This essay was presented at the Changing Geographies: Australia and the millennium conference in Barcelona, 2-4 February 2000, hosted by the Australian Studies Centre, 1st Universitat de Barcelona, and La Trobe University, Melbourne. Merrill was a guest author at this conference. Her visit to Spain also offered her an opptortunity to continue her research for Merino, a novel-in-progress.
The first dawn of what we in the ‘West’ now call the Year 2000 began far too early for me, at 3.15 a.m., to be precise, with an adolescent rooster testing his testosterone in the chook yard, and the much-too-close nocturnal emissions of a warbling willie wagtail. A pause just long enough for this new century to emerge from darkness into half-light, and then a screeching, screaming helicopter gun ship squadron of sulphur crested cockatoos, and a pair of delinquent kookaburras giggling hysterically at me from the nearest gum tree. Not the dawning I might have wished for after only a few hours sleep, as you can imagine, but a quintessentially Australian one, nevertheless, and much the same as any other over the last few million years — except for that rooster, whose ancestors invaded the continent a mere two hundred years ago. A dawning good enough, however, for a tourist brochure: the ancient landscape; the dry creek bed lined with eucalypts and melaleucas; the unique wildlife; the homestead with its bull-nose verandas; smoke rising from the slow combustion stove for the early morning cuppa; the cattle yards, the horses; the dusty riding boots and akubras at the gauze door … An advertising agency’s dream for a poster promoting that mythical tourist destination, the Australian “Outback”.
The setting for this new dawn was not a tourist brochure, but my brother and sister-in-law’s very private cattle property at the end of an isolated valley in north-western New South Wales, surrounded, on three sides, by volcanoes which last erupted, I believe, when the continent we now call Australia was still separating from the rest of Gondwanaland. I come from a long line of pastoralists and farmers, so I know this Australia very well. There’s nothing romantic about it for me. And whenever I walk along its creek beds and rivers, its valleys and ridges or, as on the farm where I grew up, across the unrelenting flatness of the central western plains, and stumble across stone tools and other artifacts from another people’s heritage, or witness the damage done to ‘nature’ over the last five or six generations of my mob’s occupation, I am forced to acknowledge my own family’s complicity in both the on-going dispossession of the indigenous peoples, and the on-going degradation of the land itself. As one of the characters in my Republic of Women notes, there’s “blood on my inheritance” (Findlay 1999, p. 7).
I claim no complicity, however, in what I saw on the door of the ladies’ lavatory in the park at Coonabarabran, a small town on the way to my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. There, scrawled in what seemed like an educated hand, were the following words:
Abos are the vermin of Australia.
Jews are the vermin of the world.
Asians are barbarian murderers.
This represents a rural Australia I’m also sadly familiar with.
And yet, like the “Outback” itself and its native wildlife, including those raucous sulphur crested cockatoos, the cultures of Australia’s indigenous peoples, those “Abos”, have also been commodified as “assets” for the tourist industry, even by some indigenous communities themselves, as they try to both survive economically and maintain their cultural traditions in a rapidly changing and increasingly “foreign” world. And, I should note, the rich cultural contributions made by Australians of Jewish and Asian descent have been similarly packaged as “tourist assets”, especially in St Kilda where Republic of Women is set.
It’s important to acknowledge the reality of these geographies, but my reason for mentioning them here is that while I was still thinking about what I was going to say at this gig I received an invitation from Elaine Lewis who runs the Australian Bookshop in Paris, to read from and re-launch my novel at Expolangues 2000, a very commercial Education Salon in what, very appropriately, used to be that city’s abattoir and meat market. La Villette. For some reason Australia was the Invitée d’honneur at this event, which meant that our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was involved, and given that Department’s current priorities, the Paris office was mostly interested in inducing as many Europeans as possible to visit Australia to spend as much money as possible. Rather than despair at such philistine single mindedness, Elaine embraced it as an opportunity to promote Australian literature to new audiences … and soon Australian writers were on DFAT’s Expolangues program too, as yet another tourist asset, along with dozens of glossy photographs of “the Outback”, and a live Aboriginal dance troupe! (Elaine Lewis’s strategy was extremely successful in promoting Australian literary endeavours to people in France, and she deserves high praise for this, as well as the eternal gratitude of the Australian writers who were involved in her readings.)
I’d been well primed for Elaine’s invitation to “promote Australia”, both by the graffiti on the dunny door at Coonabarabran which had disturbed me so deeply, and by recent merciless taunts from non-Australian friends about how my very small and insignificant nation is perceived overseas. The only things anyone in Europe knows about Australia were Crocodile Dundee, Dame Edna Everidge and Skippy, those friends had assured me! For some reason they failed to mention Neighbours and Kylie Minogue (perhaps that was something to do with the demographics they inhabited); and nor did they mention the stillbirth of the Australian Republic nor Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which they must surely have heard of, given the international press both the failed Republic and One Nation had received. I can only think they were being kind! So in this context, the challenge of promoting an alternative image of Australia to audiences in Europe became something of a ‘moral duty’ for me! But which Australia/s to promote?
I certainly didn’t want to reinforce Paul Hogan’s, nor Barry Humphry’s 1970s Australias which I can’t identify with at all, nor the predominantly middle class Anglo Australia that is reflected in Neighbours and in most other mainstream institutions, including our Federal Parliament. Nor, of course, the Australia represented on that dunny door in Coonabarabran, which could have been a mantra for One Nation’s “have-nots, urban poor, rural battlers and anti-intellectuals”, as Stefanie Balogh cruelly described them in The Weekend Australian recently (Jan. 22-23, 2000, p. 4). Because the geographies I know and inhabit, those that are represented in Republic of Women, for example, are very different places, and I can talk about them with some enthusiasm, perhaps even with some pride.
Geographies of Republic of Women
My Australias include:
• a former British colony still claiming its independence and still coming to terms with its long and very diverse pre-colonial heritage;
• an extraordinarily diverse and culturally rich contemporary society that even we multi-cultured nationals hardly know about, because so many of our narratives remain either unrecorded, or are still actively suppressed;
• a highly urbanised, or rather sub-urbanised society still attached to a very gendered and Romantic idyll of “the Outback”, and a racist and ecologically catastrophic conception of the natural environment; and
• a relatively young, indeed still-emerging nation of diverse descendants of the First Peoples and/or subsequent boat peoples – convicts, refugees and migrants from every other inhabited continent on the planet – most of whom are still seeking authentic, inclusive post-colonial narratives to tell us who we are, and who we can become.
One of Republic of women’s fictional characters, a retired scholar called Lillian, or Lilith, describes what Australia means to her, as she explains to her long-time lover, Sokrates, why she won’t return with him to Alexandria, that ancient Greek city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast:
… I simply love this place. It’s part of me. … You say it doesn’t have any depth of history and what you mean, I think, is that it doesn’t have much history that Europeans can identify with, which is true, but that’s one of the reasons I want to stay. Because what’s happening is that people from every other continent, every cultural tradition on the planet are bringing their own pasts with them and, whether they like it or not, are being forced to change – and together we’re dreaming something new, a new kind of society that’s never existed before. It’s not happening rationally or by design, but in some complex, chaotic way this continent – the climate, biodiversity, geomorphology – is changing everyone who comes here. And the indigenous peoples are changing us newcomers too. … So with the few years I have left, my love, I want to be part of this country’s growing (p. 237)
Lillian is speaking over dinner at Scheherezade, “that Jewish BYO in Acland Street named for a nightclub in Paris named for Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite named for a Muslim woman, who, by the grace of Allah the All-Merciful, did good stories for some sultan in Baghdad a thousand and one nights ago” (p. 231-2).
Down the road, at The George Hotel, Elle, a young fictional character of Sicilian descent, is articulating another vision of Australia:
… sometimes I think there’s nothing in this country to fill you up inside. It’s all so easy, so shallow, you know? Like all you have to do to be a good citizen is consume, consume, consume other people’s products, other people’s ideas. … I mean, there’s no heart in anything here, it’s like there’s just a desert where the heart should be. Every now and then I get a glimpse of something more … but then it disappears (p. 106).
Politics and meaning in St Kilda
This search for meaning, for identity, is an on-going theme in Republic of Women, and the setting for it is cosmopolitan, multicultural, and, at the time I wrote the novel, still slightly sleazy St Kilda, a bay-side inner-city suburb of Melbourne.
Before the European invasion this place was a fecund environment of wetlands and woodlands that had provided the clans of the Kulin nation with both physical and spiritual sustenance for millennia. Today this same geographic site is one of the most densely populated few square kilometres in Australia, and one of the most culturally diverse. As fictional resident Marie says in Republic:
It’s like we’ve all come here as refugees from mainstream cultures to live the way we want to live, and everyone and everything is normal here, no matter how we dress or speak or think or look or where we’ve come from. … Because it’s like we’ve got a bigger vision of what it is to be human here, a bigger kind of citizenship …(p. 248-9).
Not surprisingly St Kilda’s rich cultural diversity and vigour has now also been appropriated as a tourist asset, in a marketing campaign that focuses on the suburb’s most fashionable cafes, the local cuisine, and the ‘quirkiness’ of its local inhabitants. The marketing has been so successful that the day-trippers, “those ‘burbans” who, as Marie notes, “come here for a bit of authentic culture because there’s nothing left where they come from!” (p. 248) now want to move in – and consequently the property market is booming.
The George Hotel, on the corner of Grey and Fitzroy Streets, epitomizes this process of gentrification. This institution has gone through many evolutions since its demise as one of Melbourne’s most fashionable resort hotels of the late nineteenth century. By the time I moved to St Kilda, when the rents were still cheap enough for young writers to afford, the George had become famous for the drunken brawls that regularly spewed onto the pavements from the bar known locally as the ‘snake pit’. Its licence was soon revoked and, for a number of years, the building remained empty — until the early nineties when a new kind of developer emerged with a new vision of St Kilda’s future. And so
The George, once a palatial pub named for England’s pagan saint, is now a posh café and gallery with a big door of glass and gilded metal embossed with the saint’s pagan name. … Outside, Grey Street – the battle front between St Kilda’s poor and St Kilda’s rich: the sex workers, rooming house tenants and homeless people who claim the streets their own, versus the nouveau developers who claim the nineteenth-century real estate. Inside the George, the battle’s already won – but in the very best quality-of-life taste! (p. 104-5).
Above the cafes, galleries and boutique bars are the “very best quality-of-life” apartments for all those upwardly mobile ‘burbans who are now colonizing the place. But, as Marie says:
… if people wanna live in diverse communities like St Kilda then it’s really stupid to turn everything into quarter-million-dollar apartments and homogeneously posh places that only serve fancy food and wine and imported beer … Or worse still, to transform the whole place into a tourist attraction … (p. 248).
The phenomenon I’ve described is occurring in many Western cities for many well documented reasons, but in Republic of Women it provides an issue around which my contemporary characters can claim and assert their own sovereignty, and find purpose in their lives.
While I don’t believe it’s my job to theorize my own work in any way, this novel is rather po-mo in both its content and construction, with all the non linearity, intertextuality, deconstruction, appropriation and complexity you’d expect from a literary fiction written “on an island at the end of what some people still call the twentieth century” (p. 231). But it’s also a very unfashionably political novel, which presents alternative ways of living, from what you might once have called a progressive perspective — but now that the Enlightenment notion of progress has been so seriously subverted, I’m not sure what you’d call my characters’ commitments to social justice, equity, tolerance, communitarianism, pluralism, participatory democracy, cultural and biological diversity, ecological sustainability, and all that stuff!
As the reference in the title to one of Plato’s most cited works suggests, my Republic is also conceived as a work of moral philosophy, my own exploration, through my interweaving narratives, of eternal questions such as those Elle’s daughter Sophie asks of Lillian’s collection of pre-patriarchal deities: “Who are we, where have we come from, where are we going to?” (p. 71). Or the How should I live my life?/What sort of society do I want to live in? kind of questions Plato himself asks in his Republic, and in his Seventh Epistle (p. 186). These are fundamental questions, because from them are born either our liberation, or our subjugation – and the novel explores both possibilities.
One of the many narrative threads in this tapestry (or melodies in this opera) follows the fall of what I’ve called the “United States of Athens” during Plato’s lifetime, as described by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War, as well as other texts, including Plato’s own. At a time when we’re face-to-face with the Australian and global consequences of the damage we’ve done, over the past few hundred years, to the natural environments on which we depend, a fresh reading of Athenian imperialism from an environmental perspective is instructive. As Heinrich, one of my war-gamers, explains while he paints “the prow of the shrunken Athenian trireme that’s wedged between the eroded limestone ridges of his thumb and forefinger”,
By the fifth century BCE Athens had to import all her timber … and most of her grain too. That’s why she became a colonial power – to secure the resources she needed to sustain her own people. The alternative was mass famine, complete economic collapse and social disorder (p. 35).
This ecological destruction coincided with Athens’ famed Demokratia, those few years so many male historians have waxed so lyrically about, and which were
… OK if you were a citizen because then you could make speeches in the marketplace and raise your hand to vote. You could even get elected to public office, draft foreign policy or become a general if enough people voted for you. But most people, those who were too poor, or slaves, or serfs, or resident aliens, or barbarians, couldn’t, and nor could us women because these sons of Theseus had done a deal with Poseidon. Or was it Zeus? Or Apollo? They got him to legislate from Mount Olympus that women couldn’t vote. Or own property. Or pass on their mothers’ names. Or learn to read and write. Or participate in or, some say, even attend athletic games or theatre performances. Or have a career. Or drive a car. Or open their own bank accounts. Or choose their sexual partners. Or enjoy any freedom at all really – except the freedom to obey.
From that moment, women too became a subject race. Soon Plato’s student Aristotle would write in his Poetics that women may be said to be inferior beings, mere vessels indeed for male seed. For millennia, many people believed him. Even many women (p. 147-8).
So not only were both the natural environment and the peoples of the empire paying the price for Athenian greatness, but we women were too, “in the currency of subjugation” (p. 97).
These patterns of domination have been repeated in every culture, in every age and on every continent, including my own. As Lillian says
The stories go on and on until it seems the only things that change are the means by which they’re writ (p. 235).
The political as personal
In more recent times such stories have been all too closely associated with the emergence and maintenance of the nation state and the processes of nation building. Do I need to give examples? Surely not here in Europe, where so many atrocities have been, and are continuing to be perpetrated in the name of so many “mother” and “father” lands. And nor in my own country, nor the region to Australia’s north …
Rather than fall too deeply into the traps of cliché or polemicism, I’ve attempted to explore these concerns metaphorically, or allegorically, through Piave’s libretto to Verdi’s La Traviata. This opera, as I’m sure you know, is about a young woman called Violetta, who is very sentimentally sacrificed on the altar of nineteenth century patriarchy – but to some very beautiful melodies. And, as you probably also know, both Verdi and Paive themselves participated in the struggle to liberate “Italia” from a parallel imperialism. Like thousands of other nationalists, they were inspired by Mazzini’s Romantic dream
… of a republic of free and equal men who speak the same language, tread the same earth, are strengthened by the same sun and inspired by the same memories … (p. 159).
Few men of the time, not even progressives like Verdi, nor the very heterosexually active Piave, saw the irony, it seems, in their simultaneous support for the liberation of Italia, and their blindness, even active opposition to the liberation of women and other groups in society! The personal was not political, nor the political personal in nineteenth century dreams about the future, nor even in the visions promoted by some contemporary social movements, it must be said. This phenomenon has always interested me. As Sicilian Elle knows only too well,
… dreams about the future can be really dangerous … Because sometimes they become real! (p. 185).
And in Republic of women the work of some particularly efficient dreamers, from many different “genres”, are cited, including the following.
Sargon of Akkad: who was found by Akki, the divine water-drawer, floating down the river in a cradle made of bulrushes and was raised by the goddess Ishtar – or was it Inanna? – in the wilderness. His scribes said he married her, that it was she who gave him his power. The marriage covenant must have included all the land from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the highlands of Iran to the foothills of the Caucasus because never had the world seen such an empire (p. 190).
Alciabides: As leader of the pro-war party [Al] is a big man in Athenian politics now, and is living way beyond his means. He’s sketching a map of the future in the wrestling-ring sand: Libya, Carthage, Sicily, the Italian peninsula, that’s what it’ll look like, he says. Our western empire. And maybe the Iberian peninsula too because you can never fix an exact point where the future ends. …
Socrates nods his approval. Yes, my boy, he says, you’re really beginning to talk like a statesman now! (p. 161).
Thomas Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …etc, etc (p. 9).
Lafayette: For a nation to be free it is sufficient that she wills it (p. 9).
Adolf Hitler: Because that is what the future is: the thousand-year long Reich (p. 170).
And Filippo Marinetti, who, as Elle tells Marie
… got so pissed of with all the fin-de-siécle pessimism and conservatism last time round that he published that Manifesto about how war was the world’s only hygiene and how there couldn’t be any beauty without conflict, or any masterpieces without aggression? He was into militarism and patriotism and what he called glorious death-giving ideas. And contempt for women. … So then we got Mussolini and his shirts (p. 185).
But to Marie, that’s all “boys stuff”.
The world doesn’t have to be that way, Elle. Does it? And don’t we need some sort of vision to fill us up inside, to give us something worth living for that’s more than the latest TV commercial? Or a job? Or a man and kids! I mean, they’re our lives we gotta live, Elley, and we gotta do something with them that matters. Or else what’s the point of getting up in the morning. I mean, if we keep giving into the past, we’re just being Violettas too. And we can’t let Marinetti and his acolytes write the libretti forever. Can we? Or am I being naïve? (p. 185-6).
A New Republic?
Which brings us back to the Republic of St Kilda. Marie’s waiting for Elle in Leo’s Spaghetti Bar, one of the oldest cafes in Australia. She has just thumbed through Plato’s fiction and decided that if he can have his own republic then she can too, “[b]ut one you’d really want to live in”. So she’s doodling it on the front page of The Age newspaper while she waits for her friend, radically re-designing the view from the café window to fit her own politics and her own green aesthetic (p. 245). Elle joins her, they sip their lattes, and together discover that they do, in fact, have something worth getting up for in the morning: their own struggle to liberate themselves from the past, and St Kilda from those developers who want to homogenize it into “just another monoculture” (p. 249). This new republic will not be the same as all the others in which “[o]nly the names and faces” change (p. 264). It’ll be about real systemic change. A radically different way of being. Sempre libera. Or so these young dreamers believe.
But you might read my book and decide it’s about something else, and there’s no doubt that you could if you were to focus on some of the other narrative threads. (Or melodies.) In his generous words on the back cover philosopher Raimond Gaita suggests that Republic is about “sexual identity”, for example. But it isn’t for me, nor might it be for you either. (Although there’s lots of “gender stuff” and erotica one way or another — although I don’t think that’s what Rai Gaita was necessarily referring to.)
Let me ask you, though, if you were a foreign tourist, would the Australias represented in Republic of Women induce you to visit the not-yet-Republic of my homeland? Would you be seduced by St Kilda’s local café culture, its cultural diversity, its quirky locals, its cosmopolitan sophistication? Or would you prefer one of those other “tourist assets”, the mythical Outback for instance, like that imaginary poster of the dawning of the new millennium: the ancient now-degraded landscape; the dry creek bed lined with eucalypts and melaleucas; the kookaburras and sulphur crested cockatoos; the homestead; smoke rising from the chimney; the cattle yards and horses; the riding boots and akubra hats. And, down the road, the ladies loo in rural Coonabarabran, that writing on the door …
Merrill Findlay was one of the guest writers at the Changing Geographies: Australian and the millennium conference, in Barcelona (February 2000), and gratefully acknowledges the support of the conference hosts, the Australian Studies Centre, Departament de Fililogia Anglesa i Alemanya, 1st Universitat de Barcelona, and La Trobe University, Melbourne; the Literature Fund of the Australia Council; and the School of Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, for making her trip to Spain possible. Thanks, too, to all the other people, including Silvia Cuevas in Madrid; Aurora Garcia Fernandez in Departamento de Filología Anglogermánica y Francesa, Campus de Humanidades “El Milán”, in Oviedo; and Elaine Lewis in Paris, who all supported Merrill’s trip in so many ways.
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Content last updated 21 January 2008. Reposted on this new site on 23 January, 2011. Permalink: https://merrillfindlay.com/?page_id=1342