>Patricia Wrightson, Part 5: Looking To The Future

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You can find the first part of this feature here:


We’ve made it to the fifth and final part of our discussion of Patricia Wrightson, and it’s time to look towards the future.

The challenges of Wrightson’s legacy, the power of her storytelling, and the undeniable literary quality of her writing, make it an absolute shame that her books are so hard to get hold of today.

I was lucky that Judith Ridge’s notice of Patricia Wrightson’s death led me to pick up old paperback editions online, and lucky once more that Claire Massey of the Fairy Tale Cupboard led me to Katherine Langrish’s blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

A post on Seven Miles, ‘Cultural Appropriation and The White Saviour’, addressing Katherine’s own use of Native American myth in her fantasy writing, brings us forward to the 21st century. It pointed me towards the Australian government’s protocols on using Aboriginal culture in literature – a valuable initiative which nonetheless raises further interesting questions about how legal and governmental bodies regulate the imagination!

But ultimately, as Katherine points out: ‘While I find it terribly sad that Wrightson’s books were shunned, I can see also that when so much has been stolen, people are going to feel strongly about ownership of their own stories. Stories are the signature of a culture. And sometimes stories are all you have left.’

I recognise the limits of what we’ve done here at Books and Adventures this month. All I can hope is that, for readers as new to Wrightson as me, these few instalments on the blog have gone beyond the obituaries and given a little more attention to the issues, and existing discussions, surrounding Wrightson’s work.

Let’s give the last word to Mark Macleod, who talked to me about the prospects of a reissue for Wrightson’s works:

‘A very few publishers have shown that they are willing to republish Australian classics, but the problem is that the ‘classic’ presentation they choose has almost no appeal to young readers today, and the sales that result create a self-fulfilling prophecy about the likely level of interest in such writers. Maybe some enthusiast will find ways of making them work in the digital space, by focusing on readers who are not the traditional supporters of literary fiction.’

Next time on Books and Adventures: an interview with Chris Angotti, Director of the Young Writers’ Program at NaNoWrimo

>Patricia Wrightson, Part 3: Outsiders and Indigenization

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Patricia Wrightson was born in 1921 and grew up between the two World Wars of the 20th century. Publisher Mark Macleod points to her childhood in the 1930s as setting the context for her relationship to indigenous culture. The interwar years saw Australia disillusioned by the sacrifices of the First World War and turning away from ‘Old Europe’ towards the cultures of its own continent: ‘This was the Australia that Patricia Wrightson grew up in: with some sense of loss of its connection with Europe, and some sense of impending loss of its Indigenous culture and the need to ‘save’ it.
‘The devastating loss of young Australian lives in a war that had no geographical imperative for us, but was wholly motivated by the political connection with the UK, and the resulting destruction of European society on a massive scale produced a turning-away from Europe by many Australian artists. It seemed to many that European culture was moribund … So writers and visual artists particularly began to look to Indigenous Australian sources of energy for the imagination … The artists – having been brought up with the general belief that Indigenous Australian culture was dying – thought they were preserving it.’
John Murray locates Wrightson’s work within a tradition of literary ‘indigenization’ – fiction that seeks to bring European-descended inhabitants of countries like Australia ‘into imaginative contact with the lands in which most of them were born but in which, by comparison with their indigenous peoples, they are aliens.’ To Murray, Wirrun himself becomes an explicitly indigenizing figure, unifying Australia: by the final book of the trilogy, he has taken on heroic responsibilities to the entire spiritual and material ecology of the continent, from spirits to the white urban population and the animal kingdom besides.
Mark Macleod told me: ‘It is possible to read Patricia Wrightson’s emphasis on ‘folk’ as a romantic reverence for simplicity or innocence. This comes dangerously close to the racist construction of indigenous cultures generally as childlike … We understand now that we can kill the thing we love, but it is too easy to approach this difficult and complex issue ahistorically and condemn it out of hand.’
An alternative, Mark suggests, is to look at the overlapping experiences of outsiderness between indigenous Australians and other groups. He points to the poet Les Murray’s early interest in Indigenous subject matter in the 1960s and 70s: ‘With his Scots heritage and his upbringing in rural Australia, he sees a natural empathy between the marginalising of Celtic Australians, non-Anglo migrants and Indigenous Australians. They have all been colonised by the English.’
Brian Attebery, writing on Wirrun in 2005, chimes with this perspective when he discusses George, a white ‘Inlander’ who helps Wirrun at the climax of the first book by distracting other white Australians who threaten to interfere with our hero’s plans. George, a farmer of harsh and isolated country, is an outsider in the mainstream society of white Australian ‘Happy Folk’, figures who feature only in the margins of the Wirrun books.
Attebery suggests that the Australian continent is the real protagonist of The Song of Wirrun, and all the other characters are defined by their relationship to the land – a sliding scale from the ignorant, superficial Happy Folk with their air conditioning and service stations, graduating through the Inlanders to the Aboriginal People, heroes like Wirrun, and finally the spirits whose actions trigger Wirrun’s quest.
Mark Macleod writes, ‘The reality is that there are Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and they need to find ways to coexist. Their histories and mythologies are different; their values often seem diametrically opposed. [Wrightson’s] project to try and create a pan-Australian imagery therefore rests finally on the idea that all they really have in common is the land.’

‘There is a sense of loss by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But what they all have in common is the land. Wrightson says repeatedly throughout her career that her books must not be read as ‘good vs. evil’ stories. The real issue is ecology: the rightful place of all beings.’ – Mark Macleod

Seen in this light, George the Inlander is an outsider, too – like Les Murray’s Celts. Although he’s not directly allied with Wirrun on his quest, he obliquely helps by keeping other white Australians away. He does this, tellingly, by taking on a number of roles which satirise relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, pretending to be first an anthropologist, then the producer of a hippyish Aboriginal ‘happening’, and finally a snake collector who has hired Wirrun and company to collect poisonous reptiles.

Mark Macleod suggests that for Wrightson, the key figure was always that of the outsider, be that the artist in Australian society, or the child in the adult world. In their different ways, George and Wirrun, and Wrightson herself, are all outsider figures.

Wirrun was Wrightson’s first indigenous main character. As Macleod points out, ‘He is a city boy, who travels to the central Australian desert and reconnects with the Dreaming. He is marginalised in his own culture.’ Brian Attebery takes this further by pointing to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and raised in homes or adopted by white families. The white-educated Wirrun is likely either a member of the Stolen Generation, or a child of that generation – although this is not confirmed explicitly by Wrightson’s text.

Mark continues: ‘By the mid-70s, when the Wirrun books started to appear, Indigenous Australian voices were becoming a powerful political and cultural force … So Wrightson’s desire to alert non-Indigenous Australians to the need for a new vision was becoming increasingly irrelevant … She did realise it, and from the mid-80s she lets go of the Indigenous subject matter for which she had become known around the world.’

This idea of letting go of indigenous subject matter from the mid-80s is the line that is taken in Patricia Wrightson’s UK obituaries…but one of her most interesting and challenging books is the unusual, dreamlike Shadows of Time. This novel, published in the wake of Australia’s bicentenary, seemed almost to revisit the world of Wirrun, with both an indigenous main character and seemingly indigenous spirit characters.

We’ll be looking at Shadows next time on Books and Adventures. To go to part four of this feature, click here.

>Patricia Wrightson, Part 2 – The Representation of Aboriginality

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Clare Bradford’s 2001 Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children’s Literature was one of the key academic texts to question Patricia Wrightson’s use of Aboriginal myth.

Bradford’s study was a clear-headed critique of Aussie writing for children, with lasting value. Reading it now prompts us to consider, for example, that this year’s Australian movie Tomorrow, When the War Began, adapted from the 1980s novels by John Marsden, is also implicated in the period of colonialism by harking back to the ‘frontier spirit’ in a tale of white teens fighting back against Asian invaders.

For Bradford the key question was how children’s texts try to position their readers with regard to aboriginality. From 1950s books, where Aboriginal Australians ‘appear, if at all, as a melancholy presence, doomed to extinction’, to more recent appropriations of Aboriginal myth, she diagnoses a tendency to represent Aboriginal people as an undifferentiated ‘Other’ to the white Australian readership.

Bradford questions the image of Wrightson as an advocate or defender of Aboriginality. She writes: ‘To look closely at the discourses which inform these texts is to recognise how the warm glow of Aboriginality conceals its appropriating and controlling strategies.’

In Wrightson’s later Shadows of Time, Bradford suggests, the novel’s Australian spirits are merely mapped on to Western notions of hobgoblins, mermaids and dragons.

Brian Attebery and Mark Macleod have both emphasised that Wrightson was always careful to use figures from Aboriginal superstition and myth rather than sacred religious beliefs such as creation myths, trying to focus, as Attebery writes, on fantastic creatures ‘without explicitly invoking religious ideas.’

This was an attempt to show respect by populating her fantasies with the creatures of folk tale rather than figures of religious significance, but Clare Bradford questions the legitimacy of such a sliding scale, where all supernatural tales are assigned a value – sacred or trivial – according to the writer’s judgment: ‘Cinderella and ‘How The Kangaroo Got Its Hop’ jostling in the lowest level, Adam and Eve at the top with the Rainbow Serpent … Wrightson’s use of the term ‘superstitious’ degrades the narratives that she claims for her own purposes.’

Against this, we can read Attebery: ‘No amount of care can make [Wrightson] into a tribal elder, nor can her use of Aboriginal folklore ever be fully ‘authentic’. However, she can become… a participant in the reshaping of tradition for a modern world in which authenticity is an inaccessible ideal.’

So why was Wrightson looking to participate in these traditions at all? Next time we’ll go back to the 1930s, the time of her childhood, to look at the impulse by some white Australian artists to ‘save’ a culture they saw as threatened with extinction.

For part three of this feature, click here.

>Patricia Wrightson, Part 1: The Song of Wirrun and Beyond

>Books and Adventures starts an in-depth look at the work of the late Patricia Wrightson (1921-2010) this week.

I read her trilogy The Song of Wirrun for the first time this year, immediately after hearing news of her death in March. It’s an absorbing, sophisticated fantasy quest rooted in Aboriginal mythology.

A few comments from my earlier blog post are here. I wrote it based on the books I happened to be reading at the time, Wirrun and John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow, which draws on British legends for its spooky, dark adventure. Now, looking back, my comments on ‘the power of the land’ seem rather naïve in the face of long and deep-rooted debates about the place of Aboriginal culture in Australian children’s writing.

I was keen to move beyond the snapshot of Wrightson’s work offered by the obituaries and, from my limited Pommie perspective, try to understand the issues raised by her use of indigenous Australian myth. In fact, I was compelled: these books were just so gripping for me as a reader, I needed to know why they were out of print and so controversial. Over the next few posts on the blog I hope to give an outline of the critical debates on Wrightson for readers as new to her novels as I was.

Mark Macleod, Patricia Wrightson’s friend and publisher at Random House, was kind enough to join me for an e-mail discussion of her work and legacy. I started by asking him about the importance she held for Australian children’s literature in the postwar period, as both a writer and as the editor of Australia’s School Magazine.

He explained how Wrightson acted as ‘an enabler, whose passionate commitment to making stories with an Indigenous theme part of the literary mainstream helped prepare readers for the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who followed. The cross-cultural partnership of Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise, who changed Australian picture books in the 1970s, for example, found an audience already used to thinking of Indigenous subject matter for children as exciting, dramatic and edgy. That is at least partly due to the high profile success of Wrightson as a ‘real author’ in the education market before them.’

Yet somehow Wrightson has become a writer less read than revered: a name to conjure with, but one whose books are difficult to obtain.

‘It was significant that news of her death was carried in Midwest newspapers and regional networks in the United States, but barely rated a mention in Australia,’ Mark Macleod suggests. ‘I think we are still vaguely embarrassed or guilty about the idea that she might have been just another one in a long line of exploiters of Indigenous people – but in many cases that view is not the result of close acquaintance with the texts themselves.’

So why are these fantasy adventures by a heavyweight of children’s literature so hard to get hold of these days? And what is there to say about her use of Aboriginal myths and beliefs in those fantasies?

Over the next few blog posts, I want to look a bit deeper at Patricia Wrightson’s work and legacy. As critic Brian Attebery points out in a 2005 article, ‘the borrowing of one culture’s traditions by another is a serious and risky business’, with a danger that privileged white societies ‘acquire whatever is of value in indigenous culture while consigning the bearers of that culture to invisibility or extinction.’

So how might we read Patricia Wrightson’s relationship to the Aboriginal myths in her writing – appropriation, advocacy or something else entirely?

We’ll be looking at this question next time on the blog. For part two of this feature, click here.

The power of the land: Patricia Wrightson and John Gordon

After last month’s post on sci-fi bug zappers, I felt that it was time to get back to nature here at Books and Adventures.

A few weeks ago, I found out via Judith Ridge, Young People’s Literature Officer for Western Sydney, that Patricia Wrightson had died. I was pretty ignorant about this acclaimed but controversial Australian children’s writer, so I ordered up The Song of Wirrun, three linked quest stories describing the efforts of a young man to protect his land from troubled spirits.

The trilogy is incredibly powerful – I really hadn’t experienced anything like it since I heard The Iron Man and Beowulf told on the BBC when I was a child. The background, a blend of Aboriginal beliefs, is powerfully evoked as humans and spirits alike are threatened by the misadventures of magical beings. When the delicate balance of nature is upset, one young man, Wirrun, finds himself called to save his land and restore some kind of order.

Our heroes’ quest across Australia is thrilling, but undercut with a deep melancholy. Wirrun and his allies face much sadness and loss on their travels. The second story, The Bright Dark Water, finds Wirrun united with a girlfriend and ready for a ‘happily ever after’, but the ambivalent conclusion, Journey Behind the Wind, complicates matters and challenges us as readers to think about love, forgiveness and the nature of victory.

By chance, the next book I picked up after The Song of Wirrun was John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow. This British children’s fantasy from 1968 also takes its sense of landscape and native magic very seriously.

Jonk, a girl on a school trip, is separated from her group and stumbles across what appears to be a giant hand buried in the woods. Taking a treasure that she finds there, Jonk finds herself drawn into the final stage of a centuries-old battle between an invading warlord and the mysterious local spirit Elizabeth Goodenough.

There’s so much to recommend about this book – the unsentimental portrait of the teachers who lose Jonk on the school trip, the terrifying monsters unleashed by the warlord, and the sense of deadly high stakes for the children caught up in a plot to revive the ancient Green Man. For me, the exciting thing shared by both The Giant Under the Snow and the Wirrun books, is the sense of respect for the power of the land.

Both John Gordon and Patricia Wrightson’s spirits show a great sense of territory, and the landscapes they evoke are as powerful as they are distinct from one another. Wrightson’s spirits literally turn the world upside-down, travel through the Australian rock, or call a new Ice Age into being – but they do so with a healthy respect for the laws of territory and trespass. Gordon’s benevolent Mrs Goodenough is barricaded in her forest retreat by the evil “leather men”, while the warlord’s power gradually seals off Norwich along the lines of its old city walls. It’s also interesting to note that the heroes in both stories are given the power of flight by benign spirits, allowing them to survey their native land from a new perspective, and cross the supernatural borders.

Great children’s books are coming out all the time, but it’s also good to treasure books from the past, and it would be a real shame for either of these works to be forgotten. They’ve aged well and as fantasy stories they have a special quality: serious without being solemn. I love the high adventure of books like Skulduggery Pleasant or Artemis Fowl – when Skulduggery blows the front door off Stephanie’s house in the first book I stood up and cheered! – but there’s also something cool about stories where you really feel something is at stake.

There’s so much more to say – particularly about Patricia Wrightson’s work – but it will wait until a future blog post. Tonight I have gardening to do: the closest I get to the power of the land these days is pulling out fence-posts with a pickaxe…

Coming next on Books and Adventures – more science fiction, more interviews…and the true story of how I became a real-life dragon!