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Reading three great southern lands: from the outback to the pampa and the karoo

The global South has more in common than just proximity – our cultural heritage links our literature. Chris Goldberg

Reading three great southern lands: from the outback to the pampa and the karoo

What do the literatures of Argentina, Australia, and South Africa have in common and what might be gained by thinking about them collectively as “literatures of the South?”

Historians have traced parallels between these nations’ colonial pasts: three vast southern hemisphere territories where Europeans dispossessed nomadic indigenous cultures of their land and stayed. Comparative economists, meanwhile, have shown how all three countries developed rapidly between 1890 and 1930 through a combination of immigration, British capital investment, and exports.

Yet the idea of the literatures of the South as a unified field of study has been relatively slow to develop. Comparing these countries’ literatures requires us to think between languages, across the developed and developing world, across different colonialisms, and across Protestant, Catholic, and diverse indigenous traditions. Still, a few common elements present themselves immediately.

In all three literatures we find the southern hemisphere sunlight, weather, seasons, and stars. We encounter similar landscapes – the outback, the pampa, the karoo – with histories of settler colonialism and resistance. And we encounter immigrant societies where uneven development has created a cultural divide between the large cities and the rest.

The harsh, semi-arid Karoo National Park echoes similar landscapes in Australia and Argentina. flowcomm

JM Coetzee on ‘literatures of the South’

JM Coetzee was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. AAP Image/University of Adelaide

The 2003 Nobel laureate for literature, JM Coetzee is in a unique position to reframe Australian writing within the context of the South. Since Coetzee moved to Adelaide from South Africa in 2002, several of his novels including Slow Man (2005), and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) have been set wholly or partially in our country.

Coetzee’s recent novels filter Australian life through a post-national modernist sensibility. But they also retain the marks of a lifetime’s immersion in the literature and politics of South Africa. The Childhood of Jesus (2013), his most recent novel, unfolds in an unnamed country that seems to combine elements of Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

In 2015, Coetzee established “Literatures of the South,” a bi-annual seminar that will run for three years at the National University of San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The seminar series brings together writers, critics, editors, teachers, and postgraduate students from Coetzee’s homeland, his adopted country, and Argentina to develop comparative perspectives on their literatures. In his April 2016 inaugural address, Coetzee stressed the uncanny similarity of these landscapes:

There is only one South … In this South the winds blow in a certain way and the leaves fall in a certain way and the sun beats down in a certain way that is instantly recognisable from one part of the South to another.

Coetzee has suggested that one factor uniting the three literatures is that they have all had to contend with the gaze of the North. The geopolitics of publishing has meant that writers have usually reached readers through European or North American publishers, and have often had to conform to metropolitan expectations.

By establishing a three-way critical conversation and setting up South-South publishing ventures, the seminar encourages writers and scholars to “ignore the gaze of the north” and to “begin to see the South through Southern eyes.”

So far, the Argentine publisher UNSAM Edita has commissioned and published new Spanish translations of novels by the Australian writers Nicolas Jose, Gail Jones, and Delia Falconer, and an anthology of selected short stories by the South Africans Zoë Wiccomb and Ivan Vladislavić. Several works by contemporary Argentine writers are currently under consideration for publication in Australia.

Australia and the Global South

Despite our geography, most Australians are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as part of the South – in literature or any other field.

The original “Brandt line” ( which popularised the use of the terms North and South in discussions of global inequality) grouped Australia and New Zealand with the developed North. Meanwhile, Mexico, northern Africa, India, and China – all north of the equator – were considered part of the Global South.

North-South terminology, then, has always reflected political and economic divisions far more than cartography.

Thinkers associated with the “decolonial turn” in critical theory hail from across the South. Broadly speaking, these critics question Eurocentric narratives of modernity and development from the perspective of the South. They have called for the recuperation of indigenous knowledge systems, for revisionist scholarship into the South’s colonial past, and for a present-day Global South of Resistance to neoliberal globalisation.

The Argentine, Walter Mignolo, has argued the South is best thought of as a metaphor for:

The places on the planet that endured the experience of coloniality – that suffered, and still suffer, the consequences of the colonial wound.

Argentine participants at the most recent Literatures of the South seminar, for instance, were shocked by Australian writer Cobby Eckermann’s poems about the forced removal of Aboriginal children. “When your own born child gets whisked away from outstretched longing,” was not the kind of material they expected from our stable, democratic nation.

These poems gained powerful new resonance when transplanted into the Argentine context, where 30,000 young people were disappeared by the state within living memory.

A dried-up river can be seen next to sand dunes and salt pans in outback Australia…these landscapes have inspired generations of artists. David Gray/Reuters

The South in literature

Unsurprisingly, literary works from the South take full advantage of the term’s potential as a metaphor.

We might think of the work of the Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories repeatedly stage a duel to the death between hoodlums from the North and South sides of Buenos Aires. This violent clash of opposites always ends with the recognition they are one and the same.

Other works explore instances of historical intersection between different parts of the South. The 17th century Spanish search for the great south land in the Pacific has featured prominently in the work of Australian poets Douglas Stewart and James McAuley.

The case of the charismatic journalist and labour leader, William Lane, provides a rare instance of three-way connection between Australia, South America, and South Africa. In 1893, at a time of economic hardship and mass strikes in the unfederated Australian colonies, Lane persuaded more than 200 workers to pool their life savings and join his Utopian settlement, “New Australia” in Paraguay.

One of the books he used to inspire recruits was the South African novelist Olive Schreiner’s frontier romance, The Story of an African Farm (1883). That novel crystallises a 19th-century settler dream common to the literatures of all three regions: a yearning for connection with appropriated lands.

In Australia, the project of learning to think about the writing and criticism of our continent beyond the conceptual boundary of the nation has taken several recent forms. We have seen increased study of migrant writing and linkages with other literatures of the Asia-pacific; distinctive regional literatures (such as Tasmanian writing) and the study of the publishing, translation, and dissemination of Australian writing abroad.

In this context, the “Literatures of the South” paradigm has great potential. We are not talking about a unified genre, or even an established canon of great works. We are talking about a reading strategy and a still-developing research agenda.

Such an approach seeks to build mutual knowledge and to identify common ground between “national” literatures of the South that have tended, until now, to define themselves in terms of exclusivity and difference.

Readers who wish to expand their reading horizons laterally may enjoy the following preliminary list of suggestions:

If you are a fan of the fabulist strand of Australian fiction embodied by Peter Carey, Murray Bail, and Gerald Murnane, you will find much to admire in the work of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Eduardo Galeano, and César Aira; or the South Africans Zoë Wiccomb and Ivan Vladislavić.

Those who admire the narrative non-fiction of the Australians Helen Garner, Anna Funder and Anna Krien will find a similarly acute ethical vision at work in the writing of the Argentine Leila Guerrero or the South African Anjie Krog.

Readers of Australian poetry who like the politically urgent verse of Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonucal, or Lionel Fogarty cannot afford to miss the work of the Argentines Juan Gelman, Roberto Santoro, and Néstor Perlongher, or the South Africans Keorapetse Kgositsile, Ingrid de Kok, and Jeremy Cronin.