Matthew Hall Reviews Writing Australian Unsettlement

By | 14 February 2016

In Chapter Eight of the book Farrell focuses on ‘Homelessness’ as an extension of the limits of Australian literature that extend beyond the field of settlement. These are texts of displacement, of unconfined spaces and writing within them. The homeless diaries of Ann Williams and Sarah Davenport trace a nomadic home in the familial failure of settlement, while signs writ large on the landscape (literally, on boabs, signposts and early agricultural buildings) signify an unsteady relationship between passage and authority. Farrell’s readings of Wiradjuri clubs also prove a fascinating look at the materiality of poetic possibilities. Collectively, these texts ‘demonstrate unsettlement – materially, structurally and grammatically – and thereby contest the settled model of Australian writing, which represents a settled nation.’ Much of the analysis of the poems in this chapter are read against Jennifer Rutherford and Barbara Holloway’s Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Spaces and Rutherford’s readings of Bachelard. The nomadicism forced upon early settlers, encounters with the law or in search of economic foundation, are read for the manner in which dwelling may be produced, and what it may mean to the settled version of Australian history. The movement and transitoriness expressed in Williams and Davenport’s diaries belie the promise of settlement, just as Farrell reads in their creative texts syntactical elements which express a longing for refuge. The drover texts morph from bush ballads to public threat:


These works are contextualised as ‘textual sites’ linked to issues of command and control, mapping, as well as Indigenous writing on bark and trees. Farrell strives to unsettle the demarcations that depict drover texts as historical document, while excluding them from the literary history of place. This reframing, he insists, is a means to open the invented and controlled archives of identity and representation. This chapter delves into peculiar territory, one in which Farrell links settlement with the uncanny; here he suggests, by extension, that by settling in Australia these writers have all left behind a previous land, a family, a settlement and through their language Farrell reads a living equivalence of loss.

Extending the capacity for readings of Australian literary history by readjusting the frames placed upon marginal texts and by examining the potential implications of reading against settled literature, Farrell hold that unsettling Australian literature might ‘enable[e] us to read Australian writing with a greater sense of a networked poetic history’ and to understand and challenge the assumed cultural hierarchies through which the history of Australia is written. As the rapid changes at the later end of the modernist era brought about marked change in the relation between nation, belonging and language, the added scrutiny Farrell brings to bear on the control of Australian literary history should increase our understanding of national literature as an illusion. Farrell does well to seek out the unsung, the forgotten, the marginal, for from its beginning Australian literature was being made and remade, and the connections made between the unsettled and the ‘settled’ enables a greater sense of the networked history of place.

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