A review of ‘Where the Rivers Meet: New Writing from Australia’ edited by Frank Stewart, Larissa Behrendt, Barry Lopez, and Mark Tredinnick

by Cameron Muir

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Australia is the subject of a special issue of Manoa for the second time in the journal’s 18 year history of publishing literature from the Asia Pacific region. Recent poetry, fiction and essays from well known writers such as David Malouf, Judith Beverage, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Kevin Hart and Bruce Pascoe, as well as photography by Ricky Maynard, fill the pages of Where the Rivers Meet. Australian guest editors Larissa Behrendt and Mark Tredinnick, along with Barry Lopez and Manoa editor Frank Stewart, have made the Australian environment and relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people central and often connected themes. I found strong place-based writing is what appears most consistently across the collection and I have chosen to mention briefly four contributions that illustrate the thread of place running through these works.

The Asia Pacific region is vast and diverse, yet dominant Australian culture seems to place our continent somewhere just off the west coast of the USA rather than south of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In the first article in the collection Deborah Bird Rose reminds us that long before Australia was on any map of the Pacific, its place in the world was well known. It pleased me to see an anthropologist included in a journal whose temper is overwhelmingly literary. It is one of the most important pieces in this collection for showcasing the richness of Australian culture because it is one of the few contributions to discuss Australia ‘s pre-invasion society and its cultural continuity through processes of colonisation. We are presented with a suite of stories about literature, or the high art of a remote people and the last songs of dingoes. Rose makes connections between Indigenous oral traditions and Western mythology and their incorporation of the natural world. The night sky is a palimpsest of different cultural stories, and the Aboriginal people in this article have an uncanny ability to start a sentence in the stars and finish it in the rocks and trees and dust. In the end it is a mournful piece because the material remnants of these stories have been partly destroyed, and we get the sense that the recording of the dingo’s song that ‘cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again’ (p. 5) is already an artefact left over from a creature that will soon have no place in this country.

In her essay ‘Not Quite White in the Head’, Melissa Lucashenko calls for an ecological and social ethic of acceptance of local place and community. She demythologises ‘sea-change’ destinations and criticises those she accuses of ‘doing a geographic’, the term in Alcoholics Anonymous parlance for describing the actions of someone who rushes away to start a new life. Lucashenko appears to be criticising the mobile, professional classes; people with the means to choose otherwise. Making suggestions for how people ought to live is tricky terrain, but Lucashenko’s variations on individual responsibility coupled with community participation and development of local knowledge (that is, knowledge about your local area) have interesting implications for ways of acting environmentally – ways that go beyond changing light bulbs.

Tony Birch’s story ‘Bulldozers’ illustrates some of the reasons why there is a disjunction between community and local place. This contribution explores displacement, loss and memory in pre-gentrified Brunswick St in Melbourne. Here, we enter an urban environment that has long been home to marginalised people. Bulldozers are tearing down the fibro houses along the street one by one and families are being forced to move elsewhere. We are shown that ‘progress’ for some can mean the violent razing of memory, identity, and material connections to place and the past. A reticent father who walks out on his family had me asking what has already been lost. It complements Lucashenko’s essay and together they present the wider context of cultural conditions that shape connections to local place.

In one of the few instances in this collection of an Australian in the world, Robert Gray uses imagery to evoke the mountains of Guang-Xi Province in southern China. We accompany him on his bamboo raft, gliding down the river at the pole-man’s pace. Towards the end of the poem Gray says humans can find comfort in the indifference of nature when we are secure, but suggests the poor in rural China do not have such a luxury. The cultural experience of these people is broader than the mountain regions; for one, they have a communal television. In a reversal of the situation in ‘Bulldozers’ the villagers here have no choice but to stay.

‘Where the rivers meet’ serves as a versatile metaphor and it encompasses the confluence of cultures, histories, emotions and styles that this collection draws together from writing that struggles to deal with Australia’s colonial past and continuing processes of rift and reconciliation. In place-based writing there is an overlap with the concerns of the ecological humanities, and even where works do not obviously deal with ecology or nature their emphasis on place means it is still interesting to ask how they might connect with ecological concerns.

As an Australian I started to think that some of the material in this issue of Manoa was a bit familiar. I know the smell of eucalypts and dust, I know what it is like to drive for seven hours and feel you are under the same sky. I know the politics of being a beneficiary of another’s dispossession. I wanted to know what a Hawaiian or Korean person would make of all this. How do our stories connect with those of our Pacific neighbours? How do we understand the Pacific, and how does the region understand us? These are matters I would like to have seen explored, but perhaps these would make a different book. This book is for the world, and the Pacific in particular, to see what we are up to, a bit of insight into our art, history, politics, people and environment. For that it is excellent, and it encourages me to read an issue of Manoa from Vietnam or Polynesia. Perhaps I will subscribe to find out more about our relationship with the Asia Pacific region. For Australians, and in particular those of us in the ecological humanities, we have the opportunity to make different readings and connections through the work of established Australian writers, connections we might not have made without the editors’ careful selections. In any circumstances, it is a fine collection of writing by some of our best authors.


Cameron Muir is an environmental historian undertaking doctoral studies on regional New South Wales. He is based at theFenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University – e-mail: cameron.muir@anu.edu.au

Where the Rivers Meet: New Writing from Australia was published in Manoa, Winter 2006, University of Hawai’i Press, (180 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0824831783, $US 16)

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au