Ah the serenity – Home in Australian fiction

It has been a while, but that isn’t because I’ve not been reading. If anything, I feel I’ve been reading too much to write. This semester I’m doing three English courses, so I’ve already vacuumed up three novels, a novella, some short stories, and some films, but have never had a spare moment to put some thoughts on paper (that weren’t for assessment purposes at least). But here we are, at term break, and now I can look back at some of those texts and have a think.

For my Australian fiction class, we read the 2019 Miles Franklin Award Winner Too Much Lip, which can be briefly summarised with what is on the back: “Protagonist Kerry returns to her hometown of Durrongo on a stolen Harley to bid farewell to her dying grandfather. A fugitive with warrants out for her arrest, she does not intend to stay in town for long. However, she soon becomes embroiled in dramas with regards to her family, her local family history, and the overdevelopment of the local community”.

This book was in equal measure very lame and very important, and perhaps a full review of it is in order at some point, but there is just one plot device I’m going to explore in this one, and that is that in the story, a consortium is going to take the family’s spiritual home, Ava’s island, away as part of a development.

We also read Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo, a pastoral in which a couple migrates from the city to the country, only to have their new home existentially threatened by a roaring bushfire. There is much more to this story too, of course, but again, this attack on the home is the operative part of it for me.

Finally, I recently sat down and re-watched The Castle, a film which surely needs no introduction, but for the sake of consistency, the Kerrigans love their home next to the airport, and when government and airport authorities force them to vacate the house, they decide to fight for their beloved home. Struggle, joy, and hilarity ensue.

Something, though it may be obvious, became very clear to me while consuming these three pieces of art. The home is central to the Australian experience. It is not simply about property either. Instead, living somewhere is a near-spiritual experience, crucial to Australian life, and its importance runs a thread through these stories. So, I started asking myself why, and came up with most of a theory.

Because Australia is a post-colonial society where nearly everyone arrived without land, or was specifically robbed of their land by the arrival of others, the fear that ordinary people will be dispossessed of their homes, the way that their families were by migration in the non-Indigenous case or by colonialism in the Indigenous case, underlies our connection to land.

Cover art for Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip

In Vertigo and The Castle, the threat to home takes the form of climate change and capitalism directly, where Indigenous texts, like Too Much Lip, do this too, but present it as still indelibly linked with settler-colonial attitudes toward land. Most importantly though, all three texts present displacement as a real and present danger, one against which ordinary Australians must struggle, revealing a deep anxiety about being de-landed that underlies the Australian experience of home.

In all three stories, as in Australian culture at large, the home is the focal point of spiritual existence. In The Castle, home is safety, it is “serenity”, it is family love expressed by seeing a picture go “straight to the pool room”, “it’s not a house, it’s a home”. In Vertigo, it is an escape from the world, a place to be alone, to lounge on a verandah, to read books and build a new life. In Too Much Lip, it is a difficult place we know matters too much to be ignored, because it is our ancestry, our place in the world.

The way home is expressed is different in the three texts, but all focus on a fear of dispossession.

In Vertigo, the characters are yearning for a home at the start of the novella, and believe they have found it in the isolated coastal hamlet of Gurra Nalla, but moving comes with the pain of leaving the city, and they still feel a connection to it, even later in the novella.

To me, this is because both migrant and Indigenous Australian experiences are characterised by a feeling of having two homes. These two homes, the first, where your family came from, and the second, where you make your life, can create a feeling of homelessness among the displaced.

In Too Much Lip, Kerry is displaced from Durrongo by her family’s difficult past, and her first home is put at threat of destruction by the construction of a gaol. This led it to focus more on that first home, where family is from, while Vertigo focused on the second home, where a person makes their life post-migration.

In The Castle, Rob Sitch finds a way to show both: the two main characters reflect each of these homes. For Dale, the house is where he comes from, his spiritual home, the place of his childhood. But, to his father Darryl, it is the home he built, the place he has come to live his adult life by choice, his second home, that is under threat.

That danger comes to both these kinds of homes in the three texts expresses their equality of importance in the eyes of Australian writers. That both are shown as important reflects the fact all Australians, as they have some experience of displacement, have a collective anxiety of being dispossessed again.

Given that all Australians were displaced by colonialism or migration, it’s no surprise narratives like this can be found throughout Australian literature, but I was taken aback by just how similar these three stories are. They represent a de-landing myth in Australian culture, a repeating plot of threat to home that I’m sure could be found elsewhere too. Frankly, what surprised me most was that they don’t even make much of an effort to be different from one another.

First, Too Much Lip reveals the Indigenous experience of dispossession anxiety. In the plot, this is in the family’s struggle to protect Ava’s Island, a sacred site to the family, from purchase by a consortium that has its hands in local government.

Its characters explicitly understand property as empowering. In search of ultimate freedom from the inter-generational trauma accompanied by displacement, Donna becomes a real estate agent, buying and selling land. For the family, owning their house is the ultimate security “from the mission and landlords”, and there is even a diverted attempt to get a QC involved when the house comes under threat, harking back to The Castle in a way that is really not superficial.

The other two texts represent examples of non-Indigenous dispossession anxiety, but usefully deviate when it comes to the socio-economic status of their characters, revealing that essentially the same sotry can be found applied to every strata of Australian society.

The people in Vertigo are clearly very privileged, their parents finance the loan on their new coastal home, and they run a business. Indeed, the narrator seems to have genuine sympathy for the ‘toughness’ of their existence, especially shown through their chronic inability to access water, and, as one more example, having them like a neighbour, Gil, because he admits the difficulty of their lives.

Last summer’s bushfires – some of Vertigo was hard to read with things so fresh in my mind

He says at one point that he refuses to blame his children for not visiting him because “it’s too expensive”, and “mortgages are tough now”, eliciting nods of accepted sympathy from the couple across from him, who run a successful legal business and own multiple properties. Indeed, Anna seems to really believe it is tough living in a beautiful coastal town financed by a loan from her parents because there are snakes, or because they have a slightly larger, uglier stove to clean. Still, there is no denying their feeling of being displaced, and the fear they feel for losing their new home, and they share this in common with the characters in both the other stories.

The Castle represents another side of the non-Indigenous coin, as its characters are firmly lower in socio-economic class compared to the characters in Vertigo. While class in Australia is complicated, that Luke has a law degree in Vertigo and runs his own business, while Darryl Kerrigan is a tow-truck driver whose daughter Sal becomes the first Kerrigan to ever get a post-high school qualification with a Diploma of Hairdressing from Sunshine TAFE tells most of the story.

Interestingly, these characters are decidedly more optimistic, and realistic (to me, though I’m unsure what that says about my life and outlook) than their higher-SES counterparts, and a focus on the joy of home and family is a much more important part of The Castle than it is of Vertigo. But most importantly, that dispossession anxiety affects both of these very different non-Indigenous groups of characters in the stories reveals how pervasive it is for Australians.

That these three texts expose this fear of being de-landed reveals that fear’s influence on Australian thought at every socio-economic level, and in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Its expression through literature reveals that the fear of having home put under threat by forces greater than ourselves is an anxiety for all people in Australia, whether they be working class, middle class, Indigenous, or non-Indigenous, and shows that value for ‘home’ is a universal Australian experience.

The Kerrigans

Of course, the event that drives the plot of each of these texts is that the home is put in danger. Only by doing this can the authors most completely express its importance.

While the choice to endanger home reveals the importance Australian literature attaches to it, how it happens is interesting too: in every version of the de-landing myth, modern capitalism is the force that threatens to take the home away.

In Too Much Lip, a Chinese consortium – and I’ll note here the fact it is mentioned to be Chinese for a whole one sentence, purely to give it extra spooky vibes, only for the Chinese-ness of the consortium never to come up again, transparently reflects the way our fears of dispossession can very quickly become xenophobia without a critical eye – is working with Mayor Jim Buckley to build the goal.

In The Castle, the state government is purchasing their land by force to expand a commercial airport, and in Vertigo, another consortium builds a tree plantation that becomes an enormous fire risk. Crucially, these are all based on commercial interests, revealing the role of advancing capitalism in fueling this cultural anxiety.

All three texts express anxiety about the large-scale purchase of land by ‘consortiums’, and their encroaching on the land, and they all present governments as part of this problem. The government are “in the pockets of developers”, Gil complains in Vertigo, and in every story the Australian political system is complicit in the de-landing of the people.

For the most part, each text paints government as a bystander driven by laziness, rather than bare greed, too far from the community to care or focused on something less important, rather than sinister and actively destructive for its own sake. Perhaps this is to be expected, as these are reasonably common Australian views of politics.

There is much more to unpack here, but at least one thread can be identified in all this. By presenting the loss of property as such a serious disaster and threat to home as threat to people, our obsession with the sovereign right of all Australian people to feel ‘at home’, and live in it unbothered. They then reveal the hypocrisy of allowing capitalism to have the ruling role in executing that right.

Even more crucially, they betray a growing Australian anxiety that our ever-advancing capitalism will put this at threat, a fear founded in historical experiences of displacement. Whether that fear is rational, I don’t quite know, but the prevalence of the de-landing myth can definitely tell us something about ourselves if we look more closely.

It’s hard to end these with a quote when there’s three stories to look at, and frankly, when addressing something as beautiful as home in Australia, just one would be woefully inadequate. Instead, here’s a video of one of the pieces of film I love most in the world.

Indulge in its sentimentality, it may just be the nudge you need to re-watch an Australian classic, and even to think more deeply about what it says about us and our relationship with home.

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