The Sydney language: William Dawes in Australian literature
New Scholar Editorial Board
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Two recent books by Sydney writers have explored the figure of William Dawes, drawing on his Sydney Cove language notebooks. The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville (2008) fictionalises Dawes' life, while Ross Gibson's 26 Views of the Starburst World (2012) offers a speculative biography of Dawes' years at Sydney Cove, a 'purposefully fractal account' (vii). Responding to Grenville's novel, Gibson writes: 'A well-made novel must obscure some of the most puzzling and important elements of the notebooks' (17). Wary of 'the lures of fellow feeling', he seeks a form that 'works with rather than works away' the estrangement between two cultures and between the past and present (17). Whereas Grenville uses Dawes' notes to spin a contextualising narrative that relies on empathy for much of its effect, Gibson emphasises the piecemeal nature of what we can learn from the notebooks, referring to 'event-fragments' (78). Rather than attempting to build a cohesive or 'moving' picture of what happened between Dawes and the local people, he foregrounds his own suppositions and investments. What insights do the literary forms applied here offer us about place, and our place? Is there a case to be made for Grenville's fictional 'empathy', in spite of the mistrust it has engendered among historians such as Inga Clendinnen? In what larger project might novelists be participating when they imagine their way back to the beginning of a difficult relationship between cultures?
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Vol. 3, No.2