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literature

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Australian and New Zealand Literatures  
 
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Australian Gay Male Literature of the 1980s and 1990s

Patrick White, Australia's greatest writer at the time of his death in 1990, produced novels appearing to say nothing about the gay world before startling his audiences with The Twyborn Affair (1979), which thematizes the transgression of gender lines; and he followed this up with a "self-portrait" (Flaws in the Glass, 1981) in which he "came out."

Although White's belated announcement may have owed something to the libertarianism of the 1960s, his gesture almost certainly paved the way for the frank literary development of gay and lesbian themes that has marked Australia in the last two decades.

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Among the novels of this period that present gay situations directly and thematize diverse aspects of gay experience are Simon Payne's The Beat (1984), Nigel Krauth's JF Was Here (1990), Benedict Ciantar's Distractions (1991), and Dennis Altman's The Comfort of Men (1993).

Tony Page, Peter Rose, and David Herkt are writers who have participated in a similar explosion in poetry.

The time when homosexuality could be treated only in thickly veiled terms is gone in Australia, and that country now occupies a leading place in the literary production of gay and lesbian experience.

New Zealand Gay Literature

Lacking Australia's longer history, larger population base, and wealthier grazier society, New Zealand has produced a smaller and safer literature. Its puritanism saw homosexuality in a more luridly abhorrent light than was the case in Australia. Some New Zealand critics still dismiss those writers generally known to have harbored homosexual impulses with the code word "effete."

Such is the case with Walter D'Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960). An eccentric poet, Cresswell is hardly a New Zealand William McGonagall (as one historian calls him) even though his verse used unconventional forms and archaic diction. Cresswell's low reputation has more to do with his endorsement of Walt Whitman, along with valorization of classical Greek masculine ideals and the biblical love that "surpasses the love of women."

Cresswell dared to criticize the rigid alignment of sex and gender: "In New Zealand the feminine and sentimental are supposedly confined to the sex in which these attributes are thought to be most becoming--so are the masculine and insensitive" (Margaret McMillan, 1948). Even though his work advances homoeroticism rather than homosexuality, a critical establishment has relegated him to the margins.

The homosexuality of James Courage (1903-1963) is more explicit though not in his best-known novel, The Young Have Secrets (1954). That title echoes Mackenzie's The Young Desire It. Where adolescent Charles is desiring, Courage's prepubescent Walter is burdened with secrets. He, too, is separated from his sheep-station family, at school in the city, and under a repressive regime.

Boarding at the home of a schoolmaster, he acquires the secrets of pinched New Zealand society. Although there is no direct suggestion that Walter will grow up homosexual, his male bonds are privileged, as are his pupil-mentor relationships; and unmarried Mark is clearly not heterosexual, finding refuge from suburban colonial society as a lighthouse-keeper.

Courage wrote more explicit novels; a reviewer dismissed A Way of Love (1959) on grounds that a novelist could not treat homosexuality on the same level as heterosexuality because the latter is "natural" where homosexuality is "unnatural." Courage's mentions of Plato, Gide, and Proust are sneered at; evidently, critical homophobia seeks to exclude homosexuality from literature.

In the early fiction of Frank Sargeson (1903-1982), for example, extraordinary investment in relationships between males is accounted for as a variant of Australian "mateship." Although English readers of homosexual sympathy, like William Plomer and John Lehmann, acclaimed Sargeson's work for its nuances of sex and gender, New Zealanders saw his stories as triumphs of realism. One critic explained away the lesbianism of the main character of "I For One" (1952) as the "self-inflicted repressions of a genteel society."

In his later work, specifically in the story "A Game of Hide and Seek" (1972), Sargeson raised differences in sexual preference directly, highlighting them in an overwrought, campy style.

The critical establishment, still deprecating homosexual nuances, insisted on reading Sargeson's handling of the gay male in society as a presentation of the "humiliations and the instability of the homosexual's life, the pathetic concern of the aging pansy for his looks," and so on. But as writers continue to foreground gay characters and experience, Sargeson's work will be revalued in fresh contexts.

The surest sign that New Zealand's literary disposition about gay issues is about to change comes from the publication of Peter Wells's stories, Dangerous Desires (1991), which won the Reed fiction award. This volume confronts homosexual desire directly, as several recent Australian titles have.

The work is contextualized within the AIDS issue since three stories deal with the friendship between two gay men as one of them discovers he has AIDS and faces his death. But this mordant context is relieved by stories portraying homosexual desire through a variety of situations and in the somewhat "campy" styles that have proved so subversive to New Zealand's critical establishment. Dangerous Desires is a landmark in New Zealand writing.

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