Earlier this year I was driving from Adelaide, where I live, towards Second Valley, a small coastal town to the south, when I passed a sign that read ‘New Community Coming Soon’. At the time, this struck me as a premature and presumptuous announcement, a much more expansive claim than, say, ‘new series of Masterchef coming soon’. Or even ‘one day, coming soon, you will die’. In the months since, I’ve continued to ponder, fuss over and draw amusement from this idea of a ‘new community coming soon’. In other words, I’ve examined it way out of proportion to its actual importance in the greater scheme of things.

What does ‘new community coming soon’ actually mean? New houses coming soon? New people? New conviviality, congeniality? New relationships, good and bad … or good then bad? A rash of new childcare centres, with new waiting lists, and further on down the road, where the bitumen turns to dirt, a paddock set aside for a nursing home? A new corner shop, swiftly swallowed by a new Woolworths? New possums breaking into new roof spaces? New disagreements about whether a boundary fence should be three feet high or six feet high? … For me, ‘new community coming soon’ has become a sort of talismanic slogan that has helped shape more than one of my current works-in-progress, including a novel about Adelaide.

In bringing to life — in my head — this new community, I’ve lumped together ‘community’ and ‘suburban paradise’. It’s a rash assumption but I can’t help it: I’m a creature of middle-class suburban Adelaide, a city I love … and love complaining about. It’s the aspirational qualities implicit in the term ‘new community’ that particularly provoke my interest. Because no matter how shiny and bright a new community happens to be, a big chunk of the appeal, I suggest, lies in its promise of the familiar. A community is warm and welcoming. It’s conventional. It’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’, as John Howard might say. And on one level, why not? What’s wrong with a little predictability, a little conformity? What’s wrong with an efficient local council? What’s wrong with neighbours who unfailingly turn the music down at 9.45 p.m.? What’s wrong with the occasional Whopper with Cheese? (When I say ‘whopper’ I’m talking about hamburgers not lies, but the point remains the same.)

But on the other hand, this craving for newness that is also sameness begins to sound like a promotion for an overly cleansed, prescriptive way of living, of interacting, of being. It hints at a George W. Bush philosophy: ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ It hints at that great Australian phrase, ‘I’m not a racist but …’ It hints at a collective obligation to ‘protect the brand’, to ‘build the brand’ (in other words, to avoid public displays of dissent, to not engage in productive disagreement, to self-censor).

 ‘What does it mean to be “Australian” and a “writer” now?’ It’s a specific question so I’ll try to give a specific answer: first, and always, it means telling stories. Beyond that, for me, right now at least, being a ‘writer’ and being ‘Australian’ means taking a long, hard, perplexed, fixated, exasperated, affectionate, amused, drooling, distorted and distorting look at the business of living, of life — in Australia and more specifically in Adelaide, because that’s where I eat, sleep, work and raise a family. And it’s about trying to make sense of Australia as a member of the global community (there’s that word ‘community’ again), something I believe we continue to do poorly, as if our oceans are galaxies, as if billions of light years separate us from the rest of humanity … although we invoke a universal or cosmopolitan outlook when it suits us.

When I say trying to ‘make sense of’, I really mean complicate. What I find myself doing when I write, in one way or another, is describing a world that is messier than, sometimes uglier, or just plain different from how it seems. I don’t like ‘prevailing views’. But I’m not so taken with offering solutions, because they often seem so forced, so contrived, so much a part of the problem. It’s a limitation in my writing practice, which is a less self-confronting way of saying it’s a limitation in the way I choose to live my life. I do believe the way I go about my vocation is honourable — but some of you would have heard Anna Rose, when she spoke yesterday at this conference, make a passionate plea for writers to be activists. That’s a real challenge for me, as a writer, as a human being: although everything I write is political, although everything I see I interpret through a political lense, I have always tended to believe that stories are more important than messages.

There’s a second specific question that I’ve been asked to talk about: ‘do writers have to write about Australia?’ The answer is a categorical ‘no’. Australian writers should have the freedom to write about any subject we choose. Otherwise, what’s the point? Hannah Kent’s startling debut novel Burial Rites is set in nineteenth century Iceland; Eva Hornung’s best book — so far — is a novel about a boy raised by a pack of dogs in Moscow; Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a deeply thoughtful meditation on men, memory and the US Indian Wars.  

Falconer has argued — persuasively, I think — that ‘Personally, I do feel that any book by an Australian author brings a uniquely Australian perspective to its subject matter (not that this is by any means a unified perspective). As our population grows, and includes more and more people who were born, or grew up, elsewhere, I think it’s more and more the case that what is “Australianness” broadens.’

Let’s explore this just a little more. J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a haunting book about a young boy and an old man: two refugees drawn together by circumstances. It’s not set in Australia. It’s not set anywhere that you’ll find on a map of the real world. The inhabitants of the city of Novilla, where the boy and man end up, speak Spanish. Is The Childhood of Jesus an ‘Australian book’? Following Falconer’s viewpoint, absolutely. Coetzee became an Australian citizen in 2006. And he and I happen to share Adelaide as a home town … and what’s more, between us we’ve won two Booker Prizes and the Nobel Prize for Literature. (I’m so proud of us.)

But beyond citizen Coetzee’s uniquely Australian sensibility, is there anything else overtly ‘Australian’, anything ‘oi oi oi’, about The Childhood of Jesus? One of the story’s central themes is the plight of refugees, so relevant to Australia in 2013, not least our enduring capacity to imagine that we are an isolated victim, as if the world’s refugees — all 15 or 16 million of them — are picking on us and only us. At times, also, when reading The Childhood of Jesus, I feel as if I can detect hints of the spirit of Adelaide in the city of Novilla, including politeness expertly mixed with bureaucratic inflexibility; abstract goodwill; insularity; incuriosity; and this: ‘What he wants to say, for his part, is that life here is too placid for his taste, too lacking in ups and downs, in drama and tension—is too much, in fact, like the music on the radio.’

But I’m happy to admit I’m drawing a long bow, and that perhaps these observations say less about Coetzee as an Australian writer and more about me as an Australian reader. Does it even matter? Perhaps only to the extent that we want to claim an eminent writer as ‘one of us’ — to have him be as Australian as Vegemite or Pauline Hanson. And it’ll matter if Text Publishing enters The Childhood of Jesus in the Miles Franklin Literary Award, leaving the judges with the task of determining whether it fulfils the criteria of presenting ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.

But in saying that Australian writers don’t have to write about Australia, I’m not arguing that Australian writers shouldn’t write about Australia — as if it’s all been done before. Consider Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds. It’s one of the very best new Australian novels I’ve read in the last few years. It scratches out an odd, luminous world on the fringes of a town. Tiffany has not only borrowed the title of Alec Chisholm’s nature book, published in 1922 and recently reissued by Scribe, she embraces Chisholm’s emotional connection with animals, writing beautifully about birds and cows (she’s also pretty handy when she tackles human beings.) Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds is a 1950s story about farming, small towns, nature, parenting, loneliness and physical longing — and it’s as inventive as the zaniest sci-fi flick you’ll ever see.

I love the way that Tiffany takes the spirit of Chisholm’s book and does her own thing with it. Australian culture has a vast and ever-growing repository of words, images and sounds — some of it celebrated, some of it abandoned or forgotten or misunderstood or pigeonholed or never-liked or never-heard. And some of it clichéd. Yesterday, in his Kenneth Bins Lecture, Murray Bail said ‘no more clichés’. He’s probably right — but if they weren’t there we might miss them. In big and small ways, and with or without the clichés, writers mine this repository of cultural material constantly.

One example: on my study wall hangs a print of Arthur Boyd’s painting ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’. It’s a complex picture to look at, even though the yellow-fired, red-eyed figure dominates. There’s a lot going on in the picture, a lot to think about: not only the story of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went mad, but also the artist’s wider preoccupations and life history. In her biography of Boyd, Darleen Bungey describes the whole Nebuchadnezzar series as being about the fire of war, the fire of madness, the fire of sex. About ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’ specifically, she writes: ‘the king plummets, like a doomed Icarus being irradiated by the sun, towards the sexual cut in the landscape. His burning hot eyes, locked on the object of his desire, echo those of the black ram who lures him towards his downfall’.

I’m not questioning Bungey — and I’m no art historian, not even an amateur one — but for me the picture has a different, speculative function. I’m not much taken with the idea of the man as simply insane. It’s too neat, like labelling somebody ‘evil’, as if that explains everything … or anything. Here’s a man who is literally ablaze. But his eyes are open — they’re bulging (boiling, probably), they’re red-raw, and yet he can see. He’s going over the edge but there’s something almost languid in his pose, as if he’s doing nothing more life-changing than diving into the deep end of the local swimming pool. Maybe he’ll crash and incinerate. Maybe he’ll survive, permanently damaged. Maybe he’ll land in a huge pool of water, douse the flames, haul himself out and get on with a new life —open up a Jim’s Mowing franchise or move to a quirky town on the coast, find love, grow a veggie patch and brew his own beer.

I peer at Nebuchadnezzar on my wall and imagine all sorts of scenarios, all sorts of people. In the last few weeks, for better or worse, I’ve see a good deal of Kevin Rudd: he’s a lit-up spectacle, he’s all go, he’s gotta zip. He’s hurtling through the air, keeping himself ablaze — for ablaze is what he wants to be — and, miraculously, the ground keeps shifting, dropping, disappearing, to accommodate his perpetual motion.

When I was writing my novel Figurehead, which is mostly about Cambodia and the reverberations of the horrible, horrible Pol Pot period, I equated ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’ with Ted Whittlemore, one of two central characters in the novel. Ted, a left-wing Australian war correspondent, retreats from Southeast Asia to his hometown: calm (or is that ossified?) Adelaide; upstanding, clean, healthy, polite, flat-as-a-pancake Adelaide. (Weird murders Adelaide, ‘Bodies in the barrels’ Adelaide, is a whole other place, a place most locals try to pretend, quite successfully, doesn’t exist.) It’s not only Ted’s old age, his broken body that sinks into suburban obscurity; it’s his life and times, his radical philosophy. Meanwhile, Nhem Kiry — the public and acceptable face of the murderous and grossly incompetent Khmer Rouge and a man Ted once supported and protected — outlasts Ted and barely raises a sweat doing so.

Adelaide suburbia damns Ted with apathy and Ted damns Adelaide suburbia right back. He believes that everyone is a partisan, a propagandist, most especially those people who feign neutrality or delude themselves into believing that their politics are moderate. As he puts it, ‘Everybody has their own history of the world, their own personal history. Everybody has their own history of Angola, of Korea, of Iraq, of Vietnam, of every war zone and holiday getaway on earth.’

Ted understands that Adelaide is a world-class place to be if you want to avert your gaze. Ted and I don’t agree on much but we agree on that. As an Australian writer, as an Adelaide writer, it’s something I try to make sense of, although hopefully with my capacity for earnestness kept at least partially in check.

I visited my sister-in-law and her young family this Friday night just gone. When my 3-year-old niece was struggling to decide which adult she wanted to tell her a bedtime story, her dad said, ‘Uncle Patrick tells great silly stories. … That’s his job.’ As a summary of what it means for me to be a writer and an Australian, I’ll take that every time.

But, then, many years ago, when I published my first short story, my mum read it and then rang me up. ‘It’s very good. Well done, dear,’ she said. Then she hung up, immediately rang my sister and asked, ‘What do you think’s wrong with him?’ And actually, as a summary of what it means for me to be a writer and an Australian, I’ll take that every time too.