Today we have another excellent post for our #LoveOzYA Month, this time by Andrew Jaxson! Andrew shared all the ways in which Australia scares us, and how this makes for great novels. We couldn’t agree more!
Thank you, Andrew!
To plagiarise Douglas Adams, Australia is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
It’s this vastness, this unknowable, beautiful, terrifying scale that has infused so many Australian stories.
Australian YA doesn’t exist in a vacuum – our work is guided and inspired by work of all genres, from all times – and in Australia our national stories have an extraordinary heritage. We live in a country that has shaped one of the oldest cultural histories in the world, where Indigenous oral tradition connects the landscape to spirituality, family, identity, darkness and beauty. It’s one of the reasons I chose to start the prequel to the Unseen series, The Dark Unseen, with a reference to one of these stories. Our narratives are inextricably linked with our landscape. It shapes our voices.
The concept for the Unseen series came to me during a marathon drive from Newcastle to Albury, because, let’s face it, my mind had a lot of time to wander. When I was very young I spent time living in Bourke and rural Victoria, and it was good to be back out there in the emptiness. But our country is so big, so really, ridiculously big, that maybe there are secrets out there we may never find. Places that can stay hidden, like Hell in John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. The geography of our land makes it easy to disappear.
This isolation is a critical function in The Fire Unseen, the first book of the Unseen series, as it allows for pretty significant mysteries to remain undiscovered. It’s also something that writers have drawn on heading back hundreds of years into our literary history. The loneliness of the space, the danger, the possible secrets lying out there in the dark, like in this bleak description from Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife:
Bush all around – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.
You can almost feel the oppression, the rotting, the sameness. The landscape, for this woman, is suffocating in its immensity. As Lawson says elsewhere in The Bush Undertaker, this place is “the grand Australian bush — the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird.”
I mean, it’s almost a point of national pride that everything in Australia is trying to kill you, even the land itself. Not to mention the drop-bears.
Barbara Baynton pushes this a step further in the genuinely creepy The Chosen Vessel:
…when she reached the creek her prayers turned to wild shrieks, for there crouched the man she feared, with outstretched arms that caught her as she fell. She knew he was offering terms if she ceased to struggle and cry for help, though louder and louder did she cry for it, but it was only when the man’s hand gripped her throat, that the cry of “Murder” came from her lips. And when she ceased, the startled curlews took up the awful sound, and flew shrieking over the horseman’s head.
Here the woman’s isolation proves not only terrifying, but deadly. Help is just too far away. If something goes wrong, back-up is a long way from here.
Baynton takes the landscape in a different direction. She builds, through a clever narrative structure, a kind of Gothic supernaturalism that is making its resurgence in new Australian media like the ABC’s Glitch – But I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it.
We love a good ghost story, and this Gothic supernatural dimension exists in much of Australian literature, at least when it comes to the outback. A spiritual understanding of our nation traces all the way back to the Dreaming. Despite being a generally sceptical people, we’re comfortable accepting the strangeness, the ethereality of our country, the mystery of the landscape. It allows authors to do powerful, unusual things without really having to explain why.
When I was ten I read Gillian Rubenstein’s Foxspell, a novel that stayed with me long after I’d finished it. I was caught by the darkness, the mystery surrounding this boy who can somehow become a fox to escape the trauma at home, and an ambiguous ending that never feels the need to explain why he became a fox, simply that he did.
While everything in The Fire Unseen does have an explanation (even if I don’t give it all away in book one), I wanted to capture that same feeling in the darker moments of the story; the unknowability of what lies out there, and the thrill of discovering something that should probably have remained hidden.
In a way, as much as we are in the land, the land is also in us. It’s an inescapable part of our history, culture, and stories.
And watch out for drop bears.
Andrew C. Jaxson