Race matters in contemporary Australian literature

Hashtags can create revolutions of a kind, from #blacklivesmatter to #metoo. But while this brief and powerful form of communication can be effective in driving change, the longer form of the novel can play an important role in changing attitudes and addressing societal wrongs.

I have noticed that a vein of advocacy has been running through the most recent contemporary Australian literature that I have read. These books have served as a wake-up call against casual and ingrained racism.

In  A Long Way from Home, Peter Carey writes of Bacchus Marsh and Ballarat, Holdens and Fords, but also of less familiar places in the centre of Australia.

The book tells the story of the Redex Trial, a famous car race around Australia, while also highlighting the racism encountered by Indigenous Australians in 1950s, when the book was set.

Carey exposes the chasm between white and Indigenous Australians through the character of Willy Bachhuber, who finds himself adrift between the two. In exploring the Indigenous world, Willy discovers what is almost an alternative universe of knowledge and understanding of history and geography. It is a perspective that is rarely understood by those taught in Western classrooms, far from the red earth and vivid mythology of outback Indigenous communities.

Willy is forced to lay his prejudices aside, inviting the reader to do the same. It is not hard to see that these lessons are not just meant for Willy, but also for the Australian reader, however convincingly they might argue that it is a lesson that they did not need.

The book also points to the importance of belonging to a place, and to a people, a central theme in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. In her book, Wilson addresses the complicity of ‘well -wishers’ in the pain of Indigenous Australians, especially surrounding the removal of children from their families. For Frederick, the patriarch of a family that has adopted an Indigenous child, the idea of enabling his daughter to reconnect with her past is too challenging, even inconvenient. And so, he keeps information from his daughter that ultimately causes great damage and distress.

In Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, powerfully calls out the racism that she experienced growing up in suburban Australia. She points the finger, not just at ignorant children, but at parents and teachers who cruelly see her as ‘the other’.

This style of highlighting societal wrongs through literature is not new – it is one of literature’s most important roles. Many popular books have drawn attention to similar injustices, from The Power of One to Stasiland or The Poisonwood Bible.

However, the new breed of Australian books addresses racism in a way that does not just aims to highlight injustice, but also to bring about a shift in the attitudes of Australians, and how they see their national history. The land of the fair go might not seem quite as fair after reading these novels, and the small prejudices that readers hold close might become weightier and more problematic after they are mirrored in the behaviour of the characters on the page.

The evidence that reading can make people less prejudice is not just anecdotal. A US study in 2014, titled  Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction found that reading a particular work of fiction changed participants’ perception of the genetic difference between races and caused them to display less race bias.

A year later, a study of whether Harry Potter books decreased prejudice found that those who identified Harry as the main character were less likely to be biased or prejudiced against minority groups.

The researchers also found that reading Harry Potter books improved children’s attitudes toward stigmatised groups that included immigrants, refugees and members of the LGBT community. They wrote:

“Harry Potter empathizes with characters from stigmatized categories, tries to understand their sufferings and to act towards social equality. So, I and my colleagues think that empathic feelings are the key factor driving prejudice reduction.”

In contemporary Australian literature, writers have been using fiction as a vehicle to build understanding between races, breakdown prejudice and address wrongdoings. It is a necessity of our time, reflected on the page.

In an article in The Guardian, writer Elizabeth Strout was asked what book she is reading. She answered: A Long Way from Home.

“It’s an astonishing piece of work: so Peter Carey, and yet completely on its own, about a couple in the 1950’s who are doing the Redex Trial – a race around the Australian continent – with their navigator. The places the book goes – well, it’s just wonderful; it feels necessary.”

And perhaps Strout has hit the nail on the head. These books might not always be easy to read, and are far from feel-good novels, but they play a necessary role in calling out wrongs, exposing prejudice of the current day and the past, and going some way n creating a better Australia.

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