One of the great joys of reading is learning, and seeing ourselves represented on the page. In recent years, diverse voices are gaining traction, in particular in #LoveOzMG – Love Australian Middle Grade, which is the quieter sister of #LoveOzYA. These middle grade books have been showcasing the diversity of Australia, its people, and across all genres, and its slowly branching out across many voices. Below are some books that I have rad recently that showcase diversity in Australia, as well as uniquely Australian characters and voices:
But when it comes to YA and adult books, whilst there are some fabulous Australian authors and stories out there, it feels like there is a creep of constant Americanisation in these areas, and for younger readers. What this means is, in my reading experience, that Australian stories are Americanised to cater to that market. Yet the reverse doesn’t happen – American books are not adjusted for our market, and Australian readers must work out the Americanisms on their own or look them up. However, Australia exports movies like The Dressmaker, and television shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to America and with streaming services, it is possible that many more Australian shows are available to an American audience – and if they can watch those with Australian accents and Australian slang and references – what is so different about reading these words like arvo, servo, and other slang terms that is harder? Some books I read – often by Australian authors or British authors – offer a handy glossary at the back. This is more common in non-fiction, but I have seen it in fiction where, for example, the slang is historical, or the words are from other languages and traditions that give insightful context and deeper understanding of the story and history behind the narrative. So, why could this not be done for #LoveOZMG or #LoveOZYA books? Authors could keep the text as is, and readers unfamiliar with the Australian terminology could have a handy reference to refer to.
I think it is important that we have books in all versions of English, including translations. This makes stories accessible and allows us to learn about others as well as seeing ourselves in literature. There should be a way to achieve all of this, and to teach the difference between each version of English so people know what to look for or know where to go if they need clarification.
In May, Anita Heiss is releasing her next book – Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), the first book I know of published in Australia using an Indigenous language – Wiradjuri – in the title, and not just peppered throughout the story as I’ve seen in other books. I will have to read it to see how language is used throughout as well. But reading through the early reviews on Anita’s site, it sounds like this has worked out well. This is an example therefore, of how two different languages can work side by side to tell a story that I am sure is wonderful. It also suggests that if people can read something like this and gain a deep and respectful understanding, then other Australian books that are only in Australian English do not be Americanised. With a book like Anita’s that might contain words a reader may never have encountered, if there is no glossary or explanation in the book, then it is easy these days to look it up and clarify using Google. I have done this for American phrases I am unsure about at times, and have done it the clarify facts that do not match up with what I know about the time or place a book is set in. I recently read a book set in Belfast in WW2, where the main character was quoted as singing God Save the Queen. Some quick googling and asking some friends living in the UK afterwards reassured me that my hunch, that she’d probably be singing or thinking of God Save the King – given that in the 1940s, the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland was ruled by King George VI during World War Two. This is more of an example of poor research but is an example of facts that can easily be found when Googling, much like looking up a word or phrase we are unfamiliar with is often easy to do, thus I feel, reducing the need for Americanising Australian books.
Some research tells me this has also been happening to British classics, where uniquely British phrases are altered. The impact of this matters because within English, there are lots of variants based on nationality or culture such as AAVE, Australian English, British English, South African English – so many different ways of expressing ourselves in a common language, and this is the beauty. The differences, and the fact that reading allows us to experience this and if we need to, look up what it would mean in our version. So – if people can read books written in American English without needing changes or needing to look things up, I again ask why the reverse cannot be true – unless we presume that those in charge of publishing in America are underestimating their audiences and their ability to understand another version of English? These ponderings have been chasing themselves around my brain for a while – as a reader, as a reviewer and as a writer. At what point do we stop allowing our stories to be our stories, our Australian stories – whoever we are, and whatever our background is? What of our history – all of it? It’s what I love about Australian stories – we can be who we are, we can embrace our humour, and we can embrace the history and the words from the past that have had an impact on all of our storytelling, both oral and written.
I do understand why it is done – for sales, and to ensure these books enter a wider market. Yet the assumption that certain countries won’t read books not in American English does a disservice to writers and readers. It impacts how we write but also suggests that a certain audience won’t be able to read or understand something if it does not cater to them. I feel this is harmful because there are many assumptions about readership and what readers are assumed to be capable of. Readers are more astute than we give them credit for. Giving readers books in various forms of English allows them to build on vocabulary as well as knowledge and could perhaps help us learn more about each other and the differences each country and hemisphere has. Allowing for these various Englishes to be represented allows for a wider variety of stories to be told as well and shows that Australian stories are important.
The importance of having Australian stories – whoever they are by – in Australian English speaks to our distinct identities as well. Are there universal experiences that people in all countries experience? Yes, but at the same time, there are also different cultural experiences even within Australia that are unique to our country and that our literature should represent. This is why I prefer the Australian editions, in Australian English. They feel like home and they feel relatable and comforting. Even if the experiences are not something I am familiar with, it is in the landscape and language, the way the characters express themselves that makes it feel homely, that makes it feel representative.
Yes, it is more common to turn on the television and hear American voices. Perhaps this is why I have started watching the Australian shows I can find on DVDs or repeats, and why I prefer Australian podcasts – to simply hear Australian voices in the media. It is also why I have started preferencing Australian authors on my blog – because I feel like in the huge sea of available books, sometimes, the Australian voices are getting lost amidst the popular overseas voices. I can’t fault people for what they like – yet if we start to lament the loss of Australian voices and stories, what that comes down to for me as a reader is the pushing of American stories and voices upon us, and narratives that are sometimes specific to America, especially when centred around specific dates and events.
If we allow Americanisation to take over, whose voices will be prioritised? Whose stories? Will Australian authors be silenced, or will we have to write our stories with token Australians to appeal to Americans? I feel like we could lose so much, and I worry that there will be ways we may have to compromise, and that any Aussie character could become a Crocodile Dundee stereotype. I understand the appeal of American shows and stories – I enjoy some of those shows. But I do miss a good Australian drama that screens weekly, that shows how quirky and interesting Australians can be. When looking in a bookstore, I’m always eager to see what new Australian voices are being promoted.