Reading Literary Blockbusters on Ngannawal Country
On Ngunnawal country, the Canberra bubble continues to expand, with its brutalist architecture, national institutions, consulates, and blue-tinged gums from which the Telstra Tower on Black Mountain (aka the Syringe aka the Spaceship Docking Station) emerges. It is not a place well-known for literary production or for the celebration of literature. The roads with their infernal on and off ramps, circuits and curves, are arrayed in patterns to facilitate communication with aliens, or for devil worship. Canberra/Ngambri manages to be the nation’s capital, and remote—provincial—estranged from the artistic and literary metropolitan centres of Australia and the wider world.
When I moved to Canberra from overseas the first time, then returned for second and third go-rounds, I was struck by how dark it was: the lack of street lighting in the suburbs, the ordentlich green spaces with their trees in straight lines. Living in Canberra, it was impossible not to feel distant from places like Hong Kong, London, Berlin, New York, and even Melbourne: it was deathly quiet after 8 pm. When I asked students at the ANU, where I teach, about their plans after graduation, the answer was often that their ambition was to move to Sydney or Melbourne—a desire for a new location, rather than for a career. I felt it too, thinking for a long while that Canberra was just a stepping stone to some other place, where I could feel powerful cultural currents, be immersed in life, rather than feel a sense of being trapped in a metaphorical dam akin to Lake Burley Griffin with its blue-green algae and invasive carp.
One way to con yourself into believing that you’re part of some larger movement, to think that you can keep up with what’s happening in the wider world, is to read literary blockbusters: novels published anywhere but here that win the Man Booker or the Pulitzer or another illustrious award from the Global North. I’m thinking not just of books written by Anglo authors, such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—a classic in this genre—but novels such as Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Novels like these create worlds far from the dead streets of the suburbs; they lift you from your room, curtains drawn in the cold, to places far away. Their production values are high: they are, for the most part, carefully-edited, marketed to a well-educated, well-off readership with their attractive cover art, their endorsements by other writers with similarly calibrated cultural cachet. They promise access to worlds which are particularly alluring in these pandemic days, when even memories of travel feel as if they might’ve occurred in a former, altogether different, life.
Rebecca Walkowitz, in a book called Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in the Age of World Literature, approaches these kinds of novels by arguing that a proportion of books written in English, and those in other languages by authors with impeded access to global markets, are written with translation—and therefore a readership across the globe—in mind from the beginning. In Walkowitz’s terms, ‘Born Translated’ works ‘block readers from being native readers’—those who assume that the book they are reading was written for them—and that such texts seem to ‘occupy more than one place, to be produced in more than one language, or address multiple audiences at the same time’. This is the case with many of the literary blockbusters I read after my first and second returns to Canberra. As with All the Light We Cannot See—which I resisted reading for a long time out of contrariness—these are novels which incorporate languages other than English, which portray characters from more than one country (Doerr’s novel is about aspects of the Second World War from the perspectives of French and German characters). ‘Born translated’ novels make claims for the significance of the time they evoke, and induce a sense of fascination and distance in the reader: a fascination for sometimes fetishized aspects of a distant community, such as, in the case of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Serbian folklore, and also a sense of being non-native, of observing these customs and practices almost anthropologically. Take the beginning of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things: ‘May in Ayemenem is a hot brooding month.’ This phrase immediately situates the reader as distant from the village, as someone who needs to be told what the weather is like there.
There is nothing wrong with reading and savouring literary blockbusters. What I’m often reading comprises draft short stories written by students, or draft novels written by postgraduates. These are rewarding, in that seeing another writer’s work develop and change, sometimes by taking on (or ignoring) your suggestions, is a blast. But reading drafts requires close attention, whereas the reading pleasure gained from the literary blockbuster is often about being engulfed and surprised and intrigued with very little effort. For me, there’s nonetheless an abiding and excoriating guilt involved in consuming books in which a publisher has invested a large slice of their marketing budget, and which a judging panel has curated and endorsed. Much more interesting, in many ways, to find your own hidden gems.
So what have I been reading under mask mandates, and finally, under the lockdown that had to happen in Canberra? Books that ought to be blockbusters. I read Canberra authors out of sense of indebtedness, because it turns out that their work—on the page and in the city itself—nourishes writing and writers in ways that literary blockbusters can’t (quite). When it’s impossible to escape the Bubble, it’s hard not to realize what writers have done to make it more endurable, and more alive. Here are a selection of the books that I’ve been reading by Canberrans or people who live close by, which were published recently:
The Kindness of Birds (Spinifex, 2021), by Merlinda Bobis is a collection of short stories set in Australia and the Philippines. While gloom and trouble are pervasive in contemporary fiction, Bobis’s collection is about friendship and solidarity across linguistic, cultural and religious barriers. My overwhelming experience of reading these stories was of being touched, entering each story and knowing that it would contain a moment or an event that would move me. This moment comes about in each story in a startling way: the birds that arrive each day to sing to a dying man; the kindness of a stranger who helps her neighbour lay out the body of her neighbour’s deceased lover; the care of a cleaner in Parliament House for a crow; the complex relationship between two sisters, one of whom is a revolutionary. In these stories, characters and the reader are both transformed; each one is an emotional journey, which often ends with a form of renewal.
Irma Gold’s novel, The Breaking (Midnight Sun Publishing, 2021), follows a backpacker in Thailand who falls in love with a fellow traveller while trying to save elephants from exploitation. The characters’ attempts to intervene in a society about which they have only partial and biased knowledge rings excruciatingly true. And yet all the characters in the novel are portrayed with sympathy and humanity, and the book is a cracking read.
No Country Woman (2019), Zoya Patel’s stellar collection of essays about living in Australia as a woman of Fijian descent, and Australia’s treatment of migrants, is an honest and affecting portrayal of what it’s like to experience racism and to struggle to belong, in a family of hardworking immigrants who support each other. A particularly poignant essay is revelatory in its exploration of the experience of growing up with Pauline Hanson’s racist messages in the mass media.
While the built environment of Canberra/Ngambri would apparently only contribute to the continued whitewashing of Indigenous (and other diverse) cultures, people and country, poetry and fiction by Indigenous authors living in Canberra attests to what Native American scholar and writer Gerard Vizenor terms ‘survivance’: ‘an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion’. Murri woman Lisa Fuller’s recent young adult novel, Ghost Bird, is a case in point.
Canberra might feel insular, but the work of its writers is unmistakably cosmopolitan, from the recent novels of Alison Booth, Nigel Featherstone, and Felicity Volk, to the rap and fiction of Omar Musa, to explorations of issues around gender and the environment in work by Kathryn Hind and Karen Viggers. In Ngambri, it’s not just the literature itself that has built a diverse literary culture, but the actions of writers themselves. Canberra’s authors may never feel chic, but Nigel Featherstone’s work through the ACT Writers’ Centre, the journal started by Zoya Patel, Feminartsy, and Irma Gold and Craig Cormick’s podcast, Secrets from the Green Room, have augmented literary culture in the city.
Perhaps a lot of the novels produced in Canberra are aspiring blockbusters, in part because of the distance their authors sense between their location and the Global North. But reading novels written on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country reveals that Canberra is not just the public service town of first impressions, but a place of diversity and natural beauty. The dead streets render it quiet. The fact that there’s little to do after 8pm—especially during a pandemic—means that it might be possible to write a literary blockbuster, or a poem, or a screenplay, or blogpost, in Canberra.
 Rebecca Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in the Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 3
 Walkowitz, Born Translated, p. 6
 Gerald Vizenor, ‘Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Practice’, in Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), p. 1.