Professor Sneja Gunew (17 Dec.1946 – 8 Jan. 2024)
Professor Sneja Gunew (17 Dec.1946 – 8 Jan. 2024)
A tireless campaigner for cultural diversity in the arts, Sneja Gunew was one of Australia’s most innovative literary critics and theorists. In the 1980s and -90s her name became synonymous with the emerging field of migrant, later multicultural literature, and her pioneering work in the promotion, documentation, and analysis of works by Australian authors of non-Anglo-Celtic background laid the basis for what has since become an ever-expanding, and ever-diversifying area of creative and critical endeavour. The recognition, today seemingly self-evident, that Australian literature traces its origins to cultures and languages far beyond the Anglophone mainstream, is in no small part due to Gunew’s persistent efforts, often in the face of considerable opposition, to bring multiculturalism in from the margins to become a defining feature of Australian literature.
Sneja Gunew was born in Tübingen, Germany, her mother German, her father Bulgarian. The family arrived in Australia as displaced persons under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation in 1950 and settled in St Albans, then on the outer limits of Melbourne. She obtained a BA (Hons) from the University of Melbourne, and postgraduate degrees from the University of Toronto (MA) and the University of Newcastle, NSW (PhD). Inspired by her own background and experience, she soon became a keen student of the emerging areas of feminist and postcolonial studies.
These interests came together at Deakin University, where she taught from 1979 to 1993 and was part of the first interdisciplinary teams developing course material in women’s and literary studies for distance education students. It was also at this time that she started to question the absence of non-Anglo-Celtic writers from the Australian literary canon and ponder the conditions that gave rise to the ever-increasing discrepancy between the make-up of the nation and what was recognized as the national culture. She pursued such questions on multiple fronts: edited collections of and on migrant/multicultural and women’s writing, bibliographical work (identifying and recording works written by multicultural writers), as well as critical and theoretical publications.
Senja was also active in arts policy. Between 1988 and -91 she served as a member of the Australia Council for the Arts and persuaded its chair Donald Horne to establish a Multicultural Advisory Committee (ACMAC) which she chaired with great enthusiasm and commitment, producing major changes in the ways in which the Council approached the applications for funding and support by artists from non-English speaking background. She insisted that each of Council’s boards and committees were inclusive of the voices representing ethnic communities.
In her early writing, culminating in her first book, Framing Marginality: Multicultural literary studies (1994), Gunew used literary theory (deconstruction, postcolonialism and feminism) to argue for the potential of writers considered as marginal to redefine categories such as that of a national literature. And like many others who have dared to question the status quo, she received her fair share of criticism from the cultural establishment. Taken to task for promoting ‘inferior’ writers and for subjecting Australian literature to ‘foreign’ theory, she was not intimidated – she could give as good as she got – but later acknowledged that the attacks she had been subjected to play a part in her decision to relocate to Canada, where she could pursue her main academic interests without the distraction of bruising cultural politics. We can only speculate on what roles she would have played in the cultural life of the country had she remained in Australia, but her interest in, and engagement with Australian literature remained a key focus for her research and teaching throughout her career.
After an initial appointment as Professor of English at Victoria University on Vancouver Island, Gunew in 1995 moved to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she remained as Professor of English and Women’s Studies until her retirement in 2014. Returning regularly to observe and contribute to cultural debate in Australia, she used her new vantage point to locate the national culture within comparative and international frameworks and in relation to evolving concepts such as comparative and critical multiculturalism, diaspora, cosmopolitanism, transnationalism and globalisation. A prolific writer, she published some twenty books and well over a hundred book chapters and journal articles.
In Haunted Nations: The colonial dimensions of multiculturalisms (2004), her reading of texts from Australia and Canada forms the basis for a critical scrutiny of the very term multiculturalism in different national settings, distinguishing its deployment as a state mechanism for managing diversity from her preferred notion of critical multiculturalism, ‘used by minorities as leverage to argue for participation grounded in their differences.’ Her last book, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators (2017) goes ‘back to the future’ to salvage elements of multiculturalism that have been forgotten in later debates, chief among which are its multilingual and cosmopolitan dimensions. Australian writers are juxtaposed to writers from Canada, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere to bring out their distinctive approach to issues within cosmopolitan debates. In retirement, Gunew continued her prolific research and publication schedule, pursuing interests in the intersection of multilingualism, identity, affect, gender and food within indigenous and minority cultures.
As a child of migrants who arrived in Australia with nothing except their hope for a brighter future, Sneja learnt the value of hard work from an early age and finished on top of the very first class to matriculate from St Albans High School. Growing up in a working-class suburb among families with a similar background to her own, she would often reflect on her ‘rude awakening’ at Melbourne University, where she met a different Australia, steeped in British traditions, where she was regarded as a foreigner, where her mastery of English was questioned and her ability to appreciate the finer qualities of English literature put in doubt.
Sneja met with personal tragedy at a young age, widowed in her mid-twenties when her husband, the gifted physicist Peter Leonard, died of a brain virus. Back in Melbourne she later met, and eventually married, the British-born artist Terence Greer, with whom she enjoyed a close relationship of mutual respect and support in spite of (or perhaps because of) their very different personalities for close to 40 years. On his death in 2020 she wrote ‘I don’t actually want to experience a post-Terence life’ but nevertheless embarked on new plans and projects, only cut short by the brutal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in late 2023.
Sneja Gunew leaves behind a vast legacy: pioneering work on feminism and multiculturalism in art and literature together with large numbers of former students, colleagues, research associates and friends who have greatly benefited from her intellectual and personal generosity. She is survived by brothers Stefan and Marin, by nieces Bianca and Sofia, and by numerous friends in Australia, Canada and across the world.