This thesis is a comparative reading of selected contemporary fictions from Australia and South Africa. By drawing on postcolonial theory and trauma theory, this thesis argues that specific genres are transformed in distinctive ways in these two settler literatures to address the continuing presence of the colonial past. It focuses in particular on three genres: the Bildungsroman, the historical novel, and the pastoral to consider how these have been reproduced, adapted and transformed in these literatures in the recent past.
This thesis argues that these transformations testify to the ways that recent Australian and South African literary imaginaries respond to the legacies of traumatic histories of colonization and dispossession. In both Australia and South Africa processes of reconciliation and social justice in recent decades have produced intense debates about history, fiction and the ways these disciplines can generate new ways of understanding the traumatic legacies of settler colonialism. By focusing on a selection of close and comparative readings, this thesis identifies a series of common tropes, techniques and preoccupations that draw together these two literatures which are so often read apart in terms of distinctive national histories.
The first chapter, “Representation of Trauma in Two Selected Bildungsromane”, investigates how the genre of the Bildungsroman is rehabilitated and how its traditional boundaries are transgressed to explore the psychic landscapes of childhood trauma. Gail Jones’ Sorry (2008) and Rachel Zadok’s Gem Squash Tokoloshe (2005) are examined as case studies to suggest their departures from European traditions to include the legacies of colonisation. These challenge the traditional passage from adolescence to maturity in the Bildungroman, resulting in narratives where this journey remains incomplete.
In the second chapter of the thesis, “Postcolonial Pastoral”, an analysis of how the pastoral engages in distinctively postcolonial forms suggests the flexibility and mutability of generic themes, such as landscape, borders, and memory, and reveals points of contact within the frame of trauma theory. The chapter focuses on David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (1993) and Lisa Fugard’s Skinner’s Drift (2005). Both postcolonial novels attack the traditional tropes of nostalgic myths and belonging to expose the settlers’ feelings of unsettledness in anti-pastoral scenes marked by traumatic memories and Indigenous dispossession.
Recent contemporary Australian and South African historical novels challenge officially sanctioned national histories by engaging with the legacies of the colonial past. The third chapter, “Making Use of History”, focuses on alternative imaginings of histories of settlement in Australia and South Africa that center on the trauma of the past. In this final chapter, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) and Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story (2001) are examined to investigate how they engage in revising their nations’ histories to recuperate a violent and silenced past. Both writers inscribe a traumatic memory within their historical texts to seek justice for a dispossessed people.
This thesis argues that these fictions contribute to debates about colonialism, trauma and social justice, and that together they make a distinctive intervention into ways of thinking about contemporary postcolonial fiction.