The Circle and the Spiral: A study of Australian Aboriginal & New Zealand Maori Literature by Eva Rusk Knudsen.

Reviewed by Katherine Russo

© all rights reserved

Since their first circulation in the non-Indigenous world, Indigenous Australian and Maori literatures have variously staged the trial of ‘authenticity’ due to their adoption of writing and their supposed distance from their oral ‘origins’. The relationship between orality and writing, Indigenous traditions and appropriations, identity and representation, becomes central in Eva Rusk Knudsen’s The Circle and the Spiral: A study of Australian Aboriginal & New Zealand Maori Literature (2004). This analysis of an illustrative corpus of Indigenous Australian and Maori novels intends to outline the fields of Indigenous writing in Australian and New Zealand in the period between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s (xiv). According to Knudsen, this period deserves particular attention because “Indigenous writing in both countries left behind a strong narrative preference for social realism in favour of traversing old territories in new spiritual ways”(xiv).1 In Knudsen’s analysis, Keri Hulme’s the bone people (1984), Patricia Grace’s Potiki (1986), Mudrooroo’s Master of the Ghost Dreaming (1991) and Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung(1990) become sites of a ‘creative’ movement of transformation – a continual becoming and homecoming – that stems within writing as a camouflaged subtext of a language, culture and spirituality in exile. Drawing on various and often clashing interpretations of Indigenous Australian and Maori traditions of storytelling and visual art, Knudsen defines this movement as a creative return to what she identifies as the essential cores of Indigenous Australian and Maori cultures: the ‘circle’ and the ‘spiral’.

The declared aim of Knudsen’s research is to trace, maintain and preserve difference in order to surpass what she identifies as the impasse of postcolonial theory: the homogenising consequences of the universal opposition of colonised/coloniser. The author affirms that her intention is to search for the “ontological grounds of Aboriginal and Maori traditions and specific ways of moving through and behaving in cultural landscapes and social contexts”(xiv). Therefore, the choice of concentrating on literary texts is justified as a consequence of this conscious attempt to evade those modes of analysis that characterise ‘colonial discourse’ in unitary and universalised modes and thereby perpetuate it. Knudsen’s acknowledgement that a critique of colonialism that is based on the idea of a coherent system can be equated with an erasure of the diverse experiences that shape its history is very insightful. In fact, the cultural reproduction of tradition is performed as a repetition but it is also incremented by the introduction of new or different elements, which constitute an excess that resides ‘in’ the process of reiterating traditional knowledge. This excess is the excess of experience which can never coincide with a superimposed theoretical apparatus. Knudsen is very aware of this and her close analysis seeks to maintain a fundamental openness to hear and engage with the texts she is reading. This analysis is at its best in the careful mapping of the controversial debates surrounding the issue of orality and tradition and in the analysis of the unique oral narrative and communication techniques displayed by the novels she analyses. However, Knudsen’s search for the specific and local leaves us doubtful if we consider that she is actually creating two literary canons based on the re-visitation of singular symbolic traditions. To assert that the spiralling, cyclical, and often itinerant, nature of Indigenous Australian and Maori writing allows a journey of perpetual becoming, which reiterates traditional knowledge only to transform and recreate it anew, is to relegate their experience to a singular proper movement.

Knudsen’s indefatigable exegesis of the scenes and passages which refer to sacred/secret material and her quest for underlying oral patterns of these novels are certainly very valuable and useful for scholars of these two literatures, but they are also quite dangerous in that they create a ‘canon’ which privileges the texts which revisit or re-enact tradition in the mode prescribed by this critical evaluation. Knudsen’s intention to outline the fields of Indigenous writing in Australia and New Zealand in the crucial period between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, in which the writers moved towards what she terms “New Traditionalism”, becomes prescribing when she defines these novels as models for the future and as the most prominent examples of Indigenous Australian and Maori literature, culture and consciousness.

The inevitable exclusion attached to this enterprise of ‘canonisation’ becomes evident in the third chapter entitled “Exile and Return”. The function of this chapter is to create a comparative foil to the subsequent discussion through an analysis of the novels that employ social realism such as Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990), Archie Weller’s The Day of the Dog (1981), Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987) and Mudrooroo’s Wild Cat Falling (1965), Long Live Sandawara (1979) and Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription For enduring the End of the World (1983). These novels are identified as the narration of the life of a “a disturbingly high percentage of both high Aboriginal Maori people [who] are mixed-blood fringe-dwellers who live in landscapes of unbelonging …. Feelings of anger and frustration are very much the dominant atmosphere of most novels written in the mode of social realism”. According to Knudsen, the confronting descriptions of alienation, placelessness and cultural rootlessness are due to the Indigenous exile from place and memory. This exile is mirrored in the broken language of these novels and can only be resolved in the novels which perform a return to the Indigenous Australian Dreaming Land or Maori wharenui and adopt oral patterns and underlying sacred/secret structures of signification. Therefore, Knudsen seeks to advocate a specific ‘New traditionalism’ and a cyclical return to the core or essence of tradition, that admits in its process the possibility of transformation into new mediums, spaces and times, but by advocating one and only essential core of culture she denies the possibility of choosing between multiple experiential becomings. In searching for a specific core and the cyclical return to it, the possibility of multiple affiliations remains unexplored.

Knudsen’s combination of Indigenous and European theorisations of orality and Indigenous spirituality responds to her desire to leave an ear or eye open to what the texts are telling. This hybrid combination is successful in that it points out that post-modern, post-structuralist and post-colonial theorizations were influenced by Indigenous Australian and Maori culture just as much as Cubism and Modernism were influenced by Indigenous visual art.2 Furthermore, Knudsen attempts to adopt some oral tools in her own writing such as a circular structure and what she terms an ‘indigenized’ reading. In her application of the latter, Knudsen is exploring the possibilities offered by Mudrooroo’s employment of Michael Riffaterre’s theory of the hidden metatext or matrix. In Writing from the Fringe (1990), Mudrooroo explained that Indigenous Australian writers often echo the traditional secret/sacred prescriptions of their ancestors inscribing a camouflaged or hidden metatext in their writing, which doesn’t open itself up to the understanding of the un-initiated reader. Moreover, Mudrooroo theorized that this hidden metatext of Indigenality or maban reality could be uncovered by a retroactive reading which would disclose its essence to the aware or initiated reader. Following Mudrooroo’s footsteps, Knudsen searches for “the black words on the white page … in the Indigenous subtexts of contemporary Aboriginal and Maori literature”. This results in a prolific and engaging textual analysis. However, I feel that in attempting to trace this essence “waiting to be disclosed”, Knudsen falls in the trap of re-enacting the scopic/colonising function of the researcher, whose desire is to disclose in order to know. This theorisation of ‘aware reading’ could also be the reason of her identification of a single Indigenous pattern of engagement with tradition. Knudsen seems to fall in the problematic theorisation of one single way of reading the text, which is quite obviously elitist but also a reduction of the writers’ display of multiple identifications and writings.3 Indigenous Australian and Maori writers have variously appropriated the art of storytelling in relation to the purpose they wished to accomplish and to the audience they wished to address. The reader’s expectation and desire for one recognizable oral form and the illusion of clearly identifiable oral strands needs to be put in question. Moreover, the recurrent celebration of Indigenous Australian writing as way of conveying orality has often been the work of Western academics and critics who celebrate this return (and the possibility of their investigations) irrespective of the Indigenous writers’ call for the necessity of ‘visible’ speaking positions. Most of all the celebration of Indigenous writing as a vessel for an otherwise lost and unknowable oral knowledge doesn’t take into consideration the Indigenous writers’ recent call for a deeply engaged questioning of the role of Western editors and writers in both the passage from voice to book and in writing itself.

Echoing Ross Chambers’s affirmation that “there is no stopping texts; in their readability lies their potential for oppositional resilience”,4 Knudsen’s justifies her speaking position as an analyser of the published texts that writers have left free to circulate and that are therefore, open to communication. However, we should not forget that the process of writing/reading can be the site of a contact zone still regulated by power relations which necessitates the unveiling and questioning of the invisible white researcher.5 Thus, these Indigenous texts with their often clear indication of the community or individuals they are addressing, signalled by the recurrent deictic elements they employ, may enable the space of writing/reading to become a site for responsible communication. They become a space of enunciation which forces a clear establishment of speaking positions. Perhaps, we should not forget that one of the most important requirements of the oral tradition is the recurrent questioning and acknowledgement of our ‘positionality’, accountability and responsibility in a community of speakers. Linda Alcoff deptly describes this necessity,

[I]t is important to reconceptualize discourse…. as an event, which includes speaker, words, hearers, location, language and so on. All such evaluations produced in this way will be of necessity indexed … This simply follows from the fact that the evaluations will be based on the specific elements of historical discursive context, location of speakers and hearers and so forth”.6

The Circle and the Spiral: A study of Australian Aboriginal & New Zealand Maori Literature was published by Rodopi in 2004.

Katherine Russo graduated at University “Orientale” of Naples, Italy. In the past, she has primarily focussed on the issues of imprisonment, identity and representation in Indigenous Australian Literature. At present, she is working on the Indigenous Australian appropriation of mediums of communication and white/Indigenous literary relationships. She is currently a PhD student at University of New South Wales, Australia.

  1. Knudsen’s choice and delineation of this period is here clearly indebted to Mudrooroo’s famous call for a return “back to the very roots of Aboriginal culture”. In an often quoted interview with Liz Thomson, Mudrooroo stated that many Indigenous writers were merely concerned with showing “what they done to us” and expressed his belief in the need for Indigenous Australian writers to empace an alternative form of writing to realism. He suggested that through the “Dreaming … the field of creation”, a new Aboriginal literature could be developed. Mudrooroo, “Mudrooroo Narogin: Writer” in Liz Thompson ed., Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Artists, Writers and Performers, Sydney: Simon and Schuster, 1990: 58-59.
  2. For a further exploration of this relation see Nicholas Thomas, Possessions: Indigenous Art, colonial culture, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
  3. For instance, Mudrooroo’s exploration of his affiliative relation to Indigenous Australian tradition is diversely displayed in his various works. His multiple identifications have been productively maintained in the recently published collection of essays edited by Annalisa Oboe, Mongrel Signatures: Reflections on the Work of Mudrooroo, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
  4. Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction, Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1990: 3.
  5. Among others see Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight, Publishing Indigenous Literature, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2003.
  6. Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking For Others”, Cultural Critique, Winter 1991-1992: 26.

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