive device. This leaves Prescott in a tricky spot; The Town is, after all, the promised manuscript about disappearing towns. Prescott doesn’t scramble his protagonist’s world or morality as Ireland does, but ends the narration of his own cultural theory.
Structurally, The Town outstays its plot, becoming circular and monotonous. The narrative veil over Prescott’s own voice can feel like an unnecessary smokescreen when his ideas might, after all, have reached greater depths in the form of an essay.
To speak or not to speak; Prescott seems undecided. We watch as a white Australian male writes himself a marginal relationship to the continent.
The links below are to articles reporting on the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (the latest are at the top).
For more visit:
The link below is to an article reporting on the opening of The Children’s Library at the State Library of NSW (Australia) for the first time on the 12th October 2019.
Hachette Australia has announced the shortlist for the 2019 Richell Prize for emerging writers – the link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist.
The Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS) has announced the shortlist for the 2019 Australia Book Prize. The link below is to an article that takes a look at the shortlist.
The link below is to an article reporting on the 2019 winner of the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Sonja Dechian, for ‘The Point-Blank Murder.’
When you imagine the setting for Macbeth, misty heaths, battlefields, and the brooding highlands spring to mind. Teaching the play in the midst of a tropical summer in Townsville, far north Queensland, highlights disjunctions and surprising correlations between play and place.
In their 2011 book Ecocritical Shakespeare, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton consider this relationship between our environment and our practices of reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare:
What does the study of literature have to do with the environment? … What is the connection between the literary and the real when it comes to ecological conduct, both in Shakespeare’s era and now?
One way of answering these questions is through the use of place-based education. Educational theorists Amanda Hagood and Carmel E. Price reason that “student learning is enhanced when course content is grounded in a particular place of meaning”.
This approach is neither new nor (on the surface) complex. Educational philosopher John Dewey prioritised experiential learning such as nature studies. More recently, Swansea University educators have published research on the benefits of curriculum-based outdoor learning for primary school students.
But preliminary research on outdoor Shakespeare education conducted with Townsville secondary school students shows contradictory responses: some students found the location “calming” and “less stressful” than classrooms. Others believed that learning did not “rely on location”.
Students’ sense of place
In 2019, 60 first-year English students at James Cook University were asked to rate the importance of setting in Shakespeare plays, and the importance of their own place to the study of Shakespeare.
Of those surveyed, 85% felt that the setting was important to the play, while 96% believed that Shakespeare had little or no relevance to their local area. Few felt that their real life location was important in their study of the playwright’s work.
These results show a contrast between the perceived value of literary and of lived place. This is problematic: how do students engage with fictional, imagined literary places if their own lived experience of place is devalued?
When asked to explain their ratings, students said:
I believe the setting plays a big part in the play as it allows the audience to understand why the characters are doing what they are doing. Shakespeare isn’t important in Townsville.
I live in a rural area. There is not a lot of room for Shakespeare – though given small town conflicts you would see his plots acted out in real life.
There is slippage here between the student’s reference to physical place and their conceptual space, which does not have a lot of cultural room for Shakespeare.
A third student wrote:
My family doesn’t really care about Shakespeare, but I do enjoy some of his works personally.
Here, place was understood to refer to relationships, not environment – an understanding backed by British social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey’s theories.
The disparity between students’ conceptualisations of place and their devaluation of their own location as relevant to their studies may be symptomatic of what Alice Ball and Eric Lai identify as “an ethos of placelessness in education”. In Canada, David Gruenewald has argued that the curriculum is largely “placeless”, with educational reforms and high stakes testing increasingly disconnected from our places.
One approach to teaching Shakespeare through place-based education could centre on shared spaces in lived place and text. As a Shakespeare scholar living near the Great Barrier Reef, I’m interested in what Steve Mentz identifies as the “blue ecology” of Macbeth; the play’s many references to the ocean, liquids, and bodily fluids.
One blue image common to both Shakespeare and Townsville is that of the shipwreck – a favourite trope of Shakespeare’s, essential to plays including The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles.
Macbeth invokes shipwreck imagery with a tale of changed fortune after Macbeth’s victory over the traitor Macdonald:
As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection,
Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring, whence comfort seemed to come,
The Witches offer a literal description of a ship or “bark”:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.
Show me, show me.
Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wrecked as homeward he did come.
Shipwreck is something that Shakespeare and Townsville have in common. Two of the most famous shipwrecks off Townsville’s coast are the SS Yongala (which sank in 1911 and is now a popular diving site) and the HMS Pandora (hulled on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 after capturing some of the Bounty mutineers; remnants of the wreckage are on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville).
Our students could both explore Shakespeare through the shipwreck and engage more with the history and culture of their own local places. This approach requires us to think about place as real and imagined; fitting for Macbeth, a play defined as a “tragedy of imagination”.
The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2019 University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre Literary Awards.
The links below are to articles reporting on the winners of the 2019 Inky Awards.
For more visit: