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In A City Far, Far Away

Published on 18th March 2016
Perth is the most isolated city in the world, more than 2500 kilometres from the nearest big-city neighbour. From an outsider’s perspective, that distance alone makes it mysterious and intriguing. Its isolation is also, perhaps, what gives Western Australian writing a place in Australian literature no less unique than its capital’s place in Australian geography.

As Professor Terri-Ann White, director at University of Western Australian Publishing, explains: “Isolation actually gives us space to not feel like we’re part of a movement or trend or a school…that is the great benefit and the great strength of Western Australian writing.

The distance that separates Perth from the defining narratives and experiences in other parts of the country allows it to develop a culture and identity of its own.

Tim Winton, so long the dominant voice to come out of the west, exemplifies this, being perennially a literary outsider even as he scoops up award after award. He has carved out a niche for himself with his sprawling prose and flawed protagonists, such as the fallen-from-grace alcoholic Tom Keely in Eyrie (2013) and the lonely Luther Fox of Dirt Music (2001). All the while the Western Australian backdrop threads seamlessly into Winton’s novels, its rhythms echoing his observations of everyday life.

The Winton classic Cloudstreet (1991) succeeds through its universality, capturing the changing of Australian society, questioning established norms around the treatment of Indigenous people, the myth of the “Aussie battler” and our notions of family.

There are other authors, however, who focus more closely on Perth, and one such is Robert Drewe. In his memoir The Shark Net (2000), his coming-of-age is set against the backdrop of a city in flux during the 1960s. The natural landscape here is not always benign: there’s the relentless sun, the turbulent surf and the invasion of Argentine ands. Drewe’s experiences are punctuated by events that lead to the world’s most isolated city getting national, and even international, attention. In 1962, while Perth hosted the Commonwealth Games, Eric Edgar Cooke was on his way to killing eight people. Soon the spotlight was on the police and the courts, which wound up convicting two innocent men for a couple of those deaths. In the same year, Perth earned its sobriquet “City of Lights,” when townsfolk turned on their lights as US astronaut John Glenn passed overhead. Lit up, the remote city could be observed from space. Sometimes, it seems, isolation can help.

Other writers have used Perth more as a convenient literary setting than a character in itself. Stephanie Bishop, a Sydney-based writer, was awarded the 2015 Readings Prize for her novel The Other Side of the World. Set in the 1960s, the story follows protagonist Charlotte, and her husband, Henry, who have moved from England to Perth in search of a happier life. For Charlotte in particular, the move seems only to exacerbate her unhappiness.

Bishop says that sending her characters to the remote city allowed her to examine their sense of alienation. “I wanted Charlotte to feel very much an outsider,” she explains. “I don’t know Perth as a local. It’s somewhere that I always visit and observe and I could empathise with what it might be like to come to Peth and feel yourself on the outside.”

Conversely, Perth’s isolation can have a liberating effect on a book’s characters. In David Carlin’s memoir Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), Carlin traces the life of his father in order to understand the circumstances of his death. In his depictions of life in the 1940s, Perth offers relative freedom, far from the conservatism that dominated the east. He writes that James Joyce’s Ulysses “escaped the censor’s ban in Western Australia, perhaps owing to the state’s distance from the orbit of Melbourne’s stern Archbishop Mannix.”

There also seems to be a prevalence of historical novels set in Perth and its surrounds. Joan London’s The Golden Age (2014) – which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction – is set in 1954, and follows the family of Frank Gold as they flee wartime Hungary. Brenda Walker’s The Wing of Night (2005) interrogates the ravages of war and the experience of World War I servicemen returning to Fremantle.

But, Bishop argues, the trend towards historical novels is not specific to Perth; it is reflective of a broader tendency across contemporary Australian literature, “It gives you a chance to liberate yourself from the various constraints and assumptions that define us in the present,” says Bishop. “By setting stories in a situation less familiar to the reader, the focus shifts to fundamental elements of the human experience.”

Professor White agrees: “In most cases it’s not a nostalgic thing,” she explains. “All of the looking back is very rich and there to tell a bigger narrative about how we’ve found ourselves now.”

As Perth continues to change, there will be new stories to be told. Isolation and the natural landscape can’t help but feature. But White is adamant that Western Australian literature is not limited to depictions of place. “In many occasions it’s a very subtle breeze that runs through.” She points to London’s novel as a good example of this. “I think the way she captures Perth in the 1950s is so exquisite and it’s so subtle and there’s no laying it on thick there…you don’t get a little travelogue from her, just the little edges and elements of that.”

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