Academic journal article Antipodes

"The Distance between Them": Sheep, Women, and Violence in Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing and Barbara Baynton's Bush Studies

Academic journal article Antipodes

"The Distance between Them": Sheep, Women, and Violence in Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing and Barbara Baynton's Bush Studies

Article excerpt

In recent years, animals in contemporary Australian writing and culture have been of considerable interest to scholars and writers. Anna Krien and Delia Falconer have raised questions about their ethical treatment and the preponderance of animal metaphors in Australian fiction and poetry in essays for general readers, while J. M. Coetzee's representation of dogs has been a significant area of recent inquiry in academic scholarship. Dogs' salience as metaphors in Disgrace (1999) has been noted by James Ley, as has the relationship between human and animal rights, embodiment and belief in Elizabeth Costello (2003) in essays by Elizabeth Anker and Fiona Jenkins. The recent interest in animals in the Australian context has also become manifest in a series of novels, many of them by women, such as Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog (2007), Eva Hornung's Dog Boy (2009), Gillian Mears's Foal's Bread (2012), Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with Birds (2012), and Charlotte Wood's Animal People (2011).

In the following, I extend the discussion of animals in Australian fiction to examine the relationship between women and sheep in Evie Wyld's1 second novel, All the Birds, Singing (2013), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2014. Although the novel was widely reviewed,2 scholarship on the book is scant. I situate this novel in relation to Barbara Baynton's nineteenth-century collection of stories Bush Studies (1902), with a particular focus on "Billy Skywonkie" and "The Chosen Vessel." I suggest that Baynton and Wyld each establish a series of shifting connections between women and animals, so that they are at times conflated in terms of their phenomenological experience of the world and are at other times distanced from each other.

Both Wyld and Baynton participate in an Australian tradition of writing about the bush. Susan Sheridan argues in her 1995 monograph that in order to be considered an authentic Australian author, women writers, in particular, need to engage with "the masculine construction" of "The Bush," a place which is rendered as alien and hostile and as a testing ground for men: "Women [. . .] cannot be writers, Australians and women all at once. Only if they contribute to this masculine construction of 'The Bush' can they be redeemed from the frailties of their gender" (32). Although Sheridan's statement about the difficulties faced by Australian women writers does not have the same currency it had twenty years ago-since 2011, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by three women3-through the use of a bush setting and its iconic animal, the sheep, Wyld's novel is engaging with this Australian literary tradition. Further, All the Birds Singing can be construed as an antipastoral that is indebted to Baynton's depiction of the bush as a place of hardship and violence. The antipastoral, according to Terry Gifford, involves a portrayal of the natural world that "can no longer be constructed as a 'land of dreams'" and in which characters undergo "a bleak battle for survival without divine purpose" (120).

This essay examines representations of violence, largely directed toward sheep and women in the texts under discussion, as a means of thinking about what explicit representations of violent acts imply about the relationships between humans and animals in the bush. First, I discuss how sheep are represented in All the Birds, Singing and in "Billy Skywonkie" before examining conflation and distance in relation to women's and animal's bodies and turning to a more detailed analysis of scenes of slaughter.

All the Birds, Singing is narrated by a young woman called Jake, who is a farmer on an unnamed island off the coast of England. The chapters set on the island, which are written in past tense, center on Jake's attempts to determine the identity of a creature that is killing her sheep. These chapters are interspersed with sections set in rural Australia, which are Jake's recollections, and unfold in present tense and reverse chronological order. …

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