• Books
  • Home and away: Why Australian literature is having a moment internationally

Editor's column

Home and away: Why Australian literature is having a moment internationally

Australian author Gerald Murnane has been gaining international recognition. But there is plenty more to discover from down under.

Photo: IMAGO/ Pond5 Images

If you carry an Australian passport and move in bookish circles, the following ordeal is likely to befall you: somebody finds out where you are from – typically it’s a man, the kind of man that seriously gets off on long sentences. This man will smile, a twinkle will appear in his eye, and he will announce, immensely proud of his worldliness: “You know, I’ve read Murnane.”

Ah, yes. Gerald Murnane. He is Australia’s literary man of the moment, likely my nation’s foremost octogenarian literary horse-racing enthusiast and a hot tip ever since a 2018 New York Times article asked “Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?” 

Australian literature offers so much more.

Now, Murnane is a good writer: this column wants no beef with him or his fans. But I am certainly not the only Australian who bristles at the way international interest has focused so obsessively on him, especially when that hype seemingly invokes ideas about Australia – real men! dusty towns! horses! – that don’t really have much to do with who we are today.

✏ Great Berlin writers and where they lived

Australian literature offers so much more, as proves a slew of new releases. The feminist literary icon Helen Garner has recently had a trio of her works (re)published in the US – her powerful 1980s novella The Children’s Bach is not to be missed – while Nam Le, author of the gobsmackingly good short story collection The Boat, has returned with a book of poetry that adds new registers to his clever treatment of identity, migration and representation.

Photo: IMAGO / VWPics

Meanwhile, those alternative canon-makers at New Directions have recognised the indigenous author Alexis Wright by publishing two epic novels of hers. Punters like to talk about Murnane for the Nobel, but the smart money’s on Wright. (Sadly, one of Australia’s greatest authors – the poet and prose writer Antigone Kefala – has hardly been published beyond our shores.)

In most of these authors’ work, the Australianness at stake is one of cultural collision: it is about navigating internationalism, probing migrant identities, negotiating foreign cultural influences and reworking the past. Perhaps fittingly, then, the global literary city du jour – Berlin, Berlin – has lured plenty of Australian writers.

Nick Cave began his debut novel while living in West Berlin, while Christos Tsiolkas and A.L. McCann both published about the post-Wall city’s gritty and radical sides.

Northeast Germany and Australia have surprisingly deep literary connections.

More recently, two of Australia’s finest young essayists, Fiona Wright and Ellena Savage, published prose about their time here; so has celebrated author Gail Jones, whose Nabokov-inspired A Guide To Berlin is one of the city’s better “expat novels”. Translator James J. Conway and writers like Madeleine Watts, Vijay Khurana, Stuart Braun and Dženana Vucic all continue the Ausberlin legacy.

Northeast Germany and Australia have surprisingly deep literary connections. The Nobel laureate Patrick White’s 1957 Voss – to some, the Great Australian Novel – is loosely modelled on the colonial journeys of an explorer born in Brandenburg.

And Australia’s finest press, Giramondo, is co-run by the brilliant German-born editor and writer Evelyn Juers. But perhaps the most interesting instalment in this literary exchange comes from Leipzig-based indie press Connewitzer Buchhandlungs Verlag, who recently published a German translation of the Australian classic Maurice Guest by pseudonymous female author Henry Handel Richardson.

This fascinating novel may be set in turn-of-the-century Leipzig, but its cosmopolitan milieu and central themes – art, love, obsession, queer desire, and making bad music – feel perfectly suited to a contemporary Berlin reader.