To celebrate Australia Day this year we thought we’d take a look at the country through the eyes of literature, and how books shine a light on some of the darker aspects of Australian life.
This was prompted by the incredibly provoking picture book Australia to Z, which got us thinking about some of our other favourites which take a good hard look at Australia, its inhabitants and history.
So here’s our Australia Day collection of books, for young and old, fiction and non-fiction, for you to see Australia through some different eyes.
Australia to Z – Armin Greder
An alphabet book with a difference, certainly not one for young children, Australia to Z is a picture book that prompts and prods readers with stark imagery and word choices. So much is said about Australia with so few words. From the opening pages, to the closing spread, both shown below, this is a thought provoking look at what makes up Australia and it’s psyche.
There are some obvious choices (Aborigine, Kangaroo), and some less so (Calories, Jerry Can), but all of the stark depictions shed new light on every day elements of Australian life. There is a dark humour throughout, with occasional letter choices (IKEA, Thongs) and use of colour breaking up the despair and lightening the tone.
Every viewing brings further reading into the imagery and Armin Greder’s letter choices, and leaves much to ponder about all the things, big and small, that make up Australia. And on the page with the most text, Greder closes the book with Australia’s national anthem, asking questions of its meaning in this day and age with both the images alongside it, and all those that have come before.
The Indigenous people and invasion
Following that opening salvo of A from Australia to Z, our next two books also look back at the time of European settlement, and the lessons that can be learnt from a period of Australian history that is especially important to remember on Australia day.
Jandamarra by Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton
This is a picture book suitable for young and old, telling the epic and tragic story of Jandamarra, a young warrior and Indigenous hero of the Kimberley. To the Bunuba people he was a courageous defender of his country, to the settlers who he once worked for he was an outlaw to be hunted.
Told through the text of Mark Greenwood, with fabulous illustrations from Terry Denton, this is a story for all Australians and provides a unique insight into an extraordinary man and a powerful slice of history, which sadly is all too representative of what happened to the indigenous people across the country.
Warrior by Libby Connors
The award winning Warrior was recently recommended as a must read for the Prime Minister this summer, and we would add that it is a must read for all Australians. The book is an engrossing and enlightening portrait of life in early Brisbane, telling the fascinating story of young warrior Dundalli, one of the great Aboriginal resistance fighters.
Australia’s journey towards reconciliation needs a better understanding of the indigenous nations and the colonial wars that were fought on the frontiers. Telling stories such as Dundalli’s will help all Australians develop the mutual understanding and respect that were missing from the early nineteenth century, and are needed for national unity today.
Onto more recent topics that are challenging our impressions of Australia and its people. Charlotte Wood drew on the history of the Hay Institution and more recent treatment of women by powerful men in The Natural Way of Things, while other battles facing women are found as Maureen McCarthy tackles the huge issues of domestic violence & mental health in Stay With Me and Sofie Laguna also looks at domestic violence and alcoholism, but through the eyes of a child, in Miles Franklin winning The Eye of The Sheep. Further insight into Australian life comes from the ever incisive (and decisive) Christos Tsiolkas who looks at class and race in Barracuda, while Jasper Jones and Coming of Age both look at race and immigration.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
We’ve spoken a lot about The Natural Way of Things, with staff raves, critical reviews and reader commentary coming thick and fast since it was published. And to add to this, here’s Jess with why this is the novel of our time, why it is resonating, and why it provides an important spotlight on Australia:
Over the years, I (like most other Australian women) have absorbed a steady drip-feed of coverage of high-profile sex scandals, all of which (when I think about it clearly) featured powerful men behaving badly. Bosses (with employees), celebrities (with fans), sports stars (with girlfriends or groupies), teachers (with students)… And yet, somehow, all too often, it’s not the men who end up worse off once it’s all come to light. It seems that we’re convinced these whistleblowing women are tall poppies, needing to be ruthlessly pruned in the traditional Aussie manner.
Charlotte Wood takes this idea and imagines it into a truly explosive thriller. Misogyny and sexism are to be found everywhere. The Natural Way of Things shines a brilliant, pitiless light on the particular shape that it often takes in Australia.
Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy
With domestic abuse being one of the biggest killers in Australia, Maureen McCarthy’s latest novel Stay With Me tackles this head on, raising timely awareness of a very important issue. The book also looks at the mental health impact of domestic abuse, and the long lasting effect that such abusive relationships can have for both women and children. Maureen has brought these topics to the fore in a gripping story about a young mother, fleeing for her life from an abusive husband, inspired by a chance meeting on a train.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna
Offering further insight into abusive relationships, with the additional impact of alcoholism on families, comes through Sofie Laguna’s Miles Franklin Award Winning novel The Eye of the Sheep. The novel also makes us think about how we treat those who are different, as both family and institutions struggle to deal with the challenge of looking after our narrator, a young boy named Jimmy who (while not explicitly stated) is on the autistic spectrum.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
As a nation fixated on sport, Barracuda is an unflinching look at our obsession with sporting heroes, both building them up and watching them fall. It’s a brutal clash of cultures and classes, dreams and expectations. Taking a look at the relentless demands we place on our young athletes, their families, friends, schools and coaches, in true Tsiolkas fashion he looks at the questions “what if we fail?” and “what does it mean to be a good person?”.
We’re hugely excited about seeing Barracuda on ABC later this year as a mini-series, so what better time to read or revisit it.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
An Australian classic set in WA during the 1960s, there’s still much that can be learned and applied to recent times about the prejudices and racism shown in how the town treated both the Indigenous and immigrant population when trouble reared its head.
With theatre productions gathering rave reviews, and a film in production, there’s no better time to revisit or acquaint yourself with Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, and ponder how much has really changed in Australia in the last fifty years?
Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren
A hugely important and timely book, Coming of Age presents an alternative view of Muslims and their life in Australia compared to that portrayed in the media. This is a hugely fascinating collection of stories from twelve Muslim-Australians – some well known, some not – who reveal their candid, funny and touching tales of growing up with a dual identity.
Again, this was chosen by the Gratten Institute as a must read for the Prime Minister this summer, and we’d say this is equally applicable advice to the rest of the nation, here’s what they say about it:
The true stories in Coming of Age, suitable for both children and adults, explore the everyday struggles and triumphs of young people living with dual Muslim/Australian identities. This book is particularly relevant as we try to come to terms with the acts of radicalised Muslims in 2015 from Beirut, to Paris and Nigeria. Coming of Age reminds us that people who identify as Muslim are much more diverse than the stereotypes we see on television. These ordinary yet moving stories allow young voices to cut through. Understanding their stories and viewpoints shows there is much to look forward to as Australia too comes of age.