Birns, Nicholas,Moore, Nicole, and Shieff, Sarah, editors. Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature. New York: Modern Language Association, 2017. RRP $29.95, 329pp, ISBN: 9781603292887
This book is published by the esteemed Modern Languages Association of America, otherwise known as the MLA and indisputably the largest organisation of scholars and teachers of literature and language in the world; its clear agenda is to access this global audience to promote Australian and New Zealand literature and to provide explicit resources to do so. It’s an ambitious and strategic move that is to be commended, and also offers a valuable resource for Australian and New Zealand teachers at both secondary and tertiary level.
It has been a while since I’ve seen Australian and New Zealand literature yoked together, and much of the Introduction is given over to explicating the similarities and differences between the two nations and their literary movements in terms of Indigenous relations and languages, histories, cultures, and critical practices. Despite the organisation around these two nations joined by the South Pacific Ocean, the editors stress that ‘transnational and transverse rubrics—genre, gender, mode, style—are a meaningful way to read Australian and New Zealand texts without either working up or subscribing to essentialist nationalist definitions’ (6). They also suggest that texts from the two countries ‘hover between the local and the global in a way that makes the intervention of the individual teacher, in a classroom anywhere in the world, vital’ (7). The editors’ Introduction provides a beautifully articulated overview of the field and it features. It is followed by five sections that contain 25 essays by scholars and teachers on particular authors and approaches, drawing on a wealth of experience of teaching such texts.
Part I focuses on the nineteenth century, with the editors arguing that the sensibilities and politics of nineteenth century literary practices significantly impact our reading of later texts. There are essays in this section on colonial print culture, bush legends, pastoral landscapes, frontier fiction, origins, postcolonial and multiculturalism. Part II is on frequently taught authors, addressing the idea of a canon that is nevertheless provisional and shifting. Essays look at Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Christina Stead, Allen Curnow, Patrick White, Les Murray, David Malouf, and Kim Scott. A global context is addressed in Part III with essays on teaching Maori and Aboriginal literature in global contexts, ethics as a pedagogical mode, transnationalism and postnationalism, with essays on Nam Le, Kate Grenville, and Sally Morgan combining author/approach. I particularly enjoyed Nolan and Weaver-Hightower’s examination of why Kate Grenville’s controversial novel The Secret River is such a popular teaching text in the United States. Taking up course models more explicitly in Part IV, Aboriginal scholar, creative writer and teacher Jeanine Leane articulates her approach to teaching Aboriginal literature in the classroom, followed by essays on teaching Maori literature, crime writing, the adolescent novel, life writing, and gender, with the latter two focussing on Miles Franklin and Janet Frame. The final section is full of lists of resources: of key databases, blogs, journals, anthologies and histories.
This is a terrific resource, beautifully conceived and produced, that will be a boon to anyone thinking about extending their teaching repertoire into Australian and New Zealand literature, or already doing so. The essays are all from noted scholars from Australia and New Zealand but also from the United States, France, Britain, Austria and Germany, demonstrating the global reach of scholarship and teaching already. It’s worth noting that this publication has an Australian predecessor: Teaching Australian Literature: from Classroom Conversations to National Imaginings edited by Brenton Doecke, Larissa McLean Davies, and Philip Mead in 2011, which was also published by a professional association, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE). This new text by Birns, Moore and Shieff makes an excellent companion volume by attending to specific authors together with critical approaches drawn from a wealth of experienced teachers. This emergent trend toward reflecting on how and what is taught must surely be pivotal for new generations of readers and teachers in their encounter with Australia, New Zealand, and their literary texts, as well as for those of us already doing so.
Alison Bartlett teaches English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, and is currently researching the relations between place and music in Australian literature.