You are currently viewing The issues that Australian writers had to grapple with before they could forge a literature of their own.

The issues that Australian writers had to grapple with before they could forge a literature of their own.

The issues that Australian writers had to grapple with before they could forge a literature of their own.

Perhaps more so than in other countries, the literature of Australia characteristically expresses collective values. Even when the literature deals with the experiences of an individual, those experiences are very likely to be estimated in terms of the ordinary, the typical, the representative. It aspires on the whole to represent integration rather than disintegration. It does not favour the heroicism of individual action unless this shows dogged perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat. Although it may express a strong ironic disapproval of collective mindlessness, the object of criticism is the mindlessness rather than the conformity.

This general proposition holds true for both Indigenous Australians and those descended from later European arrivals, though the perception of what constitutes the community is quite radically different in these two cases. The white Australian community is united in part by its sense of having derived from foreign cultures, primarily that of England, and in part by its awareness of itself as a settler society with a continuing celebration of pioneer values and a deep attachment to the land. For Aboriginal peoples in their traditional cultures, story, song, and legend served to define allegiances and relationships both to others and to the land that nurtured them. For modern Aboriginal people, written literature has been a way of both claiming a voice and articulating a sense of cohesion as a people faced with real threats to the continuance of their culture.

Aboriginal narrative: the oral tradition

When first encountered by Europeans, Australian Aboriginal peoples did not have written languages (individual words were collected from first contact, but languages as systems were not written down until well into the 20th century). Their songs, chants, legends, and stories, however, constituted rich oral literature, and, since the Aboriginal peoples had no common language, these creations were enormously diverse. Long unavailable to or misunderstood by non-Aboriginal people, their oral traditions appear (from researches undertaken in the last half of the 20th century) to be of considerable subtlety and complexity.

The oral literature of Aboriginal peoples has an essentially ceremonial function. It supports the fundamental Aboriginal beliefs that what is given cannot be changed and that the past exists in an eternal present, and it serves to relate the individual and the landscape to the continuing spiritual influence of the Dreaming (or Dreamtime)—widely known as the Alcheringa (or Altjeringa), the term used by the Aboriginal peoples of central Australia—a mythological past in which the existing natural environment was shaped and humanized by ancestral beings. While the recitation of the song cycles and narratives is to some extent prescribed, it also can incorporate new experience and thus remain applicable—both part of the past (called up by the Ancestors) and part of the present.

Aboriginal oral tradition may be public (open to all members of a community and often a kind of entertainment) or sacred (closed to all but initiated members of one or the other sex). Narratives of the public sort range from stories told by women to young children (mostly elementary versions of creation stories—also appropriate for tourists and amateur anthropologists) to the recitation of song cycles in large gatherings (known as corroborees). Even the most uncomplicated narratives of the Dreaming introduce basic concepts about the land and about what it is that distinguishes right behaviour from wrong. When children are old enough to prepare for their initiation ceremonies, the stories become more elaborate and complex. Among the sacred songs and stories are those that are men’s business and those that are women’s business; each is forbidden to the eyes and ears of the other sex and to the uninitiated.

The chief subject of Aboriginal narratives is the land. As Aboriginal people travel from place to place, they (either informally or ceremonially) name each place, telling of its creation and of its relation to the journeys of the Ancestors. This practice serves at least three significant purposes: it reinforces their knowledge of local geography—that is, the food routes, location of water holes, places of safety, places of danger, the region’s terrain, and so on—and it also serves a social function (sometimes bringing large clans together) and a religious or ritual function.

Many of the stories have to do with the journeys of the Ancestors and the “creation sites,” places at which they created different clans and animals. Other stories concern contests between Ancestor figures for power and knowledge. A sequence of stories or songs—a story track or song line—identifies the precise route taken by an Ancestor figure. Knowledge and recitation of the journey of each totemic figure are the responsibility of that figure’s totemic clan. (Members of an immediate biological family belong to different totems, or Dreamings. Totem membership can be determined in various ways, from association with a locale to an acknowledgment of spiritual kinship.) Because an Ancestor’s journey is often traced over vast stretches of land, only a segment of the entire song cycle or story is known to a particular group. These are exchanged at meeting points, and, though the songs may be sung in a different language, an Ancestor’s story contains musical elements that make it clearly identifiable to all members of that totem, from whatever part of the country. Song lines and story tracks can be traced over the entire country. In this way oral literature sustains the sense of continuity between the clans as well as between the present and the time of creation.

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