Book Review – ‘Griffith Review 36’

We are more often reminded what is un-Australian than anything else. Like looking at a photo’s negative we see our national character inverted and position ourselves around this shady sport hating villain. This process of deduction is challenged by the Griffith Review 36. Optimism ripples through the collection of essay, memoir, fiction and reportage. All articles recognise the strong hand of cards Australia has been dealt and what this may mean for our combined self perception.

The quarterly poses itself no small task when it asks ‘What is Australia For?’ Its broad scope struggles to produce a collection of analysis greater than the sum of its parts, but it is an audacious task and the answers have never been so varied, pressing and complex. Bravery in intellectual analysis is always appreciated and so the collection is a thrilling and unpredictable guide to the myriad of Australian experiences today.

Australian history is littered with blind spots and this book stands as a testament to our new desire to look everywhere, to be mature enough to deal with any injustice and by doing so, help ease the knots in our history. Cameron Muir and Charlie Ward shine a light on some of Australia’s more obscure movers and shakers. It’s a timely reminder that the right role models to make the most of the ‘Australian Moment’ can be found in our own country’s history.

The great challenge is to pay homage to the diversity of voices but maintain specificity. This is achieved in large part through the highly personal nature of much of the content, from Frank Moorhouse’s near death experience in the outback to Maria Papa’s musings on cultural appropriation.

The personal is political, but these politics are dealing with the world as it is, and how they would like it to be within the limitations of our current epoch. The writers are passionate about that they are telling us, but prescriptions for the future are comfortably general. The collection does a good job of representing the issues, but it shies away from offering specific answers to hard questions. The onus is on the reader to assess what is worth cherishing and what needs to be changed.

A literal answer to the question ‘What is Australia for?’ would be ‘Chinese buildings and bridges.’ As our landmass is repatriated we can use this mental image as a kind of talisman to remember we have two options which both have a strong precedent in our history.

We can choose to contribute to a narrative told overseas or engender our own unique story. Meaning is no longer elsewhere. It is springing up from the land, as it has done for thousands of years before white colonisation. Meaning is about sitting comfortably with lived experience, taking inspiration from our own landscape and relaxing in our expertise. This too could be positively Australian.

This review originally appeared  on

The Griffith Review 36 – What’s Australia For?

Edited by Julianne Schultz

Text Publishing

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