Thursday, January 02, 2014

Establishing the New England literary tradition

Back on August 12 2006 I wrote referring to the writing of Patrice Newell:

This knowledge gap (on Patrice's writing) reminded me of one of my long standing hobby horses, the way in which the absence of any formal structures for New England prevents people recognising the existence of New England writers and other creative people. And there have been a remarkable number of New England writers including both those who were born there, Judith Wright is an example, and those such as Patrice who came to live there.

There are two quite different aspects to this problem.

Can we in any meaningful sense talk about a unique New England literary tradition?

I am not sure that we can. The writers who grew up in New England were certainly influenced by the experience to greater or lesser extent.

The Australian playwright and writer Alex Buzo was born in Sydney in 1944 and came to Armidale as a boy when his dad was appointed by Thiess as engineer on the Oakey Hydro Electric Scheme. His first play, Norm and Ahmed was produced in, I think, 1968. Alex loved Sydney life and escaped back as soon as he could, but his Armidale experience including his time at The Armidale School had an enduring influence on him and he retained his links to New England.

Some writers also tried to create unique literature in the face of what they saw as dominance by narrow Sydney intellectual elites such as the Balmain school.

In 1979 Kardoorair Press was established primarily as an outlet for poets based on the Northern Tablelands region of New England or with an affiliation with the region. Kardoorair's first publication was released in January 1980 and has been followed by sixty more.

Kardoorair along with Fat Possum Press provided an outlet for New England poets and writers such as Michael Sharkey and Julian Croft. Have they been successful in creating a unique tradition? Perhaps they have, although I am not aware of any studies on the issue.

This brings me to the second aspect of the problem I referred to. The absence of formal structures not only impedes the development of literary traditions, but actually makes it hard for people to access the New England experience, keeping it limited and fragmented.

The poet Les Murray was born at Bunyah on the North Coast and has now returned there. His early life and influences have had a significant impact on his poetry. The writer Bob Ellis was born in Lismore. Again, area and family experiences have had a significant impact on his attitudes and writing. The writer and academic Donald Horne was born at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley. Ditto. Judith Wright was born in Armidale into a wealthy squatting family.

Each of these writers has had a different experience depending upon location and date of birth. Our inability to put them into a context, to see the commonalities and differences with other New Englanders, is a real problem. Indeed, many New England writers who have moved on would probably not see themselves as New Englanders or be able to see things outside a local context. Point local, counterpoint Sydney or national, with nothing really in the middle.

That was over seven years ago. Since then, I have learned more. Was there a New England literary tradition? Yes, I think there was, although it is really broken up into a series of separate regional or local traditions that interacted with each other in varying ways.

Is it correct, to argue, as I did then, that the absence of formal structures not only impedes the development of literary traditions, but actually makes it hard for people to access the New England experience, keeping it limited and fragmented?

My answer to this is absolutely. We have been cut off from our literary past because we don't exist in any formal sense. If you don't exist, how can you have a literary tradition?  In denying us that, they deny our birthright. I think that's sad.

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