I’ve known Yang for many years – he is a former PhD student of mine – and I also believe he should be released.
I’ve seen reports sent to his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, from Australian consul visits to Yang.
The reports say Yang is sealed off from the outside world without access to legal counsel or visits by relatives, and he has been subjected to interrogations twice a day.
A novel critic
So what has Yang done that has led to his detention for so long? In a nutshell, Yang is a political dissident no longer tolerated by the Chinese communist regime. He is paying a heavy price as a long-standing critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Yang, aged 54, abandoned his career as a communist cadre to embrace freedom and democracy in his middle age.
He earned his first degree in politics from Fudan University in China in 1987 and was assigned to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with connection to the Chinese secret police. He was eventually alienated by his job and developed a strong interest in literature.
He resigned from his post and moved to Australia with his wife and two sons in 1999 to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. In 2002-2005, he published a trilogy of spy novels, Fatal Weakness, Fatal Weapon and Fatal Assassination, in print and online.
These novels used his own experiences and those of his colleagues to tell the soul-stirring stories of a China-US double agent who ultimately serves the agenda for neither side but works for his own inspiration and conviction to serve the real interests of the people.
But the novels did not bring him the fame and wealth he expected, because they were published in Taiwan and banned in mainland China. An attempt to turn them into movies in Hong Kong also failed.
The rise of the blogger
At the end of 2005, Yang enrolled in a PhD in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney under my supervision, starting his journey as a liberal scholar. By that time, I’d become a major contributor to the emergence of the Chinese liberal camp and Chinese liberal intellectuals.
Yang got his PhD in 2009 with a thesis titled The Internet and China: the Impacts of Netizen Reporters and Bloggers on Democratisation in China. The thesis was a timely, in-depth analysis of the complicated information warfare between the internet and the CCP regime.
As part of an experiment for his PhD thesis, Yang started his own blog (available now only on archive.org) and wrote commentaries on current affairs as a “citizen journalist”.
Yang is that rare combination of a scholar well trained in both China and the West, with a firm belief in the universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
He chose to devote his talent and passion to online journalism in Chinese, hoping to accelerate China’s transformation toward constitutional democracy. He has published more than ten million words of online articles on this theme, earning the nickname “democracy pedlar” with tremendous following in the Chinese speaking world.
Several collections of his online articles have been published to wide audience, such as Family, State and the World (2010), Seeing the World with Black Eyes: The World in the Eyes of a Democracy Pedlar (2011), Talking about China (2014), and Keeping You Company in Your Life Journey (2014).
Yang is extremely good at explaining the profound in simple terms, using moving examples in everyday life to expose the social ills of communist autocracy and promote democratic values and institutions.
In particular, he provides timely analysis on all sorts of events around the world reported in the news, revealing the stark contrast between the harsh reality and the official rhetoric of the CCP.
Yang rarely engages in social activism, although he has maintained extensive connections with some Chinese human rights and democracy activists.
Yang has long been targeted by the Chinese security apparatus, which detained him in March 2011, taking him as one of the opinion leaders who has the capacity to mobilise nationwide social protests.
He was quickly released back to Australia due to the international media campaign and the diplomatic pressure of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to China.
Why did he not learn his lesson? Well, he did tone down his voice after 2011. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to general secretary of the CCP in 2012, Yang adopted a soft strategy of packaging his advocacy for human rights and democracy as publicising “socialist core values” promoted by the CCP.
Yang was so successful with this new strategy that thousands of his followers organised support groups via the social media app WeChat in more than 50 cities around China. These include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2015, when human rights and democracy activists had met with brutal repression.
In 2016, when the political environment turned from bad to worse and Yang’s blogs were shut down one by one, he closed down all of the WeChat groups and substantially scaled down his online writing.
Moved to the US
He moved to New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 2017. He was able to travel to China several times and Chinese authorities lifted the ban on several of his blogs in China towards the end of 2018. This gave him the impression it was safe for him to visit China.
Instead of following the international norm of presumption of innocence, the CCP regime continues Yang’s criminal detention despite the lack of evidence he’s done anything wrong.
This behaviour of political persecution and hostage diplomacy clearly demonstrates the contempt China has for human rights and international moral standards.
The Australian government and public are obligated to challenge the laws and practice of the CCP regime in safeguarding basic human rights of innocent citizens. The international community are also obligated to support this endeavour for human dignity, and thus the immediate release of Yang.
Yang’s wife Yuan Xiaoliang was notified earlier today that her husband would be charged, a day before the six-month deadline determining whether he is to be released, charged or have his detention extended.
Charges against Yang appear to relate to his work as a writer and blogger in which he has been sharply critical of the Chinese regime. He developed a large following on Chinese social media and on Twitter, and his criticisms will have infuriated Chinese authorities.
Yang was arrested after he returned to China earlier this year with his family. He has been held in a Beijing state security prison since then, without access to lawyers, and denied contact with his family.
Australian attempts to secure access have been rebuffed.
Canberra’s relations with Beijing
China’s decision to charge Yang comes at an awkward moment in relations between Beijing and Canberra.
Australia this week was obliged to step up its consular efforts to persuade China to allow Uyghur families to leave Xinjiang to be reunited with their Australian families.
This followed broadcast an ABC four Corners program that drew attention to the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Up to a million out of a population of 11 million in the region are reported to be in “re-education” camps.
China’s official media responded harshly to the ABC program and to criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghurs more generally. The Global Times newspaper, which tends to reflect a hardline nationalist view, accused critics of “recklessly attacking” China.
Yang’s case reflects China’s extreme sensitivity to criticism.
This episode won’t help Australia’s efforts to get its relationship with China on more stable footing after several years of difficulties.
China had objected to criticism of its attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics via Chinese nationals associated with Beijing. This led to a freeze on visits to China by Australian political leaders. While that freeze has thawed, tensions remain.
Chinese laws affect other western democracies
Australia is far from alone among western democracies whose citizens have fallen foul of opaque and arbitary Chinese law and legal procedures.
Canada is wrestling with the cases of two of its citizens who have been held without charge since last year. China has accused the pair of stealing state secrets.
This is a serious charge that can result in the death penalty.
The two Canadians were detained after the arrest at Vancouver airport of Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei. Meng is appealing attempts by the United States to extradite her to face charge of fraud.
This is a highly contentious issue, and one that is complicating relations between Washington, Ottawa and Beijing.
Apart from arresting the Canadians accused of stealing state secrets, China has also taken aim at Canada economically. It has stopped Canadian rapeseed oil imports, dealing a hefty blow to a multibillion dollar canola industry.
What the Canadian arrests, and now that of an Australian writer, demonstrates is that relations with China are unlikely to become less complicated. Rather, it is likely they will become more so.
Among challenges for countries like Australia is how to quarantine issues of mistreatment of its citizens and broader human rights abuses, from the functioning of broad-ranging bilateral relations.
Fifty years after her death, Australian writer Charmian Clift is experiencing a renaissance. Born in 1923, Clift co-authored three novels with her husband George Johnston, wrote two under her own name, produced two travel memoirs, and had weekly column widely syndicated to major Australia papers during the the 1960s.
Clift has long been overshadowed by the legacy of Johnston, whose novel My Brother Jack is considered an Australian classic. Her novels and memoirs are sadly out of print, yet she is increasingly recognised for her important place in Australian culture.
In 2018 she, along with Johnston, was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in recognition of her work as a columnist. She is also being reimagined in fiction, as the subject of A Theatre of Dreamers (2020), a forthcoming novel by English author, Polly Samson, and in Tamar Hodes’ The Water and the Wine (2018).
The revival of interest in Clift is more than a collective nostalgia or feminist correction of the historical record, although both are relevant. Many of her readers from the 60s still remember her newspaper column, and the impact that it had on their view of Australia’s place in the world, with great affection.
Younger generations, particularly women, have also been exposed to Clift’s clear and passionate voice after the columns were published in several volumes in the years following her death. That Clift and her writing continue to resonate with contemporary Australia tells us something about both her and the nation.
The Hydra years
Much of the renewed interest in Clift is focused not only on her writing, but also on the near decade that she and Johnston lived on the Greek Island of Hydra. In late 2015, artist Mark Schaller’s Melbourne exhibition, Homage to Hydra, featured paintings depicting Clift and Johnston’s island lives, with several featuring other residents from Hydra’s international population of writers and artists, including Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
The same year, Melbourne musicians Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros debuted Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia, marrying Cohen’s songs to a narrative about Clift and Johnston’s time on Hydra.
To date in 2019, Sue Smith’s play, Hydra, has been staged in Brisbane and Adelaide, casting Clift in ways that resonate sympathetically with the concerns of contemporary audiences. As Smith writes in her script’s introduction:
Charmian was a woman ahead of her time. We see this in the choices she made both in her personal life, whether it be scandalising the Greek locals by wearing trousers and drinking in bars, to insisting upon her personal and sexual freedom and, of course, through her work.
Modern readers might respond to Clift the writer, but the focus on her years on Hydra suggests there is also great interest in her charismatic personality and tempestuous life with Johnson, as their dream of a cheap and sun-soaked creative island life slowly soured.
While researching the couple’s lives on Hydra, we came across a suggestive, eye-witness diary entry by a fellow writer, New Zealander Redmond Wallis, written in 1960.
Charm is her greatest creation, Charmian Clift, the great Australian woman novelist. Charmian is very curious. She is, potentially at least, a better writer than George but she has and is deliberately creating a picture of herself … which one feels she hopes will appear in her biography some day.
The head of a literary coterie, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate but still the mother of 3 children, running a house. Sweating blood against almost impossible difficulties – a husband inclined to unfounded jealousy, the heat, creative problems, the children, the problems foisted on her by other people … and yet producing great art.
Wallis’s observations are accurate, and prophetic, in noting Clift’s capacity for self-mythologising and her belief that both she and her Hydra idyll would be remembered. Nearly four decades after Clift returned from Greece to Australia amid the acclaim for My Brother Jack, she did become the subject of an excellent biography, Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001).
But there were also failures amongst the success. The vision she and Johnston shared for a writing life on Hydra floundered amid poverty, alcoholism and illness. Their return to Australia in 1964 was an unlikely triumph for Johnston following the success of My Brother Jack, but Clift did not return with the same profile.
Wheatley also traced another of Clift’s great disappointments – her failure to complete her long-dreamt of autobiographical novel The End of the Morning, a struggle that was the subject of Susan Johnson’s 2004 novel, The Broken Book.
Clift did, however, leave an autobiography of sorts, in her newspaper articles. These often focused on domestic circumstances and everyday thoughts – ranging from conscription, to the rise of the Greek military junta after she left Hydra, to the changing social circumstances in Australia, and her daughter’s engagement.
These articles might not have always reflected the experiences of her readers – not everyone invited Sidney Nolan over for drinks – but Clift’s first-person narratives of a life lived with great passion and a sceptical eye to the consequences, garnered a large readership.
These readers responded to an incisive intellect with a vision of a culturally enriched Australia. She understood well the need for the country to outgrow its entrenched conservatism in order to realise its potential; and she emerged as a generous spirit who realised that the dreams and passions that drove her life were found everywhere in Australian suburbs.
Wallis’s detection of Clift’s hubris and narcissism paints her as a potentially tragic figure. It was a fate she perhaps fulfilled, when Johnston eventually wrote of Clift’s infidelities on Hydra. Clift took her own life on July 8 1969, an event that curtailed her voice while leaving behind a legacy of loyal and grieving readers.
A natural cosmopolitan
Clift’s is one of the voices – and one of the most important female voices – that rose above the crowd during the post-war period, as the western world unknowingly girded itself for the social revolution that was to come.
Through her columns she advocated for a bolder, more outward looking future, and as someone who was naturally cosmopolitan she was avidly interested in seeing Australia become more open to the world and better integrated into the Asia-Pacific.
She didn’t always get it right (an essay decrying the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones stands out!), but she helped navigate the path to a more broad-minded and inclusive vision of Australia.
Over the years Clift has emerged as someone who was not only modern, but also engaged in that most post-modern of activities, self-creation. For while Wallis scorned Clift’s self-mythologising at the time, it might now be recognised as the finest gift of the creative artist – to re-make oneself in the image of a world yet to be made. It was her gift to her readers and Australia.
Kangaroos are the most visible of Australia’s unique animals, but despite their charm and national icon status, Australian writers perpetually kill them off.
A kangaroo appears struggling in a rabbit trap, doomed and dying in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, while Tim Winton has one killed on the road, dissected and fed to dogs in Breath. These are just two of many Australian authors who have represented the kangaroo as a victim.
Kangaroos were a creature of wonder for early European explorers such as Dampier and Banks, but it didn’t take long for their public image to descend to that of a pest. Early settlers considered them competition, nibbling all the best pasture quicker than their sheep and cows, and they soon took up arms against the bounding menace.
The wild kangaroo population of Australia is still commercially slaughtered for dog food. In New South Wales, landholders and volunteers can be simply licensed to kill them for reasons of damage control, and some parts of Western Australia have an open permit system for non-commercial shooting. On any given day, there are usually several being mashed into the blue metal of highways, surrounded by crows and in various states of decomposition.
The expendable nature of the kangaroo may be a widely held view in Australia, but it’s a bitter irony that the creature which defines us to the rest of the world is perpetually under siege, in life and in literature.
Fiction’s dead roos
In Stephen Daisley’s 2016 novel Coming Rain, the author kills off a kangaroo with “a great thump” against the side of a truck, giving a gruesome description of the sweetening of the tail for stew.
The live joey almost has its head smashed against a tree but, owing to its “cuteness” it becomes a pet, wearing a straw hat. The stereotype of the cute joey is alive and well in children’s fiction too, but in adult fiction the kangaroo is dead.
In Tim Winton’s Breath, narrator Pikelet comes across surf guru, Sando, who has hit a kangaroo with his Kombi ute. Sando finishes it off with the jack handle from the car, pounded a couple of times into its head. His response to this act is very matter-of-fact: “This is what happens. And it isn’t lovely.”
Sando drags the “roadkill” into the tray of his ute and takes it home to butcher it. He is prepared for this, with a meat hook hanging from a tree, and he skins and guts the kangaroo. Pikelet observes this with some emotional discomfort, “shrinking from him a little” but accepts the flourbag of meat to take home to his parents who “wouldn’t eat roo meat in a million years”. He “hoiks” the meat into the bushes on the ride home.
Charlotte Wood considers the horror of roadkill in The Children, where Australian animals are killed by passing traffic and compared to contaminated “cushions”. Wood also kills a kangaroo (and a lot of rabbits) in The Natural Way of Things. Central character Yolanda snares a “large grey kangaroo” in a rabbit trap and finds it still alive:
Vainly, the kangaroo shifts and scuffles again. Then it lowers its head and lengthens its mighty neck, black eyes fixed on them, and lets out three long, hoarse snarls. Its snout fattens, nostrils flared.
Fearful of the sharp claws on its “delicate forefeet” they sit beside it, wondering how to set it free and instead bring it water and leave it to die slowly.
The image of the kangaroo is linked to death through earlier works from Australian authors too. The iconic 1940 poem, Native-Born by Eve Langley presents a detailed account of a dead kangaroo, while Randolph Stow’s 1958 novel To the Islands features kangaroos and wallabies being shot and eaten.
Australian fiction is, so often, deeply entangled with nature. Anxiety around the bush, as described in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo back in the 1920s, is a feature of settler Australian fiction, tied together with violence, trauma and a sense of the uncanny.
Docile and violent all at once, the watchful gaze and twitching ears of kangaroos are, perhaps, reminders of that uneasiness the settlers felt.
The fact that Australian literature seems intent on killing off this national icon is deeply disturbing – but it is also deeply ingrained.
In contrast with kangaroos, thylacines are well and truly alive in Australian literature despite being extinct since 1936. They appear in over 250 works listed in the AustLit database of Australian literature, including 18 novels since 1988.
Among these are Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Louis Nowra’s Into That Forest, as well as children’s fiction, drama, film, short fiction and poetry. These thylacines often meet with violent ends, but their aliveness in fiction is astounding compared to the kangaroo.
Contemporary Australia is sentimental about the thylacine as a strange creature lost because of “ignorance”. They are now a thing of wonder, destroyed by misguided colonial settlers who are long gone. But if they weren’t extinct, would we treat them any better? Would we protect them? Often that is the point writers are trying to make by invoking the extinct “tiger” in the first place.
Our relationship with kangaroos (and thylacines), both in fiction and in reality, is symptomatic of what Stow called our “bitter heritage”. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the violence of colonisation, that it has had (and is still having) an impact on the way writers represent the Australian landscape and all who inhabit it.
This article is based on research published in a forthcoming article for Antipodes.
Australian scientists have led many crucial scientific breakthroughs – from the manufacturing and processing of penicillin, to the first in-vitro fertilisation pregnancy. Yet there is still a need for science to be more widely appreciated in our broader culture.
One way of doing this is through storytelling. Novels with scientist protagonists can bring science to life and capture our imagination. They can personalise scholarly research and the drive for knowledge, and also make us think differently about the ethical dilemmas that emerge from scientific advances. Even stereotypical depictions of cold, obsessive “mad scientists” can get us thinking about the right and wrong way to do science, and about the role of science in culture.
Here, then, are eight stories set in Australia, presenting a variety of fictional scientists.
Dr Clive Kinnear, Wish
Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish reinterprets both Frankenstein and Pygmalion, exploring the ethical dilemmas of a group of scientists who push the limits of biotechnology to create Eliza, a charmingly human ape.
The central scientist characters – Dr Clive Kinnear and his associates – also teach sign language to the gorilla.
When Eliza’s language teacher falls in love with her, we are forced to re-evaluate our assumptions about the boundaries between animal and human, and about advances in genetic engineering.
The novel draws on actual research into ape-language acquisition carried out in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Goldsworthy also acknowledges Peter Singer, the noted Australian philosopher of animal welfare and rights, as an influence on the book.
Professor Koenig, Charades
Janette Turner Hospital’s novel Charades features a MIT physicist and candidate for the Nobel Prize, Professor Koenig, who has an affair with a provincial Australian girl in search of her lost father.
It is a wildly imaginative novel blending a personal story with nuclear physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (which articulates that the position and velocity of an object cannot be measured exactly).
The novel playfully revolves around Koenig’s academic writing and Heisenberg-inspired ideas such as the line: “a sense of the solidity of matter, is one of our most persistent illusions.”
Dr John Parker, White Eye
According to academic Roslynn Haynes, who studies stereotypes of scientists in pop culture, many stories depict scientists as maniacal and obsessed with their research to the point of madness and moral compromise.
Dr John Parker in Blanche d’Alpuget’s 1993 novel White Eye is an Australian example of the fictional ruthless, megalomaniac scientist.
A coldblooded researcher, he uses unethical methods to produce and test a vaccine against a virus that he more or less invented. This virus makes humans infertile as a side effect.
Parker wants to use this highly infectious and extremely virulent creation as a weapon against overpopulation – and he commits atrocious crimes to achieve his goal.
Della Gilmore, Fall Girl
Della Gilmore, the protagonist in Toni Jordan’s 2010 novel Fall Girl is an equally glorious caricature of scientist stereotypes.
Della’s father and grandfather travel the country in a buggy selling ‘Ol’ Doc Grayson’s “Magical Elixir good for bursitis, thrombitis, arthritis and anything that ails you at county fairs”. No wonder, Della becomes a con-artist herself.
In this novel she impersonates an evolutionary biologist and invents a fantastic research project (to trap a Tasmanian Tiger in Wilsons Promontory National Park). Her potential sponsor turns out to be a con-artist himself – one who humbugs the humbugger.
Jordan has previously worked as a molecular biologist. And this is a funny novel that invites us to think about the power of scientific jargon. Here, science is truly fiction.
William Caldwell, Love and The Platypus
To equally pursue “knowledge per se”, to unlock “the secrets of the organism” and to act as an explorer “not of untrodden lands, perhaps, but of the mysteries of nature”.
These are the reasons why the naturalist William Caldwell travels to Australia in Nicholas Drayson’s 2007 novel Love and The Platypus.
Caldwell’s research is “purely platypusical”: he aims to determine whether the platypus really does lay eggs.
But the “spirit of discovery – that was why he was here, was it not?”
Despite the obsessive nature of his scientific enquiry, Caldwell finds much more in Australia than just extraordinary animals.
Daniel Rooke, The Lieutenant
Daniel Rooke, Kate Grenville’s protagonist in The Lieutenant, is not a scientist, strictly speaking.
However, he is erudite and eager for knowledge – a “man of science” as he is called in the book.
Rooke moves from Europe to the newly founded colony of New South Wales, where he builds an observatory.
He hopes to add to the world’s sum of knowledge as dramatically as a Galileo or a Kepler, contemplating the universe and scanning the heavens in search for a particular comet.
But what he finally studies is human nature: of convicts, settlers, fellow officers and the Indigenous people he meets.
Charles Redbourne, Rifling Paradise
British novelist Jem Poster’s 2006 novel Rifling Paradise is the story of Charles Redbourne, a 19th-century English landowner who travels to Australia to pursue his passion as an amateur naturalist.
As he plunges deeper into the wilderness, Redbourne cultivates a flexibility of mind and comes to understand that his practice of science – and the expectations he had of his journey – were sophisticated modes of ignorance.
He understands that his “approach to the natural world is imaginative rather than analytical” and his expectations concerning his scientific journey here “had been tinged with fantasy”.
Crucially challenged by an artist he meets, he changes from a believer in science and a confident taxidermist into a vegan who realises that a marvellous order – and the sublime – can also be found in the world of thought and art.
Clayton Hercules Emmet, The Flesheaters
Clayton Hercules Emmet, a character in David Ireland’s 1972 novel The Flesheaters, both invokes and destroys the scientist stereotype.
Clayton, or Clay, is a “science person” whose “days were spent at the university killing small animals and waiting for a research grant in medical engineering”. His “constant effort to add to the sum of human knowledge has something of fever in it”. Indeed, Clay lives in a lunatic asylum.
One day, while trying to talk about science at a “worker-student-intellectual happening”, he fails to advocate the value of science as a means for social progress – its “saving truth”. Clay is a 20th-century caricature of a scientist who embodies the challenges of communicating the discipline to a broad audience.
When the author Richard Flanagan described Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker currently held on Manus Island, as “a great Australian writer”, he turned tired cliché into a pointed question: what makes an “Australian” writer?
Flanagan was writing in the foreword to Boochani’s startling book No Friend But the Mountains (Picador), which last night won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, the richest of its kind in Australia. Boochani also claimed the award for non-fiction, worth another $25,000.
This triumph cements Boochani’s status as an Australian writer.
Boochani was arguably the most important literary phenomenon in Australian literature in 2018. In part, this is because of the distinctive qualities of No Friend But the Mountains, an epic work that moves between verse and prose, reportage and fantasy, the mundane and the historical. The fact that Boochani’s political memoir of what he calls Manus Prison was ever published in book form defies the odds.
A journalist and experimental documentary maker, Boochani wrote the book as text messages on his mobile phone, sending them, sometimes through several intermediaries, to the academic Omid Tofighian for translation into English.
Indeed, beyond the recognition of Boochani’s book as a singular achievement in its own right, its success this week highlights recent intersections of human rights activism and the vocal political position-taking of the Australian literary community.
The publication of No Friend But the Mountains was accompanied by numerous public events, such as one at the Greek Centre in Melbourne in October 2018, where the conditions detailed in the book were discussed and protested, and Boochani participated via Skype. The same month, A “National Day of Action” organised by Academics for Refugees featured public “read-ins” of the book on university campuses nationwide.
Other Australian authors have also used their voices to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers. During her acceptance speech for her second Miles Franklin Award in August 2018, Michelle de Kretser chastised politicians for their treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. To illustrate her point, she read a list of names of asylum seekers who have died there in the past five years.
It is tempting to dismiss such actions as gesture politics by an urban elite. But each individual action has served to raise awareness of the Australian government’s policy of “offshore processing” for asylum seekers, and to fuse artistic expression with political activism in a particularly forceful manner.
At the same time, and perhaps uniquely in the history of Australian literature, No Friend has seen the translation of human rights awards into convertible cultural capital in the literary field. The author has been awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award, the Amnesty International Award and Liberty Victoria’s Empty Chair Award. These humanitarian awards have confirmed Boochani’s rapidly acquired high profile in the literary field.
Last night’s news topped all of that to make Boochani the first “non-Australian” author to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The Victorian government established these awards in 1985 to honour Australian writing. The specific challenge this poses to the definition of “Australian writing” can be seen as an intervention by the literary community into the field of politics. If a non-citizen who has never set foot on mainland Australia can win, who counts as an Australian author?
Ironically, perhaps, Boochani’s success simply mirrors some of the prevailing trends in Australian authorship in an age of global literary circulation, which allow writers to transcend national borders. An example of this phenomenon is Nam Le who rose to fame with the publication of his very successful The Boat. This collection of short stories, informed by the author’s diasporic identity and upbringing in Australia, soon earned him over a dozen major literary awards in Australia, the United States and Europe.
Conversely, Boochani’s status on Manus Island has been defined by deterrence, indefinite detention and the spectre of refoulement. The narrative of this experience is one that he seeks to address directly to the Australian people from beyond Australia’s borders.
With no clear solution to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru in sight, the paradox of Boochani’s award success can only contribute further to public debate over the tangled logic of indefinite detention. It shows how cultural practices and political activism can be reconfigured to correspond with the newly created literary currency associated with refugee writing. For now, at least, Boochani is an “Australian writer” because Australia is morally implicated in what he wrote and how he wrote it.
Australians flock to the beach over the summer holidays: Bondi alone had 2.9 million visitors in 2017 – 2018. But while tourism campaigns often portray the beach as an idyllic, isolated haven, many of our beach stories depict it as a darker, more crowded and complex place.
Here are ten Australian beach stories (in no particular order) worth reading this summer.
Floundering by Romy Ash
Romy Ash’s debut novel Floundering, shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award, is a captivating, sometimes chilling story of two young boys who are taken, without warning, by their mother to a beachside caravan park.
Left to their own devices, the boys must make the most of their time by the beach without anything but their school bags and uniforms.
The un-named regional beach in this novel is uncomfortable, “a location of risk and danger” as author Robert Drewe once described it, and sometimes reveals the worst ways in which nature and humanity meet. It’s a refuge for people looking to escape from city life, a stark comparison to more urbanised beaches.
Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey
When I tell people that I research the Australian beach, often their first response is to ask if I’ve watched Puberty Blues. Perhaps Australia’s most iconic beach text, the book (first published in 1979) is the story of two friends growing up in beachside suburbs of Sydney. It was adapted for film by Bruce Beresford in 1981.
Both the book and film, with their characteristic colloquialisms and Australian slang, capture a sense of Australian coastal identity while revealing uncomfortable truths about gender, sex, and drugs for the teenagers they depict.
Australian stories about the beach are often male-centred and written by men. Puberty Blues is an important contribution to beach literature because of Debbie and Sue, its female protagonists, and their perspectives on a blokey world.
Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr
In 1966, the three Beaumont children disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide. They were last seen in the company of a tall, blond man. Despite continued searching, even earlier this year, they have never been found.
Time’s Long Ruin (2010) is a fictionalised account of the disappearance of three children as told through the eyes of their young neighbour. Loosely based on the Beaumont story, Orr captures the dread of the aftermath for those left behind who knew and loved the children, the challenge of dealing with false leads and unreliable information, and the growing realisation that they will likely never be found.
The case of the Beaumont children had an enormous impact on Australian culture. My mother, who was a young girl when they disappeared, still recalls how her parents would worry about her momentarily being out of sight at the beach at this time.
On the surface, this novel is about surfing. But it asks deep questions about masculinity, and boys’ attitudes towards sex, while capturing the feel of Australian coastal life in the 1970s.
Winton’s writings often engage with the ocean, the coast, and the beach – usually in West Australia, where he lives. His memoirs have revealed his love for the coastal landscape. As he writes in Land’s Edge (1993): “There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings”.
In this book, Hardy is investigating the disappearance of John Singer, missing and presumed dead. He begins his probe in the rough, working class Bondi of the early 1980s. Corris captures Bondi Beach through the eyes of his protagonist, depicting it as a seedy extension of the city.
Hassled by junkies, threatened by mobsters; Hardy spends much of the novel embroiled in the corrupt underbelly of Sydney’s criminal kingpins, never far from the now infamous shoreline.
The True Colour of the Sea, by Robert Drewe
Having lived in many coastal spots across the country, including Perth, Sydney, and Byron Bay, Robert Drewe’s stories regularly capture that very familiar, domestic sense of a beachside life.
Drewe’s The Bodysurfers (1987), a collection of short stories, became a bestseller.
His memoirs and short stories are all infused by the beach landscape, and this latest collection is no different.
As the narrator writes in Dr Pacific, the opening story in his new collection:
“One thing’s for sure – it’s my love of the ocean that keeps me going. You know what I call the ocean? Dr Pacific. All I need to keep me fit and healthy is my daily consultation with Dr Pacific.”
Atomic City by Sally Breen
Sally Breen lives and works on the Gold Coast, and that strip of high density development on the beach works its way into much of her writing.
With its high rise skyline under a big sky, Surfers Paradise has been called a “pleasure dome” by Frank Moorhouse. But Atomic City (published in 2013), set largely in the lofty apartment buildings and businesses that abut, and look out on, the beach, captures perfectly the grift and graft of this place.
Jade arrives on the Gold Coast to make herself over and get rich. Together with shady croupier “The Dealer” this is a beach tale of cons, scams and identity theft.
Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss
Prominent Australian Indigenous author Anita Heiss straddles both fiction and non-fiction, with her work often grounded in ideas around Indigenous identity. Her series of “chick lit” novels includes Not Meeting Mr Right (first published in 2007).
In the novel, Alice lives beachside in Coogee and regularly walks the coastal path between it and Bondi. A proudly single, Indigenous woman, Alice has a change of heart about marriage and decides to get serious about settling down – which means embarking on the rocky road towards finding love. In contrast to the challenges – including racism – she encounters along the way, the beach is a comfortably ordinary presence in this novel. However, Heiss also parodied the white Australian beach experience in an earlier book Sacred Cows (1996).
After January by Nick Earls
If you grew up in Brisbane when I did, there was a high chance you were reading a Nick Earls novel or seeing one adapted into a play. After January (first published in 1996) is one of Earls’ first works for young adult readers, and is set in the long break after finishing high school.
Alex is on holidays at Caloundra in his family’s beach house, a teenage boy uncomfortable in his skin but comfortable in the ocean. Although now more than 20 years old, this story still captures the uncertainty of burgeoning adulthood and the comfort the ocean can bring.
Bluebottle by Belinda Castles
For many Australians, the beach can be wrapped up in childhood memory. These memories can blend and blur. In my mind, my summers spent at the beach with my grandparents were never-ending, from the moment school finished until the day before I was set to return. In reality, we spent some time there, often weekends, and certainly never the entire school holidays.
Belinda Castles’ Bluebottle tells the story of the Bright family, and is filled with that uncomfortable tension that arises when we realise memory is fallible. Siblings Jack and Lou recount key moments from their childhood, starting with the disappearance of a local school girl and their father’s unpredictable purchase of a beachside property in Bilgola, Sydney. However, they learn that growing older can change perspectives on the past and, like the beach, it can be hard to tell what’s under the surface while the waves distort our view.
Peter Corris, author of the Cliff Hardy novels, died on August 30 2018 age 76.
By the 1970s Australian crime fiction was drifting.
The genre had a long history, back to convict days, when it dealt with unfair convictions and brutal treatments, most famously in Marcus Clarke’s For The Term Of His Natural Life (1870-2).
Being mostly published in London for the curiosity of the English, Australian crime fiction had followed European models, with some major success like Fergus Hume’s best-selling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), and the fine series of mysteries by post-second world war women writers June Wright, “Margot Neville”, Pat Flower and Pat Carlon. But local crime fiction was little publicised and had little impact – the books mostly came into libraries from London.
English business interests and Australian outlooks changed as time passed. Then, in 1980, Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade appeared, a crime story which was American in its influence, fully Australian in its spirit, and both published and strongly publicised at home. The novel was the first adventure of a tough, but at times sensitive, Sydney private eye with the wonderfully Australian name, offering both geography and morality, Cliff Hardy.
Published by McGraw Hill, an American company newly adventuring across the Pacific, the novel was very well-received, and started Peter’s own long series of fiction. But it was also the first of a very striking renaissance (or even naissance) in Australian crime writing.
Within ten years Marele Day, Jennifer Rowe and Claire McNab were producing their sharp variants of female detection. By 2000, major producers such as Gabrielle Lord, Gary Disher and the powerful Peter Temple, who also recently passed away, were busily at work. They were asserting that the mysteries of death and detection could have a distinctly local and socially investigative thrust – as Corris had established back in 1980. No wonder he has been named the “godfather” of modern Australian crime fiction.
Cliff Hardy, though tough in his name, could be subtle. He lives in Sydney’s Glebe; he spent some time at the nearby university; and is capable of close analysis when needed. His cases are brought to him, but, as the masters of the form Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler established, the P.I. will also assert his privacy and make decisions about where his investigation is going to go.
As with the major American writers, the primary themes of the Cliff Hardy novels are urban corruption. But Corris’s expertise in Pacific history informs his writing. The first novel involves Pacific misdoings. White Meat (1981) makes Indigenous themes important – which return strongly in The Black Prince (1998).
Like the detective of Peter Temple, who no doubt learnt both confidence and approach from Corris, Hardy shows how local malpractice can have its roots in national and international criminal evil.
Though Australian crime writers have had very little success with the spy thriller, Corris’s Ray Crawley series – eight novels from Pokerface (1985) to The Vietnam Volunteer (2000) – are a capable version of the form.
More remarkable is his eight-book “Browning” series, from Box Office Browning (1987) to Browning Without a Cause (1995). In the series, the popular investigator Browning (one wonders why Corris chose the name of the wry learned 19th century English poet) adventures in part comically around the world, meeting on his way his compatriot Errol Flynn.
Corris also assented to the recent (and internationally very late) male Australian crime-writer engagement with police detectives – some of his leanest and sharpest novels are the three in the Luke Dunlop series about an undercover police agent, from Set-Up (1992) to Get Even (1994).
At first an academic historian, in the 1970s Corris became the literary editor of the much-regretted serious weekend newspaper The National Times. He had a wide range of knowledge and interests.
But what Corris will be most remembered for, and what he kept flowing in novels — and also in a number of short stories – were the adventures of Cliff Hardy. Cliff was drinking and chasing women a lot back in 1980. He calmed down in both departments, but kept at his investigations of corruption and malpractice, both business-oriented and personal.
Through his hero, with his physical and moral echt-Australian name Cliff Hardy, and through his lucid, calm plotting, Corris has matched Raymond Chandler in the modern world’s dominant crime form.
Both citified and individualist, the private eye story at its best demands personal, deep referential knowledge of the author – and calm stylistic skills. We have seen all this in the Hardy novels.
At the very end of Corris’s last Hardy novel, Win, Lose or Draw (2017) – in Australia, sport is always there – Hardy is smiling. So should his creator have been. With Hardy, he made a richly entertaining, very widely-admired, genuinely, lastingly, Australian international crime fiction hero.
Most countries produce crime fiction, but the versions vary according to national self-concepts. America admires the assertive private eye, both Dashiell Hammett’s late 1920s Sam Spade and the nearly as tough modern feminists, such as Sara Paretsky. Britain prefers calm mystery-solvers, amateurs like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or sensitive police like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based John Rebus. The French seem to favour semi-professionals who are distinctly dissenting – in 1943 Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma stood up to Nazi occupiers nearly as overtly as to Paris criminals.
The first Australian crime novel appeared in 1818, but production has been uneven. Most mysteries have been published here in the period since 1980, with substantial local publicity and reviewing. Before then, locally-written and Australia-set mysteries usually arrived from England, asserting colonial authority, and then banning American publishers through an “International Market Agreement”.
Writers sent manuscripts off to London, and a hundred or so hardbacks would arrive for local libraries, with almost no publicity and little impetus to develop the form here. But things changed with an American challenge to the “Agreement” in 1976 and the waning influence of Britain in general. In 1980 Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade began a flow of local productions – some from English firms now based here, like Allen and Unwin, who produced Jennifer Rowe with their Tolkien earnings.
The strongest convict novel is The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: he experiences harsh imprisonment, then escapes to live with bushrangers, and then mostly genial Indigenes: written in 1845, probably by ex-convict James Tucker, the novel was not published for over 80 years.
Criminal threats to free settlers were central to Tales of the Colonies (1843) by Charles Rowcroft: an immigrant Tasmanian family encounters the exciting land and its fauna but also bushrangers and the historical and rather noble Indigenous leader Musquito.
In Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) English incomers meet a vigorous native-born family as well as a range of trouble-makers. The settler thriller moved up to squatter level in Henry Kingsley’s rambling The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), which offers “every known cliché of Australian life” according to Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in 19th Century English Literature, an excellent critical book by Coral Lansbury – mother of Malcolm Turnbull.
Crime fiction illuminated the 1850s goldfields experience, mostly through short stories in the Australian Journal featuring police detectives known as “mounted troopers”, who controlled theft and crime of all kinds: they and the miners generated an early form of mateship.
The most prolific author was Mary Fortune who, Lucy Sussex’s research has shown, wrote hundreds of crime stories to the end of the century, and has begun to be re-published. The new gold-rich urban Australia was explored, especially when Donald Cameron produced the intriguing, and almost totally forgotten, The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), followed by Fergus Hume’s highly readable The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): Melbourne-set and published, it then became in London the first best-seller in world crime fiction.
There had been retrospective fictions that essentially criticised the harsh convict colony and ennobled the transportees. The Broad Arrow (1859) by “Oliné Keese” (English visitor Caroline Leakey) is about a brave, true woman convict; His Natural Life by England-born Marcus Clarke offers a long, well-researched story of a maltreated, wrongly-convicted man, appearing first as a serial in the Australian Journal.
In that version he finally escapes from Norfolk Island, becomes a successful goldfields shopkeeper, and eventually returns wealthy to his much-diminished English family. But when it became a book Clarke was persuaded to drop the optimistic “Aussie-success” ending for popular novel melodrama: the escaping hero drowns tragically, and the title becomes the unironic For the Term of His Natural Life.
A more romantic and now fully Australian account of past crime and redemption was the very popular Robbery Under Arms (1881-2) by “Rolf Boldrewood”. The bushranger-turned-convict is no Anglo hero but a tough native Australian: he and his patient girlfriend end up as successful rural property-owners. So crime fiction developed a positive patriotic approach which would soon mesh with the bush myth asserted by popular writers like Lawson and Paterson – also fictional, as the cities grew.
In the late 19th century there were predictable urban mysteries and better rural dramas by writers like Rosa Praed and Mary Gaunt, as well as the distinctly Australian sporting thriller, notably those set at the races by Nat Gould, and also bold roving amateur detectors such as Randolph Bedford’s Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911).
But national mythic features could also be negative: notably absent have been police – while they were familiar overseas, here the memory of transportation limited them to Fortune’s people-friendly troopers, well-separated from convictism.
Equally lacking was any serious treatment of Indigenous people: they only appeared as lurking threats or helpful trackers, except in Arthur Vogan’s The Black Police (1890) in which an England-born New Zealander, who had taken a job in outback Queensland, told a bleak story about the racism he found there.
Between the wars, London publishers continued their dominance and there appeared two striking responses from local crime writers. Their novels can have “zero-setting”: though occurring in Australia they offer almost no local detail at all. Or they can be the opposite, “touristic” crime fiction, all bush and kangaroos, with the villain often consumed by the land itself in fire or flood.
The success of Arthur Upfield’s long series of “Bony” mysteries was not primarily based on his intelligent half-Indigenous detective but, including for overseas readers, came from the many grand outback landscapes that are so well described, to which Bony relates so strongly.
At the same time, interest developed in the formerly minor “crime novel”, the name for a story without detection and tending to sympathise with the criminal – an Adelaide-set series came from Arthur Gask. Classical mysteries were often set in the northern islands, as by Beatrice Grimshaw and Paul Maguire and, amazingly, the Hollywood actor and Tasmanian journalist, Errol Flynn, whose Showdown (1946) is a very capable thriller.
In the 1930s Jean Spender, adopting the English style, deployed an under-heroic police detective and she was followed post-war by other successful women. June Wright’s restrained policemen usually marry the young Melbourne lady amateur detective, but she also created a fine nun-detective, Mother Paul. Sydney-based Pat Flower, from Hell for Heather (1962) on, produced a sequence of psychothrillers as potent as those by international stars such as Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell).
Effective post-war male crime writers existed, such as Sidney Courtier and A. E. Martin, but they too were mostly England-published and little noticed or remembered. The American private eye had a brief presence in and after World War II, with many Americans in the country and English book imports rare: both US-based and local tough-guys thrived like those by the ultra-prolific “Carter Brown” (Alan G. Yates).
They faded, but the form would return when, feeling abandoned by Britain and looking more across the Pacific, readers were offered their own version of the American mode. The Dying Trade (1980), published in Sydney, with full local publicity, featured a truly Aussie tough guy, Cliff Hardy, and the author, Peter Corris, academic and journalist, stimulated more Sydney-based detectives, Marele Day’s elegant feminist Claudia Valentine, glamorous lesbian cop Carol Ashton by Claire McNab, and the thoughtful English-style amateur Verity “Birdie” Birdwood from publisher Jennifer Rowe. Now local readers could enjoy a wealth of their own national crime fiction, newly embodying many forms of contemporary conviction.
The crime novel continued through Garry Disher and his genuinely tough Wyatt, while the psychothriller and other sub-genres flourished, especially from the ever-productive Gabrielle Lord. Finally, major male writers started to employ police – Disher by 1995 with Inspector Challis in The Dragon Man and Peter Temple’s very successful The Broken Shore (2005) introduced injured cop Joe Cashin.
Modern retrospection arose from Australian acceptance of the innovative mode of historical crime fiction pioneered by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1980). Melbourne led with Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous 1920s investigator Lady Phryne Fisher in Cocaine Blues (1989); later Marshall Browne offered a turn-of-the century Melbourne thriller series.
International gay crime fiction arrived: Claire McNab handled the female side forcefully, while for the men Adelaide’s notorious Duncan drowning was reworked in Roger Raftery’s The Pink Triangle (1981) and Phillip Scott’s amusing opera-related series started with One Dead Diva (1995).
Indigenous crime fiction writers also appeared. Mudrooroo Narogin produced, then as Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling (1965), a potent crime novel about a Perth teenager; later crime stories featured his Detective-Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara, a figure both ironic and revealing. Archie Weller wrote a strong crime novel The Day of the Dog (1981) and tough short stories; Philip McLaren’s major novel Scream Black Murder (1995) has Indigenous police detectives, male and female, facing both public and personal challenges in Sydney’s Redfern.
Since 2000 Australian crime fiction has strengthened further, mostly with new voices. Day, Rowe and McNab all put an early end to their series and in 2017 Corris has called it a day – Cliff is smiling as the story finishes. Temple’s darkest novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin national prize in 2010, but his recent death has saddened readers.
Historicism has continued. Sulari Gentill explores the politics of the 1930s in her Rowland Sinclair series, and Lady Phryne has re-appeared, but Greenwood now also turns to the “cozy” tradition with large detecting chef Corinna Chapman. Police presence has grown, with notably realistic treatments by former female officers, P.M. Newton, Karen M. Davis and Y.A. Erskine; and there are others, like Leigh Giarratano’s subtle detective Jill Jackson and Felicity Young’s Senior Sergeant Stevie Hooper, tall, brave and based in Perth, like several other modern investigators, including Alan Carter’s “Cato” Kwong, a police detective from a long-present Chinese family.
Australian women crime writers are now in a clear majority, and they also offer private eyes: Gabrielle Lord has a series about Gemma Lincoln, and Angela Savage’s well-developed Thailand-based novels feature Jayne Keeney. The psychothriller remains vigorous: journalist Caroline Overington produced the intriguing Ghost Child (2009), while Honey Brown offers deeply imaginative stories like Red Queen (2009).
The crime novel thrives among male writers — Disher’s man re-asserted his presence in Wyatt (2010) and Andrew Nette produced the both local and international Gunshine State (2016); the comic crime novel emerged in Robert G. Barrett’s series about the idiotic bogan Les Norton. Other traditions continue: Tara Moss keeps feminism alive in her Mak Vanderwall series, while Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011) is a powerful Brisbane-based, Indigenous-oriented narrative.
Unique features appear in Australian crime fiction, and not just the five different authors who focus their mysteries on the Melbourne Cup. More notable are Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, the stripper-detective, starting with Peepshow (2004), revealing in several ways, and the two fascinating poem-based mysteries by the sadly late Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and El Dorado (2007).
Such brilliant exotics, and the richness of the tradition as a whole, show how far Australian crime fiction has come from convicts and bushrangers, without losing its continuing relationship with changing national concerns and the social and personal myths it can both test and validate.