Question 1: What were the different oral traditions that formed the beginnings of Australian Literature? Illustrate with examples.
Ans: Australian literature is a large body of writing that can include early versions and English translations of Aboriginal song sequences or folktales, the memoirs, journals and ballads of early European explorers and settlers. It also includes the more formal works of literature that followed as writing and publishing established its sway on the island continent. Like the literature of any other nation it captures in many ways the growth and development of Australia into the country that we know today.
It can be said that much of what we can include under the category of Australian literature from the early phases of its development was not what would be traditionally considered literature. For example, the oral songs and stories of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia were passed on orally from generation to generation without being written. Even when they were recorded in English versions it was done more with an anthropological intention than a literary one. The idea was to learn more about the culture and values of the Aboriginal peoples from a scientific point of view than to study the aesthetic aspects of these creations. Similarly, the records, memoirs, diaries and journals that are today included under the study of literature were not always meant for this purpose. They were often the private or official records of explorers, administrators and settlers. However, these works are important sources that reveal how the land, circumstances and people of Australia evolved in the thoughts and imagination of the people who lived there or visited it. They show how Australian literature came to be written and the early influences on this body of writing.
The ballads of the convicts and the bush songs belong more to a period when Australian literature began to be an institution in itself. Periodicals like the Bulletin, which started publication in 1880, were part of this trend. The ballads and bush songs, which had earlier been mostly part of the folk tradition, now became part of
the literary tradition. Writers began to consciously cultivate and develop the forms, themes and figures of the oral ballads and bush songs. ‘Banjo’ Patterson belongs to this school of writing. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ a ballad about a swagman – a travelling farm worker in the Australian outback – has become to many Australians of European descent, a kind of unofficial national anthem.
Literature in Australia developed and began to take on many other forms such as the popular short story, the literary version of the fire,side yam. Henry Laws and Barbara Baynton were prominent short story writers who contributed greatly to the growth and development of this genre during this formative stage. Their writing captured features of the growth of the Australian cultural myths of the Bush and its people. The Erardships and spirit of the European settlers and bush people during the pioneering days finds expression in their work. At this early stage of development it was but natural that the writers who were mainly from among the British settlers would-bring to their writing the values and forms of the British traditions of literature. In this sense, early Australian literature was constantly looking over its shoulder at England. This soon developed into a source of tension as some writers felt that the best direction for Australian literature was to follow and maintain British traditions of great literature. Others felt that as Australia was so different from England that it should cut the umbilical cord from the mother country and develop an identity of its own as a nation and this should be reflected in Australian literature.
Australian history and literature do reveal the many tensions that have gone into the making of the Australian nation. These are : the tension between the old country of England, the metropolitan colonial centre and the new country of Australia on the antipodean margins of the British Empire; the tension between the settlers and the indigenous Aborigines; the tension between early waves of settlers and more recent immigrants; the tension between the old language, images and literary forms of British literature and the idiom, images and literary forms taking root in the new environment of Australia. All these tensions shaped the themes and forms of Australian literature.
As in much of the rest of the English speaking world, in Australia the first half of the twentieth century saw the genre of poetry being more popular and the second half saw the novel rising to prominence. A.D. Hope and Judith Wright are the canonical figures of Australian poetry during its heyday. Patrick White, Australia’s Nobel Prize laureate, is probably the best known and most taught of Australia’s novelists. Their writing began to move away from both a purely derivative imitation of European forms as well as a focus on the people and mores of the Bush. Modem Australia, of the cities began to figure more distinctly in their writing. As the face of the Australian nation began to change, its literature began to reflect that change. Writers like Kath Walker, Mudrooroo, Kevin Gilbert and Sally Morgan have brought the poetry, drama and stories of the Aboriginal peoples to the forefront. There has also been a trend towards autobiographies, biographies and life-stories gaining more and more popularity. The multiculturalism that is being promoted at a political level is being reflected in the diverse voices being heard in the realm of Australian literature. Today there are more women, Aborigines, immigrants whose voices join the exciting confluence that is Australian literature.