Oceanic Literature

Even the most famous Oceanic writers are far from household names in the rest of the world. While the occasional Aussie, Kiwi, or South Seas Islander will win the Nobel Prize, Man Booker Award, or other prestigious honor, few of them make it into the popular market, and therefore few of their works are read. Island nations are necessarily more insular than those on the mainland, and the literature of these regions has remained separated from that of the rest of the world.

In some ways it's a bit of a misnomer to even talk about "Oceanic literature." The indigenous peoples of these various islands and the Australian island-continent were all preliterate, and not until the arrival of (mostly English-speaking) Europeans did a local literature begin to establish itself. Even then, the indigenous peoples took awhile to catch on, reluctant to give up their oral traditions and wary of Westerners and Western customs.

The first writings that can be directly associated with these areas are actually the diaries, journals, and ship logs of the first European explorers. Captain Cook's journals are probably the most famous of these, though there were many others. During the 17th and 18th centuries, accounts primarily dwelt on the strange sights of this foreign region, and on the fantastical interpretations applied to these sights by the Europeans. Consequently, Oceania has always been steeped in mystery and wonder for Westerners, much the way China was for Medieval Italians who heard or read Marco Polo's accounts.

As the islands were settled by British settlers and military personnel, who brought with them the literature of their homeland, writing began to be more realistic, and to deal with the trials of inhabiting a mostly empty land and dealing with the indigenous peoples one found in it. The trials were many: as Australia, New Zealand, and other islands began to fill with sailors, adventurers, convicts, settlers, the poor, and others, Oceania put the American West to shame for wildness and danger.

Danger has long been a preoccupation of Oceanic writers. From Nevil Shute's On the Beach (which chronicles the world post-nuclear apocalypse) to James Vance Marshall's Walkabout (the story of two Australian children led on a no less apocalyptic journey through the bush by an Aboriginal boy), peril is an ever-present force. Perhaps it's the uncertainty of life at the edge of the world; perhaps it's simply that peril makes good literature.

More likely, the danger in Oceanic literature relates to the precarious nature of the Oceanic identity. Is an Australian, Tasmanian, or New Zealander a European or something different? Part of this tension is evident in the fact that much of what is assumed to be Oceanic literature actually isn't—while Walkabout is thoroughly Australian in terms of plot and themes, for instance, James Vance Marshall is actually the pseudonym of the English author Donald G. Payne.

One of the reasons for this confused identity is no doubt the close proximity into which both European settlers and indigenous peoples have been thrown. The Western worldview with its literate society emphasizing reason and pragmatism naturally conflicts with that of the Aborigines, Maoris, and others in which magic and reality are so blurred as to be indistinguishable, in which words are spoken rather than written, in which painting is a stronger form of art than poetry.

This is likely the reason Oceanians are more well-known for their filmmaking than for their novel writing. Film is magical, somewhat preliterate, deeply visual. Australian film in particular is among the most vibrant in the world, and can even claim the first feature-length picture in the history of the movies, 1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang. This action-packed Australian Western tells the story of Ned Kelly and his outlaw band, Kelly being the Australian equivalent of Jesse James or Robin Hood.

Film meshes nicely with the mystic aspects of island culture. Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock unites elements of European culture (the desire to know, reliance on empirical data to discover truth) and those of Australian Aboriginal culture (the embrace of mystery and the unknown, the relationship of dreams and waking life) with seeming effortlessness. The movie, which is sometimes rather misleadingly called a mystery, also illuminates the confusion concerning Oceanic identity, and the ever-present danger of life far from the "civilized" world.

In the 20th century, the "uncivilized" indigenous peoples of the islands began to write literature of their own. It was necessarily a painful and slow process, as they were writing from a very non-Western perspective but in a very Western language (English), but the best of them have managed to bridge the chasm admirably. One of these is the Maori author Witi Ihimaera, whose books such as The Whale Rider deftly blend magic and modern realism.

The fact that there isn't much of a monolithic literature from this spread-out region shouldn't suggest that it can't offer us much by way of culture. Because there is no strongly defined ethnic identity, but rather a variety of ethnicities, it's appropriate to include in the literature of Oceania not only books by its native sons and daughters, but also by those who've passed through or studied the area. As Australia and its satellites continue to evolve and change, we wait with anticipation to see what direction its people's literature will take, and how in turn it will shape them.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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