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

An Exploration of the Transnational Literary Journeys of the Australian Writer Amy Witting1 and Elena Jonaitis, a Lithuanian Migrant

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

An Exploration of the Transnational Literary Journeys of the Australian Writer Amy Witting1 and Elena Jonaitis, a Lithuanian Migrant

Article excerpt

This article examines the circumstances surrounding the creation of a novel, Maria's War written by the Australian author, Amy Witting. The novel is underpinned by a pre-emigration narrative based on the traumatic life events of a Lithuanian migrant woman, Elena Jonaitis. Witting's novel confirms the view of critics who posit that 'some immigrant works of fiction produced in an Anglophone country are not originally Anglophone' (Walkowitz 529). Maria's War was based on Jonaitis' story, yet the research and writing process took some thirty years before Witting's novel was finally completed and published in 1998. During this complicated and lengthy journey, Witting empowered Jonaitis to write her own memoir entitled Elena's Journey, which was completed and released a year before Witting's novel Maria's War was published. The article investigates the genesis and connectivity between these two texts, one a work of fiction, the other an autobiographical memoir.

Amy Witting is a highly-acclaimed, multi-award winning writer. Her creative body of work telling the stories of the people she has met in multiple realities has been considerable. She has had six novels published, as well as a large number of short stories, collected in the volume Faces and Voices (2000). Her most famous novel I For Isobel, won the FAW Barbara Ramsden Award and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. The sequel to that work, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, won the Age Book of the Year Award in 2000 and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in the same year. Witting also received the prestigious Patrick White Award in 1993. She was 75 at the time and achieved the pinnacle of her success over the next eight years until her death in 2001. Witting was admitted posthumously in 2002 as a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to literature, as a novelist, poet, short story writer and mentor to younger writers.

Witting was born Joan Fraser in an inner-western, working-class suburb of Sydney in 1918 to Australian parents. Yet her education, which saw her study European languages and literature, enabled her to engage intellectually with people from other cultures and other places. Witting's view of humanity articulated a 'cosmopolitan, transnational, hybrid vision' (Mardorossian 21), which often marginalised or excluded her from participating in Australian social discourses. In the late 1930s at Sydney University, where Witting undertook an Arts Degree majoring in French and German, she was a member of a prestigious writers' group, which included James McAuley and Harold Stewart, among others. Amy Witting immersed herself in the Russian novelists and read, in the original language, Mallarmé and many other French Symbolist poets. Her writing at the time was strongly influenced by Maupassant and Proust (Witting, Journey G.A.N. 21). She was fluent in German and a great admirer of German culture, particularly German-language Romantic poets such as Rilke. In a letter to me in 1997, Witting acknowledged the complexities involved when an aspiring Australian writer's cultural preferences were formed by European influences:

The nature of my difficulties became clear to me when I reread [some of my] early efforts. Somebody, I thought to myself, had read an awful lot of Proust. Fitting Proust's detailed and analytical style to my decidedly uneventful life was quite a problem. I had experienced much more of books than of reality, where I think my experience was narrow but deep. (Witting, unpublished letter 6 Jan 1997 3)

After her father's death in 1937, poverty forced Joan Fraser to relinquish her ambition to be a full-time writer. Instead, she completed a Diploma in Education in 1939 and was employed by the New South Wales Education Department. When she was posted to a number of schools in different country towns, Witting's reality shifted from Sydney to outback New South Wales. While this cultural displacement was very difficult for the young teacher, she later claimed that her years in Coonamble, a town on the western plains, had enabled her to become a writer. …

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