A review of Sue Kossew’s Writing Woman, Writing Place : Contemporary Australian and South African Fiction

by Elizabeth Webby

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Despite the many historical and cultural links between the former British colonies of Australia and South Africa, little attempt has been made to look at their literatures in a comparative way. Sue Kossew’s book is therefore especially welcome, not only for its many insights into contemporary fiction by women from both countries, but as an indication that national boundaries might finally be breaking down. In focussing on women’s writing of place she has chosen an area central to current debates in postcolonial literary studies as well as one which has always been a dominant aspect of both countries’ literary traditions.

In her general introduction, ‘Place, space and gender’, Kossew notes both the similarities and differences between the two countries’ histories and cultures: in South Africa racial issues have always been more important than those of gender. She points to ‘an engagement with the effects of violence, both physical and psychical’ and an interest in ‘revisioning history’ as two significant features of recent Australian and South African fiction by women. The two features are of course linked, in that attempts to rewrite the past are deeply disturbing and fiercely resisted by those who have benefited from actions which are now condemned.

Kossew begins her discussion of Australian texts with an outline of recent challenges to the national literary tradition of proud pioneers and noble bushman by feminist and Indigenous writers and critics. Chapter 1, ‘The violence of representation’, deals with rewritings of Henry Lawson’s iconic story ‘The Drover’s Wife’. While rewritings by male authors, especially Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse, have been the subject of critical articles, little has been said about the many rewritings by women, including Barbara Jefferis in 1980, Anne Gambling in 1986, Olga Masters in 1988 and Mandy Sayer in 1996. Kossew also extends her discussion back to earlier depictions of the bushwoman by Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, as well as analysing the more extended treatment found in Kate Jennings’ novella Snake (1996). In her second chapter, ‘Gone bush’, she provides a detailed reading of Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (1999) and Eva Sallis’s Hiam (1998), two novels which take city characters into the bush. In both, the bush, while initially seen as alien and threatening, gradually takes on a more positive aspect, to become a place of redemption and belonging. As Kossew points out, both novels are silent about Indigenous Australians and questions of dispossession, a silence which may seem excusable in relation to Sallis’s migrant protagonist but is more problematic in the case of Grenville’s novel.

Far more negative portrayals of life in country towns are to be found in Thea Astley’s Drylands (1999) and Gillian Mears’ Fineflour (1990) and The Mint Lawn (1991). Kossew provides a fine discussion of Astley’s ‘book for the world’s last reader’, which also was her own last novel, indicating its links with her earlier works in its criticism of racism and xenophobia, sexism and anti-intellectualism, here redeemed only by the ironic brilliance of the writing. Astley may have continued to write with a biro rather than switching to a computer but the metanarratives ofDrylands show that she was well aware of postmodernism. She was also well aware, as Kossew indicates, of the ‘anxious nature of settler identity on the cusp of the twenty-first century’, in particular of how the fear of difference, whether of race or gender, can result in violent attempts to eradicate it. Mears’ novels, though not dealing with racial difference, are equally full of tropes of disease, violence and violation. Chapter 4, ‘Learning to belong’, focuses on two lesser known novels, Jo Dutton’s On the Edge of Red (1998) and Heather Grace’s Heart of Light (1992), both of which take their female protagonists on journeys into the outback, where Indigenous issues cannot be ignored. Kossew also discusses some earlier works set in the outback, by Jeannie Gunn and Katharine Prichard, where Indigenous Australians were presented with sympathy but denied any voice or agency.

Discussion of contemporary novels in the four chapters on South African writers is even more strongly grounded in a detailed account of earlier fiction. Chapter 5, with a focus on ‘the politics of representation and commitment’, examines Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) and Burger’s Daughter (1979), along with Menán du Plessis’s A State of Fear (1983) and Longlive!(1989), looking at the tensions in their work between the personal and the political. Chapter 6 looks at a recent rewriting of the farm novel, the South African equivalent of Australian pioneering stories, in Anne Landsman’s The Devil’s Chimney (1998), within a context of earlier work in this genre by Olive Schreiner, Pauline Smith, Doris Lessing and Gordimer. Chapter 7, ‘Revisioning history’, examines two novels, Elleke Boehmer’s Bloodlines (2000) and Anne Harries’s Manly Pursuits (1999), which both draw on an earlier traumatic period in South Africa history, the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, as a way of throwing light on contemporary traumas. Olive Schreiner even appears as a character in Harries’ novel, supposedly a manuscript sent to her by an Oxford ornithologist, Professor Francis Wills. Novels by Gillian Slovo and Gordimer dealing with another momentous historical event, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are the focus of Chapter 8. As Kossew notes, both focus on issues of morality and violence, the tension between the private and the public, and ‘the peculiar intimacy that developed between enemies’.

In her final chapter, Sue Kossew looks ‘beyond the national’ to explore the coincidence that both Sallis’s The City of Sealions (2002) and Gordimer’s The Pickup (2001) are set in the Middle East and deal with the relationship between young women from a Western background and Muslim men. One significant difference, however, is that Sallis’s protagonist is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman who reached Australia as a ‘boat person’; Lian returns to Australia at the end of the novel whereas Gordimer’s Julie remains in the desert even though her lover leaves for America. As in Hiam, Sallis’s choice of an non-Anglo-Celtic protagonist perhaps explains why Lian can experience an unproblematic sense of belonging to Australia, while the white Julie cannot feel at home in South Africa. Interestingly, in a number of recent Australian novels by both women and men, the same displaced desire for reconciliation with the Other is presented through relationships between white Australian women and black African men.


Writing Woman, Writing Place : Contemporary Australian and South African Fiction by Sue Kossew was published by Routledge in 2004.

Elizabeth Webby is Professor of Australian Literature and Director of Australian Studies at the University of Sydney. She edited The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000).

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