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literature

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Australian and New Zealand Literatures  
 
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Lesbian Literature

If femininity itself had to be kept in its place in the Pacific's colonial formations, it is hardly surprising that feminism and lesbianism were slow to emerge as personal and cultural possibilities.

Australian Lesbian Novels

In Australia, from the gender subversion of Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946) to contemporary, explicitly lesbian fiction, the archetypal woman's story is about gaining freedom from the confines of the oppressively male sheep station on the one hand and, on the other, the oppressively genteel girls' school.

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This paradigmatic quest has begun to produce a literature that enlists language in exploring women's freedom. Lesbian women, whose "bodies were being inscribed with the language of Law and Culture," who "were becoming gendered subjects, forever doomed to stereotypes" (Sue Chin, in The Exploding Frangipani, 1990), are escaping with a vengeance.

Four novels from the past two decades have established lesbianism as material for literary production in Australia. The experiences they transform move in from the margins to occupy the center.

In its immediacy and authenticity, Elizabeth Riley's novel of personal growth and education, All That False Instruction (1975), advanced significant possibilities for an explicitly lesbian Australian literature. Written in first-person confessional mode, it charts the early life of Maureen in the mean environment of New South Wales during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Maureen's detailed portrait of her emerging sexuality is also an analysis of her environment: parents and brother, schooling, university life in Sydney, friends, and lovers. Cruelty, intolerance, exclusion, and rejection continuously threaten to extinguish her spirit, but by the time she leaves Australia, Maureen has attained a strong sense of herself, her desires and powers.

All That False Instruction is as courageous in its expressivity as Maureen was in her self-exploration, and it was ahead of its time in its analysis of patriarchal heterosexuality. The novel is flawed in its repetitiveness (each of Maureen's relationships seeming to repeat its predecessor) and in its implication that lesbianism is basically a female response to patriarchal relations. Yet within its scope, this novel foregrounds analysis, advocates choice, and witnesses to its protagonist's courage in the face of social repression.

Beverley Farmer's Alone (1980) is a short novel that reads like a prose poem. At less than half the length of Riley's novel, it is as if Farmer had taken Maureen's first lesbian affair and rendered it a final private tragedy. Shirley I. Nunn (S.I.N.) prepares to commit suicide on her eighteenth birthday, after her lover Catherine has rejected her. Shirley's connection with the world is limited to this one relationship and to the intense writing she does.

In fact, she has no other language with which to deal with her betrayal than poetic texts: Eliot's The Waste Land, Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, Rimbaud's poems. Feeling the same disgust as Maureen for family, men obsessed by their sexual needs, and suburban Australia in the 1950s, Shirley cannot stir beyond the grip of solitude and self-disgust caused by rejection.

Indeed, as her literary web distances the nunlike Shirley from emotion and sexuality, it infuses her existence with irony--absurdity, even--and makes unthinkable any outcome other than melodramatic self-destruction.

Susan Hawthorne's The Falling Woman (1992) shares much with the narratives of Farmer and Riley in its presentation of rural childhood, boarding school life, and self-discovery as lesbian. The story of the developing relationship between Stella and Olga during a trip into the desert is interspersed with flashbacks to Stella's childhood and adolescence.

Italicized voices, representing Stella's rich inner life, also interrupt the narrative, to resonate beyond Stella herself and to suggest how myth--particularly aboriginal myth--can inform the development of lesbian self-understanding and articulation. Stella's quest for identity and relationship is complicated by her epilepsy, which can be read as a suggestive metaphor for female and lesbian experience.

Despite its title, this is a warm novel that privileges affirmation over anger, future potential over past tragedy.

Like Hawthorne, Finola Moorhead seeks alternative forms of female knowledge, through astronomy and astrology, magic, mathematics, myth. These, as well as "women & their anarchy. Action & intelligence. Inquiry & relationship. Sex and caring" (A Handwritten Modern Classic, 1977), are the subjects of Remember the Tarantella, Moorhead's 1987 novel.

Novelist Christina Stead had remarked that a novel without men would be almost impossible to write, and it was this challenge Moorhead took up. Twenty-six women (as there are twenty-six alphabet letters), most of them lesbian, are characters. Their lives intersect and intertwine. As individuals, they strive to construct identity through action, reflection, and relationship; as a collective, they explore possibilities for solidarity and community.

Since dance is one situation that can combine individual expression with community celebration, Moorhead recuperates the tarantella--once associated with reaction to a deadly tarantula bite--as a joyous female rite, an answer to Dionysian revel. As the women travel throughout Australia and the world, in and out of relationships, caught in private and political webs, they participate in "dances" that prefigure the ecstasy of a tarantella of full lesbian affirmation.

Moorhead's open-ended novel explores an amazing range of female experience, employing realism, symbolism, and magic while resisting the temptation to wish-fulfillment and closure.

Sydney writer Mary Fallon's award-winning novel, Working Hot (1989), is important for its interrogation of conventional representations of femininity and female sexuality within a lesbian context; part of its project of subversion is accomplished by an inventive formal hybridity that encompasses verse narrative, monologue, play scripts, and opera libretto as well as prose narrative.

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