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Reviewed by:
  • Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work, and: An Australian Compass: Essays on Place and Direction in Australian Literature
  • John P. Turner Jr.
Ray Willbanks. Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work. Austin: U of Texas P, 1991. 233 pp. No price given.
Bruce Bennett. An Australian Compass: Essays on Place and Direction in Australian Literature. South Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre P, 1991. 271 pp. No price given.

Australian fiction began to come into its own in the decade of the nineteen seventies when an increasing number of authors began writing complex, psychological novels which focused on life in the cities of the subcontinent, instead of upon the frontier outback. Ray Willbanks, an American academic who has written (among other things) an important monograph on Randolph Stow, has published in Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work a series of interviews with Australian authors which reveal the personalities of the men and women who have recently begun to tell the world about themselves and their lives in their remote, sparsely-settled country.

Willbanks interviewed sixteen writers on several trips to Australia. With the exception of Patrick White, who leads off a list of otherwise alphabetically arranged interviewees, all of his subjects are still living and writing. Moreover, as he tells us in his introduction, the work of those interviewed is generally available throughout the English-speaking world, even if some titles move variously in and out of print. With the exception of playwright David Williamson, all are predominantly novelists or short-story writers. With the exception, again, of the White interview, each chapter is a more-or-less exact transcription of a relaxed, informal tape-recorded conversation between the very well-prepared Willbanks and his subject, covering a number of topics including biographical details, the authors' works themselves, and the state of Australian writing in general and its relationship to world literature. Each chapter begins with a photograph of the subject informally taken by Willbanks himself on the day of the interview, a headnote with a brief account of her or his career, and a list of major published works.

Willbanks's introduction states that he tailored each interview to the writer. He wrote out his questions ahead of time, but "in some instances the interview contracted or expanded according to the dynamics of the moment." This, combined with the fact that Willbanks talked to different authors about different topics, gives the interviews a spontaneous feeling, and the book as a whole covers a wide range of subjects.

Though it varies a bit among them, there is clear rapport between Willbanks and his interviewees. Elizabeth Jolley seems really interested, for example, in his ideas and impressions of her works. Patrick White seems open and jovial, but not really interested in revealing much of the information that Willbanks really seeks. Tim Winton, a unique personality among modern [End Page 417] Australian writers, seems strange and distant. But, for the most part, these interviews reveal interesting and remarkable things about these authors and their works.

It is disappointing that none of the talented Australian Aboriginal writers like Jack Davis, Mudrooroo Narogin, Kath Walker, or Sally Morgan are represented in this collection. Willbanks's introduction tells us that he attempted to talk to an unnamed representative Aboriginal author who seemed right for the project, but who never responded to queries. This is unfortunate, since the writers who are included seem otherwise representative of the broad scope of Australian writing today.

In the "Introduction" to his An Australian Compass: Essays on Place and Direction in Australian Literature, Bruce Bennett defines "place," "region," and "community," three concepts that become important in understanding the material which follows. "Place" is a crucial concept in post-World War II Australian literature, as that nation's writers continue their effort to define for themselves what it means to be a member of the society of that remote sub-continent, and to communicate their experiences to the rest of the world. It is not only a matter of physical location, Bennett tells us. It also has "more ambiguous metaphoric significations" which are summed up in the title of Sally Morgan's My Place, "in which issues of human living...


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pp. 417-419
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