A Question of Regionalism
'Beyond a window, its bottom tier hitched Like a skirt at a beach, this verandah waits. Pretending no absence, resting on this reef, Will I find at last my life floating out Like a dream just this side of sleeping? Here between the house and the world: A space, stripped, open to air A room, rippled above and below A home like a safe, dry hollow in the heart Of an ocean.' ‘A Dream of Refuge,’ Jean Kent
Rural imagery has a significant place in accounts of Australian cultural identity and yet this has tended to historically discourage regional understandings of the diversity of Australian writing. The opposition between the city and the bush has often lumped Australia's diverse non-metropolitan regions together in the image of the rural legends sourced from the work of the 1890s. This simple opposition and a sometimes-disdainful metropolitanism has helped to limit Australians' understanding of the relationships between cultural identity and the literature associated with a local place [i](Bennett 19).
Regionalism is often represented as an accepted set of signs and values such as heritage, the local, stability of place, spirit, authenticity, community and attachment to nature [ii]. Regional identity is thus understood through an established set of discursive rules with the result that all regions come to seem alike in their regionalism and this likeness is as often as not a question of sharing an established set of differences from the metropolitan model. The modest resurgence of the argument for regionalism in recent times clearly owes a debt to the practice within identity politics of positioning minorities in what is often imagined as a righteous opposition to the assimilative and totalising tendencies of mainstream or hegemenous culture.
We can mark a contradiction in the argument for regionalism, between 'its insistence on the diversity of Australian Literature' and its characteristic focus upon writing, 'which looks closely at the particulars of small communities and specific places' [iii]. The differences between writing from regions and writing about regions draws attention to an excess within regional writing which cannot be explained by reference to a local environment or the regional society which cultivates it.
Landscape and society have tended to be the keynotes of regionalism and this fashion has tended to make regions different in character but not form. The category has often failed to acknowledge the work of writers who live and work in regions and yet who publish on topics and themes that are conventional or exotique. How does one, for example, accommodate the series of naval adventure novels written by J.E.McDonald under the rubric of Darling Downs writing? How would we understand a number of the pseudonymous Toowoomban writers of Mills and Boons romances as a part of the literary history of the region? Where do we place the work of poets such as George Essex Evans, Bruce Dawe or Jean Kent when it is published in the metropolitan press and eschews local topics for the cosmopolitan themes of an inter-national mediascape?
Regionalism needs to be seen as a selective if also productive discourse on place and it is available in different ways to different subjects. Noel Macainsh, writing in connection with North Queensland writing, suggests that 'the specific qualities of [regionalism] are not likely to be realised by the locals themselves so much as by outsiders, who demonstrate interest and choice in regional quality, [and] who are in a position to make comparisons. What the locals left to themselves are likely to emphasise is the sort of parochialism common to other places' [iv]. What this fails to acknowledge, however, is the way in which regionalism is often the invention of locals who have traveled and who return to their region as a part of a self-conscious exploration of the significance of place and location to the subjects of their imagination. In order to fully understand a regional writing one has to explore the tensions between travelers and settlers and the ways they have imagined a local place and its relations to an array of others. In regionalism we frequently find something of the fetishisation of the primitive which modernism has conjured as a defence for its alienating, abstract and spiritually bankrupt rationalism. The flip side of this romanticisation of the local is its repudiation as the stagnant, ignorant and parochial wonderland of rural red necks.
My account of the literary culture of the Darling Downs cannot disentangle itself from the problems inherent in the way we understand regionalism, but it can meaningfully situate itself amongst these tensions. I want to both invoke and disavow the web of characteristics which identify a regional culture in the hope that we might come to understand the cultural production of the Darling Downs as a literary archive that is both within and in excess of its time, place and people. In short I want to understand the writing of the Darling Downs as a form of cultural production which frequently engages with an eclectic set of concerns that at times articulate with the expectations of a more metropolitan public sphere and which always needs to be understood in its historical moment. More often than not the writing of the Darling Downs has been an historical expression of a writer's imaginative traffic with metropolitan and local experience.
[i] Bruce Bennett, ‘Place, Region and Community,’ An Australian Compass: Essays on Place and Direction in Australian Literature, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991, p. 11.
[ii] Gillian Whitlock, ‘The Child in the (Queensland) House: David Malouf and Regional Writing,’ Provisional Maps: Critical Essays on David Malouf, Amanda Nettlebeck, ed. Nedlands: CSAL, 1994, pp. 71-73.
[iii] Susan McKernan, ‘Crossing the Border: Regional Writing in Australia.’ Meanjin 45.4 (1986): pp.548-49.
[iv] Noel Macainsh, ‘Literature in North Queensland: Some Thoughts on Regionalism,’ LinQ 1.3 (1973): p. 13.