Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2018

Don’t Let Him Know, by Sandip Roy #BookReview

Cultural change is such an interesting and complex phenomenon…

Over a lifetime we witness numerous aspects of cultural change which impact on us as individuals in different ways.  Some changes we reject and others we embrace, for reasons which can be moral or ethical, religious or environmental, economic or political.  Sometimes our attitudes to change are simply instinctive: we just like it, or we just don’t. Sometimes we simply don’t notice it happening around us, and that’s usually because it doesn’t impact on us.  Sometimes it’s because we have our collective heads in the sand…

But looking at cultural change in an abstract way is an entirely different business to having a personal investment in it.  For people on the margins and those who love and care for them, cultural changes towards disability, gender diversity and ethnic or racial identity might matter a great deal more than consumerism or popular culture or even economics or politics.  That’s because, I think, a contented life is contingent on belonging – in a family, among friends, in a community and in a society.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading Sandip Roy’s debut novel Don’t Let Him Know which was longlisted for the 2016 DSC Prize.  In a series of vignettes linked by the characters in an Indian family, Roy explores the ways in which LGBTIQA people are constrained in their relationships by cultural expectations in Indian society.  The book begins with Romola Mitra, a new bride, uprooted to America where her husband is a student, accidentally opening a letter from Samit, her husband Avinash’s former lover. She is shocked and horrified, but never reveals that she knows because her cultural inhibitions are so strong.  Decades later her only son Amit finds a fragment of the same letter and thinks it’s from his mother’s lover. Romola in widowhood lets him think so, rather than admit that her husband was gay.

The cultural gulf between American life and Indian life seems wide in this novel.  Romola is a smart woman with an MA in Literature, but from her parents’ point-of-view this achievement is primarily to make her suitable for a good marriage to an educated man.  (They certainly don’t approve of her crush on a handsome fellow who wants to be an actor.  Romola nurses this crush in secret when he becomes a Bollywood star, yearning for what might have been).  Because it would be unthinkable to follow her heart, she submits to her parents’ matchmaking and marries Avinash who is aloof and reserved, because he too is being pressured into marrying to please his parents.

Romola never has a career, and drifts into a lifetime of serving her husband.  She is characterised as a passive woman, wasting her time watching inane TV shows and demonstrating a steely resolve only when she meets Samit and wants to show him that there is no prospect of him interfering in the marriage she has sacrificed herself to protect.  Although both Avinash and Romola’s families are proud to be more ‘modern’ than past generations, their expectations are still that their children will cooperate with life in an extended family, that they will marry and have children, that they will contribute to family traditions and rituals whatever they are, and that women will have a subservient role within a marriage while men are the providers.

Yet there are some cracks in this veneer of middle-class respectability.  Technology means that gays can find each other, and covert opportunities for meeting and socialising are possible.  Romola can join a throng of grieving fans when her film star idol dies, and the heavy discipline of Avinash’s education is gone by the time their son Amit goes to school.  Sandip Roy also breaks open the myth of family values with episodes of overt cruelty to the very elderly women in the household, who are made to feel a burden.

But divergence from the norm remains unacceptable and must be covert.

American life, however, is shown to be more tolerant because gay bars don’t have to be hidden there.  The violence of blackmail happens in India, not in the small town of Carbondale in Illinois. Despite his initial prejudice, Amit makes an inter-racial marriage because social contact in the US occurs across class and race.  OTOH some of Amit’s ‘modernity’ is shown to be thoughtless and unkind.  From faraway California he leaves his cousin to take care of his father’s funeral rituals, and abandons his responsibility to take care of his widowed mother as he is expected to do.

While the novel exposes the secrets, sacrifices and constraints on happiness in India compared to the US, it also shows that there is still pressure towards conformity in American life.  Housing is drab and apartments all look the same, and Romola, visiting her son after Avinash has died, is conscious of dressing differently.  (She is offended when her DIL June wants to recycle one of her saris to make a skirt; she is also privately scornful of their decision to name their son Neel – a name she regarded as bland and colourless, its Indianness discreet as if it did not want to disturb the placidity of their American suburbia).  Romola has had the courage to reject the tradition that widows should never eat meat or fish (to show that even eating is no pleasure once the man for whom the widow cooked is dead).  But in America she finds herself craving a hamburger because in Amit’s household everything is organic, uber-healthy and completely flavourless – and yet she is incapable of saying so because she risks disapproval if she does.

It’s not really clear from this novel that honesty is better than secrets.  Romola’s secret crush on Kumar does no one any harm, but the repression of Avinash’s sexuality harms both him and his wife.  Amit, who never knows about it, goes blithely on his way.

I think what this novel reinforces is that cultural change is slow and complicated, and that it takes people of courage to forge new and more inclusive paths.  As those of us who negotiated the complex changes of feminism in the 70s know, the paths are full of potholes, and there can be pain along the way.

Author: Sandip Roy
Title: Don’t Let Him Know
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2015
ISBN: 9781408856642
Source: Kingston Library

Joe Schreiber at Rough Ghosts reviewed it too.

It’s time to do the Book Giveaway for Women of a Certain Age, edited by Susan Laura Sullivan, Maria Scoda. and Jodie Moffat, from Fremantle Press in WA.

The entries were, in order of receipt:

  1. Teresa Pitt
  2. Fay Kennedy
  3. Louise from A Strong Belief in Wicker
  4. Lauredhel
  5. Sue from Whispering Gums
  6. Sharkell
  7. Barbara Henery

And using the Random Number Generator at, the winner is *drum roll* Louise!

Please remember that it is a condition of entry that you contact me with your postal address for delivery of the book within 10 days of the date of this post, so that I can then pass it on to Fremantle Press so that they can send you the book.   So Louise, if you don’t get in touch, using the contact address right at the bottom of the RHS menu (where I hide it from spammers in all the yada-yada about copyright) then I will re-draw to choose a new winner.

Many thanks to Fremantle Press for the giveaway copy.  If you missed out this time, here’s the blurb, which I hope will entice you to buy your own copy:

Anne Aly, Liz Byrski, Sarah Drummond, Mehreen Faruqi, Goldie Goldbloom, Krissy Kneen, Jeanine Leane, Brigid Lowry and Pat Mamanyjun Torres are among fifteen voices recounting what it is like to be a woman on the other side of 40. These are stories of identity and survival, and a celebration of getting older and wiser, and becoming more certain of who you are and where you want to be.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2018

Balga Boy Jackson, by Mudrooroo #BookReview

I don’t need to justify reading or reviewing this book by Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson, but I do need to explain why I am including a book by a writer whose Aboriginality is contested in #IndigLitWeek (Indigenous Literature Week).

The short answer is that it’s not up to me to decide who and who isn’t Aboriginal.  I have said this before: if an author identifies him/herself as indigenous, that’s good enough for me.  I have no authority (or desire) to become a gatekeeper in the complex politics of Aboriginal identity.

But in the course of exploring online why this book has been so very poorly edited and proof-read, I discovered that Mudrooroo and his travails have been the subject of academic interest on the other side of the world in Copenhagen.  Professor Eva Rask Knudsen – whose article ‘Aboriginal Affair(s), Reflections on Mudrooroo’s Life and Work’ appeared in LiNQ (Literature in North Queensland) Vol 39, 2012) before the publication of his three-volume project of life writing in the form of fictional autobiography – had this to say:

As the strict policing of what may pass as “authentically Aboriginal” favours verifiable fact over credible composition, Mudrooroo is likely to divide the waters between believers and disbelievers with his current work-in-progress. Accepted narrative standards of life writing challenge notions of objectivity and verifiable truth and place greater emphasis on lives as ‘storied’ and shaped through language and memory (Eakin; Rosenwald and Ochberg). This, however, conflicts in the Australian context with current Indigenous politics of authenticity’ where ethnic or racial identity is a matter of immense political concern. (LiNQ (Literature in North Queensland) Vol 39, 2012, p.106)

Reviewing Mudrooroo’s creative output since 1965, Professor Knudsen alludes to his difficulties in finding a publisher (LH: hence the shabby treatment of this book) and is forthright about Mudrooroo’s position in Australia’s literary landscape:

While this appeared, from my position at the opposite end of the world in Denmark, to be the outcome of misconceived political correctness, it also seemed sadly absurd that the man who had been instrumental in establishing contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre had been abandoned by his publishers and so effectively cut off.  (p.105)

Not just abandoned by his publishers. As I noted in my review of Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, Mudrooroo is excluded from the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature but he was listed on the AustLit database BlackWords last time I looked.

As an academic who has studied the writing of Mudrooroo for some considerable time, Professor Knudsen has a professional investment in his identity as an Aboriginal person.  Bearing that in mind, she does however, ask uncomfortable questions about identity politics in general…

It was hard if not impossible, I thought at the time, to think of contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre if Mudrooroo was to be excluded. For every phase in the development of Aboriginal writing—from the formative years that were documentary and probing, to the consolidating years that were archaeological and re-constructive, and to
the more recent years that were experimental and transformative—there is a seminal text by Mudrooroo. I thought about the sad irony of the Mudrooroo story. While theoretically
speaking we all agree that identity as a fixed and stable concept is under erasure in the age of globalisation, it is also at the same time being rigidly reinforced and policed in Australian-
Aboriginal identity politics. With what license, I wondered, does a general public decide that a citizen’s identity is fictitious, a sham? What fuels the need in both academic and Aboriginal camps to weed out the hybrid from the premises of Aboriginality? In my mind Mudrooroo remained a significant Australian writer whose work was of prominent quality regardless of his contested identity, but to me he also remained an Aboriginal writer and person. He had lived the life of an Aboriginal person all his life. His colour had ostracised him, named him ‘Aboriginal’ since birth, he became a Ward of the State at the age of nine when removed from his mother and placed in a boy’s home, he had lost contact with his family, he had been convicted of crime and imprisoned at a young age and become part of an Aboriginal youth rehabilitation program that offered employment as a means of integration into mainstream society. He identified as an Aboriginal person and had been recognised by others as an Aboriginal person. He had committed himself actively to Aboriginal politics since the 19705 and was, until 1996, a high-profile advocate of Aboriginal rights and a vocal cultural critic. If this all did not qualify his Aboriginality, what would? (p.109)

I repeat: it’s not up to me to decide who is and who isn’t Indigenous.  I chanced upon this book at the Dandenong Library, where it forms part of their collection of Indigenous Literature, and it has a sticker on its spine to identify it as such.  I took it home and became utterly absorbed in the story of a boy called Balga, born in WA in 1838 to an Aboriginal mother and an African-American father who had disappeared out of his life, as had his older siblings as one by one they were removed from his mother’s care and sent off to institutions.  In 1947 Balga is taken away from his mother too, and Part One of the novel vividly retraces the misery of his early years:

And so the black boy, Balga, found himself in a place he had never known could exist. He hated it and didn’t settle down.  He sobbed for the first week and then as his tears dried up, he decided he wanted to go home.  Everyone, the other kids and even the brothers addressed him as ‘Skinny.  He used to say that his name was Balga, but then the brothers said that it was no Christian name.  He retorted that neither was Skinny and received a blow from one of the straps that all the adults carried hung over the tops of their sashes or pushed through it.  Do or say one wrong thing and out it came and down it came.  They put Balga to work washing the dishes after the meals.  He dropped a plate and out came the strap.  He had to wash dishes in scalding water.  He sought to make it bearable by adding cold water and out came the strap.  ‘Tuck it, tuck it, he thought.  He had stopped crying as his anger grew.  He wanted it out.  (p.38)

When his attempt to run away fails, and he is asked where the little wanderer was off to, there is a moment so poignant it pierces the reader’s conscience:

How could Balga answer him?  He had lost his voice and was senseless with dread.  What would they do with him?  He wanted to sob, but couldn’t.  Unable to escape physically, he was building a wall around his heart.  He felt nothing as the car turned through the gateway and wheeled towards his prison.  What was to be was to be and he gave up the struggle and much of the right to think and feel as a free human being.  (p.40)

He was nine.

Parts Two and Three trace his adolescence and young adulthood.  It’s harder to pity Balga because he does some reprehensible things and his behaviour towards women is unpleasant to say the least.  But what this book teaches the reader is that judgement should be suspended.  Throughout his childhood, he had no contact at all with females.  When he finally stumbles on his mother by accident in Perth, after she’s been thrown out of the shack she’s lived in for year, they barely recognise each other.  Using his limited resources he tries to get her a better place to live, and he goes shopping to fill her empty cupboards.  But his efforts to celebrate his birthday with her is a debacle because they don’t know how to relate to each other any more.  And with girls and young women, he’s got no idea how to behave, because he’s built his identity around characters in pulp fiction.

Pertinent to the discussion around identity is that he grows up denying his Aboriginality.  His mother, in a futile attempt to protect her kids from discrimination, told them never to mix with the community not far away because they were ‘dirty’ and ‘no good’.  It makes no difference: because he’s dark he’s still stolen from her, and he’s still subjected to all the discrimination that was institutionalised in WA in that era.  Conversely, he gets a second chance after a stint in prison because the Aboriginal Advancement League intervenes.

In Melbourne, then as now a progressive state, he finds that by focussing on his African-American heritage, he is accepted, at least in the sleazy parts of St Kilda where he hangs out. But when he sets off for a short trip to Sydney, he isn’t sure whether there are laws that apply to him or not.

After feeling the pull of the bush and a swim in the Murray, he begins to be apprehensive:

They crossed the border over into Albury in New South Wales and Balga’s mood persisted.  He suddenly realised as his identity returned to him in a rush that he was an Aborigine.  He didn’t know what laws might confine him in that state.  Why, he might even end up on a reservation.  he hadn’t even thought of this.

‘Cheer up, the water wasn’t all that bad,’ Ross said easing the car into a service station and parking in front of a restaurant.  ‘Come on, let’s eat,’ she said and Balga reluctantly followed her.  Were Aborigines allowed to eat in restaurants?  He didn’t know, but it could be as bad as Perth where they were only banned from hotels.  (p.327)

(Pause for a moment, and consider that.  Crossing the state border which was and is a non-event for other Australians, meant fear of possibly different laws that only applied to Indigenous people.)

Balga soon finds out that NSW didn’t need legislation to discriminate.  He gets told that he’d better just be passing through.  A young man starts chatting up his girl and tells Balga that he has to wash before... and Balga knows what’s in store:

‘He goes and gets his mates and they beat me all to hell and who knows what they’ll do to you.’ (p.329)

Despite all this, the book ends on an optimistic note as Balga resumes his real name, and finds his metier singing the blues…

BTW The artwork on the guitar that graces the front cover is by the Indigenous artist Revel Cooper.

Author: Mudrooroo
Title: Balga Boy Jackson, a Novel
Publisher: ETT Imprint, 2017
ISBN: 9781925706055
Source: Dandenong Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2018

Euphoria, by Lily King #BookReview

I am indebted to Tony from Tony’s Book World whose enticing review made me pounce on this book when I saw it on display at the library.  I was intrigued because the novel is set in New Guinea and I’ve read only a few books with that setting.  But I was also interested in a book that fictionalises an episode in the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) because, as Tony says:

If you have ever wondered what it must have been like for Margaret Mead and her associates to travel to these remote villages and to stay there and become friends and study the people in these tribes, this is the novel for you.

From what I have been able to gather about the life of Margaret Mead from Wikipedia, the novel departs from the historical record in significant ways, but that does not detract from its value as an insight into anthropology as a study.   When the book opens and Schuyler Fenwick (Fen) introduces his famous wife Nell Stone to the English anthropologist Andrew Bankson, he is shocked by her devastatingly tired face:

No one had ever mentioned, in all the talk of Nell Stone, that she was so slight, or sickly. She offered me a hand with a thinly healed gash across the palm.  To take it would mean causing her discomfort.  Her smile bloomed naturally but the rest of her face was sallow and her eyes seemed coated over by pain.  She had a small face and large smoke-coloured eyes like a cuscus, the small marsupial Kiona children kept as pets. (p.18)

She is also nursing what she says is a sprained ankle from 17 months ago, but which is probably broken, and she has visible lesions on her arm.  Bankson, foreshadowing the love he will come to feel for Nell, provides the medicines and treatment for these wounds that her husband has so conspicuously failed to do.  But this is no soppy romantic triangle because these three are intellectual companions.

Bankson is nursing wounds of a psychological nature.  His suicide attempt has failed but the causes of his trauma remain.  The long isolation of his solitary work in a remote village fosters brooding on the tragic deaths of his brothers James and Martin.  His widowed mother is a martinet who doesn’t appreciate the value of his work, and also festering in his troubled mind is his father’s disappointment that the wrong son survived but failed to follow in his footsteps.

But the other factor contributing to Bankson’s misery is the way in which he works, and the arrival of Nell and Fen enables him to witness the way they enter into the lives of the communities that they study.  Fen spends days working with the men to build a canoe.  Nell participates in the lives of the women while also observing them keenly and taking copious notes.  As she says to Bankson, she is always working but it is work that forges social and emotional connection.

The question that lies at the heart of this insightful tale, is whether that connectedness, which is protective of the anthropologist’s psyche when marooned in a culture remote from his own, distorts the anthropological findings.  Is it better to observe dispassionately from outside the group being studied, or do you learn more by becoming a part of the community even at the risk of bringing in values and commodities that change the behaviours of the group being studied?

And does being part of a group change the anthropologist?  Fen was a little unstable when Nell met him.  He had been studying the Dobuan people who live without repression man’s worst nightmares of the ill-will of the universe.  Bankson admits that he couldn’t have coped with the fear, but discerns the effects on Fen:

…it occurred to me that the Dobu sounded a lot like him: his paranoid streak, his dark humour, his distrust of pleasure, his secrecy.  I couldn’t help questioning the research.  When only one person is the expert of a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis? (p.177)

Euphoria is a fascinating book.  The love triangle is apparently based on real events, but it doesn’t get in the way of what really interested me: the vivid detail of life in a New Guinea village and the interrogation of issues that bedevil anthropology today.

Thanks for the recommendation, Tony!

Update 16/7/18 Becky at Becky’s Books read it too, and see Charlotte’s review too at Booklog for Charlotte.

Author: Lily King
Title: Euphoria
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2014
ISBN: 9781743534991
Source: Dandenong Library


I am indebted to Somali Bookaholic who recommended this book to me in conversation about my review of Petals of Blood.  It’s a very interesting book about four British naval captains who in the mid 18th 19th* century undertook anti-slavery activity off the African coast without always having had official authority to do so.

[*My typos! *hangs head in shame*.  Thanks, Anton!]

Britain had abolished slavery, but still, there was significant trade even after the end of the American Civil War.  Some of the ships involved were British operating illegally and some were French operating legally, and the persisting trade was done in collusion with African rulers and traders themselves.  These local ‘diplomatic’ issues made Britain reluctant to interfere with ongoing slavery as practised in Africa and also in what was then British India, and in the Jamaican plantations.  And the French involvement, whose position on slavery vacillated according to its latest revolution, was additionally complicated because interfering with their ships or local ships flown under their flag, meant at times the risk of provoking war with Napoleon.

As I recorded on my travel blog in 2010, according to a timeline at the slavery exhibit in the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, the first attempt to end the French slave trade came shortly after the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 but it was brought back under Napoleon, and then abolished again in 1848, 15 years after Britain passed its Abolition Act in 1833. The photo shows a  model of a French slave ship and you can just see on the far wall, a diagram of how the slaves were packed in like sardines, sometimes packed in so tightly that they were paralysed from lack of mobility during the voyage.  They died in their hundreds at sea.

It is quite sickening to read the first-hand reports about the inland trade, from missionaries such as David Livingstone, as recorded in his journal:

… He would frequently come across parties of killers and kidnappers or sometimes just their abandoned victims:

27 June 1866
Today we came upon a man dead from starvation, as he was very thin.  One of our men wandered and found a number of slaves with slave sticks [very heavy yokes] on, abandoned by their master for want of food; they were too weak to be able to speak or say where they had come from; some were quite young.

Slave raiders accepted such losses because the returns on their masters’ investment were so high.  An individual kidnapped for free or for some length of cotton on the mainland sold for roughly 11-14 silver dollars (£2 – £3) at Zanzibar’s slave market; while a child might re-sell for eight to ten times that amount in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.  The men who did the actual murder and kidnapping were often members of slaver-barons’ personal armies.  Alternatively, these men might visit a local ruler offering guns, alcohol, or cloth and suggest that he make war on his neighbour to produce slaves to trade, and then sit back and let them do the work.

The most valuable abductees to their masters were children who fetched the highest prices, and slave-raiders tended to invest more in keeping them healthy.  (p.67)

Zanzibar, for example, had large clove plantations with slave labour forces of 2000 or more.

To feed and clothe these thousands, cotton flowed inward from the US and India, rice and other food supplies from around the Indian Ocean from many nations and principalities.  The cotton cloth sometimes served to purchase more war-slaves in the interior.  It was a tidy circular trade.

Treaties made between the Zanzibari sultanate and the British Crown prohibited the sale of slaves to any Christian, banned the long-distance slave trade, required that traders be licensed by the sultan, and limited the slaving season to some degree.  The trade could only be carried on within a roughly 500-mile stretch of coast and must not pass eastward into the heart of the Indian Ocean.  But based on many years of observation, Heath and others in the Royal Navy suspected many thousands of the enslaved were being taken to ports well beyond the treaty limits.  (p.47)

So… the Brits sent a squadron to clean up the trade.  The four naval officers who made it their business to control it were

  • Philip Colomb, Commander, Captain of MHS Dryad;
  • Leopold Heath, Captain, Commodore of the East Indies Station in Bombay;
  • Edward Meara, Commander, Captain of HMS Nymphe
  • George Sulivan, Commander, later Captain of HMS Daphne.

They weren’t all motivated by high-minded ideals.  Broich notes that Heath did not equate slavery and bitter economic circumstances.  He had a paternalistic view – that once slaves were freed it was England’s duty to educate the refugees, teach them the language, provide some training.  He recognised that their old world was irretrievably gone – but they entered their strange and hard world as free men, morally and spiritually better off.  But Philip Colomb admitted to himself that his primary impulse was the challenge, the excitement that accompanied sport hunting.  He was not a philanthropist, nor an abolitionist crusader.

In him there was sympathy for the enslaves, yes; hatred of the slaver, certainly; duty, at the foremost.  But the days and nights were hot and long and brutally sapping.  He had been exhausted, he gauged, since his third week on the station.  So to power the unceasing inspections of the unceasing train of dhows – so often in vain – he drew upon the exhilaration of the hunt.  (p.133)

Colomb held the not uncommon view that ‘the negroes’ were lazy, naturally servile, and possessed no innate desire for freedom.  He thought that slaves needed to be taught habits of work once they were free.  But George Sulivan rejected such theories:

…thinking in terms common from Wilberforce to Harriet Beecher Stowe: that Africans were more like Europeans than not, and were as worthy of freedom as an European.  (p.33)

But whatever their motivation, they were astonishingly successful, developing cunning strategies for luring the slave ships out to capture, and freeing literally thousands of slaves.  They did so sometimes at the cost of their brave crew’s lives and of personal injury, and some of the dreadful things they witnessed resulted in what we would now call PTSD, a condition usually resulting in heavy drinking among the crew.  And we should also not forget the routine dangers of sailing in those days: there is a heartbreaking account of a 21-year old sub-lieutenant washed overboard in a fierce storm.  Sulivan was in the invidious position of having to refuse permission for his men to lower a boat for a hopeless rescue, a sorrow he could never after put into words.  

The British did not work on this campaign entirely alone.  In the Introduction and in successive chapters, Broich pays credit to the skill and bravery of the Kroomen:

One group of slaver fighters deserves special mention here as a community of men almost entirely lost to history except amont a small group of scholars.  Their service exemplified something profound.  West African sailors served in the British suppression squadron from its earliest days in a crucial role.  Called ‘Kroomen’ after the Kru coast east of what is today southeast Liberia, these African men – many descended from the enslaved and some of them former slaves – had a reputation for sobriety, courage and experience – often they were far more experienced and far more sober than the British sailors and even officers with whom they sailed.  […] Veteran Kroomen knew the landscape, could withstand the promised physical and mental trials, and understood the challenge; every ship on the Bombay station carried them.  (p.8)

And not all of their efforts resulted in a better future for the slaves.

…what did success mean and what did it mean to be ‘freed’ from a slave ship?  What kind of success could there be for someone like Marlborough, [a former African slave from the Monhekan people] whose town and crops were burnt, the peace of his home region overturned, his family scattered and murdered?  What kind of freedom could there be for young Zangora who could never go home or recapture any of his former life?


Commodore Heath considered the matter of freedom because someone had suggested to him that the Africans’ lives as free men were no better than that promised by slavery.  Freed, they would do back-breaking work in blazing Aden, the remote Seychelles or perhaps Bombay.  They would draw water as servants, or plant cane cuttings and tend to sugar boilers.  Their employers would be hardly gentler or more generous than a clove plantation’s foreman.  Or they might struggle desperately to find work at all, even to eat.  (p.83)

Nevertheless, the numbers are staggering.  Up to 1870, these four ships had delivered freedom:

Meara and the Nymphe had released over 400 people and discovered the illegal captivity of over 200 at Majunga, Madagascar; Colomb had released over 360; Heath released 80, and Sulivan took over 1000 people out of slave ships in his longer period in the squadron. (p.229)

But the numbers plummeted after 1870.  Part II of the book tells how, when these four men succeeded in disrupting the trade, wealthy merchants objected and applied pressure to have the campaign cancelled.   This part of the book relating the intricacies of diplomacy is a bit dispiriting after the excitement of Part II.  The locals in Madagascar even sank to the level of refusing to resupply the Dryad after its long crossing from Ceylon, but more significantly this part shows how meaningless some declarations of abolition were.  Portugal banned slave trafficking in 1836 which had little impact in its possession Mozambique, and outlawing the status of slavery in 1869 in its colonial empire was equally ineffective because it had little power beyond its ports.  Today, we call this kind of hypocritical declaration ‘virtue signalling’ because it achieves nothing unless there is enforcement behind it.   It’s just a public relations exercise.

But eventually, the combination of naval officers and abolitionists succeeded in applying the necessary political pressure to have the trade completely shut down.  Broich includes a number of quotations from various publications urging the restoration of the campaign, and it’s inspiring to read about the efforts of people who didn’t think the demands of commerce and diplomacy should override human rights.  Sulivan and Colomb published books (which included photographs which did more than mere words to drive home the brutality of the trade.) And these combined efforts led to the ultimate deterrent for the trade: a blockade of Zanzibar and the capitulation of the sultan who had for so long allowed it to flourish.

This story as told by John Broich is at times quite exciting and sometimes quietly devastating.  The book comes with B&W maps, illustrations and diagrams of 19th century ships, and reproductions of drawings and photos taken at the time.  There’s a glossary of naval ranks including officers and seamen, and there are extensive notes at the back that show how thoroughly it’s been researched.


Last year the Spouse studied the history of slavery as part of his B.A. and I browsed his books and read his essays.  Slavery still exists today.  According to the UN:

Slavery is not merely a historical relic. According to the  International Labour Organisation (ILO) more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.

In addition, more than 150 million children are subject to child labour, accounting for almost one in ten children around the world.


The ILO has adopted a new legally binding Protocol designed to strengthen global efforts to eliminate forced labour, which entered into force in November 2016.

The 50 for Freedom campaign aims to persuade at least 50 countries to ratify the Forced Labour Protocol by 2018.

Do today’s slaves need heroes like Heath, Columb, Sulivan and Meara to champion their cause?  They do need people to care…

Author: John Broich
Title: Squadron, Ending the African Slave Trade
Publisher: Overlook Duckworth, 2017
ISBN: 9780715652312
Source: Kingston Library


As we come to the end of Indigenous Literature Week 2018 at ANZ LitLovers, now in its seventh year, I would like to thank all those who showed their support for NAIDOC week by reading, reviewing, blogging, commenting, tweeting and/or advertising this event in social media.

Last updated 16/7/18)

This year’s readers in alphabetical order were

These readers have contributed:

  • 11 reviews of indigenous Australian writing
    • 7 works of fiction (6 novels, 2 of them YA and 1 short story collection):
    • 6 non-fiction books (4 memoirs, one bilingual history written collaboratively and 1 anthology of short memoirs)
  • 3 reviews of Maori writing, (2 novels & 1 short story collection); and
  • a review of a First Nations book from elsewhere in the world

My aim in hosting an Indigenous Literature Week  is to encourage people to seek out and enjoy the books that indigenous authors have contributed to Australian and New Zealand literature, but I am also very interested to read books by indigenous authors from other places around the world and so I want to say a special thank you to Becky from Becky’s Books who brought us a review of a book from the First Nations of America.

The reviews readers have contributed have all been added to this site’s database of indigenous reading resources.  This database continues to grow – including everything from children’s books to YA; from memoir to history: and fiction of all kinds.  The reviews which readers have so generously contributed is what makes this a marvellous resource – it’s not just a list of titles, it’s word-of-mouth recommendations.  Those who have contributed to it will be pleased to know that there are two universities and a number of schools, that now link to this database as a resource for students.

I would also like to foreshadow a review of Melissa Lucashenko’s new novel Too Much Lip which is due for release at the end of July so just missed out on being included in this year’s ILW.  It is published by longtime supporters of Indigenous writing, UQP (University of Queensland Press).

I will be monitoring the reviews page until the end of July and will add any additional reviews to the database.  Please use the comments box on the reviews page to indicate where your review is with a URL.

I will also be updating the database of Indigenous reading resources whenever new books come to my attention.  We don’t just read Indigenous authors during ILW, but anytime!

Thanks again, everyone!

PS I’d like to give a special shout out to two of my libraries this year:

  • the Cheltenham Branch of Kingston Library Services mounted a special display of Indigenous books for NAIDOC Week, and
  • the Springvale Library (part of the Greater Dandenong Library network) responded very promptly to my suggestion that they tag Indigenous books in The Vault (their online catalogue) to facilitate easy searching.  (They were already flagging these books with an Aboriginal flag on the spine, but it finding them was just luck.  Now you can find them in the catalogue with a simple search).


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2018

Surrogate, a novel, by Tracy Crisp #BookReview

It took a little while for this novel to engage me: the characterisation of the central character is rather flat and it was not until the plot progressed that I realised why: women who are confident and secure in their relationships don’t find themselves manipulated into secret surrogacies…

Surrogate is the story of three women, Rachael Carter, a vulnerable young nurse who – out of the blue (or so it seems) – is asked to house-sit for Dr Cate O’Reilly while she travels to Vietnam to adopt a baby.  This part of the story is set in the 1990s, while woven through it is the story of Mary Bowen, a relinquishing mother in the 1960s.

While Rachael and Mary are passive women who cave in to what others expect of them, Dr Cate knows exactly what she wants.  She is married to a nice man called Drum (Drummond) and they have everything that a successful professional couple might want in 1990s Adelaide – except a child.  The characterisation doesn’t allow the reader to see the emotional desperation that she feels, except that Drum’s feelings about her infertility are always expressed in terms of his concern for her.

And when the adoption goes wrong (for unexplained reasons) in Vietnam, Drum uses his concern about Cate’s vulnerability to pressure Rachael, not just into surrogacy but into keeping it secret.  It is the secrecy surrounding both Mary’s teenage pregnancy and Rachael’s surrogacy which exacerbates the situation.

Surrogate, a novel raises all kinds of questions about motherhood and mothering, about altruism and financial vulnerability, and about whether power can ever be equal in surrogacy situations.  At only 230 pages the writing is economic, and the prose is spare… there’s a reticence about the novel that means the reader needs to ‘read between the lines’ when the plot seems to progress too rapidly.  It’s as if the reader is being situated as an observer who doesn’t know everything that’s going on.  That emotional reticence seems to reinforce the impossibility of imagining being in this situation unless you’ve been there yourself, being desperate for a baby while maintaining a cool demeanour always totally in control; or being forced to give up a baby after months of psychological abuse in an institution; or being manipulated into a surrogacy situation where part of the bargain is that you tell no one.

The issues this book raises might make it a good choice for book groups, with the caveat that it might raise emotions that are ‘too close to the bone’ for some.  And as the book shows with its motif of secrecy, we don’t always know about the hidden pain that friends choose not to reveal.  Among women a little older than my age group, women who were teenagers before the pill, before the supporting mothers pension and before the liberating attitudes that went with those changes, teenage pregnancies usually meant relinquishment.  And if the experience of someone I knew was anything to go by, secrecy was paramount.  I wasn’t told about why she went away for a while until decades later.  How she coped with the stillbirth when everyone told her it was all for the best, I cannot imagine.  Whether or not she still keeps this traumatic experience secret now, I suspect that it’s probably not something she’d want to revisit in a book-group over wine and cheese…

Author: Tracy Crisp
Title: Surrogate, a novel
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055083
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2018

Bloom, by Kelly Ana Morey #BookReview

My discovery of this absorbing novel is due to serendipity.  I’d been exploring Teara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand online when (via Creative and Intellectual Life/Literature/Maori fiction) I came across the entry for Kelly Ana Morey and mention of her first, award-winning novel Bloom (2003) which won the Best First Book Prize at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2004.  Intrigued, I hunted around until I found a second-hand copy.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m keen to find copies of her other novels: Grace is Gone (2004), On an island, with consequences dire (2007) and Quinine (2010).

Trained as an art historian, Morey worked as the Royal New Zealand Navy’s oral historian (from which came the book Service from the sea (2008) about the Navy Museum’s collection) – and perhaps it’s the visual artist’s way of looking at the world that has influenced her writing. On almost every page there are images rendered in exquisite and often sensual detail:

I looked in the direction of his pointed finger and caught the flare of the sun on a corrugated-iron roof.  Alistair produced an apple from his pocket and began to polish it on the leg of his tan cotton shorts.  ‘Would you like half?’ he asked, holding up the gleaming apple for my inspection.

‘Yes please.’

Using a penknife hanging from a waxy string around his neck, Alistair cut the apple in half, giving me the piece that had the reddest skin.  Juice oozed from the cut surface, dripping onto my hands.  I licked the sugary liquid from my fingers.  It tasted of the sun.  (p. 133)

The blurb teases readers who might be looking for a conventional crime novel:

Constant Spry, newly liberated of her waitressing job, is summoned home by her grandmother, the irrepressible Mrs Algebra Spry. Accompanied by Nanny Smack, the ghost who crochets tomorrow’s sky, Connie journeys south to Goshen – a crossroads caught between the mountain and the sea. And, slowly but surely, she gathers the myriad threads that are the lives and loves of the four murderous and conveniently forgetful Women Spry.

Instead, the ‘murders’ – all four of them – are gradually revealed to be more like misadventures as the novel progresses lightheartedly through a century and a half.   Connie returns home with a sense of curiosity about her elusive father (as well she might), and pursues her personal history through the memories, anecdotes and old photos of the women in her life.  The murkiness of the male line contrasts with the common preoccupation with family genealogy: this is not a family that can construct a neat family tree.  Morey’s women are triumphantly not respectable.

Granny Algebra Spry is not actually Mrs Spry at all.  She spent some time with a photographer who turned out to be a pornographer, and when he lost her and his house and business to a Chinese gambler called Han, Algebra took his name.  But like her daughter Rose, Algebra is forgetful and vague, leading conversations off in a tangent.  She prefers to forget inconvenient or tedious matters.  The name of Rose’s father is not important…

Connie’s curiosity meets its match with her mother Rose too.  Rose’s amnesia has a cause that’s not just chemically induced.  (Smoking and taking drugs is normalised in Bloom).  Connie can’t even find a photo of her father.  (As an aside, the process of photography in the pre-digital era is lovingly described.  You can just tell that Morey loves old photos and the methods by which they were made.)  Connie is accompanied by the occasional appearance of a cheerful ghost called Nanny Smack, as real a character as any other in this idiosyncratic novel.  She is a HauHau witch, who crochets tomorrow’s sky in her kete (a Maori woven bag) and whose role is to maintain a sense of perspective about the affairs of the living.  Indeed, as the trail moves along, the missing men in Connie’s life seem less and less important than the strong, resilient women who have survived what life has dished out to them.

This is not a novel where Maori disadvantage is central to the narrative.  Although this is not a middle-class family, and Connie’s sister Hebe becomes suddenly ‘clumsy’ after her ill-advised marriage, (reminding me uncomfortably of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors,) this family is not dysfunctional.  Connie and her sister do well at school and get to university.  They are confident, smart women.

Bloom is funny, wise, and thoughtful about families and how they come to be formed.  I liked this novel very much.

Kelly Ana Morey is of Ngāti Kurī, Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Pākehā descent and grew up in Papua New Guinea.

Author: Kelly Ana Morey
Title: Bloom
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2003
ISBN: 9780143018926
Source: personal library, purchased second-hand from Fishpond.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2018

Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff #BookReview

This review is unquestionably one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write.  Maori author Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990) won the PEN Best First Book Award, was runner-up in the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, (the 1968-1993 forerunner to the Ockhams), and was made into an award-winning film in 1994.  But it is an uncompromisingly negative portrayal of dysfunctional Maori life, a book which comes in for both high praise and also trenchant criticism from some readers at Goodreads.  And since I’m not Maori, and have not yet been to New Zealand and the book depicts a situation now nearly thirty years ago, I feel hesitant about the risk of stereotyping and blaming and of perpetuating assumptions about gender and race.

The early chapters are really shocking.  Once Were Warriors pulls no punches about the self-inflicted misery and self-pity of the Maori people on Pine Block, a run-down, squalid government housing estate full of unemployed and unemployable no-hopers.

(You see what I mean?  I don’t like describing another culture in this way, but that’s the way the book is written).

Duff uses different voices in the Heke family to paint the picture.  Beth, a drinker herself, accepts horrific beatings from her drunken tough-guy husband because ‘she loves him’.  Warning: there is strong violence in the film trailer…

Jake has defined himself in a form of toxic masculinity, one of a perverted ‘warrior’ class of men who use extreme violence on anyone who offends them.  And Jake is offended by anyone who is better off than he is, or is a ‘Chink’ or a Pakeha; or anyone who has a car; or who strays into his territory which includes the pub where he is the dominant male.  Or anyone who he thinks might be questioning his authority, and that often includes Beth and their children. Beth finds herself tensely watching his moods all the time, trying to forestall his violence against her, but chillingly, always accepting that it’s inevitable because he has such a short, erratic fuse and he has no self-restraint at all.  He is a truly contemptible man, but he’s still rendered with some complexity in Duff’s skilful portrayal.  Gradually a picture emerges of the background circumstances which contribute to his dysfunctional behaviour, but Duff never presents them as an excuse.

Beth, at least, has good intentions but she’s weak.  She drinks until she’s drunk and irresponsible, she gambles their limited money away, and she neglects her kids, taking a perverse pride in ‘having brought them up so well’ that they clean up the vomit and broken glass after yet another drunken night.  And at least her children aren’t sleeping in cars like so many of the other kids in the same situation.

But somehow 14 year-old Boogie has come to the attention of the Welfare – which is ironic considering that his nickname comes from him being shy and peaceable and ‘afraid of the Boogieman’.  In a heart-rending narration by his sister, Grace, we see that his parents get drunk on the day of the court case and only Grace is there to see him taken off to a boys’ home by a welfare worker called Bennett.  This is only one of many betrayals by these feckless parents who seem lost in a cycle of poverty, alcohol, violence and resentment.

Grace is only thirteen, but she is well aware of the gulf between her family and the Pakeha Tramberts nearby. She is quiet and thoughtful, and as she spies on this family from the edges of their immaculate property, she wonders why they have a good life and she does not.  What happens to Grace is truly horrific, but in a sordid book, it’s not the only sordid episode of female powerlessness.  Nig’s girlfriend Tania expresses her anger with him by going ‘on the block’, that is, by lying on a table and having his friends gang-bang her.  This sort of writing is not for the faint-hearted and I often wanted to turn away and stop reading.  I suspect that people from any culture which were represented in this way would take offence at the relentless portrayal of negative stereotypes.

Beth’s response to tragedy is another element that provokes anger for some readers. The authorial message is that strong women can change a community through self-help, Duff explicitly rejecting the excuse that there are structural factors and discrimination that might hamper her ambitions.  Eventually pushed to her limit, Beth restores her relationship with the Maori side of her family and together they foster a sense of pride in their heritage without blaming the Pakeha.  A Maori chief supports Beth’s efforts to clean up the community, and at the community meetings he brings along role models who include a successful Maori lawyer, doctor, surgeon, and an All Black.  He tells the community that this is what you can achieve :

Word going round all over Pine Block that something good was happening; you know, change.  That change was happening to some of the people living there.  And every Saturday, nine in the morning sharp, y’c’d see the crowd gathered at Number 27 Rimu, to listen to this high chief fulla, Te Tupaea, tellin the people of their history.  Our proud history.  Oh but that wasn’t all he was about neither: he told the people off, shouted and speeched atem to change their ways before the ways changed them; you know, in that funny poetic way he speaks.  Nor was Chief into blamin people, the Pakeha, the system, the anything for the obvious Maori problems; you know, our drop in standards just in general.  He didn’t care about no damn white people ta blame, no damn systems to be stacked against a people, he just toldem: Work! We work out way out.  Same way as we lazed ourselves into this mess. (p.191)

Duff seems to be saying that it’s time to accept that colonialisation has taken place and the Maori should ‘move on’ instead of wallowing in resentment and self-pity.  It’s easy to imagine the reaction to a book with this message even though the author is Maori himself and the product of a troubled childhood.

Today in the 21st century when the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wears a korowai (a Maori cloak gifted to her as a person of high prestige) which made her look more regal than the Queen it seems that there is a new mood in Pakeha-Maori relations in New Zealand.  It’s a maturity in the Indigenous relationship that we can only envy in Australia after our Prime Minister so crassly dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  But Duff’s biography at JRank suggests that Once Were Warriors is not a period piece but rather a deliberate divergence from traditional Maori values and attitudes:

Alan Duff is the enfant terrible of contemporary Maori writers. Like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, he focuses on the debilitating effect urban life has had on Maori. But the violent, drunken underworld of Once Were Warriors and One Night Out Stealing makes the cityscapes of Grace and Ihimaera look positively genteel.

Duff’s formula for resolving the problems of the urban Maori likewise contrasts very sharply with the emphasis on traditional communal values in most Maori writing. In his syndicated newspaper articles, his autobiography (Out of the Mist and Steam), and his book-length survey of Maoridom (Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge), he has stressed the need for Maori to embrace orthodox Western education and an ethic of self-knowledge and self-help. Putting into practice the dreams of Beth Heke (in the opening pages of Once Were Warriors) and Tekapo (in the closing pages of Both Sides of the Moon), Duff has personally instigated a successful campaign to get books into every underprivileged Maori household. Conversely, he is wont to express contempt for many aspects of traditional Maori culture—though there have been signs recently of some softening in his attitudes.

Alan Duff (b. 1950) is of Ngāti Rangitihi and Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent and was born and raised in Rotorua, New Zealand.  His recent personal history suggests that his optimistic portrayal of community rehabilitation is not easy to sustain.

Author: Alan Duff
Title: Once Were Warriors
Publisher: Tandem Press, 1990
ISBN: 9780908884001
Source: Personal copy, OpShopFind


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2018

Meet an Aussie Author: John Wenitong


John Wenitong, author of The Fethafoot Chronicles,  is a 63 year old Indigenous Australian of Kabi-kabi Aboriginal, South-Sea-islander, Nepalese and Indian/Sri-Lankan descent. He was born in Gladstone, Qld, and worked for Qld Railways and various construction firms throughout Queensland, until injuries forced him into trying a less physical pathway.

Since that time he has developed an amazing CV,  and what follows is just a summary: you’ll need to visit his website to read it all.  In 1990 – at thirty-six years of age – John began a BA, majoring in Literature and Aboriginal Studies. He graduated ten years later while working for CQ (Central Queensland) University in the multi-media section. During this time John also gained a certificate in Film & Television production at AFTRS in Sydney.

In 2004, after 14 years at CQU John took his family to the Aboriginal community of Aurukun, on Cape York, where he met Noel Pearson. Together they created the Higher Expectations Program (HEP): a full secondary scholarship, sponsored by Macquarie Bank’s philanthropic arm MGF, in an attempt to solve some of the huge social problems and high school dropout rate in the Cape’s indigenous remote communities. To date HEP has over 40 University graduates – all ‘firsts’ from those 18 remote communities. The program is now called the Cape York Leadership Program (CYLP), and had its 10 year anniversary in 2016.   It’s wonderful to hear about success stories like this.

But as you can hear in this interview with Kier Shorey on ABC Far North Radio John was frustrated by the dearth of engaging fictional materials for Indigenous students to read. He was keen to promote education as a self-empowerment tool, and for thirty years he and others had been telling kids to read and write English because it was the key to a better future, but there was nothing from their own culture that was entertaining for them to read.  There were lots of ‘sad stories’ and historical accounts of massacres, but John wanted Indigenous kids to have stories that were about them – their history and culture, and were funny, and had heroes for them to admire.  He wanted them to have stories that were colourful and vibrant and he wanted to fulfil the wish of his hero David Unaipon, who said:

 “Perhaps some day, Australian writers will use Aboriginal myths and weave literature from them, the same as other writers have done with the Roman, Greek, Norse, and Arthurian legends”.

So writing under the pen name Pemulwuy Weeatunga John created a fictional clan of Aboriginal warriors who were trained in spying, martial arts and Dreamtime magic and he wrote a series of stories starring these warriors, starting over 50,000 years ago in the Ice Age (when there was megafauna in Australia) through to the present day with an Aboriginal detective.  All these stories are derived from storytelling within his family – but don’t include any content that should remain secret for cultural reasons.  The first book in the series is called Nyarla and the Circle of Stones, and it takes place in Australia in 1360.  This is the blurb:

A cunning and foul being has claimed several lives around the Heart-rock peoples’ great namesake – Uluru – the Heart-rock. The locals are scared to leave their camps. Ceremony has stopped. Initiations, weddings, betrothals are on hold. A bold young warrior, Nyarla has been sent by Clan elders to look into the matter and; has been given the authority to act if needed.

I’ve just read the first one in the series … suffice to say that I’m impressed, especially since the bold young warrior is female!

So I am delighted to feature John in Meet an Aussie Author!

  1. I was born in Gladstone, Central Qld. Then, a fishing village and meatworks with a population of under 1000; now an industrial City.
  2. When I was a child I wrote only at school. My leisure time was spent hunting and gathering with extended family.
  3. The person who encouraged and inspired me to write the Fethafoot Chronicles (FfC), series was my daughter Yeady. Eric Wilmot & David Unaipon are my role-models.
  4. I write anywhere. Five of the ten FfC chronicles were written out of a car, while travelling Oz with my red-cattle dog ‘Trumby’.
  5. I write when I feel like it, as I am retired. I often write from 5am to 2-3am next day as the stories flow so easily.
  6. I find research exciting fun and much easier in contemporary times because of the massive amount of info on the WWW.
  7. I keep my works‘ master files on USB, external hard-drive, Google ‘Cloud’ & email servers. I give any paperbacks away as promotional material.
  8. The day my first book was published was on my only son’s birthday in his honour. Each book is dedicated to a member of my family and my four children.
  9. At the moment I write daily on social-media platforms. I have 20+ half-finished fiction tales including; apocalypses, action, fantasy through to aliens meeting Fethafoot warriors.
  10. I am hardly ever stuck for ideas as I have 65,000+ years of aboriginal Australian lifestyle to imagine.

John plays guitar, photographs nature, writes poetry and songs about his people, and tries to sing occasionally.  He also has several short stories and poems published and several more fiction stories ‘on the go’.  Some of his other publications are:

  •  “The Believers: the burning man”; in ‘Indo-Australian Anthology of Short Fiction’ 2014, AuthorsPress, ISBN: 9788172738242.
  • “Guru PP”: in – ‘From all walks of life’, 1995, Central Qld University Press, ISBN: 1875902031
  • Online Poetry: “You still wonder” at Creative Spirits 
  • Online Poetry X 3 poems at AustLit (members only)

You can buy The Fethafoot Chronicles at BookBaby or by following the links at John’s website.


Nyarla and the Circle of Stones is the first in an ambitious series of books based on storytelling from the oldest living culture in the world.

This is the series blurb:

Always wanted to know more about Aboriginal Australia? Come on a journey through time with warriors of the enigmatic Fethafoot Clan. For 50,000 years my clan have solved problems for the Australian Heart-rock people. Now for the first time in our history, you too can explore our stories.

My Clan’s name and its mysteries have always been kept out of public knowledge and history, in my home of Australia. It’s the way the Clan work. To do what they do, secrecy is a prerequisite to safeguard the work and people. For the first time in our long, oral history, we have a means to reveal the long and intriguing history of our covert Clan to other Australians, to the many new people’s who now call this majestic land home: and to the modern world at large. If you were born in Australia, you may have even heard such stories told around campfires and family meals, about the Australian Aboriginal magic man – or Kadaicha, as our people named our Clan many years ago. We call ourselves: the Fethafoot.

During the 10 tales, you’ll find that many of the elder warriors were advanced in spiritual travel and did not travel via ‘shanks pony’ – as walking is often called in Australia. Instead, they used the ancient Dreamtime ‘creation-lines’ running across our country, to move swiftly across their lands. Thus, in a mixture of fear and awe the Clan became known as the Fethafoot – half-man, half-spirit beings – who could come and go at will, leaving no trace: Kadaicha spirit-warriors; The Fethafoot.

And this is the blurb for the Nyarla and the Circle of Stones, the first book in the series:

A cunning and foul being has claimed several lives around the Heart-rock peoples’ great namesake – Uluru – the Heart-rock. The locals are scared to leave their camps. Ceremony has stopped. Initiations, weddings, betrothals are on hold. A bold young warrior, Nyarla, has been sent by Clan elders to look into the matter.

At only 58 pages, Nyarla and the Circle of Stones is a brief but compelling tale.  Set in 1360, (long before colonisation), the story features Nyarla, a young woman who comes to investigate some horrific deaths.  Like the heroes of Greek and Roman mythology, she is fearless and clever but she has to use all her skill and cunning to outwit a monster every bit as memorable as the Minotaur.  It’s a compelling narrative that comes to an end too soon, so that there is an almost irresistible temptation to buy the next book in the series.

BTW There is a mild sex scene which parents might like to check out depending on the age of U/18s reading the story.

Pemulwuy Weeatunga is the nom-de-plume of John Wenitong, of Kabi-kabi Aboriginal, South-Sea-islander, Nepalese and Indian/Sri-Lankan descent.

Author: Pemulwuy Weeatunga
Title: Nyarla and the Circle of Stones (The Fethafoot Chronicles #1)
Publisher: BookBaby, 2015
Source: purchased for the Kindle from You Know Who, $7.98

Also available as a paperback from Fishpond:Nyarla and the Circle of Stones (Fethafoot Chronicles)  for $16.31

Cultural warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are advised that this review contains names of deceased people.

Back in February I stumbled on this copy of Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country at my library where it was on display, and decided to hoard my review until Indigenous Literature Week where I think/hope it might get more readers than usual.  It’s a fascinating book because it is entirely bilingual in an Aboriginal language, something I have not come across before (although I have read bilingual elements and partial accounts in some indigenous life stories).

Yijarni, however – apart from the introduction by the editors, a one page context-setting English introduction to each chapter and some historical addenda linking archival records with the stories –  consists of accounts from its contributors (listed in the publication details below) in their own Gurindji language, with the translation (by a team of translators listed below) beside it on the page.  (It’s a big book of 246 pages, about 25cm square, and the layout is in columns).  The book includes helpful maps, and many vivid archival and contemporary photographs both B&W and in colour.   There are art works created in response to the stories by Indigenous artists (listed below), and Indigenous people too many to name contributed historical sites guidance as well.  This huge team of contributors come to life in photo portraits on pages viii-ix (which is another reason why there is a cultural warning in the introductory pages).

The Introduction explains that the Gurindji people of the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory are mostly known because of the Gurindji Walk-Off in 1966, which led to the landmark pastoral industry equal wages case and the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.  But this book is about Black History prior to the 1960s, which for the Gurindji people is divided into Puwarraja, the Dreamtime, and Yijarni, true stories, and these true stories are not filtered by other voices such as historians, activists, police journals, life stories of cattlemen or other locals.  Nor are the stories first-hand accounts rendered in broken English restricting their scope.  Recorded in the Gurindji language and translated, they are authentic oral accounts recounting shared knowledge, as known or as told to the storyteller, each with an elder as ‘witness’ to monitor and confirm the details.  These histories are augmented with archival material from police records, newspapers, biographies of early settlers and other published oral histories of the Victoria River District.

The chapter headings show the scope of the book:

  1. Introduction
  2. Before the Arrival of Europeans
  3. The Killing Times
  4. Malyalyimalyalyi/Lipanangku: The First Wave Hill Station
  5. Jinparrak: The Seond Site for Wave Hill Station
  6. The Wave Hill Settlement
  7. Early Policemen and Trackers

The chapter ‘Before the Arrival of the Europeans’ is fascinating.  There is a story about Waringarri (War Parties), another about mermaids, and another about Pulngayit Jangkarni (The Great Flood) an event which is reflected by the archaeological record of sea levels rising and major river flooding.  (You can see an animated version called The Little Turtle of this story here).

The long chapter called ‘The Killing Times’ is aptly named.  There is a chilling map of the massacre sites in the Tanami Desert and it takes a bit of fortitude to read through these authentic accounts.  This is Ronnie Wavehill telling the story passed on to him by his grandfathers, great uncles, great aunts, great-great-grandparents and his father:

They shot everybody, perhaps on a sunny day like today.  Then they went back to the river.  But in the afternoon, two of the kartiya returned.
‘You two young blokes go back!’ Why did they go back there?  What for?  They went up river to the same place near the yard, that very clearing where the dead bodies remained: children, grown men and women who had been shot dead en masse.  They had been killed off like dogs from their own country.  White people, with their violence and aggression had come down from Darwin and massacred people.  They just left them there, dead on the ground.
The two men heaped up wood until there was a large pyre.  Then they dragged them one by one – an old man… another woman … another man, dragging them across.  They threw them all on the fire.  They didn’t bury them the decent way.  They just threw them on the fire and burnt them like dogs.  (p.37)

The first-person stories of the Stolen Generation are even more poignant. Maurie Ryan, taken when he was three and who joined the army when he was 18, has this to say about Vietnam:

Now, I was asked to go to Vietnam but I had no intention of shooting anybody.  If I had any intention of shooting anybody it would have been the stockmen that worked at Wave Hill Station. Because they used to shoot – after getting drunk on OP rum – into the camp.  One of my mothers has a bullet hole in the side of her stomach, old Kitty (Mintawurri).  They were a law unto themselves, and they could do what they want, rape the women, physically harm the men.  When I came back, I actually wanted to shoot them, but that would have put me in prison. (p.131)

The irony is not lost on the reader that only Maurie would have been subject to White Justice, not any of the provocateurs.  The police (and sometimes the Aboriginal trackers who worked with them), as we see in Chapter 7, do not come out of this history well.  And this is not ancient history or frontier colonial times: the Vietnam War is within living memory of many of us.

But not all of the stories are from Australia’s brutal history: there’s an account of the first aeroplanes seen at Wave Hill Station in 1929, a search for an ill-fated missing plane called The Kookaburra also in 1929 and a story about a couple of Afghans running a shop in the district and an argument about killing cattle the halal way.  Other stories are vivid accounts of a semi-traditional way of life – hunting, teaching children how to find water, performing ceremonies and relying on bush resources during holidays times.  There are also recollections of events preceding the walk-off, including stories of poor conditions and discriminatory practices such as expecting the Guridji to tend the station vegetable garden but forbidding them to eat from it so that only the kartiya had fresh food.

Books like this are a valuable contribution to the growing body of knowledge about Australia’s Black History.  Highly recommended for secondary school libraries!

Title: Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country
Historical accounts by Dandy Danbayarri, Ronnie Wavehill, Violet Wadrill, Banjo Ryan, Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal, Peanut Pontiari, Maurie Ryan, Vincent Lingiari*, Jimmy Manngayarri*, Blanche Bulngari* and Pincher Nyurrmiari* (*deceased)
Art works by Violet Wadrill Nanaku, Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr Nangala, Jimmy Wavehill Ngawanyja Japalyi, Connie Ngarmeiye Nangala, Pauline Ryan Namija, Michael George ‘Nutwood’ Tulngayarri Japalyi, Ena Oscar Majapula Nanaku, Serena Donald Narrpingali Nimarra, Leah Leaman Japangardi and Dylan Miller Japangardi.
Transcription and Translation by Erika Charola, Felicity Meakins, Norm McNair, Helen McNair, Ena Oscar Majapula Nanaku and Sarah Oscar Yanyjingali Nanaku.
Edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925302028
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country and from AIATSIS.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2018

Meet an Aussie Author: Rosie Malezer


Rosie Malezer is a Gubbi-Gubbi woman whose country includes the Sunshine Coast, Moreton Bay and Burnett Mary Regions.  She lives and writes in Finland, and has eleven books in print, including children’s books, non-fiction and YA/adult fiction.  I stumbled on her book How to Be Deaf on a trail from another book at Goodreads, and after I’d read it I made contact with Rosie and asked if I could feature her in Meet an Aussie Author.

  1. I was born in Gubbi Gubbi Country to a Gubbi Gubbi dad and an Irish/Scottish mum. Mum left. Dad raised me on his own.
  2. When I was a child I wrote some short stories, the most notorious of which was “The Shark-Infested Dam.”
  3. The person who inspired me to write was Enid Blyton. Reading her books made my day.
  4. I write in perfect solitude within myself. As a Deaf/blind author, I need my “tools” to get the job done.
  5. I write when I am not busy reviewing books submitted by other authors. I truly have to be in the zone to write.
  6. Research is essential when writing non-fiction books. I write about my domestic violence and Deaf experiences often.
  7. I keep my published work/s in as many book stores and libraries as possible. I write so others can broaden their knowledge.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I was thrilled. “How to be Deaf” shows the difficulty in being Deaf in an audist[1] and surdophobic[2] world.
  9. At the moment, I’m writing about my experience as a Neo-Natal Kitten Fosterer, which will hopefully be released this year.
  10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I go to to find just the right way to express myself.

[1] Audism is the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear. (Wikipedia)

[2] Surdophobia is the hostility, intolerance or fear against Deaf people, Deaf culture and the Deaf community. … It can consist of a range of negative attitudes towards Deafhood, the idea of deafpositive and Deaf rights. (This definition came up on Google search results page but the Wikiwand site from which it came seems not to exist any more).

How to be Deaf is Rosie’s account of the experience of suddenly becoming totally deaf after 40 years in the hearing world.  There are lots of helpful tips for anyone coming to terms with a similar experience, but as I’ve said in my reviewHow to be Deaf is not just a self-help manual for the deaf.  Also very valuable are Malezer’s  anecdotes about the insensitive ways that hearing people behave because they don’t know any better, and the book offers guidance for everyone who encounters deaf people and wants to treat them with respect.  There are Dos and Don’ts about how to interact with deaf people, about how to help without making assumptions or compromising independence, about the issues that are specific to the deaf community, about terms and expressions that are offensive, and about solutions both short and long term for communication difficulties.  You can find out about Rosie’s other books and where to buy them at her website. 

Rosie is proudly independent and she makes her living as a copy-editor, proof-reader, author and translator.  See the card below for contact details:

Thanks for sharing your story, Rosie!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2018

How to Be Deaf, by Rosie Malezer #BookReview


ILW 2018

I stumbled across How to be Deaf at Goodreads where its author Rosie Malezer had reviewed another self-published book that I was curious about.  This is the blurb:

For over 40 years of living in a hearing world, a woman wakes up one day without sound. After being diagnosed as profoundly Deaf, she realises that she now lives in a world filled with audism, surdophobia, and people who blind-side her at every opportunity.

After having her rights being taken away and being threatened with arrest for talking too loudly in a government building when she begged for an interpreter, she decides to put together a book for her younger self, in the hopes of softening the impact of such a hard transition. Going from hearing to Deaf really knocks the wind out of you, but not for the reasons you would expect.

I was puzzled by those two terms: audism and surdophobia and had to hunt around online to find out what they meant:

Audism is the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear. (Wikipedia)

Surdophobia is the hostility, intolerance or fear against Deaf people, Deaf culture and the Deaf community. … It can consist of a range of negative attitudes towards Deafhood, the idea of deafpositive and Deaf rights. (This definition came up on Google search results page but the Wikiwand site from which it came seems not to exist any more).

Unwittingly, I had dipped my toe into the Deaf culture v Hearing culture debate, about which I knew almost nothing.  But I also didn’t know anything about what adult onset deafness might be like, so I bought the book.

At the outset, I should say that the Kindle edition of How to be Deaf does have some of the problems that mar self-published books.  Malezer writes well in an engaging style and there are few flaws such as missing words or faulty spelling or grammar.  But there are some repetitions of incidents that an editor would have corrected, as when she writes twice in two separate locations about being given a wheelchair or a menu in Braille because that’s what panic-stricken people do when they think she is ‘disabled’.  Also, the voice of the older and wiser Rosie advising her younger self seems to fade away in sections of the book where strong opinions dominate, particularly in the section about cochlear implants, about which Malezer writes with passion.  (I don’t have an opinion about this issue, other than that, as with most of such issues, I think it’s a good idea to take advice from professional sources with experience in the field).

More problematic is the issue with the layout of images which obscure the text in the Kindle edition.  These screenshots illustrate the problem.

I expect this problem could be overcome in subsequent editions.

But overall, this is a useful book.  Malezer is a Gubbi-Gubbi woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, but these days she lives in Finland with her (hearing) husband so hopefully some of her negative experiences of support services don’t apply in Australia.  However, quite apart from the practical advice she offers, her emotional responses to her sudden loss of hearing are universal.  As a result of domestic violence with a previous partner in Australia she had had severe hearing loss for some time, but when she was concussed by falling snow from a house-roof in Finland she lost her hearing altogether – and her greatest fear was that her husband would leave her because they could no longer communicate.  Malezer is at her most compelling when she writes about their loving bond and how he supports her while respecting her independence.

The book is not, however, just a self-help manual for the deaf.  Also very valuable are Malezer’s  anecdotes about the insensitive ways that hearing people behave because they don’t know any better, and the book offers guidance for everyone who encounters deaf people and wants to treat them with respect.  There are Dos and Don’ts about how to interact with deaf people, about how to help without making assumptions or compromising independence, about the issues that are specific to the deaf community, about terms and expressions that are offensive, and about solutions both short and long term for communication difficulties.  Obviously, if you don’t know the deaf alphabet and you can’t sign (e.g. using AUSLAN, the Australian sign language) then a short term solution is to use pen and paper, but surprisingly few people apparently take this simple step.

However, Malezer says that learning to sign is a wonderful way to get to know someone who may enrich your life.  One issue I hadn’t realised is that sign languages are country specific (though this is not likely to be a problem unless you are travelling): AUSLAN is not the same as ASL (American Sign Language) because ours derives from and is almost the same as BSL (British Sign Language).  There are other sign languages too, but as you would expect ASL is widely used around the world, and there are helpful videos to learn it too.  (Check out the ASL video here and this one for basic greetings in Auslan, which is not as good because it’s much too fast and it doesn’t include repetition or interaction to assist with learning.  This one is better.)

I won’t go into detail about the advice and strategies that Malezer suggests, because you should buy the book for that.  Malezer makes her living as an author and the purchase of her books enables her to be financially independent and have a satisfying career.

This short video is made by a couple of Australian students, and as well as explaining the incidence of deafness in Australia, it teaches the sign alphabet and some simple greetings so that you can introduce yourself, and it models a short conversation.  (From this video I learned that the British alphabet that my mother taught me as a child, (and which I have used once or twice to introduce myself to a deaf person) is not exactly the same as the one to use here in Australia!)

Rosie Malezer is a Gubbi-Gubbi woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

Author: Rosie Malezer
Title: How to be Deaf
Publisher: self-published, 2016
ASIN: B01E00LXAQ (Kindle edition)
Source: purchased for the Kindle from You Know Who, $6.51.

Available in Australia & NZ from Fishpond: How to Be Deaf

(Cathood: How to Be the Perfect CatThey also carry Cathood: How to Be the Perfect Cat.)

Dystopian fiction – especially of the YA variety – is not usually my area of interest, but the name Ambelin Kwaymullina was familiar to me because she has also written and illustrated wonderful picture books for children, so I brought The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf home from the library.   It’s an interesting book because it breaks the mould: yes, it has teen protagonists and yes, there is a teen romance, but for most of the book that is the least important aspect of the story.  Parents and teachers who don’t understand are absent from the story; instead there are much bigger preoccupations to absorb the reader’s interest.

300 years from now there has been a world catastrophe dubbed The Reckoning by the small group of survivors, and at pains to try to prevent a similar environmental disaster from recurring, the government is driven by the need to keep The Balance.  There are Accords to limit mining, to ensure sustainable development and to prevent the invention of dangerous technologies, and there is a Citizenship Accord which excludes Illegals who do not conform to the norm because they have special gifts such as being able to fly, to run fast, to sleepwalk or to interfere with the memories of other people.  These Others are kept in Detention Centres, but a small group called The Tribe has formed from teenagers who’ve run away before being assessed.  They live in the Firstwood, so named because it was where plants first regenerated after The Reckoning.

One of these mutants is Ashala Wolf, a natural leader in the group but as the story begins she has been captured.  She is interrogated by the ruthless Neville Rose and his sidekick Miriam Grey.  They use a machine which goes against the rules of the Benign Technology Accord to break into Ashala’s mind so that she will reveal the whereabouts of The Tribe and of a rebel group which is threatening the city.  This device which ransacks memory is used to convey the backstory of Ashala and her group while at the same time also ratcheting up the narrative tension.  Will she reveal all?  Will she escape?  Who can she trust? Who betrayed her?  And most importantly, can the corrupt regime be overthrown?

Amongst the mythical elements there is an appearance by the Rainbow Serpent, a wise and wily creature who adds a timeless spiritual dimension to the world Kwaymullina has created.

There are two more in the series: The Disappearance of Ember Crowe (2013) and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (2015).

Marg Bates reviewed it at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.

Ambelin Kwaymullina comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Author: Ambelin Kwaymullina
Title: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (The Tribe)
Publisher: Walker Books 2012
ISBN: 9781921720086
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Tribe 1: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2018

Dancing Home, by Paul Collis #BookReview

ILW 2018

The book I read to kick off Indigenous Literature Week 2018 is not for the faint-hearted!

Dancing Home (2017) is the debut novel of Paul Collis, a Barkindji man, born in Bourke in far western NSW on the Darling River. After a career in teaching and Aboriginal community development programs, Collis went on to take a Bachelor of Arts and a PhD in Communications. Dancing Home won the David Unaipon Award as an unpublished manuscript in 2016, and it’s billed as ‘part road-movie, part ‘Koori-noir’.

It’s Collis’s experience in teaching Indigenous men in custody that informs this novel.  The UQP website tells me that he has taught Aboriginal Studies to Indigenous inmates at the Worimi and Mount Penang juvenile detention centres and in Cessnock and Maitland prisons. I’ll be honest: it took me two attempts to complete reading this novel because I turned away: I don’t care for noir of any kind if it involves unrelenting violence, brutality, and lashings of coarse language and racist name-calling along with the objectification of women.  And Dancing Home  has all of that in spades because (according to the author profile at Canberra university) part of the author’s agenda is to explore Indigenous masculinity.  The last time I read a book as unpleasant as this was How It Feels by Brendan Cowell…

Dancing Home is the story of drug-addicted, violent men, just released from prison for a crime that Blackie says he didn’t commit. They are on a road-journey back to his Wiradjuri country, to reconnect with his family but also to have his revenge against the policeman who confected evidence against him and landed him in gaol. Blackie and his mates Rips and Carlos are destined to be losers because all the cards are stacked against them and the reader always knows it.


Turning away is what we so often do when we are confronted by uncomfortable truths, and I did not want to do that.  So the next day I turned back, began again, and found myself noticing other elements of the characterisation.  The central character Blackie is a hard man, but he is loyal to his family and he mourns his grandmother with an ache that never goes away.

He got out of the car and moved towards the unkempt grave of his grandmother.

A sorrowful wind had crept from across the flat plain and wrapped itself around Blackie.  Filled with speed and grog and emptiness he stared at the grave and felt the soft coolness of the wind on his face. Standing crooked like his old mate Crusoe stood bent, out of shape, in his raggedy clothes looking like a scrubby hobo, his face wet from tears.

‘G’day Nan,’ he breathed.

He quieted himself, closing his eyes and imagining her standing in front of him.  Everything else around him faded in the dark.  He couldn’t hear the wind or the music or anything.  He stood in a clouded space in an after-world place.  Slowly her ghost appeared.  He smiled, and she smiled, and they spoke to each other from another place – a silent place, in silence together. ‘My boy, my boy, my beautiful black boy,’ he heard her say.  Tiredness had him unsteady on his feet. (p.72)

Blackie’s curse is that he is caught between two worlds in other ways too.  He flies into a rage when he is confronted by a lack of respect from Carlos (a Spaniard, engaged as a driver whose colour will protect the men from police harassment en route).  Carlos needed to take a piss in the Dubbo cemetery but it’s Blackie’s grandmother’s burial site, and Carlos has shown no respect because he doesn’t know anything about sacred sites.  The irony is that Blackie, back on his own Wiradjuri country, isn’t referring to the ancient sacred sites of his own people.  Between two worlds as he is, he regards his Nan’s resting place as sacred, (as anyone else would, in a cemetery where respect for the dead is a cultural norm around the world, including Spain).

As the plot develops, this curse of belonging and not belonging plays out in other ways.  Having been away so long, Blackie is out of touch with pub culture and the toxic masculinity that thrives there.  He wins a brutal fight to take down a new younger ‘top dog’ but then his own community turns on him.

As Ed Wright in the review at The Australian says (sorry, it’s paywalled) Dancing Home is a story of heroic failure, inverting the tropes of Ned Kelly, Breaker Morant , the Eureka Stockade and Gallipoli.  It is also a raw, powerful, authentic portrayal of the damage done to Indigenous people by policies past and present that have been inflicted on them. But despite this, Blackie retains his essential humanity and proves his loyalty to his family in a way that leaves the reader in despair about how all the well-meaning rules and procedures can so easily be ignored at the local level:

All the police procedures went out the window with Blackie’s arrest and charges.  There was no phone afforded him.  No contact made with the Aboriginal Legal Service.  No Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer available. No medical assessment or treatment offered.  No watch was kept on him in his lonely cell.  Blackie was just another black crim locked up, and society would be able to sleep easily again.  (p.200)

That striking cover image, symbolising a man ‘hung out to dry’ is from Design By Committee.

Paul Collis is a Barkindji man, from far western NSW on the Darling River.

PS Later the same day: by coincidence, a review of We Real Cool, Black Men and Masculinity by Bell Hooks appeared today on Darkowaa’s African Book Addict blog.   It’s not about Indigenous men, but it makes interesting reading in the context of the issues raised by Dancing Home. 

Author: Paul Collis
Title: Dancing Home
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780702259753
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Dancing Home

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation, from Tales of the City, to…

This time #6Degrees features a book I haven’t read.  It’s Tales of the City (1978)by Armistead Maupin.  It was ground-breaking in its time because it was about gay life in San Francisco, and if you’ve caught up with current ABC programs about the 40th anniversary of the Gay Pride march in Sydney, you’ll be aware just how different the landscape was back then in the 70s.

Times have changed but it’s still not easy as you can see in Jared Thomas’s Songs That Sound Like Blood (2016).  It offers an insight into LGBTI Indigenous young people coming to terms with same-sex relationships where traditional values in families don’t guarantee the kind of support you’d hope to get.

Dr Jared Thomas is a Nukunu man from the Southern Flinders Ranges, and because #IndigLitWeek starts tomorrow here at ANZ LitLovers, I wondered if I had read any other Indigenous authors from South Australia.  After consulting my Indigenous Literature Reading List, I discovered that yes, I’ve read Mazin Grace, (2012) by Dylan Coleman who is a member of the Kokatha Mula Nation in the north of South Australia.

In this gentle coming-of-age story based loosely on her mother’s life, Coleman shows how missionary life corrupted traditional Indigenous values of inclusivity. Marie Munkara, however, chose a form of savage but wickedly funny satire to lampoon the hypocrisy of the missionaries in A Most Peculiar Act (2014).  The trouble is, it’s not really funny at all…

Marie Munkara also wrote a moving memoir called Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016) which tells the poignant story of discovering her Aboriginal family.  While there are other mixed race people in her community. she is the only one in her family, and she is the only one who has lived an entire life elsewhere.  Although she retains her sense of humour in this book,   Munkara – as I say in my review shows us that reunions of the Stolen Generations are not simply a matter of matching up the records in dusty archives.

Thinking about the difficulties associated with re-establishing connections with Indigenous family made me think about the times when people who should know better have questioned the authenticity of Indigenous identity.  In a splendid riposte, Anita Heiss wrote Am I Black Enough For You? (2012).  To quote from my review:

Everyone knows that Reconciliation with Australia’s indigenous people is a challenge: we haven’t come to terms with Australia’s Black History and too many indigenous people suffer racism and extreme disadvantage.  But that is not the whole story, and part of the story that Anita Heiss wants to tell is that there are urban Aborigines living successful lives which are enriched by their culture.  Her ‘mission’ is to make the wider community aware that Aboriginality is diverse and that fair-skinned, successful, educated, middle-class women like her are part of it.

Anita Heiss writes across a range of genres including what she jokingly calls ‘choc-lit and a recent foray into historical fiction with Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, and with that strategy she spreads that message to people through novels written to entertain. Philip McLaren does the same thing with genre fiction, writing historical fiction such as Sweet Water, Stolen Land (1993, re-released 2001 by Magabala Books).  This novel is set in Australia’s unedifying frontier history, where (to quote my own review):

McLaren engages his readers with an enthralling series of murders.  Someone is killing mission pioneers on the boundary and desecrating their bodies.  The Aboriginal artifacts strewn about at the crime scene are enough for Sergeant Thompson to haul in hordes of male Aborigines but the perspicacious reader has noted other suspects – and even when McLaren artfully reveals who it is, there is no quick and easy arrest as there is in the movies, for the author is more sophisticated than that.

*smile*  You can see what I’ve so cunningly done here with #6Degrees.  I’ve linked to books by Indigenous authors whose work I want to celebrate during 2018 Indigenous Literature Week.  Proof, I think, that there’s a wealth of great writing by Indigenous authors, so join in, why don’t you?  See

  • the #IndigLit Week sign up post here
  • a list of sensational Indigenous women writers here, and
  • the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Reading List here – which is what I used to compile this #6Degrees with a difference!


So that’s it…  #6Degrees for this month:) Thanks to Kate from Books are My Favourite and Best for hosting!



 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers begins tomorrow to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (8 to 15 July).

NAIDOC Week is when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is Because of her, we can, celebrating the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made – and continue to make – to our communities, our families, our rich history and to our nation.

Indigenous women have been prominent in the development of Indigenous writing as a distinctive genre.  Through their words and storytelling, they have given voice to Indigenous history, culture, lives and ambitions, leading readers on a journey of learning and understanding.  Although I had read and been shocked by Sally Morgan’s My Place back in 1988, and I had read some memoirs since then, I did not I read my first novel by an Indigenous author until 2005: it was Butterfly Song by Terri Janke, and it made me realise that for Indigenous women, there are all sorts of extra barriers and cultural expectations that surround empowering experiences like graduating from university.  It made me realise that Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal Australian are distinct and by implication, that there were other distinctive Indigenous cultures for me to discover.  And it also made me realise that although I had been reading voraciously since childhood, in over forty years in this country, I had never before read any First Nations fiction.   Because of Terri Janke, I can…

If you’ve never read a book by an Indigenous Australian woman author, find out more about 2018 Indigenous Literature Week here, and begin your journey with one of these books.

Please feel free to recommend others not included here!

Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people

Ngarta Jinny Bent, with Jukuna Mona Chuguna of the the Walmajarri people

Hazel Brown, of the Noongar people of the southern coast of Western Australia

Vivienne Cleven of the Kamilaroi people

  • Bitin’ Back Shortlisted for the SA Premier’s Award, 2002, Winner of the David Unaipon Award, 2000
  • Her Sister’s Eye Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Prize for Indigenous Writing, 2004

Claire G Coleman who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people of Western Australia

Dylan Coleman, member of the Kokatha Mula Nation

Editors Pat Dudgeon from the Bardi people of the Kimberley area in Western Australia, Jeannie Herbert, an Indigenous woman born and raised in the Kimberley area and Darlene Oxenham, a Malgana woman from Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia

Ali Cobby Eckermann who identifies with the Yankunytjatjara / Kokatha people from the north west desert country of South Australia

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, of the Ngaatjatjarra, one of the language groups making up the Western Desert people of Central Australia

Pictures from my Memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, see

Liz Hayden, an indigenous woman from Western Australia

Anita Heiss member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales

Rachel Hennessy, of Aboriginal descent

Rita Huggins, an elder and Jackie Huggins, of the Bidjara Central Queensland and Birri-Gubba Juru North Queensland peoples,

Terri Janke descendant of the Wuthathi/Yadaighana and Meriam people

  • Butterfly Song (I enjoyed this when I read it before starting this blog)

Ruby Langford Ginibi

Jeanine Leane, a Wiradjuri woman

Melissa Lucashenko of the Ygambeh/Bundjalung people

Keelan Mailman, of the Bidjara people

Sue McPherson, of Wiradjuri descent

Sally Morgan from the Palku (or Bailgu) people of the Pilbara

Marie Munkara, of Rembarranga descent

Margo Neale, an Indigenous woman from Queensland, of Indigenous and Irish descent

Oodgeroo Noonuccal a.k.a. Kath Walker of the Quandamooka people of Stradbroke Island, Queensland

NT Writers Centre

  • This Country Anytime Anywhere, IADPress,  featuring works by emerging writers as well as many winners of Northern Territory literary awards, including Marie Munkara, winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for Every Secret Thing (also judged the 2010 Northern Territory Book of the Year Award).

Siv Palmer from the Yuwallaraay Aboriginal Nation in far west New South Wales.

Doris Pilkington Garimara, of the Martu,

Ellen Van Neerven, a writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage who identifies with the Yugambeh people of the Gold Coast and Scenic Rim

‘The Sweetest Thing’ in Review of Australian Fiction, Vol 10, No 4, May 2014 see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

Lesley Williams a Murri Elder, and Tammy Williams, a Murri woman

Tara June Winch of the Wiradjuri people

Fiona Wirrer-George Oochunyung, of Mbaiwum descent

Alexis Wright of the Waanyi people

Reviews to come for ILW 2018 include

  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina (scheduled for July 9th), and
  • How to Be Deaf by Rosie Malezer (scheduled for July 10th)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC hashtags on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2018

2018 Rare Book Week #2

Today I had a rare opportunity to visit the Parliamentary library in Spring Street.  This Rare Book Week event was titled ‘A Gentleman’s Library’ because of course, when the library was set up along with the Victorian Legislative Council way back in 1851, that’s what it was: there were no women MPs.  In fact it wasn’t even representative democracy.  Victoria had just separated from New South Wales on July 1st and the library was established to serve the needs of just 30 MPs.  It wasn’t until 1856 that the Legislative Council became remotely representative and even then women did not have the franchise and neither did Indigenous people who had to wait a very long time for this most fundamental of human rights…

We were given a brief history of how the library came to be stocked.  It was rather shambolic really: there was a vague idea that the new colony should have ambitions worthy of the Gold Rush money that was flooding into its coffers.  So lists of books were compiled and sent to booksellers in England even though there wasn’t actually a room to put the books into.  In fact there wasn’t a parliament either: it wasn’t built till 1856 and the library, such as it was, was then an afterthought, housed in a wooden annexe.  Many books remained in crates.  Then as now the press grumbled about funding for parliament’s library for reasons that were obvious.  The parliamentary library had about the same amount of funding as the newly established public library (now the State Library of Victoria), the difference being that the public library could, yes,  be accessed by the public.  The parliamentary library then, as now, is reserved for parliamentarians,  then only about 100 men.  More about this issue later…

The acquisitions policy was haphazard, to say the least.  It consisted of word-of-mouth and colonial office recommendations.  Sometimes they acquired libraries from colonists returning to Britain.  Sometimes they just asked English booksellers to send them ‘noteworthy’ books and received all kinds of odd things in response.  The criticism included accusations that the books might not even be read – could these early MPs even read? they asked – and books on the arts and sciences were barely read at all.  Alfred Deakin (our 2nd prime minister) got a mention as being a great reader, making his way through about 100 books a year…

The oldest book in the collection is Palladus from 1538.  It was originally written in the 3rd or 4th century AD, and it’s a treatise on farming which was popular in the Middle Ages in England.  Quite why anyone thought this might be any use for agriculture in Australia is a mystery to me: Governor Arthur Phillip knew half a century before in the 18th century that Australian soils and climate were completely different to English conditions.  It is also a mystery to me why it remains in the Parliamentary library to this day.  It is stored under protected i.e. climate controlled conditions and nobody’s allowed to read it without jumping through all kinds of hoops, so it can’t possibly be any use to anyone, and particularly not the politicians for whom this library exists.  It might conceivably be of use to scholars, but they don’t have any means of knowing that a copy is in this library, because the catalogue isn’t digitised, and, like all the other books in the collection, the book isn’t digitised on Trove either.  (Some titles have already been digitised by other holdings, but IMO that doesn’t excuse not digitising the ones that aren’t).  I think that if this book has any value then the place for it is in the National Library of Australia or the State Library of Victoria, where there are procedures for making it accessible if someone wants to study it for some reason… However it comes as no surprise to me that a survey of library holdings in 1957 decided that it had no particular merit – but they’ve held onto it anyway.  Whatever for??  Why not sell it to some English library and use the money for something of more relevance to us?

A young member of the library staff called Michael raised a chuckle when he featured a treatise about husbandry from 1733 by Jethro Tull.  If you Google Jethro Tull you can immediately see why he didn’t know that Jethro Tull was a real person rather than a rock band.  Those of us of a certain age had learned about Jethro Tull at school: he was an agricultural pioneer who perfected a mechanised seed drill and revolutionised 18th century agriculture in Britain.  But nobody learns about the agricultural revolution today so of course Michael had never heard of him and was surprised to see how many of us had.  Nevertheless we were still interested to hear that these books about agriculture (however misguided in the case of Palladus) were indicative of the colonial project to develop a new culture of science and self-sufficiency.  The Mechanics Institutes were part of this strategic attempt to develop that culture in Victoria.  (And interestingly, the Athaneum, our oldest library, was originally a Mechanics Institute.  Who knew?)

It was Michael who alerted the audience to the issue of public access.  Public libraries are a public good, but the parliamentary library is not available to the public, and even staff can’t use it during sitting weeks.  The Parliamentary Library is a place of exclusion.  Which makes me wonder, should it still exist, when politicians can access anything they need from the State Library, from a comprehensive network of municipal libraries, from university collections and a treasure trove of books available on line, not to mention being able to buy books just like the rest of us from their own well-lined pockets?

Sarah Edwards is also a member of the library staff but not a librarian – and she is primarily interested in the aesthetics of the collection. It was easy to see how much she loved and cared for very special books like John Gould’s Birds of Australia.

Once again, I can’t understand why this exquisite book is kept here in a library where hardly anyone can see it…

Also of interest were the pictures on display in the library.  There was, predictably, Anzackery galore – including a poster featuring Edith Cavell whose murder by Germany was used as enlistment propaganda in WW1.  (The library staff had never heard of her yet had never bothered to Google her name even though they had been asked about her before).   But there was also a certificate of commemoration for the centenary of Federation and a Federal Parliament Members Roll from 1901.  And a bust of St Thomas More (!) which I unfortunately didn’t photograph…

The current policy for acquisitions is to focus on Victorian and Australian politics, local history and Australian biography, but the library still acquires rare books to fill gaps in their collection.  I’m not going to mount a facile argument that this money would be better spent on new tram lines and better roads or even funding for school libraries to have teacher-librarians, but I do think the parliament should undertake a serious review of the purpose and policies of the parliamentary library, because it seems to me that some aspects of it are at odds with the egalitarian philosophy of our democracy…

(And I’m not the only one who thought so.  I heard mutterings about this from other people too.)

While they’re at it, they might review their over-zealous security procedures.  I’ve flown all over the world including making my way through 4 sets of security just to get to and from Norfolk Island, but never before have I had to unpack my entire handbag to reveal a suspicious item such as … a Ventolin asthma puffer.

PS It was great to see artist Alissa Duke sketching proceedings again.  You can see the sketch she did at her blog and to see a sample from 2017, see my previous post about this here). Alissa makes beautiful handmade cards featuring books and library designs.  Visit her website or her Etsy page to order these lovely cards for the booklovers in your life.  You can also buy them at Readings at the State Library.


The Radetzky March is listed in 1001 Books so I pounced when I saw it at the library!

This is why the editors included it:

The Radetzky March ranks as one of the finest European historical novels of the twentieth century and is the outstanding literary work produced by the prolific journalist and novelist Joseph Roth.

Through three generations of the Trotta family, the story traces the decline of the Hapsburg Empire in its dying days, but this is not a family saga.  From the hero of the battle of Solferino who saves the Emperor Franz Joseph’s life and is subsequently ennobled from plain Lieutenant Trotta to Baron von Trotta and Sipolje; to his son Herr Van Trotta who becomes the District Commissioner; to his grandson Carl-Joseph who has an indifferent peacetime career in the army, the book focusses just on these three men who are all, effectively, bachelors, and how they represent the fracturing of the old certainties of empire.

Strauss’ Radetzsky March is a motif throughout the book.  Throughout his rigid loveless childhood when he is steam-rollered into the military career denied to his father, Carl-Joseph hears the local bandmaster play this march and he associates it with tradition, order, duty and belonging.

But as the first Baron rightly surmised, these values are under stress.  As Emma from Book Around the Corner explains in her review the Baron steered his only son into the bureaucracy because he was livid about the misrepresentation of history in the legend that proliferated about the way he saved the Emperor.  Truth takes second place, because a mere infantryman from a peasant background could not be seen to have saved an emperor.  (Or even to have touched him). So the story in the schoolbooks transforms Trotta into a cavalry officer, and when the newly ennobled Van Trotta appeals to the Emperor, he is told that the legend is meant to inspire Austro-Hungarian patriotism.  But the story is removed from the textbooks anyway, thus ensuring that Van Trotta’s son and grandson wrongly think that they are of aristocratic lineage.

This unusual level of access to the Emperor is a motif in the book as well.  Carl-Joseph is a poor soldier, his lofty ideals having no outlet since the country is at peace.  The only time he sees any action is when his unit is required to put down industrial action in the region bordering Russia, and so he drifts into a dissipated life of drinking 90% proof, amassing a colossal debt due to gambling, and dereliction of duty due to womanising.  When his folly causes a fatal duel and he is in serious trouble, his dutiful letters to his father begin at last to confront reality and the family’s special connection to the Emperor rescues him, not for the first time.

Too late, father and son begin to forge a relationship as disillusionment with empire sets in for both of them.  Carl-Joseph had never enjoyed family life.  As a small boy he was sent away to school so that he could realise his widowed father’s ambitions that he would become a cavalry officer.  (A career destined to become irrelevant in the mechanised warfare of WW1).  They communicated in a routine of diffident letters which made it impossible for either one to know the other.  In a parody of the relationship that the Emperor has with his subjects,  the District Commissioner has exactly the same conversations each time with his underlings because he has no idea who they are or even if their children are boys or girls.

The strict regimes of Carl-Joseph’s father’s and his routine pretensions to nobility sabotage all his relationships, and late in life he realises that he has had no friends.  The death of the old family retainer Joseph provokes a crisis because he is irreplaceable and the District Commissioner has no one to talk to or help him with advice about his son’s catastrophes.  While Roth’s portrait of Carl-Joseph is not unsympathetic, his character’s eventual rescue by the Empire is symptomatic of a regime that looked back to protecting an entirely useless, accident-prone young man at the expense of better people who had something worthwhile to offer.

The novel is superbly written, evoking a bygone age with finesse and the translation is perfect.  (Hofman is a poet, and he also translated Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin). It is a tragedy that Roth (1894-1939) was forced to flee Germany under the Nazis and died in poverty in Paris aged just 44.

Apart from the fact that this is a thoroughly engaging novel, why should readers find a story tracing the decline of an empire relevant now?  Well, we are living through the decline of the American empire and the same lessons apply.  Poor leadership in political life; flawed education systems more focussed on test results than on preparation for the future; dysfunctional family life; mythmaking history through mass media; a failure to teach ethical standards of behaviour in the military; inequitable economic policies and an intolerance of diversity. We in Australia might not have an empire, but we might do well to interrogate how many of these lessons apply to us too…

Author: Joseph Roth
Title: The Radetsky March
Translated from the German by Michael Hofman
Publisher: Granta Books, 2003 (first published in 1932, first English translation 1933)
ISBN: 9781862076051
Source: Dandenong Library

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