- A Toothy Tale:Themes of Abjection in John Marsden and Shaun Tan's Picture Story Book, The Rabbits
In this article I consider the multi-award winning, intriguing, contemporary Australian picture story book, The Rabbits,1 written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. Published in 1998, the book has been given the Aurealis Convener's Award for Excellence, the Spectrum Gold Award for Book Illustration, and the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year award. While the audience for this book is notionally children and young adults (acknowledged by its inclusion in the curriculum of Australian secondary schools), the book declares itself as "a rich and haunting allegory of colonization suitable for all ages and cultures" told from the viewpoint of native animals (The Rabbits back cover). The Rabbits depicts the dispossession of small lizard and marsupial-like animals in a recognizably Australian landscape; the indigenous inhabitants are robbed of their way of life, their cultural heritage, country, and children stolen by the invading army of rabbits who arrive with all the hallmarks of European culture and, with devastating effect, ruthlessly exploit the land, displacing the indigenes. The seemingly simple narrative contains complex references that most obviously relate to the contemporary, contested notion of colonization, and warrants a serious reading.
This book's engagement with contemporary concerns relating to national identity, and the notion of colonization as a form of invasion and dispossession, demonstrates awareness of Australia's contested historical past and clearly invites a political reading; it has been the focus of such critics as Brooke Collins-Gearing and Dianne Osland whose essay, "Who Will Save Us from the Rabbits?: ReWriting the Past Allegorically" (2010), focuses on the ways in which The Rabbits reveals what they determine as "Australia's psychological terra nullius" and its perceived effect in the [End Page 20] invocation and creation of a collective post-Mabo Australian identity.2 While a reading of The Rabbits from the perspective of Homi Bhabha's "unhomely moment" (9)—the moment in which personal and psychic histories violently intersect with the dislocating effect of colonialism—would also elaborate on the theme of colonization and disaffection depicted in The Rabbits, this essay is inspired by the title, which has immediate negative connotations (for an Australian) of bodily functions such as voracious chewing and endless coupling and birthing of progeny.3 This notion is supported by Tan's surrealistic, fantastical depictions of increasing numbers of rabbitlike invaders that devour the indigene's motherland, invoking, to my mind, a reading in which the body is privileged. Thus, in my reading of this text, I propose to explore a metaphor hitherto untested by critics, that of teeth (such as the biting, chewing teeth of the colonists).
My reading turns to Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection to illuminate The Rabbits' toothy embodiment of the devouring nature of colonialism. Nöelle McAfee (2004) proclaims Kristeva as "one of the very few philosophers for whom the speaking being becomes a crucial constellation for understanding oral and written literature, politics and national identity, sexuality, culture and nature" (1), while Kelly Oliver (1998) suggests Kristeva's theory of abjection as "an explanation for oppression and discrimination" (81). (Abjection is an ambiguous term in English, referring equally to actively "abjection" and passively "being abjected": in the remainder of this paper I avoid confusion by using these verbs in preference to the distinct noun form.)
Kristeva's emphasis on the maternal body and her psychological insights into manifestations of abjection suggest her theory as an appropriate, if contested lens, through which to view this text. Kristeva's work on "body politics" has attracted criticism and sparked vigorous debate among feminist critics such as Judith Butler (79-93), who argues that by associating the maternal body with the Semiotic (preoedipal) stage, Kristeva reifies it, removing it from a cultural framework, that is, from the masculine (Symbolic) order in which culture exists. Kristeva contends that the experience of abjection aligns with the maternal because it returns the subject to a time that precedes the processes of identification with the father and heralds separation from the mother; the maternal abject endures as a...