In the late 1990s there was a surge in published autobiographical writings about childhood in Australia and Britain that has continued into the new millennium. These autobiographies of childhood (hereafter referred to as "Childhoods") have emerged at a cultural moment of intense interest in the figure of the child. These texts have appeared in various literary forms. For example, there are popular bestsellers from first-time authors (such as Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire), eminent award-winning authors (Robert Drewe's The Shark Net), and academics (Loma Sage's Bad Blood), and narratives that are part of social justice campaigns (Donna Meehan's It is no Secret).
This study investigates the cultural production of Childhoods in Australia and Britain between 1996 and 2002. It explores the cultural significance of this trend for studies in autobiography and considers the ways in which Childhoods are produced, circulated, and read. This study uses a methodological approach that considers the key cultural contexts of Childhoods, including their textual, intertexual, and extratextual elements. Such an approach raises a number of questions. For example, how do the book jackets, particularly the cover photographs, authorise and limit the meanings and/or circulation of these autobiographies? In what ways have Childhoods influenced the critical reception of autobiography more generally? How should Childhood narratives be read in terms of voice, style, and structure, and how is authorship implicated in these narrative strategies? To what extent do these autobiographies work within dominant cultural paradigms for representing the child, and how are they involved in the social shaping of childhood?
I examine British texts alongside Australian autobiographies because ideologies of childhood, particularity of damaged childhoods, have been central to cultural memory in these two locations during this period. While Australian Childhoods have narrated experiences of the displaced child with particular attention to race, a similar dislocation associated with class and gender inequalities has preoccupied British autobiographies. By contextualising these autobiographies within specific socio-political locations and moments I am able to explore how Childhoods result from, and engage with, contemporary cultural "flash points" or moments of social crisis.
In investigating the memory work that these Childhoods are engaged in I propose that nostalgia and trauma have become the dominant memory practices affecting how Childhoods are written, circulated, and read in contemporary Australia and Britain. Nostalgic and traumatic memory exist in an interdependent productive tension within Childhoods. Nostalgic and traumatic Childhoods are powerful forms of memory practices, which shape and have been shaped by cultural memory. This study argues that Childhoods have become a powerful means for thinking about the intersection of autobiography, memory, and the socio-cultural construction of childhood in contemporary Australian and British culture and society.