Opinion: a reply to the claims in ‘Australian literature great silence’

By Annelise Balsamo

October 14, 2020

Dr Alex Bacalja has recently published research and articles with claims about a lack of balance and representation on the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) text lists in VCE English studies (English, English as an Additional Language or EAL, and Literature), including in an article in the issue of The Mandarin (October 7, 2020) entitled ‘Australian literature’s great silence’.

While the VCAA would agree there is space for change and further development in the text lists, there are some basic facts that are in error in the research and the articles published by Bacalja we would like to address. Additionally, we would like to set the scene for the larger context of text selection for senior English studies in Victoria.

Firstly, Bacalja makes the claim there are no texts by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writers or creators on current English text lists. However, there are currently four texts set for study by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and creators. Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria and Samuel Wagan Watson’s poetry Smoke Encrypted Whispers are both on the current Literature text list. The play The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, and the film Charlie’s Country, written by David Gulpilil and produced by Peter Djigirr, are currently listed for study on the English and EAL text lists.

Bacalja also asserts there have been only two Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and creators listed for study in senior English studies over the past 10 years. Again, this is an erroneous claim. In addition to Larissa Behrendt and Jack Davis, and the writers and creators noted above, Kim Scott (The Deadman Dance) and Rachel Perkins (One Night the Moon and Mabo) have been listed for study in the past 10 years.

It is important to understand the VCAA only sets texts for Units 3 and 4 English studies. For all other years, setting texts is a school-based decision. The VCAA believes in teacher agency, and student voice, and knows teachers, in collaboration with their students, are selecting and studying diverse texts, including by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and creators. Bacalja indicates the film The Sapphires is an example of a text that has been ignored by the VCAA. We would agree The Sapphires is a wonderful text but we also know it is studied across the state at years 8 and 9. We suggest that this film is completely appropriate at those year levels, rather than at year 12. In addition, schools are setting texts like the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, The Australian Dream and Catching Teller Crow. (Incidentally, the title of Bacalja’s paper – ‘Australian literature’s great silence’ is taken from WEH Stanner’s writings. Stanner appeared on the Literature text list between 2015 and 2018.)

Additionally, Bacalja suggests the flip side of the VCAA failure to set texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and creators is a lack of diversity anywhere in the lists. However, we have gender parity across all lists, and writers and creators from countries as diverse as Nigeria (Chinua Achebe), Iran (Marjane Satrapi), Pakistan (Malala Yousafzai), Italy (Italo Calvino), and Columbia (Juan Gabriel Vasquez). We also have writers and creators on the English lists who represent the experience of migration like Maxine Beneba Clarke and Jhumpa Lahiri.

There are other points to make about the research and conclusions drawn by Bacalja. The first is reasonably straight forward. Bacalja’a work assumes that challenge to prevailing assumptions about colonisation, patriarchy and hegemony can only be made through writing or creating. However, reading is clearly a political act too, and many teachers and students are engaging with the issues presented by texts, including sexuality, colonialism, race and gender. Reading is not fixed and does not reveal a particular orthodoxy. Teachers and students can explore the implications of the views and values within texts, and engage with the politics of language and representation. For example, teachers and students connect with the issue of white privilege raised by texts like Tracks and Into the Wild, and that the freedoms represented by these texts are predicated on race and class. With teachers and students exploring these kinds of readings across all texts set for study, we know all stories are being deeply considered and often challenged.

The second point is more complex and involves the ways texts are selected for study. The VCAA has a stringent process for selecting text (which Bacalja should be familiar with as he was on a VCAA Text Advisory Panel for a number of years), which includes maintaining a balance between established and contemporary texts. This means the lists must offer teachers texts from historical periods as well as those written more recently. As the publishing gatekeepers were operating for centuries under assumptions about race and gender, there is no doubt we have fewer texts from diverse backgrounds to select from when looking for established writing.

The VCAA also has a commitment to community standards. As we are setting texts for the entire state, we must present a list that not only represents diversity but considers the implications and complexity of that diversity including the settings, cohorts, values and standards across the state. The concept of community standards means that in honouring the diversity of our community, we must also respect sensitivities, particularly around taboo subjects like violence, drug taking, death and sex. We must, therefore, consider the material in texts that might be offensive or provocative to members of the community. We strongly advise teachers to read widely before they choose the texts for their classrooms, but we must balance this advice with caution. There are clearly texts that are wonderful examples of form, but cannot be placed on text lists because they conflict with community standards.

Text lists, like the community they are created for, are complex and delicate. Proposing ‘obvious’ solutions to issues in representation is naïve and short sighted. Proposing solutions based on erroneous research is even more problematic. We welcome participation and dialogue to improve the lists, but we ask for a little more nuance and an understanding of context in these interactions.

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