This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, one of his most well-known novels. Nominated for the 2002 Booker Prize, Dirt Music is part-thriller, part-romance, set in the uncompromising West-Australian outback. A movie adaptation was released last year, to dismal, lackluster reviews. I hadn’t bothered to see it. I knew intrinsically that any attempt to conceptualize Winton’s prose in that novel was hopeless, like touching your hand to a plastic candle and waiting for the burn. Yet its production, and Winton’s continued dominance of the Australian literary world, made me consider my own long and fraught relationship to his work. Like Winton, I grew up in Perth, in the corner of south-west Australia. I attended primary school in the suburb where he was born. I ran by the same river, and drank coffee from the same cafes; I even attended the same university. For better or worse, I have walked in his footsteps.
There is no possible discussion of Australian literature without the mention of Winton’s name. The international success of other (largely male) authors aside — twice-winner of the Man Booker, Peter Carey; Marcus Zusak; Patrick White — it seems to be Winton’s brutal lyricism that lingers and curdles in our collective cultural imagination. Grammarless, dialect-heavy and unapologetically bleak, Winton produces frustrating work that splits apart Australia’s bigoted, broken underbelly. His words crawl in under your blood and stay there. Since 1982, he has published twelve novels, six short-story collections, seven works of non-fiction and three plays, as well as countless essays, articles and stories. His work has been adapted a dozen times for screen and stage. For years, the Subiaco Library in Perth has run the Tim Winton Young Writers’ Prize, for West Australians under 18.
I placed in that competition in 2014, when I was fifteen, author of a dubious short story about a son and his abusive father. I even took a photo with Winton at the ceremony. By that age, for me, his books had become synonymous with high art. I tore through his family epic, the Booker-shortlisted Cloudstreet, in my early teens, enamored with the rare literary portrayal of Perth and Winton’s accessible, lyrical prose. “Dogs get howling all down the way,” he wrote, in a paragraph that I still think about to this day. “Somewhere a bicycle bell rings. Somewhere else there's a war on. Somewhere else people turn to shadows and powder in an instant and the streets turn to funnels and light in the sky with their burning. Somewhere a war is over.” It was a tender gift to see my home as more than the title of a Bon Iver song; to know that people thought the way I spoke and lived was worthy of memorializing.
When I entered my final year of high school and, as every Perth student does, tackled his seminal collection The Turning, my admiration turned to uncertainty. I balked at the portrayal of women in the fictional rural town of Angelus; women that were beaten, beautiful, and silent. Paired with the concurrent study of explosive Indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson, Winton’s work seemed unbearably white and male-oriented. Car crashes, sexual awakenings, shark attacks; sharp and important events that seemed to happen only to men. In this bloody book, I thought darkly, things either happen to men, or for them.
At eighteen, caught up in the new world of feminist literature I’d discovered, I abandoned Winton — and Perth — for more sophisticated pastures. I read Allende, Didion, Lessing, Morrison. Women who had lived hard and elegantly, and who inhabited far-off, important places I could only imagine. For a girl who had spent her formative years shunted between South Africa and Australia, the starry exploits of Europeans and Americans were much closer to what I imagined was important enough to write about. New York, London, Paris, Argentina, Los Angeles — these were the places that mattered. These were the cities of the intellectual, cultured artists that I aspired to become. I didn’t want to be from Perth, or Pietermaritzburg — I wanted to be one of those cool, urban women, who always knew the right degree of irony to employ, the right reference to make. I disdained the aspects of my home(s) that I now realize are precious: their isolation, sparse urban development and insular artistic cultures.
I was relieved to leave it all behind, when I left to teach in Barcelona. I underplayed my Australian roots, working actively to appear less desperately provincial, and embarked on the mammoth task of familiarizing myself with publications and authors that would have been common knowledge for anyone outside Australia. I even got myself a New Yorker subscription, despite having set foot in the USA a grand total of once in my adult life. For a long time, when I was living in Europe, if anyone tried to talk to me about Australian literature, I would point them to Josephine Wilson, Sarah Holland-Batt or John Kinsella, and follow it up with: “I really prefer Alice Munro, though.” I was embarrassed, almost, of Winton’s hyper-masculinity, his cruelty, his proud rural slang. I was embarrassed that it sang to me, that I understood it — that it was the sole thing that seemed to come close to articulating the hatred, shame and love towards Australia that lived intertwined within me.
It was only when I returned to Perth, and fell into a heavy infatuation with its natural landscape, that I realized why I — and Australia at large — have never quite managed to shake Winton off. I maintain that there is no other author that can better capture the volatile, twisting environment of its rural communities. At twenty, on a trip to the lush forests of Denmark, I finally read Breath, now one of my favorite novels. In the book, set in the 1970s, young teen Pikelet and his mate Loony get into surfing, as an escape from the mundanity of their lives in a small rural town in the south-west. They fall into a heady relationship with local guru Sando, and his bitchy, inaccessible wife Eva. In true Winton style, it all unravels hellishly from there. In one scene, thirteen-year old Pikelet is having sex with the adult Eva, when she begs him to put a bag over her head and choke her until she passes out. Pikelet does so, and immediately collapses into tears afterwards, torn between puppy love and the subconscious knowledge that something is deeply, deeply wrong.
I wept after I finished the book. It piercingly articulated the fractured masculinity that I had seen wreak havoc on my friends and family, while juxtaposing social and sexual brutality against the aching, harsh mass of the Indian ocean. In one of his most quoted lines, Winton dissects this paradox expertly: “I couldn't take my eyes from those plumes of spray, the churning shards of light…I couldn't have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.”
It taught me a lesson in nuance. There are plenty who take issue with Winton’s work, and probably rightfully so. There’s a reason why a white man is one of Australia’s most successful literary exports, and an uneasiness in the fact that Aboriginal lives and Australia’s lingering colonialism are only sometimes touched upon. I wasn’t wrong about The Turning, either — Winton’s female characters are often defined by their bodies and their proximity to male partners or family. But in the wake of climbing femicides and a domestic violence epidemic, I understand why Winton’s focus on dysfunctional masculinity is so valuable. He illuminates how we got here; why our country is falling apart. There’s a sickness in our boys, driven by a culture of binge-drinking, the veneration of hard physical labor and extreme aversion to emotional vulnerability. It’s eating us all from the inside out. That sense of decay — environmental, economic, social — and subsequent grief is what Winton is master of.
I still don’t think Australia is a place to be proud of. Like almost every other English-speaking place in the world, it is rife with racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Sacred Aboriginal birthing trees are torn down to make way for highways, and the Prime Minister is a Pentecostal, homophobic rape-apologist. If you asked me now, I would say the most important and necessary Australian novel you could read would be Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria or Tara June Winch’s The Yield, both beautiful books written by Aboriginal women, and offering truly devastating insights.
Despite the valid criticism, though, I can’t bring myself to leave Tim Winton behind. The first movie I watched in London with my American partner was Breath. I bought him a copy of Winton’s Shepherd’s Hut for Christmas, and found myself inexplicably wounded when he didn’t read it. I wanted him to understand who I was, and the only way I could think to communicate the totality of the place that had raised me was through Winton’s work. It was the closest I could come to sitting down in the desert, listening to the dark, soft noises of the earth.
I tried to reach out to Winton prior to writing this essay. I was deeply curious to talk with the author that has, for better or worse, shaped my literary and emotional education. He is notoriously difficult to reach, and rarely gives interviews or engages with the press. It just doesn’t seem to matter to him. As I expected, there was no Twitter, no Instagram, no public contact details. Through Internet scouring, I managed to track down the email of his agent. When she got back to me, it was predictable; thank you for writing, sorry, he’s working on a project, not open to interviews at this time. I imagine him sequestered in some peaceful bungalow down south, Albany-way, or lost in the peppermint scrub. I like to think that he’s picking his way down to the shore for a surf, full of whatever story he ends up writing next, doggedly ignoring press requests from annoying little pests like me.
In lieu of the man himself, I wandered back to my bookshelf and picked up Island Home, Winton’s non-fiction exploration of Australia’s coastal environment and its cultural impact. I took precious few books with me when I left Perth for London, dizzy with the anticipation of arriving, and in the painful months since landing at Heathrow, it has proved to be something of an emotional savior. Winton writes knowingly of the difficulties in leaving Western Australia, and the ways in which living in such close proximity to nature — in such a ludicrous, wild abundance of space — becomes embedded in both one’s personality and creative practice. In one passage, he talks of watching Peter Pan in Paris, and finding Neverland to be more familiar than the Darlings’ living room. “I understood what a complete stranger I was in that hemisphere,” he says. “But acknowledging my strangeness made those years abroad easier to digest and enjoy.”
Like Winton, I feel like I am an intruder on an alien planet, full of apartment buildings and skyscrapers and more people than I can possibly believe exist in the same ten-mile radius. I am hopeless at city living; not fast enough, too dreamy. The conversations of those around me leave me perpetually a beat behind, and I fail to connect with the dense, clever, intellectual books that I am supposed to understand. Academic theory confuses me, and smart portrayals of urban millennial life ring false. But I relish my small-town ways, and cook damper in my East London flat. In the throes of homesickness, I talk endlessly of beaches and forests, and watch videos of the silver tide rolling in. I know how hopelessly regional I sound, and I like it. There’s a fair amount of irony to the fact that only in my permanent departure have I finally come to terms with where I come from.
The shelves in our living room, now accumulating a steady collection of Winton’s work, are testament to the blessed fact that I could not manage to extricate myself from Western Australia, nor it from me. Like Winton says himself, “the past is in us, not behind us. It’s never over.” Everything is all flowing through me, keeping me awake. The memories, the land, and the stories most of all. It’s that “music you don’t need electricity to play.” That good, true red dirt music.