Canberra / Centenary / Interview / Reading

Inevitable/Comfortable/Symbolic Canberra

ACTWC Intern Laura Bartlett investigates new literary blog, Dinner at Caphs, and sheds light on the inspiration of reader and blogger Danielle Wickman and her year-long tour of Canberra.

– by Laura Bartlett

In the past, Canberra has copped a few bashings about being a place barren of cultural activity, or worse still, contrived cultural activity. The reason why Canberran’s rise when these cricisims are made is because, for so many, the comments are simply not just true. I was lucky enough to speak to Danielle Wickman, who decided to run a Centenary of Canberra project of her own: a blog called Dinner at Caphs. She told me about her story of being a writer in Canberra.

“My little Centenary of Canberra project – Dinner at Caphs – has only been running for about five months and 18 books. My thinking about the experience is evolving as I go along, and I’m not sure that I’m ready to settle on a single answer without a little more study.

I started Dinner at Caphs in-part in response to the age-old sport of Canberra bashing. I also wanted to think during the Centenary of Canberra about the ways the city is depicted in fiction, to see some of what is portrayed to us about Canberra. It’s certainly not a professional literary review. I tend to get a bit impatient and defensive with authors who are unkind, or perhaps just unfair, in their presentation of Canberra, although if their writing is beautiful I can usually forgive.

‘In terms of the literary imagination,
like any symbol or cipher you may go looking for in fiction,
there is certainly no single interpretation or meaning of Canberra.’

I have enjoyed exploring writing that I might not have ventured into if not for the assignment I have set myself. Not all of it has been great, but it has all be interesting in its own way. Some of it I have truly loved. I’ve delved into a couple of self-published novels, some crime fiction, romance and other areas that wouldn’t normally be things that attracted me, if not for this particular reading project.

Just putting together the list has been instructive. There are more than 60 titles that I’ve discovered. That is excluding poetry and short stories, which would significantly expand the range. I find it interesting that the earliest fiction set in Canberra, Plaque With Laurel by M Barnard Eldershaw, which I’m reading at the moment, was written in 1937, a good ten years after the city began to be really developed. Of course, writers like Miles Franklin also knew and wrote about this region at around the same time. After these early examples, there seems to be a long hiatus until the late 1960s or early 1970s before writers were moved again to set their fiction in Canberra. Dorothy Johnston commented on my list at Dinner at Caphs that Canberra had been slow to get started as a location for fiction, but it does seem to be starting to catch up.

In terms of the literary imagination, like any symbol or cipher you may go looking for in fiction, there is certainly no single interpretation or meaning of Canberra. I am finding, though, that perhaps I can group the uses our city is put to into a few broad categories.

The first one might be the “Inevitable Canberra”. Canberra is the location for some stories because they can’t take place anywhere else. Most obviously, stories about federal politics like the Marmalade Files need Canberra for their action to be plausible. It’s a generalisation, but so far my observation is that these are the works that have the least affection for Canberra, although an exception to this is West Block by Sara Dowse which I think champions Canberra, and the public service in particular.

The second category might be the “Symbolic Canberra”. These are the ones that seem to take Canberra as their settings because of the metaphors it can supply. Alan Gould’s The Tazyrik Year seemed to me to be seeing Canberra as a new city where new lives and new views of the world can take root. In Plumbum by David Foster (review coming soon!), Canberra is the orderly, planned, ideal that contrasts with the chaotic, filthy dystopia of Calcutta. Alternately, but still I think in the same category, are the ones that, having chosen to be in Canberra for whatever reason, make use of its features, and sometimes its stereotypes, to support the story. The best example of this of the titles I’ve read so far is Jan Borrie’s Verge (another review coming soon), which makes wonderful use of Canberra’s landscape to echo and make concrete the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

The final group is, I think, “Comfortable Canberra”. These are the ones that use Canberra as a setting perhaps not for any particular reason, but because it’s as good as any place to set a book. They make comfortable use of the city as a place where lives can be lived and played out, not because of any particular plot device that might be necessary, or for any metaphor it can supply. Books I’ve delved into so far that I think belong in this category are Marion Halligan’s The Apricot Colonel and Smoke and Mirrors by Kel Robertson. These are the books that are in Canberra not  because they need to be, but because they want to be, and I think they are some of the ones I have enjoyed the most.”

2 thoughts on “Inevitable/Comfortable/Symbolic Canberra

  1. Pingback: Dead Cat Bounce | Dinner at Caphs

  2. Pingback: Endings and Beginnings | Dinner at Caphs

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