The Cairns Institute Research Fellow Elizabeth Smyth connects a forgotten novel set in the Wet Tropics Bioregion with the georgic mode of Virgil’s classical poetry in a paper to be published in JASAL, the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, this month (July 2021). John Naish’s The Cruel Field (1962) depicts farm labour and regional life, which is absent from Ray Lawler’s highly-acclaimed play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1957). The Cruel Field tells the story of English-migrant Emery Carol’s experience as a canecutter during the fictional 1951 harvest at Cook’s End, Nagonda.
Elizabeth’s research adds this novel to a handful of known ‘farm novels’, shifts a literary pre-occupation with pastoral leisure and ease to georgic labour and harsh realities, and re-asserts ‘the North’ in Australia’s farming imaginary. Furthermore, Elizabeth argues that Naish’s portrayal of fishing draws Indigenous hunting into the georgic mode.
Of all the novels set on Australian sugarcane farms, Elizabeth argues that The Cruel Field offers the strongest literary experience of sugarcane cultivation and addresses Indigenous dispossession and marginalization ahead of the growing understandings of the 1970s. Overall, her paper positions the georgic mode as integral to interpretations of the farm novel. This research builds on the extensive literary research of JCU Adjunct Associate Professor Cheryl Taylor while drawing on the work of historians, such as former JCU Professor Peter Griggs who wrote Global Industry, Local Innovation: The History of Cane Sugar Production in Australia, 1820-1995 (2011) and JCU Adjunct Lecturer Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui.
Elizabeth is a PhD Candidate in Literature and Writing, supervised by Dr Roger Osborne, Dr Emma Maguire and Professor Stephen Naylor. Her creative-practice research explores literary depictions of human and non-human life and ‘things’ on sugarcane farms in the Wet Tropics Bioregion. The aim of her project is to enrich understandings of Australia’s farming imaginary and ‘the North’ through new readings of novels connected to sugarcane cultivation and by writing a contemporary farm novel.
Prior to commencing her PhD, Elizabeth’s creative writing was published in Meanjin and longlisted for the prestigious Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.
Awards include a Varuna Residential Fellowship, Queensland Writers Centre Maher Fellowship, and numerous Regional Arts Development Fund grants. She regularly participates in the Tropical Writers Festival and contributes to Tropical Writers anthologies. While this immersion in creative writing is a great start, Elizabeth has always known that doctoral research would take her writing to the next level.
Additionally, she brings to her project knowledge gained through a degree in Agricultural Science and a Masters of Information Studies (Librarianship). Elizabeth finds her library qualification invaluable for academic research. It also allows her to work as a JCU Client Services Librarian. ‘It’s fantastic,’ she says, ‘helping other students with referencing and searching for information lets me share what I’ve learned. But I definitely benefit too. I’m connected and inspired by the students around me. We’re all working hard to make a difference in this part of the world.’
Elizabeth (picftured above) is passionate about raising the profile of the Wet Tropics Bioregion in Australian literature and aims to complete her Mid-Candidature Review in August/September this year.