Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Benang: A Worldly Book

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Benang: A Worldly Book

Article excerpt

This article draws on recent trends in Australian literary criticism to scan new horizons for readings of Kim Scott's novel Benang and, more generally, to consider what this indicates about the networks that shape various scenes of reading and interpretive communities for the production and reception of Australian Indigenous writing. Kim Scott is the most 'local' of writers, and devoted to the language and country of the Noongar people and this inspires the generic and linguistic innovation of his fictions, Benang and, more recently, That Deadman Dance, as well as the innovative collaborative life writing of Kayang and Me. Benang and its author travel out of country and offshore on the currents of international book festivals and prizes, and the transnational scholarly networks of Australian literary studies, postcolonialism and Indigenous literature. This case study is, in part, a history of the book-we are interested in overseas publications and translations, and pursuing this book and its author in an international literary space beyond the horizon of the nation. It also explores some transnational scenes of reading that produce different communities of interpretation for Benang in venues such as conferences, classrooms and online sites where the novel has a distinctive career, and the history of the Noongar people speaks to other histories, and 'memoryscapes' of dispossession, dispersal and genocide (Philips and Reyes 14). Transnational associations raise issues of the ethics and politics of reading and translation that follow in the wake of these transits of Benang, and these are germane to thinking about Australian literature in a transnational frame using concepts of 'scenes of reading' and 'out of country' as they circulate in Australian literary criticism now (Dixon and Rooney).

The first of the trends in Australian criticism that enable an expanded book history of Benang is digital humanities. This field of study has been energised by the development of the AustLit and Blackwords databases that provide access to copious bibliographical information on Australian literature and criticism. Digital humanities in Australian literature has been localised as the practice of a 'resourceful reading'1 that opens the way for projects such as this, particularly in a growing interest in information-driven histories of books, print cultures and reading, and questions such as who is reading what books, and how did this kind of reading become available? These questions require attention to print runs and reprints, educational settings and pedagogy, and the networks, fields and communities that come into play at local, national and international levels. Our work on Benang is an example of the kind of micro-history that explores the contingencies of a single case: the details of publication, 're-printability', encounters of individual readers and reading communities (Carter 50).

The second trend is 'the transnational turn', which is now well established, and features in criticism produced both locally and offshore. In his argument about Australian literature in 'the world republic of letters' Robert Dixon makes a distinction: while Australian literature itself is now and has always been influenced by international contexts, the study of Australian literature, especially by Australians, has tended to take a national perspective only (Dixon 2013 3). This work on Benang follows on from this interest in 'scenes of reading' beyond the nation, and our focus on Indigenous literature responds to the strong interest in this writing in particular as it moves 'out of country' and overseas (Whitlock 2013). Offshore there has been a growing sense of the significance and distinctiveness of Australian Studies and Australian literary studies in the northern hemisphere. Firstly, for example, in the Afterword to his Australian Literature, Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism, Graham Huggan sets out the gains for Australian literary studies going beyond the nation (145). …

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