Michael R. Griffiths
Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.
Harrod J. Suarez
What is the difference between studying an archipelago and studying archipelagically? As research in literary critical studies has shown, the difference is significant and what results from each profoundly distinct and possibly at odds with each other. If one approaches the archipelago as an empirical entity—that is, as a chain of islands—there has been the tendency to regard it as smaller and more isolated than other geographic formations, which then determines its marginalization even when working with the advent of transnational and postcolonial rubrics. On the other hand, if the archipelago, following Édouard Glissant and others, is conceptualized as a mode of analysis, then studying different landscapes, histories, narratives, and cultures becomes an altogether different endeavor. Using such approaches to animate the relationship between Oceania and Asian American and Pacific Islander literary studies has been the focus of numerous critics working at the intersections of these and other fields. A controversy that received national media attention framed certain of the stakes involved in the effort to address Oceania, a moment of representational crisis that produced rich responses and galvanized efforts to deal rigorously with the field’s heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity. The resulting epistemological pursuits seem to emphasize the need to study archipelagically, opening up new frameworks and problematics crucial for reimagining the place of Oceania in diverse fields.
What language is adequate to describe the coming into being of the new South Africa? What literary forms does newness take? What promises does the new “postapartheid fiction” deliver (or fail to deliver)? For many observers, the May 10, 1994, inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa captured the optimism of the political settlement that ended apartheid. Writers finally seemed able to suspend the imperatives of a literary culture oriented primarily toward political struggle. Yet while regime change informs “postapartheid fiction” in the literal sense of the term, literary and political periodization do not wholly coincide. The divisive legacies of racism are not easily dismissed. This understanding informs a category of writing often called “transitional literature” that emerges in tandem with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 1996–1998) as the site where the new nation comes into being. Often autobiographical or confessional in tone, it remains bound up with the country’s racist past. Transitional literature thus points toward the ambivalent nature of the “post” in “postapartheid fiction,” which scholars argue functions here much like it does in the term “postcolonial.” Both prioritize the continued unfolding of a long historical sequence rather than a punctual transition that abrogates the reckoning with the past.
“Post-transitional literature,” in turn, includes fiction dating from roughly the second decade after the beginning of the political transition. A layered engagement with earlier writing and with the immediate past preserves the porous negotiation of temporality already at work in transitional literature. However, black writers in particular have stressed that the continuities between the apartheid regime and its democratic successor pertain less to the intertwining of temporalities than to political economy—given the nature of inequality in South Africa where class remains tightly bound up with race.
Postapartheid fiction is not merely the preserve of continuity, however. In South Africa, the preoccupation with race has given way to other vectors of subjectivity involving gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, youth culture, and autochthony or foreignness, as well as their intersections. New concerns focused on gay and lesbian subjectivities, HIV/AIDS, or on the possibilities of conflict and conviviality opened up by the desegregated and increasingly cosmopolitan character of urban spaces, have accompanied a changing literary market. Newness proliferates through the devices of creative nonfiction, eco-fiction, and genre fiction. Crime fiction has become more popular. Partly serving as the index of social disorder in South Africa and partly as the arena where this disorder is worked through in fictional form, crime fiction tacitly offers the prospect of redress—however remote. Speculative fiction similarly pits utopian aspirations against dystopian skepticism, in dialogue with Afrofuturism elsewhere on the continent. Intra-African lines of influence, and indeed of migration, announce new pathways for literary expression in English. Afrikaans literature has similarly come to assimilate transnational and diasporic motifs. Using the idea of “postapartheid fiction” to convey the exceptionalism—rather than distinctiveness—of contemporary South African writing may thus have run its course. This is itself a telling marker of how far South African literature has come since the fall of the apartheid regime.
Animals have prowled literature from its beginnings in the ancient world through medieval bestiaries and out from the margins of the novel in the modern era. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, animals’ literary presence has generated increasing critical interest. Animal studies, a relatively new interdisciplinary field, calls attention to the accelerating exploitation of animals in the period of industrial modernity and questions what it is possible to know about animals’ own experiences. Foundational theoretical approaches to understanding the historical and philosophical condition of thinking about animals—John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1972), Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and Jacques Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002)—propose a fundamental aporia or gap between human and animal experiences, and they caution against the projection of anthropocentric categories onto animal lives. Many novels from this recent period likewise treat animals as charismatic strangers. Yet other contemporary literature sometimes reimagines human-animal relationships to insist on affinity and continuity. In such novels, animals prompt diverse and often experimental stylistic choices that put pressure on the novel’s traditional association with everyday life, the individual self, the boundaries of the nation, and empirical observation more broadly. Still, many recent novels remain essentially committed to a realist tradition. Some of these—most notably by J. M. Coetzee—depict relations of care between humans and often vulnerable or dependent animals that prompt reflection on the meaning of ethical action. In novels that purport to narrate from animals’ own perspective, writers likewise meditate on the ethics of interspecies relations as they use language innovatively in an effort to realistically evoke the sensorium of another species. Pushing the boundaries of realism, other novels reinvent the animal fable, using varying degrees of fantasy to imagine wild or domesticated animals as tropes that reflect upon human embodiment, community, and politics. Whether realist or fabulist, the novels of contemporary postcolonial and world literature particularly explore the power and limits of mapping histories of human belonging and domination onto animal figures, even as they often highlight the limitations of these comparisons. Not all of these approaches are equally invested in creating a literature that could materially impact the lives of animals in an era of diminishing biodiversity. However, uniting this varied and ever-growing array of novels is a question of how literature can represent the lives of intimately entangled bodies in a globalizing world.
“Women’s poetry” as a marketing and pedagogic category emerged in the 1970s alongside second-wave feminism. To map the emergence of women’s poetry in and of Australia requires exploring the role of gender in poetic authorship and how the field of Australian poetry has changed in light of feminist movements and theories. Women have used poetry to cross between public and private spheres, to assert an individual and often collective voice, and to critique gender’s intersection with other constitutive identities such as nation and race. While poetry has provided a highly significant means of linguistic transformation and social activism, it has sometimes been viewed as too limiting for feminist writers. Similarly, while the category of “women’s poetry” was strategically empowering in particular periods, it has also been viewed as generating exclusions and marginalization. Feminism has developed both historically and culturally, with the valency of various feminisms in Australia being tested through processes of institutionalization and social change at both a local and global level.
Factory girl literature emerged as a powerful critique of the culture of industrialization, delving into mills, canneries and sweatshops to detail the lives of the women and girls who generated industrial development. First appearing in 19th-century Euro-American fiction, from the early 20th century, the form has been dominated by authors writing from Asia. Penned by working women themselves, many of these autobiographies, memoirs, short stories and novels have become literary classics in their own language but their translation and dissemination was impeded by Cold War qualms about sponsoring ‘leftist culture’. Factory girl literature is related to broader categories of industrial and proletarian literature that underline the agency of working-class protagonists. It is unique in highlighting the sexed figure of industrialization and this focus on the gendered experience of rapid development uncovers the costs of the sexual and class violence of industrial life for women. A genealogy of factory girl literature reveals the importance of writing and authorship in labor activism, and feminist politics.
The Indian novel has been a vibrant and energetic expressive space in the 21st century. While the grand postcolonial gestures characteristic of the late-20th-century Indian novel have been in evidence in new novels by established authors such as Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, and Salman Rushdie, a slate of new authors has emerged in this period as well, charting a range of new novelistic modes. Some of these authors are Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, Githa Hariharan, Samina Ali, Karan Mahajan, and Amitava Kumar. In general, there has been a move away from ambitious literary fiction in the form of the “huge, baggy monster” that led to the publication of several monumental postcolonial novels in the 1980s and 1990s; increasingly the most dynamic and influential Indian writing uses new novelistic forms and literary styles tied to the changing landscape of India’s current contemporary social and political problems. The newer generation of authors has also eschewed the aspiration to represent the entirety of life in modern India, and instead aimed to explore much more limited regional and cultural narrative frameworks. If a novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) took its protagonist all over the Indian subcontinent and indexed a large number of important historical controversies in the interest of broad representation, Padma Viswnanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon (2008) limits itself to a focus on a single Tamil Brahmin family’s orientation to issues of caste and gender, and remains effectively local to Tamil Nadu. There is no central agenda or defining idiom of this emerging literary culture, but three major groupings can be identified that encapsulate the major themes and preoccupations of 21st-century Indian fiction: “New Urban Realism,” “Gender and Secular History,” and “Globalizing India, Reinscribing the Past.”
Literature in Singapore is written in the country’s four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The various literatures flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of print culture in the British colony, but after independence in 1965, English became emphasized in both the education system and society at large as part of the new government’s attempts to modernize the country. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil were seen as mother tongue languages to provide Singaporeans with cultural ballast while English was regarded as a language for administration, business, and scientific and technological development. Correspondingly, literatures in other languages than English reached a plateau in terms of writerly output and readership during the 1970s and 1980s. However, since 1999, with the state’s implementation of the Renaissance City Plan to revitalize arts and culture in Singapore, there have been various initiatives to increase the visibility of contemporary Singaporean writing both within the country itself and on an international scale. Translation plays a key role in bridging the linguistic and literary divides wrought by the state’s mother tongue policies, with several works by Cultural Medallion winners in different languages translated into English, which remains at present the shared language in Singapore. Literary anthologies are also invaluable forms through which the concepts of a national literature and national identity are expressed and negotiated. A number of anthologies involving Singaporean authors and those from other countries also highlight the growing international presence of and interest in Singaporean literature. Several anthologies also focus on the topic of urban space, city life, and the rapid transformation of Singapore’s physical environment. Writings about gender and sexuality have also become more prominent in single-author collections or edited anthologies, with writers exploring various inventive and experimental narrative forms. A number of poets and writers are also established playwrights, and theater has historically been and continues to be an extremely vital form of creative expression and cultural production. Graphic novels, crime and noir fiction, and speculative and science fiction publications are also on the rise, with the awarding of the Singapore Literature Prize to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye signaling that these genres merit serious literary consideration. A number of literary publications and materials related to Singaporean literature can be found on the Internet, such as the journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the website Singapore Poetry, and the database Poetry.sg. Various nonprofit organizations are also working toward increasing public awareness about literature through events such as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the Singapore Writers Festival and National Poetry Festival, and also through projects that exhibit poetry in train stations and on public thoroughfares.
Contemporary Australian literary culture is formed through networks of institutions that support writing and reading. This infrastructure, itself shaped by Australia’s history as a former British colony and its current status as a medium-sized market in a global book industry, creates specific conditions for the production and reception of Australian literature. Institutions do not comprise the whole of Australian literary culture, and many individuals and groups position themselves as outsiders, or as members of counter-networks. Nonetheless, the work done by literary organizations enables significant acts of writing, access to reading, and debates about the role of literature in contemporary Australian society.
Six networks are key to Australia’s literary culture. First, publishing in Australia is structured by a mix of local offices of multinational companies and independent presses, whose list building—and consequent effects on Australian authors and readers—is influenced by their market position and capacity for digital innovation. Distribution of books in contemporary Australia occurs through libraries and bookshops; book retail is predominantly a mix of online bookshops, independent bookstores, and discount department stores, following the closure of many Australian big-box bookshops and chain stores in 2011. Australia has a growing network of literary festivals, including flagship events that attract tens of thousands of readers as well as focused events that nurture particular genres or groups of writers. Australia’s calendar of literary prizes also supports writers, builds canons, and maintains the visibility of literary culture. These expansive networks are complemented by the smaller, though influential, readerships of Australian literary magazines, which foster new writing and drive cultural debates. Finally, schools and universities institutionalize Australian writing through their curricula and increasingly provide training and employment for writers. Together, these active networks provide an outline for the form of contemporary Australian literary culture.
On January 1, 1901, Australia became a nation; six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania—joined to form the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time of Federation, debates raged over who or what constituted a new national type; the forms best suited to convey the values these figures represented; and the proper settings for their stories. These arguments were had not only with aesthetic interests in mind but with a conscious awareness, or conviction, that literature had a special role to play in establishing what was (thought to be) unique about this new nation. Alliances between literature and the Australian nation have been observed, perpetuated, and contested since at least the last decades of the 19th century, and the result has been multiple imaginings of Australia with many conflicting ideas and interests at play. From the notion that Australia, as a “new nation,” might present white women with the opportunity to shed oppressive gender identities to indigenous knowledge systems questioning the very idea and authority of the nation, literary imaginings of Australia speak to national myths and political interventions alike.