Thinking in a Regional Accent

https://d3lp4xedbqa8a5.cloudfront.net/imagegen/cp/black/800/600/s3/digital-cougar-assets/campertrailers/gallerymedia/Wheatbelt1.-This-shortcut-from-the-Nullarbor-to-Perth-is-a-surprisingly-scenic-route.jpg

Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers is a recent essay by WA academic, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth in the ABR which I no longer get, but a copy of which was sent by a friend. HdA was the editor of Like Nothing on this Earth, a compilation of WA Wheatbelt writing which I reviewed a few years ago, so he is an advocate for investigating ‘regional difference’ when analyzing Australian writing.

But what is regional difference? Certainly, one feels that regional
difference is at most a weak factor when compared to the forms of
difference that most occupy us today: race, gender, class, ethnicity, and, increasingly, sectarian political affiliations.

Yet regional difference is one of the first things I look for in a novel, and the failure or success of the author in delineating it is often where I begin my criticism. I like my novels to be grounded in a particular location, for the author and the reader, to know where they stand.

For [Marxist critic Raymond Williams], what emerged under the name of ‘regions’ in nineteenth-century Britain was essentially a geographical spatialisation of class. Regions were economically subservient peripheries of production. This meant that, for Williams, regional consciousness was a form of class consciousness. With this in mind, it is interesting to go back to how accents work in Australia, where they follow class rather than regional lines.

Is this true in Australia, about class and regions? Not really. Not that I don’t think class is important for understanding Australian writing. The different perspectives of Lawson and Paterson for instance are not just urban and rural; they are the polar opposites of working poor and landed gentry.

So what are Australia’s literary regions? HdA speaks as a Western Australian and the regions he cites are within WA, but I think the first important divide is urban – Melbourne and Sydney really, but if you like, that sliver of coast from Adelaide to Brisbane to which clings 80% of our population – and the rest, the Outback which occupies so much of our imagination. And a close second of course comes Melbourne and Sydney, as in Melbourne v Sydney.

After those two, it is clear the states themselves are regions. Much of our literature is state based. I imagine that Gerald Murnane could have written in Perth, or Thea Astley could have in South Australia (but maybe not that Patrick White could have written outside of Sydney) but the point is they didn’t. Their novels are firmly situated in the places they knew. And if regionalism has any meaning then the bodies of writing around those places is different from the writing around other places.

Probably different cities, different regions have a different feel and that permeates the writing (Lisa yesterday wrote about the imporatance of cylcones in Queensland). But also writers work together and influence each other; and increasingly writers pass through the universities and so are influenced by the writers they find there – Elizabeth Jolley, Kim Scott, John Kinsella in WA (though not all at the same uni) – how could they not be?

The WA Wheatbelt is not really my home region, though I live on the edge of it, and work there, and drive backwards and forwards through it, and so experience a sense of familiarity when I read works which are not just plonked down there but which explore what it means to be in that place – from the memoir A Fortunate Life, to Dorothy Hewett’s fictional Muckinupin, to Arthur Upfield’s spell at Burracoppin, to The Fringe Dwellers, to Jolley’s The Well, to the poetry of Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk-Green.

Hughes-d’Aeth also discusses regional literature in a slightly different sense

.. it has been inspiring to watch the Wirlomin Noongar grouping (Kim Scott, Clint Bracknell, Claire G. Coleman, and others), who trace their belonging to the south coast of Western Australia, become a nodal point of Noongar cultural and language renaissance, and seriously influence the national imaginary.

Noongar country and the Wheatbelt are more or less the same geographically (the former includes Perth and the latter extends north a little way into Yamaji country and excludes the heavily forested south-west corner), but ‘Wheatbelt’ is such a White concept that I have trouble treating them as one. Do Indigenous Lit and White Lit belong in the same region? Same space, opposite perspectives.

Cutting back across the emergence of bio-regionalist sensibilities in literature and criticism has been the advent of second-wave Indigenous authors like Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, and Tony Birch and of the powerful insinuation of the concept of ‘Country’ into wider Australian discourse

I hadn’t thought of these writers as ‘second-wave’. I guess the implication is that Jack Davis (1917-2000), Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920-1993) and Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) (1938 – 2019) were the first wave. Davis and Johnson were from WA, were there others over east?

“.. literary regionalism is a critical stance that I find myself adopting,
whether I want to or not” is not Hughes-d’Aeth’s conclusion, but I think it makes a good one.

.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers, Australian Book Review, Nov. 2020, no. 426.

Lisa/ANZLL – Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (here)

22 thoughts on “Thinking in a Regional Accent

    • The author talks of regionalism first being discussed in relation to Tasmanian Gothic. I’m afraid I don’t know Tasmania well enough to subdivide it, but you know I do Victoria and am often discussing the Mallee, Gippsland, the Western District but do those regions have their own literature I wonder.

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  1. This is interesting… I can see WG doing a Monday Musings on it, if she hasn’t already.

    I’ve been plotting settings on my reviews for a while now, and my numbers currently total 173 Australian settings divvied up like this:
    Beach & coastal 14
    Colonial era 23
    Outback, bush and pastoral incl small country towns 68
    Road novels 3
    Urban milieu incl large regional towns 78.

    I also track the settings in states and territories, and they total 587 classified by state settings:
    ACT 20
    Norfolk Island
    NSW 160
    NT 8
    QLD 58
    SA 39
    TAS 35
    VIc 166
    WA 66

    None of this proves anything other than to show how my own choices have panned out, and they don’t even add up because there’s nearly 1000 reviews of OzLit on the blog.

    But the oft-stated criticism that contemporary lit is still bush-orientated isn’t borne out by my own reading. In fact, a good many of the outback ones are from the C20th…

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    • I was thinking that too, that I was getting into MM territory.

      Love your figures. Thanks for extracting them. Do you see though that although the Cities:Bush population ratio is 80:20 the literature ratio is 55:45.

      The state ratios are interesting too in that they are quite similar to the population ratios (Vic and WA are both slightly overrepresented, which is a good thing)

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  2. When I think of regional dialect, it’s almost never in writing. When American authors write, it’s either in standard English, with all the spelling how it’s supposed to be, or you get a really “hay-seed” southern accent, written more like it’s spelled, but oftentimes with just the “g” dropped from “-ing.” Honestly, in the U.S. we don’t how we speak. We don’t say “for” in the Midwest, we say “fer.” We don’t say “to” but “tuh.” I’m never more aware of this than when I’m reading a Charles Dickens novel aloud to Nick in my regular voice and then get to a character who speaks in an uneducated fashion, yet Nick can’t tell because THAT’S HOW I SOUND ALL THE TIME. I have to really enunciate when I read Dickens so the characters’ accents match their class/education.

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    • I think you do though have different literatures for different regions, as well as for different peoples. I hadn’t really thought about reproducing the way different people speak, though this does come up in Indig.Lit as you are discovering.

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  3. Fascinating stuff. I like to have the place properly represented and get really cross when I read a (rare) book set in Birmingham that gets a detail wrong, because then I don’t trust the rest of it! I am trying to think of the Australian books I’ve read now, there’s perhaps a theme of going to the city from the country, but then also books set in country places and their isolation. But I haven’t read enough to have useful stats.

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    • I agree with you. The reason I get angry with Jane Harper is that she clearly knows nothing of the geography she is purporting to describe. But she is popular and most readers don’t notice or don’t care. I’ve been wondering why regional literature is not just plan literature with a place name attached. It’s because we get to look at that place and those people through someone else’s eyes, and I for one am disappointed when those looks are made up.

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  4. Maybe it’s visible to others, but the photograph/image doesn’t display for me. In any case, I enjoyed your thoughts about regional writing and Lisa’s breakdown of her reading (including the doesn’t-add-up-to-1000 bit…I have that problem when I do that kind of figuring about BIP all the time!). From an overseas perspective, I don’t know if Australian things are accurately depicted or not, and I know at least one reader has recommended Dry Season to me (one of Harper’s books) but for the mystery not necessarily the setting, and now I will be watching (if I do get to reading it) to see how she describes various places in the novel. But I won’t rush to it either…it bothers me to feel that an author has not done their research.

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    • Image of old building in wheatfield. Not mine. Probably had some copyright thing embedded. Sorry!
      Harper really, really annoys me because she relies on commonplaces about Australian geography to flesh out her plots but quite obviously hasn’t seen the places she describes. This doesn’t bother anyone else at all, including (inner-city based?) literary judges.

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      • That feels disrespectful to me. But I guess she must believe that, in the service of a good story, those details don’t matter. Which would be true for all of her readers except those who inhabit/frequent/know those landscapes. Do you kinda “hate read” her, just to see what she gets wrong? Surely SOMEone other than you is annoyed by this?

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      • I read two. I think she has an earlier one set in the outback and a recent one set somewhere in Tasmania. And no, I’m not going to read them. I think she piggybacks on writers who do know those places well and leaves it up to readers to fill in the gaps when she, for instance, describes the (Australian) Grampians as hilly with lots of trees.

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  5. This has given me a lot to think about. With how the American publishing industry is today it can be difficult to find these regional differences in writing. The majority of authors I read are from the urban coastal cities. And, to your point, urban vs. suburban vs. rural makes a big difference in the scope and perspective of literature.

    That said, books from the 1800s and earlier 1900s have clear regionality to them. I feel like post-WWII is when we see books starting to lose this focus. I love reading older books and finding out neat things about the region the book is set in. To your point, it’s really obvious when an author is from the region or they have completely immersed in it. If someone breaks that magic– well, its hard for me to appreciate the rest of the text.

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    • Strangely, it has given me a lot to think about too, to the extent that I’m almost ready to write my third attempt on the subject. You and Melanie are in and of the mid-west yet you rarely review from that perspective. The US interior is populated in a way that Australia is not and you would expect that might lead to it having its own literature. Emma at Book Around the Corner,who as you might know, is French, is fascinated by the detective fiction of the inland slopes of the Rockies (which is where you live?) but she seems unique in this.

      “If someone breaks that magic”, that’s it! I am only interested in reading writers who write what they know and that particularly applies to place.

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  6. Oh, and finally I get to this. How did I miss it?

    I low your question “Do Indigenous Lit and White Lit belong in the same region? Same space, opposite perspectives.” I think the answer comes down to how you define region – as physical place or as place PLUS other stuff to do with cultural interaction with the place. I think this is getting a bit into what John Kinsella grapples with in “Displaced”. Could I write a useful MM on all this? I don’t know but I will add it to my little list of possibilities!

    I also love HdA’s comment about “the powerful insinuation of the concept of ‘Country’ into wider Australian discourse”. I sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about “country” because I’m not sure whether I should appropriate it for my own use because my use is going to be different to Indigenous people’s use even if I have a basic understanding of what it means. And yet, I wonder whether it is respectful of us to adopt their use of it even if we don’t completely comprehend it in the same way. This is one of those things that has to be teased out.

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    • White Australians – and even foreigners like the Rio Tinto board – are becoming conscious that we share this land with a much older culture, the oldest on-going culture on Earth probably. And we are only now coming to terms with how this should be reflected in our literature. (Interestingly, it’s a problem SF has grappled with since the 1950s, with US colonists superimposed on ancient Martian cultures – I wonder what made Ray Bradbury for instance think about that, at the height of the Cold War).

      I am not going to use the terms ‘Country’, or ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Rainbow Serpent’ any time soon. I guess it’s possible we (whites) will be given permission to use them but it is much more likely they will be subsumed into popular culture in ways that are both disrespectful and ignorant. I think HdA uses ‘Country’ in the context of ongoing dialogue with Kim Scott for instance which probably gives him a leave pass.

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      • I am certainly not comfortable with Rainbow Serpent or Dreamtime, unless I’m quoting an Indigenous writer, and am generally cautious about “country” but I feel that it’s something that Indigenous people would like us to be on board with in their terms so I have used it on occasion (respectfully, I hope.)

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      • You know, I fear we could bend over backwards too much and in so doing defeat the purpose of coming together. It’s tricky but something we need to keep aware of – where are the lines, with ones do we cross, and how do we cross them?

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      • I’ll keep an eye on “Country” and see how it works out. You may remember Lou (son) was thinking aloud about the same issue in his Thea Astley review. He now has two years ahead of him at Tennant Creek which should make him pretty much full bottle.

        My personal belief is that we won’t “come together” until we are completely apart again. Impossible of course. But I think Indigenous people will need to/are establishing a separate identity before they can share space with whites as equals. The right ask why can’t ‘they’ just go out and get jobs like ordinary people? A look at any indigenous people will show that the answer to that question is complex and involves starting from a position of dealing with their land being occupied by a conqueror.

        So what do I, a person of goodwill, do? I (publicly) accept that we (whites) occupy someone else’s land and continue to oppress its people. Underline continue. We need a treaty. We need to listen and not talk over (mansplain) Indigenous voices.

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