The Outsiders

When we announced 12 years ago that we’d be moving to Australia, our friends in New York threw us a big going-away party. Among the gifts were several books. Because we like to scuba dive, a fellow diver gave my husband a book all about diving in Victoria (somehow missing the fact that we were moving to Queensland, home to the world’s premier dive destination). Another friend, who is also a seasoned traveller, gave me a book called Culture Shock Australia: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette; and yet another, a struggling writer with a poetic outlook, gave me Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. I tucked these into my carry-on luggage to read as we hop-scotched our way across the continental US and the vast Pacific Ocean, stopping in several places along the way to say goodbye to family.


Too excited to focus on anything deep or involved, I shoved The Songlines deep into the bag and browsed through Culture Shock Australia. I learned that folks in Australia don’t speak English but ‘Strine’. I learned that one must never over-dress or appear too organised, lest one be taken for ‘a tall poppy’. I learned that the meat pie was the national dish and beer the national drink. Consequently, nothing prepared me for the perfectly comprehensible, stylishly dressed population dining on sashimi, succulent Moreton Bay Bugs, and crabmeat lasagne served with a series of fabulous wines.


It was much later that I settled down enough to read The Songlines. I read this book as a non-fiction account of Chatwin’s journey through outback Australia. I wasn’t alone. Many have read the book under the same misconception. In fact, I’ve often seen it placed in the ‘Sociology’ section in bookstores. I’ve read reviews in which it’s proclaimed to be a great work of ethnographic interest. And a quick scan on Google shows it frequently listed as ‘non-fiction’. Like others, when I learned it was a fictionalised account of a brief trip (undertaken interestingly with Chatwin’s chum, Salmon Rushdie), I was crushed and a little angry.


The Songlines challenges traditional notions of genre, melding demarcations between ethnographic and fictional discourses. Long after its publication, Chatwin claimed that when asked he would always represent it as a novel. The problem is that it is a novel dressed up as a travel diary, and many people never thought to ask if it was anything else.


On the other hand, Chatwin’s defenders have referred to The Songlines variously as a postmodern masterpiece, as a fictionalised travelogue and—my favourite—as ‘autobiografiction’. Although it’s hotly disputed, Chatwin manages to capture the connection that Indigenous Australians maintain with the land. His image of ‘singing the world into existence’ is a beautiful one and, as a metaphor, right on the mark. Such an idea could not fail to appeal to a writer intent on re-creating the world with his own words.


That Chatwin spoke to few Indigenous people and relied too heavily on anthropological writings and his own impulse to shape the material raises plenty of issues around authority and authenticity. Nearly twenty years since its publication, this grates. We like to think we’ve grown more sensitive to cultural issues. And to our credit maybe we have.


Another more recent ‘outsider’ view of Australia was published in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As a way of educating the American population about the Olympic hosts, Bill Bryson took on the role of consummate guide in his grand tour of Australia, producing for his efforts In a Sunburned Country. His appropriation and glib sense of superiority announces itself straight away in his choice of this title. Taken from an iconic poem by Dorothea Mackellar, Bryson changed ‘sunburnt’ to the more American ‘sunburned’. He makes no apologies, although in his preface he states the expectation of an outcry.


Bryson clearly loves Australia—albeit in a distinctly American way. In an interview he said: “It’s a contrast between the wildly exotic—things you can’t see anywhere else. Everything you look at reminds you that you’re in an exotic place, the way the sun shines, that particular intensity—and at the same time all the infrastructure is familiar and well-known. It’s like going to another planet without giving up the comfortable bed.”


Bryson’s style is folksy, his claim to being an ordinary guy on an ordinary trip abroad. His boisterous observations shriek I’m here to have fun. And he does. Reading him, we do too. Australia is wild and weird, we think, and yes, with huge lobsters and giant pineapples as monuments, occasionally even wacky.


He concludes the book with a well-meaning but back-handed compliment: “Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight a round in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely yours.”


In this small passage, Bryson reminds us that although Australians might read his book and even be entertained, he didn’t write In a Sunburned Country for Australians. He wrote it for Americans; and because of this, he was more interested in highlighting stories that would appeal to Americans in a manner that would underscore the notions about Australia that they already held.


In 1895, on a lecture tour of 150 performances on five continents, another American humorist, Samuel Clemens (otherwise known as Mark Twain) visited Australia too. Upon his return, he published an account of the journey entitled Following the Equator. Like Bryson, he also wrote for an American public. It may be the intervening years that make the difference or simply that Twain possessed a genius that Bryson lacks, but his observations about Australian life are deeper, more acute, somehow more genuine.


Melbourne University Publishing has just released The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia, in which Twain’s essays about the Australian leg of his journey are extracted from Following the Equator. The book comes with an extensive and inspired introduction by Don Watson.


Watson remarks on Twain’s enduring magic and hints that there is much to be gained by revisiting his work: “In the discursive, eccentric, intimate account of the journey, Twain glided around the colonies like a man on roller skates, and more than a century later his prose is still fresh enough to take his readers with him, including those in need of re-enchantment with their country’s past.” In such company—and by this I mean Watson’s as well as Twain’s—it’s a journey well worth taking.


Through Watson’s distinctively Australian voice, we become re-acquainted with the American humorist, who was, in Watson’s words, “not only a performer but a performance artist, America’s first great star”. But we also become re-acquainted in a roundabout way with ourselves. This introduction is just the frame we need. The book shape-shifts: it isn’t just a wayward tourist’s observations of a place he visits for a few brief weeks, but a wayward view that is in turn viewed by someone who is eminently qualified and most un-wayward to situate the observations. Through Watson, we see Twain’s writings in a context. Our readings of The Songlines and In a Sunburned Country could also benefit from just such a frame of reference.


They don’t really get it right, these wayward tourists. Reading books about the place you live, no matter how entertaining or amusing, is kind of like listening to your own voice on tape or viewing a picture of yourself from an angle that you don’t normally see—strange, unfamiliar, a trick of sound waves and light. But there is value in the outsider’s view. It gives us a new position from which to respond. We might object to Chatwin’s methods, but in fictionalising his journey across Australia, he circles around an essential truth that trawling through reams of ethnographic records and scholarly articles remains elusive. We also have a glimpse of Chatwin’s impulse to ‘mythmake’, to force material to conform to his ideas rather than the other way around, something he did with his own life stories. As for Bryson, sure, he’s amusing in a fun-loving, big-mouthed, teasing way. We can laugh at ourselves along with him, because that’s something Australians do well. But in that loud American gushing, in the stories Bryson chooses to tell and in the ones he ignores, Australians can learn just as much about American culture from In a Sunburned Country as Americans might learn about us.


Travellers will always seek treasures in their journeys abroad. They’ll have adventures, make what seem to be new discoveries; their experiences will be especially vivid because they occur in a compressed space of time. Some will mine the treasures, write articles and books, play the expert. None of this really matters. When someone flirts with your partner, there’s no need to take offence. It’s a chance to see your partner through other eyes, in a new light, and with new appreciation. At the same time, you can rest easy in your shared history and in the intimacies and delights the stranger can only guess at.

Article first published by Arts Hub in 2006.


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