Andrew McGahan's the White Earth and the Ecological Poetics of Memory

By Potter, Emily | Antipodes, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Andrew McGahan's the White Earth and the Ecological Poetics of Memory


Potter, Emily, Antipodes


AS THE YEARS OF THE HOWARD LIBERAL GOVERNMENT have grown in number in Australia, the politics of land and of postcolonial relations have moved out of the limelight and into the shadows. Only five years after the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge march, where over a half-million people crossed the bridge in support of indigenous and non-indigenous reconciliation, and more than a decade after the overturning of the terra nullius doctrine entered into Australian cultural consciousness, social discourse in Australia now seems determined to evade issues of historical redress and postcolonial uncertainty. Encouraged by the Howard government's appeal to the nation to look "forward" rather than "back," a comparative silence has descended amongst non-indigenous Australians on the disquieting question of how to live with the effects of the colonial past. Adressing this climate, Andrew McGahan's 2005 Miles Franklin award winner, The White Earth, seems almost anachronistic in its return to the year 1992 in which debate over Native Title raged. As it tells the story of a young boy, William, and his initiation into an Australia that is haunted by history and rent by countervailing myths, McGahan is resolute in his attention to the legacies that trail in the wake of Australia's turn to the future. This is a book that will not let go of the past. Yet, as McGahan demonstrates, the workings of time do not enable a past to be cleaved straightforwardly from a present. The novel's refusal to consign the consequences of colonization to history makes it timely in more ways than one. The White Earth returns the devastations upon which the Australian nation was built to a public stage, and interrogates what-if anything-nonindigenous belonging can mean in this postcolonial context. But it is also concerned with temporality and the ways in which our cultural understandings of time shape an ethics of relation to the past. McGahan depicts a history of white occupation and indigenous dispossession as ideologically justified, both in the past and now, through the logic of chronological and calculable time. In contrast to this, he also represents a world in which past events and their effects overspill the discrete segmentations of linear temporality and continue to confront and propel contemporary lives and cultural processes.

The past looms large in The White Earth: it is the inspiration and reason for the gathering of the novel's protagonists, and for the forces that drive each in his or her particular obsession. Memory is presented as both a danger and a seduction-something to fear and something to turn to. But more significantly, I will argue, is the poetic of memory that emerges in the text, asserting temporal and material contamination as a narrative force: a cross-pollination of subjects, events, and effects that is the condition of possibility. This is what 1 term an ecological poetics of memory, where ecology rather than chronology, and the interactivity of human and non-human material forms, offer a different poetics of temporal relations that refuse the silence that has settled over postcolonial negotiations in this country. The role of poetics in postcolonial politics is significant; reimagining our place in the messy human and environmental milieu that is Australia today is a crucial motivation for political change. Reading McGahan's novel in this light, I hope to contribute to the renovation of discourse concerning national identity, non-indigenous belonging, and the place of the past in Australia today: a renovation along ecological lines, inspired by proximity rather than distance and uncertainty instead of assurance.

THE PURSUIT OF FOUNDATIONS

Many theorists have identified the privileged place of origins in Western culture, in which a metaphysical preference for certainty and order correlates with the pursuit of founding narratives that explain or reveal incontrovertible truths. Foundations are the bedrock of cultural progress in this tradition; they are chronologically weighted as the beginning of time and therefore, the future. …

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