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The Great What Novel?

Last week, sitting in the office, G. said to me, "You get the feeling, looking into the country, that Australians are really hungry for that great novel that will capture what their life."

Or, at least, he said something like that. I'm paraphrasing, but I think it's pretty close, only you should imagine it said with a British accent to get the full, surround sound experience. I disagreed with it, but we'll get to that in a second, because what I find interesting is that, currently, there's a lot of conversation about what is an Australian work around me. Life is tossing it up for thought, and I'm good with that. Australian fiction came up at work today, focusing on two works that explored the relationships between indigenous and white people. My class of Asian students were, oddly enough, unable to manage much interest. Likewise, the definition that Australian fiction being about the underdog, about figures like Ned Kelly and events such as the ANZACs at Gillipoli, was a bit limited and, y'know, stupid. When you think about the fact that in a literature class the examples of Australian literature were historical stories that have been drawn into the cultural mythology, you'll see the uphill road I was put upon to make the subject worthwhile (I failed--I looked at that hill and shrugged). Of course, how a bunch of teenagers, Asian or not, were meant to connect with any of this when even I didn't was an interesting reason for failure.

I honestly don't think Australia is looking for the great Australian novel. There's a whole heap of reasons behind that, but one of them, I think, is best explained using a term taken Leonie Sandercock (who took it from Salman Rushdie), and that is 'Mongrel City'.

Sandercock uses the term Mongrel city as a metaphor to "characterize this new urban condition in which difference, otherness, fragmentation, splintering, multiplicity, heterogeneity, diversity, plurality prevail. For some this is to be feared, signifying the decline of civilization as we know it in the West. for others (like Rushdie and myself) it is to be celebrated as a great possibility: the possibility of living alongside others who are different, learning from them, creating new worlds with them, instead of fearing them."

Australia isn't just a Mongrel City, it's a Mongrel Country. It's not going to be defined by a novel, a film, a song, a whatever you'd like to add to this sentence. It'll be defined by a body of work, perhaps a body of hybridity, perhaps not, but I think it will be defined by the concerns and questions that come out of mongrelization (which, before you all say it, is not the ugly, dirty word you're all probably thinking--I've no time for purity in culture and people and I don't value it, so take those complaints somewhere else). But what that also means is that what you would call an Australian is being defined on hundreds and thousands of different fronts, some cultural, some personal, some something else entirely. It's going to be different for everyone. And it's going to make it hard for the individual when he/she begins to look at what makes for a unique Australian flavour or statement to art; but when looking, I think, you will have to embrace the mongrelization, and look over genre borders, over time, over class, over forms, and you will have to let it mingle and mix, a bit of this and that, because that's how something new comes into the world, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie.





So, that said, if you're at the upcoming World Fantasy Convention and you're interested in Australian fiction, and you want to hear the opinions of people who're are not me (and thus more charming and intelligent and thought out (though not good looking--I have to draw a line somewhere) you might want to head to this:

WFC program
Saturday 11:00AM-12:00PM

Fantasy Down Under Capitol B

In the past few years, there has been a surge of powerful fantasy writers from Australia, all with distinctive and innovative voices. How did this renaissance come about? What constitutes a uniquely Australian writer? Who will be the next breakout writers from Down Under?

Justin Ackroyd, Deborah Biancotti, Jonathan Strahan, Jeff VanderMeer (M), Scott Westerfeld.