Australians are very strange. We love our teams, our mates, our talk show hosts. The cricket team will win against India and the celebrations will last days. A homegrown actor will make the big screen and we’ll feel a weird, private pride. We’ll be in Tokyo or Prague, staying in a dingy hostel, and gain a new best friend upon realising our roommate’s from Sydney. But despite this camaraderie, many Australians don’t read Australian literature. They don’t even like it. Or they do, but only because they didn’t realise The Book Thief was written by an Aussie. A 2017 survey found that only 33% of readers liked Australian fiction, while the rest skewed between not thinking about it and not wanting to. The teenagers were not even familiar with the category of Australian literature, let alone interested (Throsby , Zwar, & Morgan , 2017).
And, of course, I get it — I was one of them. I was the grade eleven student sitting beneath a ceiling fan, wishing we were studying Fitzgerald instead of Kate Grenville. I wasn’t alone. Every English class, Ms Howe would rebut our complaints with increasing impatience. It was too on-the-nose, we said. We were being force-fed. The writing was unsubtle and boring and tasted like medicine.
Last year, I wrote an essay about how I moved from an open distaste for Australian literature to a curious craving for it. The settings that once felt unpleasantly close now feel whimsically animated. I used to find Australian characters unlikable and banal, but now I can see myself in them. This may have to do with the volume of historical fiction in the Queensland curriculum, which too often involves the convict era and thus centres around straight white men. Unknowingly, I was aligning with the notion of cultural cringe, coined by A.A. Phillips in his 1950 essay. I believed Australian content would be worse than that of ‘superior’ countries. Phillips thought this was a product of being a colony nation, forever in the shadow of our motherland, England (Phillips, 1950). For me, Australian literature wasn’t interesting because it was uncomfortably, boringly familiar.
I read over this essay recently. The most interesting thing about it was how something was obviously missing. I’d identified part of the reason for my distaste, but there was something else, something more. I thought of Phillips and his ideas on a colony’s inferiority complex. Our instinctual assumption that more dominant nations have greater worth. I knew that feeling, that root-deep shame. I realised what I was missing.
This is the hypothesis: my cultural cringe resulted in my aversion for Australian content, and I think growing up queer had something to do with it.
Here, this essay leans towards personal persuasion. Not because I think my experience with this idea is limited to myself – I don’t. In a 2012 article, Grant O’Sullivan linked the self-deprecation of cultural cringe to internalised homophobia (O’Sullivan, 2012). Associating negative connotations with an identity, and then feeling ashamed for having that identity, is integral to both of these concepts. But this notion will hold differing levels of impact for every LGBT+ Australian.
When I was in high school, the world of politics was finding a home on social media. Governments were getting Twitter accounts, politician speeches circulated Facebook, Tumblr users debated the necessity of net neutrality. Cultural connectivity and political awareness were more advanced than they had ever been. In the online spaces I gravitated towards, users were predominantly American and discussed issues relevant to their country. At the time, many US states were legalising gay marriage, following the example of countries like Canada, Norway, and Sweden. Most of the popular queer representation was found in American media. In the mid 2010’s, shows like Steven Universe, Sense8, and Orange Is the New Black were Tumblr’s top choices for canon LGBT+ content — and mine. I was hungry for it, analysing every book, movie, and song lyric for scraps of representation. I would see a gifset of a queer couple, find the source, stream the movie. Seeing positively-portrayed queer characters felt like knowing I wasn’t alone. More than this, it felt like realising the shame wouldn’t last forever. That there were spaces for people like me.
Those spaces didn’t seem to exist in Australia, where we were still years away from a plebiscite. Vote now, our government would eventually tell us. How many rights should we give the gays? This may not be true for others, but for me, media representation was all I had. I went to an all-girls Catholic school. The political views of the teachers swung wildly between liberalism and Mr Cronk. Mr Cronk was a Religion teacher, and produced some classic quotes such as: ‘They say they’re born that way, but…’ here, he shrugged dramatically. One of my friends wanted to take a girl to formal, and had to go through the year level head to the principal just to ensure the relationship was platonic. Most of the girls, if asked, probably would have said they were allies. Still, nobody was out. If there was so much as a plaid shirt at camp, the whispers were fast and vicious.
I wanted to learn about the experiences of other LGBT+ people, and it seemed the only way to do that was by going online or consuming media. Part of the pull was that it was all so far away from Australia, where I felt like an outsider. And here lies the cringe. According to Phillips, the Australian who feels their culture is lesser will look to England for better content. To them, Australia appears to have a ‘quantitative inferiority’ and a ‘qualitative weakness’ (Phillips, 1950). To an LGBT+ person, who is not included in this ‘inferior’ Australian narrative, they look overseas in order to belong. I looked overseas because I didn’t feel like the gum leaves and the barbeques and the mateship was meant for me. The Australian accent was the monotone of my primary school priest (later arrested for possession of child pornography), of the changing room girls holding up lesbian protection sheets, of my father when Brokeback Mountain came on and he wanted to change the channel. I didn’t want to read about the streets of Brisbane, where the sweltering sun knew there was something wrong with me. I wanted out, I wanted away, I wanted anything but the place that didn’t want me.
For Aussie writers in particular, we know that our stories and our settings are only really published by Australian houses. In his essay, Phillips discusses how writers keep an Australian audience in mind when shaping their stories. We adjust our symbols and phrasing to align with the prior knowledge of our readers. But when a reader becomes ‘nagged by the thought of how an Englishman might feel about this, [they] lose the fine edge of [their] Australian responsiveness’ (Phillips, 1950). This is something I found myself doing when reading homegrown literature. I’d imagine a foreigner’s perspective, wondering if we came across as coarse or unrefined. This was a familiar feeling. I knew it as that old fear, crushing and potent. The one that seems so big when you’re sitting in a classroom, staring down two more years with the people around you. How would they look at me if they knew? Part of the fear is knowing the answer. They would think I’m as other as I always suspected I was. This is how I grew to feel distanced from an Australian palette. The fear, the phobia, was being seen by my country. It was my home, but it couldn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see myself fitting within it.
It was easy to conflate this with literature. After all, what is writing if not a tool to climb inside a person’s mind? When I read Australian stories, I was submerging myself in the narrative I felt excluded from. I was surrounded by the weather, the attitudes, the nasally cadence that permeated from these books. Stepping into the perspective of someone who felt they belonged here was subtly disquieting. I was close to this belonging. I knew what it tasted like. But somehow it was uncomfortably apart from me, and reading about it was like pressing up against the stranger in the bus seat next to you. When I wrote Australian stories, the setting and the characters felt intimate against my will. My own life became too intertwined, too transparent on the page. I felt allergic to writing about myself. I wasn’t ready to tell my story just yet.
This won’t be what it was like for everyone. I now know there was indeed some representation in that Australian content I avoided. Writers like Benjamin Law and Christos Tsiolkas were already paving a space for LGBT+ Aussie creators. And besides this, our experiences and stories are as diverse as we are. As a cis white woman, I have an absurd amount of privilege that many bisexual people do not share. There are many factors that contribute to the way individuals feel about their nation.
Now, all these years later, I am not so afraid of being known. There are parts of my childhood and adult life that are laid bare in local literature, and it smells like the old wood of my veranda and tastes like mangoes in December. As an aspiring writer, this change of mind was imperative. Authenticity derives from personal experience, regardless of how discreet a writer’s link to their work may be. It’s that shared human connection which all readers, including myself, revel in when reading literature. The effect is warm and satisfying, like a friend noticing a habit that you’d always thought was invisible. And the closeness doesn’t feel unpleasant anymore. The gums are quietly shapeshifting and the curlews mew at the moon and I was always meant to feel at home here. Now, I finally do.
O’Sullivan, G. (2012). Internalised Homophobia or Cultural Cringe? Star Observer.
Phillips, A. (1950). The Cultural Cringe. Meanjin Quarterly .
Throsby , D., Zwar, J., & Morgan , C. (2017). Australian Book Readers: Survey Method and . Department of Economics, Macquarie University.
Grace Hammond is a Brisbane-based writer and student. She is currently working on a young adult novel set in the Gold Coast hinterlands. While her writing tends to skip haphazardly across genres, it’s unlikely she’ll ever write something that isn’t a little bit creepy. She was included in last year’s QUT Literary Salon Collection and the 2016 Write the World collection.