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Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature


Edited by Nathanael O’Reilly


Amherst (New York): Cambria Press, 2010

Hardcover. xii +317 p. ISBN 9781604977110. $114.99


Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay





In addition to being a creative writer, Nathanael O’Reilly is a dynamic early career researcher in Australian Studies who has devoted his Ph.D thesis to suburbia in contemporary Australian fiction. Despite the fact that O’Reilly is no household name in the close-knit postcolonial community, he seems—at least as an Australianist—to qualify for editing Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature on the grounds, following his observation in the introduction, that “Australian literature is postcolonial literature and deserves equal status with the literature of other postcolonial nations, such as India, Nigeria, and Jamaica” [6]. In the same breath, O’Reilly also takes heed to acknowledge that “many Australian texts do not engage with postcolonial issues at all, and Australian society can legitimately be viewed as other than postcolonial” [6].


While explaining that various US English departments teach Australian and postcolonial studies, the Editor of Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature realized that “both fields are marginalized within the American academy and that Australian literary studies is marginalized within postcolonial studies” [2]. He goes on to assert somewhat brashly that “There is clearly a bias within postcolonial studies against scholars who focus on literature from the settler colonies, especially Australia, Canada, and New Zealand” [3]. First, it would be wiser to recognize that there is not a great demand for Antipodean literatures rather than point to an accusatory bias against them. In fact, the reason why post-colonial studies are quite popular in the US (more than in Great Britain—not to mention France, which is gradually warming up to this area of expertise) is that African, Caribbean and South Asian literatures are more likely to reflect the demographics and strike a sympathetic chord among the American students compared to fiction from Australia and New Zealand. Second, I am not too sure whether one can align Australia and New Zealand studies with Canadian studies as neglected fields in the US given that there would sensibly be more popular appeal for Canadian culture (because of its obvious geographical proximity) than for remote settler colonies like Australia and New Zealand, even though the New York-based journal Antipodes (which Nicholas Birns has lately re-subtitled as A Global Journal of Australian / New Zealand Literature) does a fine job of publicizing these Pacific cultures.

Whatever Robert Young and Alan Lawson’s views on the matter, the postcoloniality of settler-invader colonies deserves to be acknowledged as a legitimate field and Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature goes a long way towards righting this wrong, even if the collection does not attempt to present a dense multi-chapter theory book dealing with the specificities of being “historically both oppressors and victims”,(1) as Peter Carey once pointed out in an interview. Instead, the cast of international contributors to this new volume has presented an eclectic selection of Australian literary texts by authors ranging from novelists to poets (be they current or less contemporary) through the prism of settler-related postcolonial issues such as cartography, hybridity, the anxiety of not belonging, reconciliation, settler biopolitics, aboriginality, muddled history, inter alia.

The collection is placed under Bill Ashcroft’s authority and his lead article certainly lends a lot of weight to the volume. Engrossing though his comments on paintings are, they are bound to have a lesser impact on readers given that the artwork under discussion has not been reproduced. The following chapter by Nicholas Birns might appear to be extremely divisive in the sense that Birns’s treatment of the intriguing concept of “postcolonial medievalism” which he defines elsewhere as “a variety of postcolonial thought that is interested in the Middle Ages as the Middle Ages themselves have been the object of temporal dissemination as colonial territories have been the object of geographical / cultural dissemination” might please the pocophiles, while at the same time it brings grist to the mill of pocosceptics(2) by giving them grounds for believing that postcolonial theory has reached its non-expandable limits. However, the feeling of being provoked within a coherent macroanalysis is quite delightful.

Overall, this collection of thirteen articles testifies to serious scholarship as exemplified by Nicholas Dunlop’s fine contribution onJanette Turner Hospital’s Oyster (1997). The one odd chapter is Per Henningsgaard’s on regional literature, an article cluttered with questionable statements and fanciful comparisons. According to Henningsgaard, “there is an undeniable parallel between the dynamic that governs Australia’s negotiations with the international literary community and the dynamic that governs the negotiations of a more conventionally conceived region (such as Western Australia) with its national literary culture” [61]. He also claims that “both Western Australia (for example) and Australia can be understood as peripheries dominated in their different spheres (the national and the international, respectively) by cultures residing elsewhere” [62]. Postcolonialism does not boil down to cultural domination, and restricting this theory to that particular aspect is overly simplistic. Therefore, in terms of power politics,Western Australia is an ill-chosen example given that, even if it is remote from the literary field of cultural production largely concentrated on the east coast, it is the richest state DownUnder(3) and therefore cannot be associated with the subaltern or be granted marginal status inAustralia. Henningsgaard's looking upon regional literatures and postcolonial literature as two separate entities is rather inadequate because one could argue that the former is a subset of the latter. He concludes by commenting on the publishing arena inNigeria, a colony of occupation, drawing yet another far-fetched comparison between the Nigerian example and the impact of Gough Whitlam’s policy onAustralia, a settler-invader colony.

Except for the regrettable occasional misprints (like the omitted determiner on page 83), Cambria Press is to be commended for its unflagging efforts in the promotion, dissemination and globalisation of Australian Studies. Had the 28-page long and rather redundant bibliography been left out in so far as all the references are already listed in the works cited section, the volume might have perhaps come in cheaper—a wise move if Cambria Press wishes to make Australian Studies more readily accessible to a larger number of readers.


(1) Peter Carey quoted in Susan Wyndham, “Peter Carey: An Unusual Life”. The Australian Magazine 20 (1 August 1994) : 42-8, 48.


(2) Like Jean-François Bayart, author of Les études postcoloniales, un carnaval académique (Paris : Karthala, 2010).


(3) Western Australia ranks first nationally in terms of capital intensive economy beating any other states with its skyrocketing gross state product per capita.





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