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Anna Rutherford (1932–2001)

by David Dabydeen

Ceaselessly energetic in her organisational and publishing activities, Professor Anna Rutherford, who has died aged 68, was revered in Commonwealth academic circles for her efforts to establish the study of post-colonial literature in Europe.

For 28 years, from 1968-96, she directed the Commonwealth Literature Centre at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, organising symposia, seminars and readings involving leading scholars and writers as varied as Wilson Harris, Sam Selvon, Timothy Mo, Buchi Emecheta, Olive Senior, Shiva Naipaul and Mordecai Richler.

She introduced African and West Indian courses and, in 1971, organised the first European conference on the Commonwealth novel, a project involving many future professors — Louis James (Kent), Paul Edwards (Edinburgh), Hena Maes-Jelinek and Victor Raniraj (Calgary) — who went on, in their own universities, to promote the research that gave the discipline of Commonwealth literature intellectual respectability.

Sonja Bahn, of Innsbruck University, called Anna the "mother of most of our generation of teachers". She was the first woman chair of the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies, which draws scholars from 300 universities, and, in the 1970s, founded the association's European branch, which became a powerful lobby for the expansion of the English literature curriculum in European academies.

Her house in Aarhus was so open to visiting Australian writers that the country's leading poet, Les Murray, called it his nation's embassy in Europe. From there, with her partner Kirsten Holst Petersen, Anna ran Kunapipi, Europe's leading post-colonial literary journal, and a small publishing house, the Dangaroo Press, which issued works by established, as well as first-time, writers.

Anna was born in Mayfield, Newcastle, which she once described as "the industrial working class city of Australia". Her father died shovelling coal on the open hearth at the local steel works. She was fiercely proud of her working class origins and Irish-Catholic roots, and her sense of being an outsider - Catholics were educationally deprived in a state system heavily weighted in favour of Protestants — meant she forged abiding friendships with similar individuals, irrespective of race or nationality.

After primary and secondary education by Dominican nuns, Anna briefly taught music — and represented New South Wales in basketball and swimming. She then studied literature as a mature student at Newcastle University.

The Canadian writer Gerry Turcotte once described her as a "combination of Muhammad Ali and a great white shark". But Anna's fierce presence disguised a gentleness and generosity which she lavished upon new writers, publishing their poetry in beautiful volumes, and often bearing the cost from her own pocket.

It was her love for the finely produced book, and her disdain for the slick commercialism of the publishing industry, that attracted writers to her small press. Every year, laden with a huge rucksack of new books, she would trudge along Charing Cross Road, calling in at various bookshops to sell a copy here and there. It did her back in, but there was something of the martyr in her. She loved books in all their stages - from the editing of manuscripts to the supervision of printing and the placement with the bookseller.

In later years, the constant struggle to access small grants to subsidise her books or conferences wore Anna down. She began to suffer from physical ailments, and then severe depression. She resigned from Aarhus and wandered the world disconsolately, ending up at Warwick University in 1998 as a visiting fellow.

Finally, she returned to a flat overlooking Nobby's Beach, Newcastle, a place of beloved childhood memories. She had been slowly recovering but died suddenly in her sleep, at a friend's house in Sydney.

Anna Rutherford, academic and publisher, born November 27 1932; died February 21 2001

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Citation details

David Dabydeen, 'Rutherford, Anna (1932–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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