Reviewed: Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear, University of Queensland Press
At first glance the dropbear might be interpreted as innocent fun: a mythical species dreamt up by settlers said to prey on unsuspecting tourists, it is posited as the cute punchline in a national prank. For many, the dropbear is not a particularly violent figure. That is, not when placed in comparison with the material consequences of colonisation: dispossession and expropriation of Indigenous people and their land, the destruction of sacred sites, the removal of Indigenous children from their families and Country, Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody (to name just a few).
But what is it that mobilises the material implications of colonisation? Where do we locate the settler affect that summons a belief in a right to occupy? What are the stories we tell ourselves that enable a denial of Indigenous sovereignty? Asking these questions as we analyse the mythic figure of the dropbear reveals colonialism writ large—the myths that dominate dispossession are made cute and native, the real and violent threats of the settler colony are externalised, and the stories of Country are rewritten.
This is where Evelyn Araluen’s debut collection, Dropbear, takes up one of its key points of enquiry—the mechanism that stalls an interrogation of the colony at play. That is, the insidious aesthetic of colonialism that seeks to distract from the inherent violence of the colony and its ongoing attempts at genocide. In Dropbear we find the locus of colonialism not in some outwardly violent figurehead, but in the national myths and sentiments that permeate everyday life in so-called Australia, in the ‘cute gags’ and insidious, kitschy displays of ‘Aussie values’ fundamental to settler nativism.
Araluen fiercely resists the settler-colonial narrative. Our passive consumption of a mythic Australia—the tropes and iconographies that appear in its values, institutions, archives and imageries—is unwound in an act of loving defiance.1 Dropbear is concerned primarily with what is spoken, as she tells us in ‘The Ghost Gum Sequence’: ‘I’m not worried about you finding all this, I’m worried about how you’re gonna speak it.’ In the companion essay to this collection, ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum’, Araluen argues that settler responses to land fulfil nationalist concerns; a complex of an ‘alluring but resistant’ landscape is articulated as a ‘justification for the cultural and geographic boundaries of the colony within, beyond, and against the imperial centre’. An anxious movement ‘around Aboriginal presence in cosmic, embodied and negated forms’, coupled with a reading of landscape as both hostile and beautiful (i.e. as something that must be tamed), has ‘produced a complex and at times contradictory aesthetic of Australian-nature kitsch.’2 As Dropbear shows us, this aesthetic takes on many guises including literature, history, film, children’s books, music, architecture, fashion, design and home interiors.
It is useful to attempt to define kitsch here, and then more specifically colonial kitsch, which I argue is its own category, sharing aspects of a broader classification of kitsch, but with its own historically contingent character and agenda. The literary and aesthetic theorisation of kitsch began in the late twentieth century: for Clement Greenberg, kitsch stands as an ignorant enemy to the critical interventions of the avant-garde;3 for Hermann Broch, it extends the sacrilegious logics of Romanticism into the unethical elevation of kitsch’s artistic value.4 Emerging as a result of the industrial revolution, these early theorisations see kitsch as a reproducible and commercial product passed off as art. Stated bluntly, kitsch is what Theodor Adorno calls ‘artistic trash’.5 However, a definition of kitsch is shaky. To call something kitsch is often a negative aesthetic judgement referring to low art—the reproducible, often gaudy or cheap tropes of popular culture. While kitsch is often degraded for its link to capital, it is not (in my opinion) inherently evil, nor is high art immune from the throes of capitalism. To degrade popular culture in such a way also risks classist sentiments.
Colonial kitsch, however, is something more sinister. Although often appearing in artistic forms and products, it isn’t confined to art, nor is the avant-garde immune from it. Colonial kitsch has a specific vision, working to reproduce a set of values and figures that create and maintain the settler-colonial imaginary, mobilising nostalgia and sentiments of national belonging. As well as in the tropes of settler literature and art, it is present in political rhetoric, historical analysis and discourses surrounding infrastructure and extraction. If kitsch is in part about reproducing a particular product, then the product of colonial kitsch is one of nationalism.
It is about selling a reductive and exclusionary image of Australia that is glossy and sentimental, alleviating the guilt of its settler consumer. Its motivation is singular, cohered by a notion of nationhood that denies Aboriginal sovereignty and appeases settler anxiety. In part, this involves selling an image of Australia that is appealing: ‘Bush Creatures™’, ‘lovely important sadness©’, ‘This Delightful Bush™’. Kitsch is so enmeshed in settler conceptions of Australia that we often don’t even realise it’s there. For Araluen, kitsch is everywhere: it is Watkin Tench’s ‘Miltonic visions of this place’ as a ‘wild abyss’; it is ‘Kylie Minogue in hotpants and a hot-pink koala knit sitting side-saddle on a scribbly with a lush bubblegum arrangement’. Kitsch is ‘available for purchase in a wide range of hand-dyed / linens’; kitsch is ‘straya in sepia 25mm with sweat rolling across a tan’.
Often, as is revealed in Dropbear, colonial kitsch involves the reproduction of a particular set of nationalist characters, the purpose of which Araluen identifies—via Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang—as a ‘settler move to innocence’.6 As Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues, these characters include the melancholic, the pioneer and the battler. Their performance is embodied by the white heterosexual male and attributed with ‘the core national values of mateship, egalitarianism, and a fair go’,7 an attribution that excludes Indigenous people and non-white settler-migrants from embodying such values.
These figures offer a performance of white sovereignty filtered through the logic of capital; they are ‘underpinned by an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state’s ownership, control and domination’.8 Moreton-Robinson traces the genesis of these characters through figures such as the Anzac, as well as the images and events that have dominated Australian popular beach culture, beginning with James Cook taking possession of Bedanug, and subsequently repeated with the lifesaver, the surfer and the Cronulla riots. Dropbear continues Moreton-Robinson’s interrogation of these colonial figures. As well as the melancholic, the pioneer and the battler, Araluen identifies the figure of the larrikin, evoked in part through the collection’s title. Dropbear goes on to reveal the repetition of these figures as central to the mechanics of Australian colonial kitsch.
Araluen recognises these figures as central to Australian settler literature, specifically poetics. It is here, she argues, that colonial kitsch ‘ruptures at its most
revolting readable’. A resistance to literary kitsch and its colonial figures is made clear in the book’s notes. Here Araluen writes that we must read the intertextuality throughout the book ‘with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.’ This literary examination is a refusal of the so-called pillars of Australian literature—it speaks back to those who have laid the foundations for a literary colonial imaginary, canonical figures such as Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Patrick White, D.H. Lawrence and Les Murray. In ‘To the Poets’ and ‘Playing in the Pastoral’ Araluen rejects the Australian pastoral, a form made dominant by many of these writers.
‘Playing in the Pastoral’ offers a poetic rendition of the section by the same title in Araluen’s Sydney Review of Books essay. At times the essay is quoted directly, and at others it is extended with amendments indicated by strikethroughs. Here, the figures of the pastoral build ‘a series of modes which assimilate natural and human worlds into objects of white Endeavour’, exposing the erasure of Indigenous experience and history by the pioneer as central to the pastoral form. In one stanza Araluen writes, ‘the putative telos of the national character arising from / a shared
stolen experience of “the hostility of the landscape to / man’s effort to tame it” moves anxious as if wounded while / wounding around over Aboriginal land and its custodians in / fearful cosmic, suspicious embodied, and negated void forms’. Araluen reveals ‘national character’ as built on the appropriation and misrepresentation of Indigenous personhood and land. Formally this poem adopts strikethroughs as a multivalent device. On one hand they point to a truth that lurks behind the pastoral form, and on another they might be seen as desiring and personal extensions to the arguments made in Araluen’s accompanying essay; the crossed-out words can be read as pointed observations that can’t be held by the purely academic essay, suggesting a need for discourse outside the academy.
In ‘To the Poets’, Araluen demonstrates the way in which the pastoral has been used to create false histories and myths, how it is used as a function of settler nativism—‘you ferment myth into the / bush and the billabong to give yourself history, and there’s / enough there to make a man and call him native born’. Here, the figure of the pioneer is interrogated for his beliefs that the land is hostile, that it must be tamed and rendered sublime through the mechanics of ‘progress’ and extraction: ‘the horror slips / sublime and you build house and fence and church’. As Moreton-Robinson argues, while embodiment of a white sovereign subject works to negate Indigenous sovereignty, images of a harsh and unforgiving landscape allow for the erasure of Indigenous dispossession—‘by creating the landscape as the oppressor, the values and virtues of achieving white possession can be valourised and Indigenous dispossession can be erased; the mythology of peaceful settlement is perpetuated and sustained’.9
Araluen demonstrates the inherent violence of the pastoral mode, where language is taken ‘from our bleeding mouths’ and given ‘to your songs’. She goes further, ‘our bones mortar your buildings, your poems, but all the while we’re away in fringes and reserves’, again highlighting that there is violence, erasure and appropriation not only in writing Aboriginal bodies, but also in writing Country:
Do you know that none of the
trees your poems bleed are ghost gums? Do you understand
that when you write the kangaroo the wallaby the bilby
the bandicoot the cockatoo the blacksnake the waterlily
the brush the bush the sapling the ghost gum that you are
puppeting your hands through ancestors, through relations?
In her essay ‘Other People’s Stories’ Jeanine Leane speaks to the erasure of Indigenous stories in Australian literature. Leane argues that the inclusion of Indigenous characters in many settler texts (if they are included at all) write Indigenous people as racist caricatures, ‘as a primitive, half-naked, thieving, violent savage, or the tragic drunken relic of a civilisation on the brink of extinction’. Leane interrogates the presence of these texts in institutions, arguing that the misrepresentations and erasures in these texts are not merely ‘benign descriptions’ but ‘enter into and shape our national discourse’.10
Both Leane and Araluen call for an attention to Indigenous self-representation in Australian literature, as well as close examination of settler misrepresentations and erasures. However, neither writer argues that canonical texts should not be read and studied, but rather that they should be examined on new grounds. A close and honest reading of these texts tells us so much about the violence of colonisation. As settlers, it is crucial that we take up this task.
It should be noted that Araluen’s critique is not only concerned with the historical forces of poetry, by which I mean it is not backwards-facing. These are texts that still circulate in and outside institutions, often approached without criticality. At the same time, Araluen’s interrogation of the canon does not safeguard the contemporary avant-garde or the politically enlightened, a clear departure from original conceptions of kitsch—no-one is off the hook. In ‘decolonial poetics (avant gubba)’ Araluen speaks directly to a white settler subject, specifically the settler poet who calls their practice ‘decolonial’. ‘Do not touch this prefix’ she warns (speaking to the ‘de’ in ‘decolonial’), ‘there are no metaphors here’, recalling her essay ‘Resisting the Institution’ and the essay by Tuck and Yang, ‘Decolonisation is not a metaphor’. By pointing to an active decolonial practice, one that is embodied through ‘belly&bones’, ‘throat&finger’, Araluen makes space for ‘Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing’,11 practices that surpass the walls of institution. This is a decolonial poem that demands more than just a poem.
‘Bastards from the Bar’ speaks back to a more recent myth that dominates the course of Australian poetry, specifically the supposed revolution that occurred via the emergence of The Generation of ’68. Araluen opens with ‘whose revolution was it anyway’, probing the ‘fucked-up / Sydney Grammar dendrology’. The ‘you’ in this poem is Araluen’s father, who reveals what the poets of ’68 don’t tell us: ‘that they forgot politics after the vote’, he reminds us ‘what / they did to the women, and what they never did for us’. The so-called ‘legends’ of Australian poetry are just bastards from the bar, men left ‘fumbling for demons in / broken glass’.
As these poems point out, how we absorb colonial kitsch is often passive—it is a sneaky device that frequently goes unrecognised. It’s easy to pass off gags about the dropbear or cutesy imagery of Australian native flora and fauna as charming or daggy, an always already-innocent aesthetic. However, as Dropbear shows us, this passivity is central to the function of colonial kitsch—slowly seeping into a national consciousness, providing a fixed and romantic image of ‘Australia’ and ‘Australians’. Much of Araluen’s collection is dedicated to dissecting children’s literature, particularly iconic books such as May Gibbs’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo.
For many of us, reading these books is the point at which a passive consumption of colonial kitsch begins. In ‘The Last Bush Ballad’ the innocence of ‘the bubs and babes’ of children’s books is thrown into question—the poem presents them as colonisers chanting Banjo Patterson’s refrain ‘The Way is Won! The Way is Won!’ as they look for ‘better country further out’. Araluen reveals a throughline in the colonising force of Australian literature, absorbed and maintained from childhood to adulthood. The poem’s ominous closing also serves as a warning, foreseeing a bleak ending for our not-so-innocent bubs:
In the great jangle and tangle amidst the drowning
under tide and tithing they did not notice the mountain’s
mimesis, which in the voice of all the vengeful ancestors
was heard to be lyred and said: I told you this was a thirst
so great it could carve rivers. I told you I was prepared to
While this is a book that works hard at dismantling the oppressive discourse and structures that dominate this country, it is also a collection that contains multitudes of love—love for family, for ‘J’, for community and Country. Dropbear acts as a kind of vessel in which all things are gathered—importantly, the first section of the book and its opening poem are both titled ‘Gather’. The poem gathers ‘branch’, ‘weed’, ‘weave of reed’, but it also gathers stories that are swallowed and become physically embodied, as the final lines tell us, ‘gathered story to you, girl // got something for you to swallow’. I’m reminded here of Jeanine Leane and her research on Aboriginal women writers—particularly poets—as gatherers. For Leane, gathering extends beyond the physical and involves a particular kind of memory work, an interaction with the archive that works to debunk myths ‘through excavating, resurfacing, and resurrecting and gathering buried, dormant, or sleeping links in our Countries through our stories, our archives, to re-member and remember’.12 Through this process of gathering, Dropbear participates in a rewriting of a settler literary archive that not only reveals pain, but also deep love and joy.
Country is everywhere in this collection. In ‘Concessions’ it is longed for; in ‘Home after Fire’ it is a process of mourning; in ‘Secret River’ it yields lessons; in ‘Unreckoning’ it holds memories, knows words and speaks them. The presence of family is strong throughout Dropbear: family cook spagbol, wash dishes, sew quilts, feed and play with animals, watch movies and mountains, ride bikes, steal shoes from one another, take baths, sleep next to each other, read books and talk about birds. Family presence is not absorbed merely as everyday routine but is physically part of these poems, like a limb. Entanglement is a recurring theme, in this poem the concept speaks to the fact that Araluen was raised on (and deeply loved) many of the books critiqued in the collection. She writes:
here’s the entanglement: none of this is innocent and
while I seek to write rupture I usually just rearrange. I can
name the colonial complexes and impulses which structure
these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised
on these books too.
Recognising entanglement, however, does not mean the book arrives at an impasse. Acknowledging that personal and shared histories are multivalent, difficult and often contradictory, recognising that there is no easy solution and that multiple histories coexist is essential—a fact colonial history and aesthetics completely ignores. Colonial kitsch might be seen as a kind of flattening, a two-dimensional affect in which complexity is passed over in favour of palatable consumption. Reading this aesthetic actively on new terms sets up an ongoing project, a task that I argue Dropbear invites readers to continue. In part, this involves recognition that colonial kitsch is not straightforward; things aren’t simply as they appear. I write this from the Nicholas Building in Naarm. Out the window is St Paul’s Cathedral, a BHP building, a statue of Matthew Flinders and, below me, Souvenirs Australia.
These sites are not disparate—they are united in their colonial goals, communicated through the settler affect of colonial kitsch. I look up TV adverts for BHP on YouTube, most of which capitalise on images of the Australian battler and the pioneer pushing for ‘progress’; there’s the long history of Christian missionaries adopting notions of the ‘noble savage’ in order to strip Indigenous people of their Country and their rights; the myth of Matthew Flinders and his circumnavigation of Australia, which prevails over Bungaree, the Kurringgai man who made the circumnavigation possible (there are a number of statues of Flinders’ cat Trim, who was also onboard the ship—there are none of Bungaree); and Souvenirs Australia, a chain of stores carrying a multitude of Australiana and Aboriginalia commodities. Read together, these sites invite tourists and settlers alike to accept the myth that Australia is a fair, honest and lucky country—a myth Dropbear encourages us to untangle. •
Melody Paloma, a poet and UNSW MFA candidate, lives in Naarm. She is the author of Some Days (Sod, 2018) and In Some Ways Dingo (Rabbit, 2017).
- Timmah Ball arrives at a similar conclusion in her review, ‘Dropbear: Writing as an Act of Defiance’, Mascara Literary Review, April 2021, <http://mascarareview.com/timmah-ball-reviews-dropbear-byevelyn- araluen/>.
- Evelyn Araluen, ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum’, Sydney Review of Books, 11 February 2019, <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/snugglepot-and-cuddlepie-in-the-ghost-gumevelyn- araluen/>.
- Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, in his Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961, pp. 3–22.
- Hermann Broch, ‘Notes on the Problem of Kitsch’, in Gillo Bell Dorfles (ed.), Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, New York, 1969, pp. 49–68.
- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, Routledge, London, 1984, p. 53.
- Araluen, ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’.
- Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 21.
- Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, p. xxi.
- Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, p. 29.
- Jeanine Leane, ‘Other People’s Stories’, Overland, 2016, <https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/ issue-225/feature-jeanine-leane/>.
- Evelyn Araluen, ‘Resisting the Institution’, Overland, 2017, <https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/ issue-227/feature-evelyn-araluen/>.
- Jeanine Leane, ‘Gathering: The Politics of Memory and Contemporary Aboriginal Women’s Writing’, Antipodes, vol. 31, no. 2 (December 2017), p. 244.