Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Introduction: Making and Unmaking the Postcolonial Historical Novel

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Introduction: Making and Unmaking the Postcolonial Historical Novel

Article excerpt

The great poet Novalis once said, "novels arise to draw attention to the shortcomings of history."1 Such a remark would likely be met with testiness in post-millennial Australia, where the telling and retelling of colonial pasts by novelists and historians has often been marked by bitter contestation as much as by the diversity of disciplinary, inter-, and intra-disciplinary approaches.

I have been interested, as I write my second historical novel, in considering the kinds of formal, conceptual, historical, and intertextual creative research journeys that have been undertaken by novelists living and dead. This book offers a broad study of recent developments in the field of the Australian postcolonial historical novel (focusing on novelizations of first contact and nineteenthcentury colonial pasts). Also included is an in-kind study of creative process in relation to the shaping of my own historical novels, for which the aforementioned contexts have been formative and inspirational.

Archival Salvage surveys and critiques historical fiction (1989-2014) dealing with imagined and/or actual 'Australian pasts'. It focuses on recent Australian novels that define themselves as postcolonial. It analyses how, in the wake of a great deal of passing political correctness, such prominent novelists as Kim Scott, Peter Carey, Kate Grenville, Matthew Kneale, Richard Flanagan, Rohan Wilson and others have boldly exploited colonial archives to tackle contentious issues of Indigenous characterization and context. The book concludes by showing how novelists' often controversial engagement with the archives, in conjunction with the recruitment of key narrative techniques, has enabled historical novels to reinvent themselves in politically compelling ways. Thus, major post-millennial historical novelists are shown to deftly perform 'archival salvage' in order to create political, formally imaginative stories for our times.

This investigation, of necessity, situates the contemporary Australian historical novel in the light of recent theories of intercultural subjectivity and postcolonialism, and in the context of the so-called 'history wars'. I also locate this intersection of ideas and events and their fictional outcomes by harnessing Bakhtin's theories of novelistic polyphony, and theories of focalization that build on the work of Gérard Genette. I am also interested in showing how postmodern narrative techniques interconnect with the making of postcolonial historical novels, particularly those written in the climate created by the 'history' and 'culture wars'.

These frameworks and techniques, handled with great mastery by such novelists as Kneale, Wilson, Grenville, and Scott, have opened pathways for writers like myself to consider how Indigenous-speaking subjects might most justly be rendered, thereby suggesting how one can reflect on the postcolonial novel's potential for exposing the archive imaginatively and ethically.

The aforementioned novelists, and many others along with them, have inspired a range of formal experiments in the last decade or so, and have certainly prompted me to consider how I might approach and re-use/re-present the resources and so-called 'truths' of the colonial archive. While I believe that the 'truth claims' (though this term itself always requires scare-quotes in order to subvert and ironize its more grandiloquent claims) of the novelist are finally very different from those of the historian, narrativizing terrain shared by the two disciplines must be conceded, and even encouraged.

As with the postcolonial historian, the postcolonial novelist might agree that at the heart of the Australian postcolonial novel of history is the issue of imaginatively questioning all forms of archival evidence - rethinking "what counts, what doesn't, where it is housed, who possesses it, and who lays claim to it as a political resource."2 As Antoinette Burton suggests, "this is not theory, but the very power of historical explanation itself. …

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