The human stories behind the headlines
Peter Hollindale recommends English anthologies that open our eyes to other cultures. For most of us the day-to-day perception of countries we do not personally know is marked by a few stereotyped images, unleavened by historical perspectives and detached from intimate awareness of ordinary people's lives. Often we are influenced by political events which achieve brief headline status, or we are guided by fictions, sometimes in printed form but more usually from television and films.
These narrow and distorted cultural images are not calculated to open our minds to other cultures in their fullness and diversity, and the prevailing stereotypes are a serious handicap in a multiracial society such as Britain, where inheritors of many cultural traditions live as fellow citizens.
The Figures in a Landscape series is a resource designed for just this problem. Each book is an anthology of approximately 20 short stories, written over a period of roughly 70 years. The series occupies the joint territory of English and cultural studies, and is designed for readers in the 14 to 17 age-range.
The quality of the stories is high. Many are subtle, some quite difficult, and several have complex endings which are a serious test of reading skills. The general level of writing, coupled with a markedly austere design (the typeface is quite small, and the photographs not always helpful or well-reproduced) means that they are ill-suited to private study and best read, as the publishers suggest, "in class and with teacher support". In the appropriate teaching context, however, they are excellent.
On the face of it the books perpetuate just those biases of medium and content which generate the stereotypes. Made up exclusively of fictions, they consequently offer a set of personal imaginative visions with no claims to objective documentary truth.
The stories inevitably focus regularly on the conflicts which make up the dominant cultural images. In Ireland, the tension between Protestant and Catholic; in Australia, the plight of the Aboriginal communities in the face of European oppression and contempt, and the mindless destruction of indigenous wildlife; in India, the chaos of Partition and the tensions between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh; all these highlights of everyday cultural image-making are conspicuous in the books. What sets the anthologies apart is the consistent distinction of the writing, which time and again makes the general political or social problem particular and vivid through the lives of individuals and families, in private landscapes both topographical and cultural.
Both in its editorial approach and in the content of the stories the Australian collection edited by Wendy Morgan is the most sophisticated of the three. In her introduction, Wendy Morgan declares uncompromisingly, "You could say there is no such place as Australia; that there are only various places that people have talked and written about and depicted in images." The primacy of imaginative constructions in creating landscape and society is intrinsic to her choice of stories.
The influence of postmodernist narrative procedures is evident here, most notably in Craig McGregor's admirable but challenging story "Day Trip to Surfers bw Get Lost Adorno", but more reachably in other pieces such as Zeny Giles's "Telling Tales". Likewise, in the Aboriginal English of Bill Neidje's "We Like White-man Alright", and the anglo-prejudiced autospeak of Ania Walwicz's "wogs", the reader is encouraged to meet Australia consciously through a set of linguistic constructs and recognize the centrality of language itself in making knowable whatever "Australia" might mean.
The effort is well rewarded, but the volumes on Ireland and India manage to achieve equivalent results in a more relaxed, companionable way. They too begin with a succinct account of national history which gives depth and perspective to the chosen stories, and place their own varieties of English in relation to other national languages, dead or living.
Lakshmi Holmstrom introduces India with a train journey through the varied and abundant land, and closely observed trains feature largely in several of the Indian stories, providing a continuing image of a country always changing, both in space and time. Ireland too is unfixed from standard images of sectarian conflict. Each book contains its masterpieces, and one of Ireland's is Margaret Barrington's "Village Without Men". This marvellous story, J M Synge for modern days, is cinematic in conception and visually unforgettable, a vindication in miniature of the imaginative human geography which unifies this valuable series.
Peter Hollindale is senior lecturer in English and Educational Studies at the University of York.