Academic journal article Hecate

Writing from the Contact Zone: Fiction by Early Queensland Women

Academic journal article Hecate

Writing from the Contact Zone: Fiction by Early Queensland Women

Article excerpt

In her memoir, My Australian Girlhood (1902), the Queenslandborn colonial novelist Rosa Praed claims to speak for a voiceless and vanishing - people:

[W]ho cares now about the joys and sorrows, rights and wrongs of savages who cumber the earth no more! There has been no one to write the Blacks' epic; not many have said words in their defence; and this is but a poor little plea that I lay down for my old friends.1

White critics, especially feminists, have found in such passages evidence of alternative insights which challenge dominant views of colonisation. Dale Spender, for example, argues that many early Australian women writers express an affinity with Indigenous women based on shared gender oppression: 'there is no parallel in men's writing with that of white women who document their affinity with black women as they assist each other in labour, or when they are sometimes obliged to "share" the same master.'2 Patricia Grimshaw and Julie Evans make a similar point, although with greater circumspection: 'While undeniably aligned to the colonists' value systems, writers such as Praed, along with Mary Bundock and Katie Langloh Parker challenged accepted wisdom to affirm aspects of Aboriginal lives and cultures, while questioning white behaviour and practices.'3

The domestic and romantic focus of women's fiction certainly ensures a very different view of the colonial enterprise to that of male writers. Characteristically, colonial women writers represent themselves as sympathetic and knowledgable observers of Indigenous people, speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, but we need to question their positioning of themselves as innocent bystanders to the fundamental (masculine) processes of dispossession and the establishment of the colonial order. Mary Louise Pratt has alerted us to the unequal nature of power relations in what she terms 'contact zones', that is, 'social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination - like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today'.4 In The Frontiers of Women's Writing, Brigitte Georgi-Findlay builds on Pratt's work to argue that women writers on the American frontier were not simply complicit, but agents of colonialism in their own right. Women's accounts, she claims, 'are implicated in expansionist processes at the same time that they formulate positions of innocence and detachment'.s Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues in Talkin' Up to the White Woman that white Australia has come to 'know' the 'Indigenous woman' through the gaze of explorers, state officials and anthropologists, and she demonstrates how this textual landscape 'is disrupted by the emergence of the life writings of Indigenous women whose subjectivities and experiences of colonial processes are evident in their texts'.6 In this paper, I examine some of the ways in which white women novelists also contributed powerfully to shaping the literary imaginative landscape through which Australian readers came to 'know' Indigenous people, and the nature of inter-racial contact, in the period before the publication of writing by Indigenous women began to disrupt the textual terrain. The shaping of the imaginative landscape of the contact zone is a profoundly colonial project: through writing, white women transcend their otherwise marginal political status to become, as Georgi-Findlay puts it, 'authors and agents of territorial expansion, positioned ambiguously within systems of power and authority'.7

A preoccupation with the intersections of race and gender is particularly pronounced in writing by white women who grew up in Queensland, the focus of this paper. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a burgeoning of new publishing opportunities for women coincided with a relatively late and harshly oppressive colonial frontier.8 These factors, along with the exceptionally decentralised nature of the state, meant that, well into the twentieth century, Queensland women writers were more likely than those from other states to grow up in rural areas and experience frontier conditions, either first hand or through the personal accounts of parents and grandparents. …

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