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Robert Drewe Biography

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Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, Victoria, 1943. Education: Hale School, Perth, Western Australia, 1952-60. Career: Cadet journalist, Perth West Australian, 1961-64; journalist, 1964-65, and head of Sydney bureau, 1965-70, the Age, Melbourne; daily columnist, 1970-73, features editor, 1971-72, and literary editor, 1972-74, the Australian, Sydney; special writer, 1975-76, and contributing editor, 1980-83, the Bulletin, Sydney; writer-in-residence, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, 1979, and La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, 1986; columnist, Mode, Sydney, and Sydney City Monthly, 1981-83; visiting writer-in-residence, South Bank Centre, London, and Brixton Prison, 1994. Awards: Australia Council fellowship, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1983, 1988; Walkley award for journalism, 1976, 1981; U.S. Government Leader grant, 1978; Victorian Arts fellowship, 1987; National Book award, 1987; Commonwealth Literary prize, 1990; Australian Artists Creative fellowship, 1993-96. Agent: Hickson Associates, 128 Queen Street, Woollahra, New South Wales 2025, Australia.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Savage Crows. Sydney and London, Collins, 1976.

A Cry in the Jungle Bar. Sydney, Collins, 1979; London, Fontana, 1981.

Fortune. Sydney, Pan, 1986; London, Pan, 1987.

Our Sunshine. Sydney, Pan, 1991.

The Drowner. Sydney, Macmillan, 1995; New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1997.

Short Stories

The Bodysurfers. Sydney, Fraser, 1983; London, Faber, 1984.

The Bay of Contented Man. Sydney, Pan, 1989; London, Pan, 1991.

Plays

The Bodysurfers, adaptation of his own story (produced Lismore, New South Wales, 1989).

South American Barbecue (produced Sydney, 1991).

Other

The Shark Net (memoir). New York, Viking, 2000.

Editor, The Picador Book of the Beach. Sydney, Picador, 1993;London, Picador, 1994.

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Manuscript Collection:

University of Western Australia Library, Nedlands.

Critical Studies:

"Making Connections" by Veronica Brady, in Westerly (Perth, Western Australia), June 1980; "The Littoral Truth" by Jim Crace, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 24 August 1984; "Beaches and Bruised Loves" by Jill Smolowe, in Newsweek (New York), 29 October 1984; "Cartoons for the Lucky Country" by J.D. Reed, in Time (New York), 15 December 1986; "A New Angle on Our Uneasy Repose" by Helen Daniel, in Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 1989; "Mining Dark Places" by Don Anderson, in Age Monthly Review (Melbourne), May 1990.

* * *

Robert Drewe is an important, highly original voice in Australian fiction. Like other writers before him, Drewe deals with the plight of the Australian Aborigines, scrutinizes Australia's uneasy relationship with Asia, and shows an overriding concern with questions of Australian national identity (especially in regard to the role of urban life). But Drewe's approach to these issues is original and provocative.

Whereas a novel about the Australian Aborigines will usually be set among Aborigines, or at least involve white people who live in areas inhabited by Aborigines, The Savage Crows deals with a white youth whose contact with Aborigines is at first only theoretical. Stephen Crisp is researching the early 19th-century events which led to the extinction of the Aborigines living in the island state of Tasmania. His source material is a document titled "The Savage Crows: My Adventures Among the Natives of Van Diemen's Land," which is the diary-journal of the clergyman G.A. Robinson, whose attempts to bring Christianity and civilization to the Tasmanian natives led to cultural misunderstanding, the spread of disease, and death.

Though Robinson was an actual historical figure, the Robinson journal is based upon a number of l9th-century documents and newspaper reports. The Savage Crows has been described as a "documentary novel," but its concerns extend beyond the fictional recreation of history. Drewe presents a number of moral contrasts: Robinson's "good intentions" and their deplorable outcome; Crisp's clinical, academic approach and the dire human suffering to which it is directed; the petty "problems" of affluent 20th-century suburbia beside the plight of early colonists and Aborigines.

A Cry in the Jungle Bar explores Australia's relationship with Asia, once again with focus upon the experiences of a single individual. The Jungle Bar is an attraction of the Asian Eden Hotel, and the "cry" of the title is an utterance of helpless western frustration in the face of Asian complexities. Australian Dick Cullen is a tall, beefy, former football player who now works for the United Nations in Manila. Like Stephen Crisp, Cullen is a researcher; an expert on animal husbandry, he is writing a book about water buffalo titled "The Poor Man's Tractor." More importantly, Cullen shares Crisp's desire to relate his own life to history (though Cullen is more interested in the future history of Australian-Asian relations), and he shares Crisp's struggle to come to terms with another race and culture.

Drewe presents a pessimistic, satirical view of the meeting of cultures. Cullen is marked indelibly a foreigner because of his massive physique, but also because of his inability to understand the subtle political divisions of Asia. (His Bangladeshi colleague, Z.M. Ali, is an enigma to him, and Cullen is bewildered when Ali's political activities lead to his expulsion.)

Fortune is written as a series of terse film-takes or cartoon-panels which tell the story of Don Spargo, a contemporary explorer who discovers a sunken treasure ship off the coast of Western Australia. This story has a "factual" basis (inasmuch as it is based upon a real-life character and posits the possible fate of a real-life 16th-century sailing ship, the Fortuyn) and in this sense it confirms the "journalistic" impulse in Drewe's writing. But the underlying themes are literary, for Spargo's story is a parable on contemporary issues, and the use of a young journalist as narrator raises postmodernist concerns about the nature of narrative: "Officially the reporter was simply the recorder of events, the objective conduit, but events had a habit of including the messenger in the disorder."

Drewe's novels feature an underlying concern with the malaise affecting suburban Australia. This is seen in the way in which Crisp, Cullen, and the journalist-narrator of Fortune are aloof and clinical about pressing human problems (each addressing social issues through reports and documentation, rather than experiencing the problems directly), and it is evident in the failed sexual relationships portrayed in each novel. The short stories in The Bodysurfers and The Bay of Contented Man develop these concerns in more detail, exploring the conflicts and contradictions in the national character. One of the epigraphs to The Bodysurfers is a statement from the polemical historian Manning Clark about the loss of national values: "Just as Samson after being shorn of his hair was left eyeless in Gaza, was this generation, stripped bare of all faith, to be left comfortless on Bondi Beach?" The stories contrast the carefree sensuality of Australian beach life (the nude sunbathers, the smell of suntan oil) with the characters' unconscious prurience and uneasiness about sexuality, and with the mundane anxieties and problems of urban life.

Drewe's portrayal of the beach culture is journalistically superb; to quote one reviewer: "It's all here—the oiled bodies, the smell of the salt, the heat of the sun, the sensuality." But Drewe also offers a provocative analysis of Australian life, hinting at an inability to unite the "masculine" and "feminine" aspects of the national culture. In many stories the beach embodies the Australian myth of physical action and carefree hedonism, but these simplistic masculine values are often dispelled by the comments or actions of the female characters. And in the story called "The Last Explorer" an aged adventurer, slowly dying in hospital, symbolically turns his back on the sea (symbol of the young, feminine, new Australia) and faces the desert (symbol of the dead "macho" world of exploration and masculine deeds).

It is interesting, then, that the title of The Drowner seems to evoke the sea, but in fact its setting is the desert—where in the nineteenth century an irrigation engineer was known as a "drowner."

The novel is the story of Will Dance, who goes to England to learn his profession, falls in love there and marries, and brings his new bride Angelica back to the parched town he is determined to save. The characters of Will and Angelica are a bit too sparsely drawn, but the town itself comes alive in vivid detail.

—Van Ikin

Melanie Drewery (1970–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Sidelights [next]

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