Intimate Strangers: Contemporary Australian Travel Writing and the Semiotics of Empathy

Article excerpt

Reviewing Kim Mahood's Craft for a Dry Lake, Drusilla Modjeska writes that to read the book is 'to enter a sensibility, an intelligence, a dialogue'. (1) Elsewhere Modjeska situates Mahood's text in relation to recent white memoirs that attempt to address the challenges presented by the revelations of the Stolen Generations' narratives. At a time of official denial of past criminality by whites against Indigenous Australians, white writers like Mahood, according to Modjeska, are doing the 'work of national mourning'. (2) Thus, Modjeska reads Craft for a Dry Lake as a white reconciliation text, one that uses engagements with Aboriginality as a means of questioning white assumptions of history and belonging, and of formulating political and ethical critiques of white hegemony. While Modjeska reads Craft for a Dry Lake as a memoir, the book is a hybrid, and with its intense focus on the interaction between place, memory and identity, it easily crosses generic boundaries, mobilising the conventions of travel writing. In this respect the book demonstrates the ways in which travel has become a significant trope in white reconciliation discourses, and how contemporary Australian literary travel writing has become much more focused on race issues and the legacies of colonialism. Mahood's book stands alongside a number of recent literary travel texts that have emerged since the 1980s that reflect different manifestations of sympathetic white liberal discourses of reconciliation. This article discusses four works of contemporary Australian travel literature--Reading the Country by Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke, and Paddy Roe (1984/1996), Barry Hill's The Rock (1994), Kim Mahood's Craft for a Dry Lake (2000) and Nicholas Jose's Black Sheep (2002) (3)--and examines how these narratives enact performances of a white Australian postcolonial sensibility towards Aboriginality. This sensibility, it is claimed, is communicated through a semiotics of empathy (4) that developed over the 1980s and 1990s in response to movements in the Australian public sphere vis-a-vis the politics and ethics of reconciliation. Gillian Whitlock notes that '[d]iscourses of reconciliation have emerged in the past decade as one of the most powerful scripts for interracial negotiation in states which struggle with the legacies of Eurocolonialism'. (5) In Australia, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has become one of the dominant discourses in the public sphere. It is not unexpected, then, that reconciliation has become a significant theme for recent white Australian travel writers. This article addresses the ways in which the discourse of reconciliation manifests in recent travel literature, and how, in Whitlock's terms, the 'script' of the performance of reconciliation changed subtly during the 1990s. It also considers how the white benevolent 'sensibility' to which Modjeska refers is potentially compromised through the mobilisation of the discourses of therapy culture within the context of narratives of reconciliation.

Reconciliation and the Rhetoric of White Apology

The shift in the semiotics of empathy in white Australian travel literature is illustrated by the way in which the association between reconciliation and the concept of apology developed in Australian travel literature of the late 1990s. For instance, in Black Sheep, Nicholas Jose describes his search for memories of the enigmatic Roger Jose, a white eccentric who lived near Borroloola from 1916 until 1963, and who may or may not have been a 'lost' relative of the author's family. Roger Jose is one of the black sheep of white Australia: an outcast who turned his back on white society in the early twentieth century to live among Aboriginal people. At the end of the book Jose asks, 'How do I ask forgiveness on behalf of a family that may have wronged him [Roger Jose]? Australians are starting to say sorry for how they and their predecessors have treated Aboriginal people. …