Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2017

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

Yes, well, I’ve been reading some rather heavy books lately, so it was time for a bit of light fiction…

The Expatriates, however, turned out to be not-quite-light, delivering me into a different world and another outlook on life.   The child of Korean parents who migrated to Hong Kong, Janice Y.K. Lee was born and brought up there, but finished her education in America.  She now lives in New York where her first novel The Piano Teacher reached the bestseller lists.  Bestseller status is usually enough to warn me off, but The Expatriates appealed because, yes, it’s about American expats in Hong Kong, and it offers sharp observations about this affluent community living in a bubble within one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

SPOILER ALERT

The plot revolves around three women, all of whom are marooned by the tragedy of loss as well as by their lifestyle in a place where wives are almost superfluous.  Mercy Cho, a Columbia graduate without the family background that leads to the job network, is working as a nanny for Margaret Reade when the family is on holiday in Korea and the youngest child disappears into the crowd.  Mercy is paralysed by guilt, and Margaret is overwhelmed by her loss.  Hilary Starr, stuck in a bad marriage and struggling with infertility in an expat society where the only thing for women to do is to have children, doesn’t know what to do with herself in a place where the wives can’t work and don’t even have the running of a household to do because that’s all done by cheap household staff.  All three of them find their former identities subsumed by inertia, drifting in an empty social life where their privilege is an unspoken embarrassment.

Margaret looked around.  Everyone was white, and they may have all been American, and even all from the left side of the country.  She had thought that Hong Kong would be international and cosmopolitan, but she felt as if she were at a dinner party in any suburb in northern California. (p.30)

Feeling disassociated from everything around her because of her grief enables Margaret to recognise the unreality of the life they lead:

Is it any wonder, she thinks, that expats become like spoiled rich children, coddled and made to feel as if their every whim should be gratified?  These trips to islands where the average annual wage is the cost of a pair of expensive Italian shoes cast the Western expatriate in the role of the ruler.  The locals are the feudal servants, running to obey every whim.  These small empires, these carefully tended paradises of sand and palm, shelter the expatriates from the brutal realities just outside the guarded gates.  (p.141)

At times, however, it’s the author’s voice we hear.  This isn’t the character of Hilary, though she’s been musing on the rituals that take place when expats finally go home:

That’s the shock, and the surprise, to a lot of repatriates: No one back home cares.  There’s an initial, shallow interest in what life is like abroad, but most Americans aren’t actually interested, at all.  They’re back to talking about the divorces going on at work, or how the neighbourhood pharmacy is going under, or how highway construction has added forty minutes to their commute.  They don’t want to know about the trip to Hoi An and how Vietnam has changed immensely, or how Beijing’s pollution is so thick that when you were there, you had to wear a handkerchief over your face. America is so vast, and there is so much to see, just in the fifty states, these people tell you – it’s like you never have to leave.  This insularity will seem shocking for the first year back, when re-entry is difficult, when you miss the ease of Hong Kong, forgetting all your complaints from when you were there, remembering only the good winter weather, the amazing dumplings and cheap taxis, but all too soon most everyone slips into the warm comforts of America, so convenient, so uniform, forgetting there is anything outside its borders.  (p.228)

This attitude is to different to Australia where we are great travellers, and everyone pesters those back from a holiday to find out if that destination would suit them too!

Lee is good at irony (though she feels she needs to point it out).   Hilary’s great friend and support is a Hong Kong local called Olivia, who, at a party, is dismissed as ‘foreign’ because everything that Hilary appreciates in Olivia has no currency. 

Olivia does not watch the latest network shows on Apple TV; she doesn’t go back to the United States every summer, or know what’s going on with the NBA or NASA.  Instead, she talks about LegCo or the West Kowloon Arts project or other things that concern people who will make their life in Hong Kong forever.  There are no people like that here.  Everyone here is temporary.  They all think of their stint in three-year increments.  They have never considered politics in Hong Kong or China or the implications of raising the local minimum wage.  Olivia is heard politely, then dismissed as foreign, ironically.  (p.261)

Though there are amusing episodes like this in The Expatriates, the overall tone is sombre because of the lost little boy, known only as G but ever present in his mother’s heart.  She is afraid first to leave Korea, because how can he find her, she thinks, if they return to Hong Kong.  Then when she is eventually persuaded back to Hong Kong for the sake of her other two children, she is afraid to go home to the US for a holiday in case there is news about him and it would take too long to get back.   When they pose for a photo, they are a nuclear family of four not five; when she makes small talk she dreads the coming question about how many children she has, almost as much as she dreads being recognised as the mother whose little boy was lost.   The author has depicted this overwhelming chasm in her character’s life brilliantly and reminded me afresh of little lost children in Australia – the Beaumont children, and Eloise Worledge – and my heart aches for the anguish their parents have suffered for decades now.

The book concludes with advice from Margaret’s therapist, which is worth remembering:

You don’t win anything for being saddest the longest, Dr Stein has said.  There’s no prize for being the most miserable.  You are not betraying anybody by trying to live a better life. You are not giving up on anyone.

I’m not telling you to be happy. I’m telling you that it’s okay to have moments when you are not sad.  You can laugh, maybe once a month, maybe twice.  It’s okay.

Here’s the thing.  You think only one specific event, one miracle, will make things better, but actually life will get better if you only let it.  You have to let life get better. You have to for your family’s sake, and for your sake. You don’t think your happiness matters, but it does.  It matters for your family. They can’t be happy unless you see that you have the ability to be.  Time will help.   It can be agonisingly slow, but it always does. (p.325)

I don’t think these words would help when you are in the depths, but they might when that first glimmer of non-sadness beckons and you feel that sense of shock that it has become possible, and then you feel the sense of betrayal, as if the love you have lost is somehow diminished because the overwhelming grief has lifted a bit.

Yes, not-quite-light. An interesting novel!

Check out the review in the NYT as well.

Author: Janice Y.K. Lee
Title: The Expatriates
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2016
ISBN: 9781408706862
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Expatriates

 

For most of my adult life, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a incomprehensible morass of claim and counter claim, with horrific violence committed by both sides.  It seems like an intractable conflict, destined never to be resolved.  But I once thought of the Northern Ireland conflict in the same way, and yet there is peace there now.  It may be an uneasy peace – especially in the aftermath of the last UK election – but the Good Friday Agreement has allowed a generation to grow up in peace and the longer it holds the more there is to lose by breaking it.  So it was in the spirit of tentative optimism that I tackled Nir Baram’s new book, A Land without Borders, my journey around East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Nir Baram is the author of one of the best books I read last year.  His novel Good People (2016, Text Publishing, first published in 2010, see my review), was an exploration of the reasons why otherwise good people in totalitarian regimes end up collaborating with evil.  At the 2016 Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival Baram said that it is known that 98% of people do collaborate, and fiction is a useful way of exploring the motivations of characters who represent that overwhelming majority.  Yet Baram has chosen not to use fiction for his new book, which steers a course through East Jerusalem and the West Bank: he has taken a journalistic approach and allowed the people he interviewed about the conflict to speak for themselves.  What is interesting is the way that nearly all of these intractable opponents find ways to justify their motivations, just as Baram’s fictional characters did. 

Baram is an Israeli citizen born in Jerusalem to a political family, so he’s not an indifferent spectator.  But what he has tried to do is to go behind the separation wall in Jerusalem, and into the contentious Jewish settlements on the West Bank, to listen to opposing points of view.  He interviews secular and orthodox believers on both sides, he talks to survivors of the war in Gaza, and he meets Palestinians who have spent half their lives in prison, using it as an opportunity to get an education and remembering it as a time when they actually had more autonomy in their lives.  He hears about the privatisation of kibbutzim and how that shapes political attitudes.  He sees pride in the accomplishments and courage of the settlers.

He goes into Ramallah where a little boy is gobsmacked by his presence:

On the street outside the building with the broken windows, the group that welcomed us in the morning gathers again.  We talk about recent events.  A little boy in a red Liverpool T-shirt walks past and hears us talking.  He stops.  ‘Inte  Yahudi?’ he asks with a strange glint in his eyes  ‘Are you Jewish?’ he repeats, his expression curious.  I nod.  He shakes his head in disbelief.  ‘He’s Jewish?’ he asks the crowd around us in Arabic.  One of the older Palestinians explains: the boy has never seen a Jew before.  ‘He’s always hearing about Jews, but you’re the first Jew he’s ever seen in his life.’ (p. 77-8)

He learns about the bizarre business of war tourism – which translates into what you and I see on the television news:

Everyone is awaiting the midnight hour, when the ceasefire will expire.  On one path we meet two young girls who immediately tell us about their media appearance in the weekend supplement of a major daily newspaper. ‘We were on the cover of 24 Hours!’ they boast, and insist that our photographer take their picture.  Everyone on this kibbutz is well aware of the role they play in the public eye.  Quite a few kids maintain portfolios of press clippings, and others have their media appearances filed away in their parents’ memories.  One mother hugs her little boy and rattles off his resume: ‘He was on channel 2 news, on New Evening and on a special show on the Children’s Channel before the music festival.’  The adults may not celebrate their own media appearances openly, but they also drop references.  One woman has a blog where she corresponds with a girl in Gaza, another was on CNN.  Nirim seems to comprise two entities: the kibbutz where ordinary people live while bombs fall around them, and at the same time its own self-conscious representation.  A sort of war tourism has evolved here.  I keep meeting members who want to show me mortar shrapnel damage that only they know about, on the walls of their homes, or even on trees. (p. 93)

However… my optimism has taken a bit of a battering with this book.  On both sides, there are implacable opinions, buttressed by history both ancient and modern, and sometimes, but not always, by religion as well.  Baram does talk to people on both sides of the divide who are interested in peace, but some of the young people just want to kill everyone on the other side, or have only a slightly less confronting view that their opponents should leave or be ejected.  But even among more reasonable people – on both sides – he sees that the Occupation has been ‘normalised’ and that the longer things stay as they are, the more the prospect of a two-state solution seems impossible.

Nevertheless, at ‘The Field’ – a place where Jews and Palestinians gather together to get to know each other – there is a passionate young proponent of a ‘shared life’ and an accommodation of The Other:

‘It’s a matter of yielding versus control, and those are two opposing and contradictory concepts.  […] We grew up with the slogan ‘the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel.’  But that is exactly what we have to yield, to let go of.  We have to stop the ‘ownership’ link.  Rabbi Froman always said this is the land of peace, it is God’s land.  It takes enormous effort to release one’s own consciousness, to recognise that we are not masters of the land or the owners of the land, but rather that we belong to the land.  And here the slogan is flipped.  ‘The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel’, and the Palestinians also belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.’ (p.194)

Baram, however, has doubts… and who can blame him when there seems to be no appetite for such a solution?  He tells us that Israel’s moderate factions are wedded to the ‘two states for two peoples’ refrain, articulating

broad consent among the centre-left parties that a walled state – in effect the largest Jewish ghetto in the world – is the solution [they] should aspire to, and that a Palestinian state should exist alongside it, borders to be determined. Other models for Jewish-Palestinian life in Israel – models that do not sanctify separation but rather support a collaborative, dynamic life – do not receive serious debate. (p. 192)

Well, I don’t know.  I have read my way through the opposing arguments and all their variations, and I finish the book as I began it, feeling that it’s not appropriate for me to have an opinion, and having no appetite whatsoever for debating it.

PS In the interests of transparency I should acknowledge that I have friends, and relations by marriage, who are Jewish.  I have no idea what their opinions are about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have never discussed it.

Update 20/7/17 Just in case you’re wondering if Nir Baram will be needing an interpreter when he appears at the Melbourne Writers Festival…  A Land without Borders was translated (very capably) by Jessica Cohen, but I heard Baram in conversation last year at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival and he speaks English as well as you or I do.  So I assume this was translated just because he wrote it in his first language.

Author: Nir Baram
Title: A Land without Borders, my journey around East Jerusalem and the West Bank
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017, first published in 2015
ISBN: 9781925355222
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2017

I Saw a Man, by Owen Sheers

The author of I Saw a Man is a Welsh poet, an author, a playwright and, Wikipedia tells me, also a TV presenter and a professor of creativity at Swansea University.  Owen Sheers has won too many awards to mention, except for the one that’s relevant to this book: I Saw a Man was shortlisted for the 2015 Prix Femina Etranger for the French translation.  So the cover of this book is misleading: it’s not really a psychological thriller, it’s an exploration of moral dilemmas in the manner of Ian McEwan, and some of the writing is very effective…

Samantha’s parents, she’d told Michael that evening, had divorced when she was eight years old.  From then on much of her holidays from boarding school in Sussex were taken up with travelling between them.  Her mother remarried a New York doctor, leading to Samantha spending a chain of summers and Christmases in Montauk and Vermont.  These were the environments of her teenage experiences.  On a windy beach at the bottom of a cliff with a surfer, the hairs on his stomach dusted with salt.  In woodland huts softened by fir trees and snow.  Drinking her first beer as she ate a lobster roll, watching the last train carriages clatter in from Manhattan towards the end of the Long Island line.

From eight to eighteen, despite her frequent visits to the East Coast, Samantha no more than brushed against Manhattan itself.  The city was her point of arrival and departure, but never anything more.  (p.89)

Samantha, however, is not the focal point of the story.  When the novel opens, her husband Michael Turner is mourning her death in the Afghan conflict, a job she had returned to after her marriage because although she’d thought she wanted to settle down, she missed her work as a war correspondent.  Much of the story is delivered in flashbacks like this, from multiple points of view, while the reader treads water, waiting with growing impatience for the foreshadowed catastrophe to be revealed.  From chapter one onwards, it is clear that Michael’s transgression into the home of the neighbours who have taken him under their wing, has resulted in some dreadful event.  But it’s not revealed until about half way through the story, and it certainly wasn’t what I had expected.

Faced with a moral dilemma, Michael makes some questionable decisions, influenced in part by the way he assigns moral equivalence to events that are not connected in any way.  His decision is inadvertently affirmed by his neighbour’s decision to tell a concealing lie as well.  The question then becomes, who will be protected by the lie, and who will be hurt by it; who will ultimately tell the truth, and to whom.

Book groups often like discussing these sorts of questions, but I found the plot not entirely convincing, and the never-ending flashbacks unravelling the lives of so many characters seemed more like padding to me, to stretch out the moment when the catastrophe was finally revealed.  And you know, it’s not a good thing when the reader can so easily predict what is supposed to be the surprise twist at the end…

Author: Owen Sheers
Title: I Saw a Man
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2015
ISBN: 9780571317738
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: I Saw a Man

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Just a day or so when I wrote my review of Steven Lang’s Hinterland, I noted that his story of a battle over development in Queensland had universal themes because inappropriate development is an issue worldwide.  The Tale of Aypi has a similar theme, but set this time in a coastal village in Turkmenistan during the Soviet regime.  You won’t be surprised to hear that the Soviets have ways of making the villagers cooperate, or that the impending relocation fractures traditional ways of life that have been in place for centuries, or that the story features just one man standing up for what he believes in.  What makes this story different is that it features a mythic creature called Aypi, a woman hurled to her death off a cliff centuries ago because she had the effrontery to accept some beads in exchange for sharing information about the village with some passing travellers.

The other point of difference is that despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the issues of freedom and individual agency are still current in Turkmenistan today, and that its author has been exiled from his homeland since 1993.  You might have noticed that the book cover includes the logo of the PEN Writers Award.  Although he won an award in a Turkmen national literary competition for his novel The Melon Head (1984) Welsapar’s novels are mostly banned in Turkmenistan, which, Wikipedia tells me, is one of the most repressive in the world.  Turkmenistan naming him as a proscribed writer is a striking comparison to Russia where in 2012, The Union of Writers of Russia awarded him the Sergei Yesenin literary prize, and to Ukraine where in 2014 the Writers’ Union awarded him the Nikolai Gogol prize. Welsapar writes in Swedish, Russian and Turkmen, and but his articles are published internationally including in The Washington Post (presumably in translation). 

The Tale of Aypi, however, was first published in 1988 before Welsapar attracted official attention.  It begins in the home of Araz the fisherman and his wife Ay-Bebek, where their son Baljan is risking trouble by shouting out that they have sturgeon for sale. Fishing has been prohibited since the government has decided that their village is be turned into a health resort, but under cover of darkness Araz is still going out into the waters of the Caspian Sea, and his neighbours are still covertly buying sturgeon for their family celebrations.

There is dissension among the generations about the relocation.  The young like the idea of living in the city with modern conveniences and a modern lifestyle.  Their parents prefer traditional ways, but are resigned to the inevitable.  Arguing with Soviet State decrees from faraway Moscow only causes trouble, as Azar finds when he is hauled in for interrogation and told to think of himself as a Soviet citizen not as a parochial local.  (This passage put me in mind of the urban generation in Anatoli Rybakov’s The Children of the Arbat whose education and experiences in the capital meant that they did think of themselves as part of a great social improvement, but who found their theoretical understandings challenged when they were exiled to the countryside and had to confront the impact on individuals).

To reinforce the message of Soviet power, Azar is made to walk home afterwards across the desert.  Faint with thirst he is rescued by a passing driver, but when Azar reveals that a colonel in plainclothes had forbid him from riding in vehicles the man panics and – as fear trumps compassion – implores him to get out of the car:

‘Brother, get out of the car!’ begged the drover. ‘Out, if you don’t want to ruin my life! I know I’m a coward, but I just can’t carry you.  Have mercy on my children; I have no intention of going up against the government.  If that’s what you’re doing, then you’re a strong man who won’t need my help. You don’t have too much more to go, just keep going on as you have been, and you’ll be home.  The weather will start to cool down in a couple of hours.’

Araz left the car without a word.  What could he say?  The car sped away in a storm of dust, but after only a brief interval, went into reverse and came back.  The man stopped beside him and opened the window.  ‘Please, brother, bless your soul, just please don’t tell anyone that I gave you water and picked you up!  You’ll destroy me; I have babies at home, please have mercy on them!’ (p.86)

There is an authenticity about this exchange that suggests Welsapar had been subject to this sort of pressure not to rock the boat even before his troubles began.  The character of Mered Badaly is taken to task for caving in over the relocation, representing all those who might have made a difference but were too craven to do so, while the shallowness of the younger generation who have been bought by the promise of modernity is mocked in a magnificent set-piece of satire: the wedding-feast of Badaly’s son is held on the road outside the village because the young man is ashamed of his rustic home and doesn’t want his bride’s family to see it.

Aypi’s role in the story is to interrogate the decisions that the villagers make.  As she moves through the village, able to enter houses at whim, she observes that modernity has not brought them happiness.  She looks inside the wheezing boxes only to find them empty of fresh produce; she takes off the cover of a box with a square glass face but can’t comprehend what it’s for and dismisses it as a time-waster and lure of their attentions. 

As she wandered into some of the wealthier homes, she had to admit there was prosperity.  Yes, there were things here in quantities that couldn’t compare with her own age; and yet, she didn’t discern any particular happiness on the inhabitants’ faces.  If it had been there, she would have seen that on their sleeping faces instead of unease and discomfort.  Just then, the sleeper she had been observing made an anguished sound, as if to confirm her surmise, and the startled ghost immediately fled.

If she wasn’t mistaken, the people of this generation also seemed stunted.  What could the reason be? Once, these same people had unflinchingly sacrificed her for the sake of their own futures.  Had her life’s blood not brought them happiness?  Had they failed to protect themselves from subsequent hazards?  (p.49)

Aypi also challenges the men’s fear of independent women.  At times these passages are strident and overdone, but Aypi and Azar together show that it’s the passivity of others that is the greatest danger.

Stu has reviewed The Tale of Aypi at Winston’s Dad, and there are very good reviews at The Asian Review of Books and The Complete Review.

Author: Ak Welsapar
Title: The Tale of Aypi
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2016
ISBN: 9781784379834
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Mercè Rodoreda, photo by Vilallonga, CC BY-SA 2.5, (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s Spanish Lit Month over at Winston’s Dad, so I checked out the TBR and found two works by Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), making this post a prelude to WIT (women in translation) Month in August too.

Mercè Rodoreda was born in Barcelona and wrote in Catalonian.  If you’ve been to Spain, you’ll know that in places with successionist ambitions, like San Sebastian/Donosita or Barcelona, you’ll often hear the local language, not Spanish, and though you might use your tourist Spanish and be understood, you’ll be answered in Basque or Catalan.  At the City Museum in Barcelona, the preliminary video was in French and Catalan, but not Spanish, an interesting choice if they wanted other Spanish tourists to understand their history and perhaps become simpático towards their succession.  I had enough French to make sense of it, but the American tourists beside us were not impressed that there was no English either.

Anyway…

Mercè Rodoreda made an unhappy marriage to an uncle much older than she was, and she began her writing career as an escape, going on to become the most important Catalan writer of the postwar period and writing the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time (La plaça del diamant (‘The diamond square’, translated as The Time of the Doves, 1962).  Wikipedia says that this novel is also considered by many to be one of the best novels published in Spain after the Spanish Civil War.  (See Grant’s review at 1st Reading if you need any convincing). 

Alas, I don’t have that one, but I do have Death in Spring (1986) and The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda (2011), both published by Open Letter Books (an imprint of Rochester University) and part of their First 25 deal I bought a year or so ago.  I’ve only dipped into The Selected Stories, which are arranged chronologically in the order she wrote them but frustratingly don’t have any dates.

And dates seem relevant with the first two stories…

‘Blood’ seemed to me to have a 1950s feel to it.  It is a depressing story about a woman who lost all sense of identity after she stopped being a woman.  When I read this, I took it to mean menopause, but now that I know via Wikipedia Roderedo had only one child (in a Catholic country), it may also mean that she had a hysterectomy.  This coyness and her oblique references to menstruation suggest later in the twentieth century rather than earlier, but before frankness about these matters arose with the Women’s Movement.  Whatever the cause, this unnamed woman who (like the author) married young, has a good marriage until she feels she is no longer alluring.  She then becomes suspicious of her husband, and although at first he tries to reassure her, eventually he starts to bait her about it, because he finds her overt surveillance of his actions embarrassing.  He even sets up a light switch so that she can spy on him without having to go to the front door to turn on the light.  Dahlias that they had planted together when they were in love, no longer bloom after they separate.  He doesn’t want to leave her, but she feels she has no choice.

‘Threaded Needle’, however, reminded me of Balzac’s 19th century representations of women.  It’s about an ageing woman who (like Roderedo) earned her living as a seamstress.  She fantasises about what she can do with the bequest she expects to get from her cousin, a priest who is fond of her.  She had thought of marrying him but he was sickly and poor, only receiving an inheritance after he took holy orders. As she stitches a bridal nightgown late at night for her demanding boss Mademoiselle Adrienne, she daydreams about setting up her own business, poaching all the best workers, but her fantasy takes a darker turn as she begins to worry that the money might all be gone if he lives long enough for medical expenses to exhaust it. She dozes off and finds herself planning to poison him to ensure that he doesn’t leave the money to anyone else.  When she wakes, she is subsumed by guilt and shame.

These melancholy representations of women defined entirely by their relationships to men depressed me, so I skipped to the last story, ‘White Geranium’.  Again there is a helpless woman, but this time there is a male narrator so subsumed by jealousy that he tortures his wife in her dying days so that she will die more quickly.  It’s quite horrible: he won’t let her change her clothes and he blows a stolen trumpet in her ears to disrupt her sleep.  But after she dies he dresses her in the pink dress that she made to make Cosme, his boss, fall in love with her.  He desecrates her body in other ways too, including breaking off a tooth which he uses to tease the cat that Cosme had given her.  The story then weaves into dark symbolism with magical elements.  Horrible as it is, and though again it features a woman with no agency, it’s a much better story than the first two, which seem quite ordinary to me and notable only for the old-fashioned helplessness of the women.   It’s this story which makes the helplessness make sense…

*lightbulb moment in Lisa’s brain*

Spain was helpless under the iron rule of General Franco for generations, from 1939 to 1975. The Spouse tells a story from when he was living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne about how the streets erupted into celebratory dance and song from former Spanish refugees when Franco died.  Like present day North Koreans enduring a merciless rule, there was nothing they could do except wait for deliverance or to escape.  So Rodoreda’s stories of women with no volition can be read as an analogy for her country in submission to a tyrant, under constant surveillance, fantasising about a future that can only be hastened by violence, and desecrated by one so desperate to cling to power that he destroys the thing he loves.

‘Love’ provides a different slant.  It’s also narrated by a man, a man who loves his wife but has no idea what she wants.  He’s on his way home from work, and calls into a haberdashery to buy a birthday gift.  She’s a seamstress so he thinks she might like something useful.  She’s already spurned a long ago gift of some glass beads as too dressy, and now his disabled grandson plays with them on the floor.  So the man works his way through all the useful notions like thread and sewing tape until finally he comes out with it, he wants to give his wife some sexy knickers.  But alas, she’s too fat now for the size they have so he has to go home empty-handed, saying that a man who works all day has so little time to do things to please, show him in a good light.  I think that if we follow through the analogy, this is the man in charge wanting things to be how they could be if the next generation had not been deformed by the regime: not sparkling clean and soulless due to the industry of the woman under his thumb but light-hearted and beautiful, as Spain could be if it had its freedom.

I might dip into the rest of these stories, but now I want to read the novel.  Goodreads tells me that Death in Spring is a metaphor for Franco’s Spain too, so I’m quite pleased that I worked that out for myself from reading these four short stories.

Author: Mercè Rodoreda
Title: The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda
Translated by Martha Tennent
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2011 ISBN:  9781934824313
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books

For Australian readers, this is the link to Fishpond with free delivery: The Selected Stories Of Merce Rodoreda but (I hate to say this because I don’t like to support Amazon) it’s much cheaper at the Book Depository.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2017

Meet an Aussie Author: Portland Jones

Last year when I discovered  Portland Jones’ debut novel Seeing the Elephant, I was really impressed, as you can see in my review  and in the Sensational Snippet that I posted too.  So this year, when I was chatting about something else with Caroline from Margaret River Press in an email, I asked if Portland would be interested in participating in Meet an Aussie Author

Well, yes she was, and here she is!

Portland has never been able to decide if she is a writer or a horse trainer – so she is both.   She has a PhD in comparative literature and creative writing from Murdoch University, but her novel Seeing the Elephant derives not only from her research into the experiences of Vietnam War veterans, but also her interest in war trauma after hearing about the experiences of her Dutch grandmother in WW2.

Seeing the Elephant was snapped up by Margaret River Press when it was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford award and was published in 2016, attracting the notice of Fairfax critics who chose it as ‘pick of the week’ in both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Newspaper.

Portland has also co-authored a book about horse training called Horses Hate Surprise Parties: Equitation Science for Young Riders and has worked as an editor and copy writer. She has taught creative writing at university level and says one of the highlights of publishing a novel was performing excerpts of her work accompanied by classical guitarist, William Yeoman.

Portland also runs a horse training facility in Western Australia’s Swan Valley with her partner, Sophie. Together they train horses and riders, working in particular with young and problem horses. They also run clinics, camps and lectures and travel interstate to teach. Portland lectures in equine behaviour at Murdoch University and blogs about all kinds of things including food, travel, writing and the science of horse training at Sustainable Equitation.

Portland has three children. She is in the process of writing her second novel and another horse training book.   So it’s kind-of amazing that she found time to answer my questions, but here they are!

  1. I was born in 1970 – the offspring of an architect and an opera singer.
  2. When I was a child I wrote poetry. I love the rhythm and the linguistic economy of verse. I don’t write poetry anymore but I’d like to think that there are some poetic elements in my current writing.
  3. The people who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write are my parents. They filled our house with books, music and not many rules. It’s a parenting tradition that I hope very much that I am upholding! Also, Professor Richard Rossiter edited Seeing the Elephant and is a wonderful mentor – not only to me but to lots of other Western Australian writers as well. My partner Sophie also encourages me every day and helps out by shouldering the bulk of the horrible but necessary small business administrative stuff – like tax and BAS. If someone says the words “accounting” or “finance” to me I feel like crying. She’s also the only person I would read unfinished work to.
  4. I write mostly at my desk ­ – it looks out into some grapevines and I love to watch the colour of the vines change with the seasons. But I will write pretty much anywhere that’s quiet including on a card table in the back of the horse truck.
  5. I write for a couple of hours in the middle of the day if I’m really lucky. We start training the horses early in the morning and we have a period of time for inside work between about 1.30 and 3.30. So, I try and write then. I average about 3 days a week as there are often events, interruptions or university lectures to contend with. I dream of hours of uninterrupted time but the truth is I have a short attention span so, while not ideal, it’s not a bad system for me.
  6. Research is the best part of writing. Closely followed by planning, then editing. Writing is only the fourth best thing about writing. It’s too much like hard work!
  7. I keep my published work (all 2 books) in our office. I use my copy of Seeing the Elephant for readings so it’s scribbled in and fairly dog eared now – which is just fine by me, it looks loved.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I drank champagne in the car on the way to the launch, changed my mind about the reading that I was going to do at the very last minute and almost couldn’t continue when I saw my Dad in the front row crying.
  9. At the moment, I’m writing my second novel which is very loosely based on my great-grandfather’s time as a prisoner of war in Indonesia. We recently went on a research trip to Sumatra, following the path of a railway line built by prisoners. It was a very humbling experience and fascinating too. At the site of one of the camps we found railway spikes and shards of Japanese pottery on the ground – it was history made very real.
  10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I make a cup of tea and talk to myself. I make so much sense! But if I’m really stuck, I like to wander out to the vegetable garden and graze on some rocket and look up at the sky. Place is where it’s all at for me.

I’m intrigued by the work-in-progress.  I admit it, I’m always impatient for a new novel from authors whose work I really like!

You can also read more about Portland in this interview at The West Australian and you can buy Seeing The Elephant: A Novel at Fishpond or any good bookshop.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2017

Great news! New editions of Zola titles

The Books of Émile Zola

The Sin of Abbe Mouret

Readers who followed my Zola journey will know that there were some titles in the Rougon-Macquart cycle that were hard to find, and #BeingPolite there were others that needed a modern translation.

The standard, for me, was set by Brian Nelson’s translations for Oxford World’ Classics: not only were the translations very good, there were also excellent introductions which enhanced my reading of the series.

La Debacle (Oxford World's Classics)Well, I was delighted yesterday to find two new editions in my postbox: La Débâcle, translated by Elinor Dorday – a title which was out of print and very hard to find – has been reissued by Oxford World’s Classics, and *drumroll* they have also issued a new translation of The Sin of Abbé Mouret.  It’s by Valerie Pearson Minogue, who also translated the recent edition of Money in 2014.

As usual in this series, the cover art comes from French artists.  The image on…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2017

The Parcel, by Anosh Irani

Anosh Irani is an Indo-Canadian novelist and playwright. The Parcel is his fourth novel, and like the others it is set amid the marginalised peoples of Mumbai (which he refers to by its old English name of Bombay).  The novel was shortlisted for the Canadian Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction.

There were times, reading The Parcel, when Irani’s depiction of the depths of human depravity overwhelmed me.  The novel is well-written but savage in its concerns, and immersing myself in its dark world is all the more horrific because we know that the issues it raises are only too real.   It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted… and I really struggled with writing this review.

This is the blurb:

In the swollen and crumbling red-light district of Kamathipura, at the heart of Bombay, Madhu is given a difficult and potentially lucrative task by her housemother — to prepare a newly arrived ‘parcel’ for its opening.

Madhu’s home is Hijra House, one of the last bastions in the land war slowly consuming the area, as property developers vie for land, desperate to make way for their empty grey monoliths. It is here that ‘hijras’ — eunuchs, people of the third sex, ‘neither here nor there’ — ply their trade. Now forty and with her looks and spirit waning, Madhu struggles with the task she has been given, confronted by memories of her past, of how she was rejected by her family — and by how she longs, secretly, to go back to them. Everything is dissolving within and around her. Then, as the land war comes to a head, and with her housemother coming under pressure by the hijra elders to sell their home, Madhu realises she must do something to save herself.

One of the issues a reader must confront through The Parcel is cultural relativism.  I saw a review at Goodreads which said that the ‘parcel’ – a 10 year old girl trafficked from Nepal for the sex trade – was being ‘groomed for consensual sex’.  The reviewer was from India, where cultural norms may well be different, but no.  No, no and no again.  10 year old girls aren’t ever old enough to give consent, not anywhere.  What happens to this child is in breach of almost every article of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, (ratified by India in 1992) and especially Article 34 which states that Governments should protect children from sexual abuse and Article 35 which says they should not be abducted and sold.  The girl in The Parcel has been sold into prostitution, and there isn’t going to be any consensual sex.  She is going to be a sex slave, and she is going to be raped by someone who has paid extra for her to be a virgin.   This child is caged up in the dark without food for days and terrified out of her wits to teach her to submit.   It is presented as an act of kindness because the alternative for this girl is to be repeatedly raped and tortured instead.  So this novel forces the reader to confront acts of extreme cruelty as an alternative preferable to acts of extreme brutality.

I don’t think there is any moral ambiguity about this situation, but the author’s characterisation of the ‘hijra’ Madhu as the person terrorising this child does make the issue more complex because Madhu is vulnerable and marginalised and trapped as well.  Madhu was born intersex into a society that is preoccupied with male children and devalues girls.  His mother tells him that his existence humiliates his family and that his younger brother’s chances of marriage will be prejudiced unless he goes away.  Marginalised by his own family and other children, at the age of fourteen he seeks out others like himself and identifies with them.  After a crude operation surrounded by pseudo-religious rituals he makes the transition to female and makes a life for herself in the sex trade.

In the India of this novel, the life chances of people like Madhu are determined by tradition and superstition and not by any rights as human beings.

When the Mughals were dominant, the hijras were exchanged as slaves, as novelties, and were assigned a value similar to that of gold and horses and land. They were therefore included as  part of the booty when a kingdom was lost.  But they stayed close to the women and listened for secrets, and they became confidantes to queens, until eventually they rose to the ranks of commandants an diplomats.  By carving their bodies, they carved a niche for themselves in both the household and politics. (p.138)

But when the Hindus came to power, the power and prestige of the hijras declined, until a (probably fabricated) story from the Ramayana arose and the Hijras were believed to confer ‘blessings’ at ceremonies such as weddings, because Rama had repaid their devotion with a boon ‘whatsoever you speak, it shall come true.’ 

That is why people believe that if a hijra curses you, you are doomed, and if she blesses you, no matter how the stars are aligned, no matter what your astrologer has predicted, her tongue can make the stars shower luck on you, like divine saliva.  (p, 137)

Nevertheless they are segregated within the city into the red-light district, and their lives are compromised by an accident of birth.  Madhu, subservient to her gurumai seems to have no option but to become complicit in the sex-trade of little girls.  She justifies this to herself by reference to the historic role of eunuchs.

In being asked to be this parcel’s caretaker, Madhu felt the weight of history repeating itself. Throughout the ages, eunuchs had served as protectors of harems, rakhwalas [custodians] of precious vaginas that meant the world to the men in power.  […]  So the eunuch had a place.  Some even rose to the position of high-ranking government officials, or served as confidantes to members of royalty.  The severing of their penises meant that they were severed from their families as well, rendered unfit for society, which made them subservient to just one master – as Madhu was to gurumai – loyal to a fault, out of helplessness.  However that same loyalty afforded them a level of prestige.  Eunuch slaves were status symbols, exchanged between noblemen, or demanded as part of the war-spoils when a kingdom was lost. (p.44-5)

How many centuries of human misery lies behind this paragraph?

Madhu recognises that times have changed:

But now, Madhu reflected, history had been perverted.  In this cramped loft, there were no kings, only the kingdom of Kamathipura, and this parcel might be worth protecting but Madhu’s function was to protect her and keep her safe until it was time not to protect her – history made topsy-turvy.  (p.45)

To retrieve some agency in a life where she has few choices, Madhu chooses to ‘break’ the ‘parcel’ – like others she has ‘broken’ – by teaching her not to resist because it will be less painful.  It is, Madhu believes, kinder to teach the ten-year-old girl to submit, to accept that there is no escape, and not to harbour dreams of going home to Nepal because it was her mother who sold her into slavery.  The Parcel does not endorse this PoV and the novel concludes with a sort of redemption … but the reader is left with a persistent sense of horror about the other little girls traded for sex in a society that does not value them.

This is a very confronting novel, which is uncompromising about the culture of violence against women and the dubious morality of contemporary Indian attitudes.  Late in the novel, there is a furore over a crime.  A billion souls were passionately demanding the blood of three men who had raped a bride on her wedding night. 

Madhu was as hopeful as everyone else that the accused would pay for the vileness of their act. […] It also bothered Madhu how much coverage this incident was getting: a bride had been violated on that most sacred of nights.  But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights?  Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers?  Or hijras? What happened when less-than-ordinary souls got violated?  Why not create a furore then?  Why let their pain slide away like rainwater into a gutter? (p. 222)

Yes, there is hypocrisy in the West about crimes about women deemed not ‘innocent’ and the justice system has not always treated rape victims fairly, but India is notorious for turning a blind eye to violence against women, seventy years after it became a democracy and gave women the vote and elected its first female prime minister in 1966.  I wonder if The Parcel is being read there as well as in the West.

Author: Anosh Irani
Title: The Parcel
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2017, first published 2016
ISBN: 9781911344452
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: The Parcel or direct from Scribe.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that I skipped reading a chapter of Finnegans Wake while hosting Indigenous Literature Week here on the blog and attending Rare Books Week events and a launch or two (a NAIDOC week art exhibition and The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover at the Bookshop At Queenscliff.  But now I’m back on track, and up to chapter 7.

As usual, I have consulted my trusty guides Tindall and Campbell, only to come away a tad discouraged.  Tindall says that this chapter is little more than the author’s apology and his boast:

Shem the Penman, the exiled author of Ulysses and the Wake is a problem.  Joyce was always composing portraits of himself, but most of them, differing in kind from this portrait of Joyce-Shem, are distanced and controlled by irony or other device.  So distanced, Stephen is nothing like Shem.  Bloom and Earwicker, also self-projections, are objective and independent.  The heavy – almost painful -jocularity with which Joyce handles Shem, no substitute for irony or comedy, fails to separate the embracing author from his embraced creation.  (Tindall, p. 131)

Campbell, OTOH, hammers home the point that Shem is a lowlife, and goes into considerable and somewhat unedifying details from the text, which – given Joyce’s often incomprehensible language, I probably would not have understood and might have preferred it that way.  Still, with the peace and quiet of the house around me, I ventured forth, and as with previous chapters found bit and pieces to make me laugh and plenty to puzzle over.

Shem is not a prepossessing fellow:

Shem’s bodily getup, it seems, included an adze of a skull, an eight of a larkseye, the whoel of a nose, one numb arm up a sleeve, fortytwo hairs off his uncrown, eighteen to his mock lip, a trio of barbels from his megageg chin (sowman’s son), the wrong shoulder higher than the right, all ears, an artificial tongue with a natural curl, not a foot to stand on, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach, a deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks, one gleetsteen avoirdupoider for him, a manroot of all evil, a salmonkelt’s thinskin, eelsblood in his cold toes, a bladder tristended, so much so that young Master Shemmy on his very first debouch at the very dawn of protohistory seeing himself such and such, when playing with thistlewords in their garden nursery, Griefotrofio, at Phig Streat III, Shuvlin, Old Hoeland, (would we go back there now for sounds, pillings and sense? would we now for annas and annas? Would we for fullscore eight and a liretta? for twelve blocks one bob? for four testers one groat? not for a dinar! not for jo!) dictited to of all his little brothron and sweestureens the first riddle of the universe: asking, when is a man not a man?

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, pp. 169-170).

In John Vernon Lord’s collage illustration of this chapter, we see the torso of this poor specimen, starkers (but with his modesty retained with the judicial placement of a sort of mandala featured a woman in medieval getup), with just a few stray whiskers showing on what we can see of his chin.  And there is print all over his body, with ink made in a method I’d rather not describe.  His mouth, drawn separately to the rest of his body, shows a quill in place of a tongue (an artificial tongue with a natural curl) because of the quotation Lingua mea calamus scribae velociter scribentus from Psalm 45:1, ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.’  Well, yes, but IMO it has a double meaning.  Joyce as an exile in Ireland, was also speaking a tongue that was artificial for him and no doubt he retained the curl of his Irish brogue.

And what was the answer to the first riddle of the universe?  …  When is a man not a man?  The answer is … when he is a Sham.

Now Shem was a sham and a low sham and his lowness creeped out first via foodstuffs.  Shame on him, he prefers tinned salmon to roeheavy lax (caviar); and his preference for tinned over fresh extends to pineapples.  He’d rather muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea. 

Not only does his sell his birthright by eating the wrong foods, he’s also a drug and drunkery addict growing megalomane of a loose past, and he’s a coward.  He abuses his deceased ancestors wherever the sods were and he’s always in debt.  (This section, according to Tindall, has many references to Swift, but the only one I recognised an allusion to gulliber’s travels.  So much for having waded through A Tale of a Tub).  But there was an allusion I pounced on:

[with] a litany of septuncial lettertrumpets honorific, highpitched, erudite, neoclassical which he so loved as patricianly to manuscribe after his name. It would have diverted if ever seen the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemented zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, p. 179).

My ‘desert-island’ book Ulysses unreadable?  Does Joyce really think so, or is he having a go at his critics, in readiness for what was to come over the publication of Finnegans Wake?

Poor Shem.  He’s up against it.

… what with the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the foxtrotting fleas, the lieabed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his mindfag, the buzz in his braintree, the tic of his conscience, the height up his rage, the gush down his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the bane in his bullugs, the squince in his suil, the rot in his eater, the ycho in his earer, the totters of his toes, the tetters on his tumtytum, the rats in his garret, the bats in his belfry, the budgerigars and bumbosolom beaubirds, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears since it took him a month to steal a march he was hardset to mumorise more than a word a week.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, p. 180).

There is a splendid catalogue which seems to be a description of an author’s lair which might make authors reading this sigh with recognition:

My wud! The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with burst loveletters, telltale stories, stickyback snaps, doubtful eggshells, bouchers, flints, borers, puffers, amygdaloid almonds, rindless raisins, alphybettyformed verbage, vivlical viasses, ompiter dictas, visus umbique, ahems and ahahs, imeffible tries at speech unasyllabled, you owe mes, eyoldhyms, fluefoul smut, fallen lucifers, vestas which had served, showered ornaments, borrowed brogues, reversibles jackets, blackeye lenses, family jars, falsehair shirts, Godforsaken scapulars, neverworn breeches, cutthroat ties, counterfeit franks, best intentions, curried notes, upset latten tintacks, unused mill and stumpling stones, twisted quills, painful digests, magnifying wineglasses, solid objects cast at goblins, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage, unquestionable issue papers, seedy ejaculations, limerick damns, crocodile tears, spilt ink, blasphematory spits, stale shestnuts, schoolgirl’s, young ladies’ milkmaids’, washerwomen’s, shopkeepers’ wives, merry widows’, ex nuns’, vice abbess’s, pro virgins’, super whores’, silent sisters’, Charleys’ aunts’, grandmothers’, mothers’-in-law, fostermothers’, godmothers’ garters, tress clippings from right, lift and cintrum, worms of snot, toothsome pickings, cans of Swiss condensed bilk, highbrow lotions, kisses from the antipodes, presents from pickpockets, borrowed plumes, relaxable handgrips, princess promises, lees of whine, deoxodised carbons, convertible collars, diviliouker doffers, broken wafers, unloosed shoe latchets, crooked strait waistcoats, fresh horrors from Hades, globules of mercury, undeleted glete, glass eyes for an eye, gloss teeth for a tooth, war moans, special sighs, longsufferings of longstanding, ahs ohs ous sis jas jos gias neys thaws sos yeses and yeses and yeses, to which, if one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors, noondayterrorised to skin and bone by an ineluctable phantom (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himsel in furniture.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition pp. 183-184)

My favourite of these are alphybettyformed verbage; best intentions; quashed quotatoes and longsufferings of longstanding.

These struggles of Shem the writer in writing his Wake go on to refer to stories resembling the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, and the difficulty he had in finding a publisher for them.

Tindall reminds me at the end of his chapter about FW’s chapter 7 that it represents Vico’s ‘human age’ because it proves great Joyce to be as human as the rest of us, but I’d forgotten all about Vico long ago.  (See my post from Chapter 1 if you are keen). I think I’ll save adventures with Vico for if I ever read FW for a second time.

So on to Chapter 8!

Sources:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2017

Hinterland, by Steven Lang

Hinterland, Steven Lang’s third novel, is a very Australian story – a very Queensland story if it comes to that – but its themes are universal.  All over the world people living in lovely places find themselves having to defend their patch against development.  As in other places around the world, all around the Australian coastline, and in congenial inland places within commuting distance of the overcrowded cities, there are plans for apartments and housing developments, holiday and weekender accommodation, shopping centres, and posh new mansions for the multi-homed rich.  That kind of development breeds infrastructure development: bigger roads, sewage and rubbish disposal systems, electricity and water supply.  In Lang’s new novel set in the fictional town of Winderran,  plans for a dam are ruffling feathers and not just because it would cut through some land that’s been restored from desertification.

The cast of characters includes tree-changers, blow-in greenies and people with long-established roots in the district.  These characters are introduced by multiple narrators who all know each other with varying degrees of familiarity, each narration having its own distinctive voice.  The story begins through Miles, the ageing doctor who’s taken to dealing with grief after the death of his wife, with alcohol.  He knows everybody, from old Margaret Ewart living an independent life in dignified poverty, to Helen Lamprey, dying from cancer while her husband Guy, an author who’s lost his mojo, flirts with politics as a career alternative.   Through Miles the reader sees that the town has a population of older residents augmented by the influx of wealthy retirees, and children. The generation in between has mostly fled, for brighter prospects elsewhere, though some are trickling in to service the needs of the growing population in places like the hospital and the medical centre.  And – isolating themselves on the edge of town – there are also some creepy army veterans whose psychological damage distorts the ordinary humanity that most people share.

The second narrator, Dr Nick Lasker, has come to Winderran to escape his failed marriage, not deluding himself as to its cause.  He’s an incorrigible womaniser who knows he should know better.   Yet everywhere he goes, he’s sizing women up.  In a bar where he’s hoping to meet up with an attractive nurse, he’s still eyeing off other women while he waits:

She stood up, almost colliding with a young man coming in the door.  Nick watched as she wove her way back through the tables.  A nice shape to her hips.  Miles had said something to him one night in reference to women, how they no longer exerted power over him in the way they once had.  Women, he’d said, had become just like other people now … he could relate to them based on who they were, on what they said or thought, as if they were nothing more than attractively shaped men.  It wasn’t a concept Nick could even begin to embrace.  (p.164)

Nick isn’t much good at socialising, but in a small town, it’s obligatory.  Attendance at a concert organised by the wealthy widow Sophie Allenby allows for the introduction of the town’s movers and shakers, the guy who runs the art gallery, the big pharma bloke, and Peter Mayska, a billionaire mining magnate who has enough power to hush things up when his teenage son is beaten up by some thugs at a training camp.  Mayska knows how to compromise people so that they comply, and he has connections with Aldous Bain who’s the Shadow Minister for Energy and Employment.  It turns out that under the bonhomie Mayska has some very creepy plans for extending his domain…

But the little people have connections of their own.  Where the pro-dammers have a capacity to infiltrate networks, the medical receptionist knows who to call with an important lead.  The easy friendliness of landowner Lindl towards Ange the greenie interloper leads to information that Eugenie the nurse-turned-activist can use.  From this point in the novel the tension heightens: Eugenie’s creaky marriage falters as she takes more and more risks.  Her domineering husband has never been physically violent but the threat is there, and at the same time the extent to which the pro-dammers will go to get their way ratchets up a level.  From being an enjoyable, engaging novel about small-town life under threat, Hinterland becomes a gripping page-turner.

In Australia as elsewhere, the attachment to place takes many forms.  Nick, new to Winderran and still searching for some meaning to his life, confronts it like this when Eugenie tries to explain:

‘I think it’s important to choose where you live,’ she said.  ‘I mean, I don’t think it’s random.  We have this idea that we can live anywhere, that we make the choice, but it’s not true, there are places that are for you and places that aren’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.  The only way to know is to listen.’  Wondering if he agreed with that, or thought it was new-age nonsense, wanting to go on and qualify it with stuff about Aboriginal connection to land, the whole philosophical argument that Lindl liked to lay out to justify what was, after all, just a feeling – Lindl who was the least hippieish of anyone she’d ever met – but holding back because of the magic of the small forest, its tops blown westward by the coastal winds, its branches tightly woven by those same forces, could, she thought, speak for itself.  Stopping, once, to lie off to the side of the path amid fox-tail fern and fallen leaves, to look up through casuarina leaves at the perfect sky. (p.216)

It’s impossible to read this book without being aware of the beauty of the hinterland, and why it’s under pressure from more people wanting to live there.  But Lang has carefully constructed his characters: the rich and powerful are not stereotypes, and the flawed have likeable traits as well.  Mayska has an art collection to rival a small European gallery, and he’s a highly intelligent, sophisticated migrant who’s made his wealth himself through sheer hard work.  Yes, it’s Sophia Allenby’s own daughter who plays the piano in chapter two, but she’s a talented artiste and not just a dud whose mother has the money and the power to drag in a captive audience.  Old Dr Miles had a shabby finale to his career, but the whole town turned out for his funeral because they liked him, and even Nick – a character that I disliked – has redeeming features.  Like Lang’s other novels, Hinterland is rich with complex characters and ethical dilemmas that are relevant for our time.

Highly recommended.

Author: Steven Lang
Title: Hinterland
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259654
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Hinterland

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2017

Who We Were, by Lucy Neave

Who We Were is a debut novel from Lucy Neave, now a teacher of creative writing at ANU but formerly a participant in a leadership program for veterinary students in the US.  A tour of the US Army Medical Research Institute in Infectious Diseases in Maryland was the catalyst for this book…

If your antennae are on alert at the mention of an army’s research institute in infectious diseases, you are on the right track.  Set mostly during the Cold War, this novel is very disconcerting because it shows how naïve people can get mixed up in morally questionable situations, and how love makes us blind.

The story begins in Melbourne, where Annabel has ambitions to be a research scientist.  It’s 1938 and WW2 is imminent but Annabel is bored by politics and Adolf Hitler, thankfully, is a million miles away.  While she waits to see if she has won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, she meets Bill Whitton and falls head over heels in love with him.  In one of those strange quirks of fate caused by war, the enlistment of men like Bill saves her from an impulsive marriage and she completes her degree, winning the University Medal because, as she self-deprecatingly tells Bill after he returns, ‘The men were gone.’

The Bill Whitton who returns from years as a POW in Thailand is not the same man as he was:

One day in October 1945, I stepped into a teashop on Swanston Street in the middle of Melbourne.  Sitting near a tall window was a man who looked like Bill Whitton.  He was ten feet away.  He sat at an angle to the entrance so that I saw his profile: his long nose, the blade of his cheekbone, his angular chin.  The man was bent forward over the table, reading.  He wore wire-framed glasses.  Although I couldn’t believe that he was Bill, I was drawn to this person, whoever he was.  As the door closed behind me, the bell rang and the man glanced up at me.  I saw his mouth open and his hands fall to his sides.

He pushed himself from his seat.  He was Bill Whitton; there was no question.  By then I was right up close to him.  I shut my eyes and slid my arms around his waist and pressed my face against his torso.  He drew me so close that I could hardly breathe.  Somehow, we let each other go; he pulled out a chair for me and we sat down.  We had to touch; we had to keep touching.  He took my hands and held them. His palms were covered in rough patches.  His face had changed too.  It was bones and skin, with little flesh to spare.  There was a scar at his hairline, and I reached forward and touched it.  He placed his fingers over mine. (p.36)

The changes are not merely physical, but psychological too. Always a reticent man anyway, Bill is now closed in, wary, wanting to retrieve the innocence of their former escapades in the bush.  At the same time he is driven by a sense of urgency about wanting to finish his PhD, and opportunities in the US beckon because they are both estranged from their families (because of an overnight escapade resulting in damage to Bill’s father’s ute and to Annabel’s reputation).  Bill has a job lined up in a research institute, and she gets one soon too, though the text makes it clear in subtle and historically authentic ways that Annabel always has to prove herself because of her gender.

The text shifts a gear when the couple start work.  Gradually Annabel discovers the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and how that impacts on their friendships and even their choice of place to live.  Through the fog of her passion for Bill, she begins to discern the focus of the research they are doing, and she also begins to resent the way Bill expects her to trust him implicitly when she tries to question some of his clandestine activities.  While not a thriller in the sense of the Gold Capital Letters on the Cover genre, Who We Were becomes a gripping novel generating a sense of unease that, ominously, still seems relevant to our time.

Amongst other things, what I admired about this book was its Australianness.  This author knows Melbourne well, she writes evocatively about Lake George near Canberra, and in the US scenes, she captures the sense of a woman negotiating her way socially and professionally in a new country.  Her writing is exquisite – textured and spare, painting vivid scenes that linger in the mind.  This is a scene on the way to Orbost in Victoria, where the couple are, I think, at Deadcock Den, in the same area as the Den of Nargun.  Bill talks about wanting to leave Australia, but then gestures to the scrub, granite, a blue sky, torn between his dreams of Cambridge and the feeling that being on the top of a hill that makes [him] feel free.

Deadcock Den (Public domain, Wikipedia Commons)

We were staring at each other: it was too much.  I’d gone quivery and strange. I shifted my gaze.  Behind him there was a dead tree in amongst some saplings.  It held the biggest nest I’d ever seen –  sticks and branches, woven together into a rough basket, jammed between a wide branch and the trunk.  It was immoveable and ancient.  I placed my hands flat against a larger boulder.  Without speaking, Bill gave me a leg up onto the top of the highest rock, and I pulled myself up, grazing my stomach.  From there, if I stood on tiptoe, I could look along the branch to where it met the trunk.  Deep inside the nest were two eggs, white with rusty spots.  They looked as if they had just been laid, and they also looked as if they had endured centuries.  (p.11)

I don’t know how this book escaped my attention when it was first released.  I’m glad I found it now.  Bookgroups would enjoy this too.

Author: Lucy Neave
Title: Who We Were
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079527
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Who We Were

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2017

Wrap-up from Indigenous Literature Week 2017

Well, here we are at the end of Indigenous Literature Week and I want to say thank you to everyone who participated, with a special welcome to those who’ve joined in for the first time, and a big bouquet to those loyal readers who have contributed in previous years and again this year.  (I shouldn’t single anyone out, but really, #RoundOfApplause to Sue from Whispering Gums who managed to contribute a review even though she’s away on holiday in the US!)

There are eighteen new reviews of books by Indigenous authors on the 2017 Reviews page  and they have all been added to the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Reading List which is a permanent resource accessed by schools and universities, and archived by Pandora.

The 2017 reviews include novels, a play, short stories, poetry, memoir, a children’s book and anthologies from Aboriginal authors around Australia, a Maori novel and two reviews of works by Indigenous peoples from Canada.  You can find any of my 2017 reviews by clicking on the yellow ILW logos anywhere on the blog, and you can find links to the other contributions both on the authors on the 2017 Reviews page  and the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Reading List as above.

Given that the theme for this year’s NAIDOC week was  Our Languages Matter’  it would have been lovely to have had a review of a bilingual book but alas, none seemed to come our way and we hope for this in years to come.  (Children’s books are leading the way in bilingualism: Kim Scott (with input from his Noongar community) has written at least two that I know of, and there are others that I used to read with my students when I was still teaching, though some of those were out of print.)

As always, although NAIDOC Week is over, reviews of Indigenous books are welcome any time.  I will monitor the Reviews page for any additional 2017 contributions until the end of July, and readers can also add them any time through comments on the ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Reading List .

Publishers are always welcome with news of new titles!

Thanks again everyone!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2017

Home, by Larissa Behrendt

Home (2004) is the debut novel of Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people.  A lawyer and an Aboriginal activist, Behrendt went on to write the novel Legacy (2009, see my review) and also Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling (2016, see my review).  Home won the David Unaipon Award as an unpublished manuscript in 2002 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book, 2005.  It tells an important story… but I think it needed tighter editing at UQP to bring the narrative into shape.  It reads a bit like a sprawling and sometimes unconvincing family saga that strays here and there into heavy-handed historical and legal backgrounding, and these flaws detract from the significant issues raised by the novel.

Like many debut novels, Home appears to have autobiographical elements.  The story is bookended by the story of Candice, who, like the author, is a successful, well-travelled lawyer working in indigenous land rights issues.  Like the author, the characters have German and Indigenous ancestry, and so they have skin which varies in colour from light to dark, raising questions of identity and racism.  Some of them can ‘pass for white’ and until their Aboriginality is revealed they are treated with friendship and respect because they are thought to be Mediterranean or exotic.  But their ‘whiteness’ means that they also suffer crudely racist commentary because their companions do not expect that an Indigenous person could be among them.  For these characters there is always the dilemma and invidious choice about how and who to be.  (During and after WW1 and WW2, some of the characters also suffer anti-German prejudice, but this is one of a number of side issues in the novel).

At the start of the novel Candice is making her first trip ‘home’ to her country, a situation that has arisen because her father did not know about his Aboriginality until well into adulthood.  As the middle sections of the book reveal, the story of this fragmented family begins with Garibooli in 1918, when she is abducted from her family by the authorities and placed directly into domestic service in Parkes NSW, in the dysfunctional home of Lydia and Edward Howard whose marriage is a farce. Garibooli is renamed Elizabeth and works eleven hour days unpaid under the direction of their housekeeper Frances Grainger, one of the generation of women bereft by the war.

The inevitable happens, and both characterisation and plot falter when – instead of being packed off to fend for themselves as most pregnant ‘kitchen girls’ would have been – Elizabeth is sent to Sydney with the housekeeper for the duration (leaving the Howards back in Parkes without any staff??).  She has the baby, a boy which she names Euroke after her brother but he is promptly removed for adoption.  She then returns to service with the Howards (who presumably have some explanation for this odd behaviour to satisfy the local gossips).  Frances Grainger who has previously been a kind if demanding taskmaster now develops a hatred for Elizabeth because in her loneliness she has been harbouring romantic fantasies about Mr Howard and is jealous that it was Elizabeth who took his fancy.  Mrs Howard keeps Elizabeth in the house because she wants to taunt her husband with his infidelity on a daily basis.  The explanation for this quixotic behaviour just isn’t convincing, and the ponderous prose doesn’t help.

Lydia’s vengeful plan to keep Elizabeth in the house did not play out as she had intended.  She found herself consuming the poison she had laid out for Edward.  Though she pretended distraction, Lydia watched the girl’s every movement carefully as quick hands polished silver, dusted, oiled, cleaned.  She wanted to find out what it was that had attracted Edward, but the only distinctive features were the dark skin and even darker eyes.  She concluded that her husband, unable to express himself to her, had used the girl.  Her reasoning attempted to account for his actions but settled nothing within her. When he expressed an opinion about the lack of character of the new doctor or criticised an editorial in the newspaper she felt the festering of her inability to forgive him.  Lydia concluded that the danger must come from the girl, that the evil must emanate from within her.  (p. 92)

(It’s interesting that the childless Howards don’t find some way of keeping Elizabeth’s son as their own.  I was expecting some kind of rueful introspection from Edward about giving away his only child, but it doesn’t happen.  The reader is not, of course, meant to feel sorry for a man who repeatedly rapes a vulnerable teenage girl, but still, a more mature characterisation might have shown this character feeling some regret.  Anyway Euroke disappears out of the story altogether when I was expecting him to resurface at some stage, if only as a poignant symbol of Stolen Generations who were never reunited with their families.)

Ok, moving on…

Elizabeth, who up to now has been a dutiful servant in the hope that one day her family will come to rescue to her, now takes matters into her own hands.  She tries escaping but without money for the train fare is soon defeated.  It is this event, however, that enables Miss Grainger to utter the fateful words that resonate throughout the years:

Miss Grainger arrived to take her home.  She did not understand why she had followed Elizabeth to the train station, was surprised that she had any pity left in her.

‘You don’t want any more trouble, ‘ she said with a sigh as she offered Elizabeth a handkerchief.  As Elizabeth gratefully took it, she added, ‘If your family had wanted you, they would have come for you by now.’ (p. 93)

These words haunt Elizabeth, and deter her from ever searching for her family. (But I don’t find her gratitude for a hankie convincing.  Why didn’t the editor remove this silly adjective?)

But Elizabeth does escape, by marrying Grigor Brecht who she meets at the Chinaman’s shop.  She has six children, whose fortunes form the rest of the middle section of the book.  Two are lost to her because of WW2, and Patricia the oldest, at seventeen briefly becomes mother to the younger three when Elizabeth dies young, leaving Grigor a bereft alcoholic.  But he soon loses custody of these three to the welfare authorities.  Again the characterisation falters as Elizabeth, too good to be true, leaves her father to endure long hours of underpaid work as an exploited dress designer in Sydney so that she can eventually provide a home for her ungrateful siblings when they are allowed to leave the institution.  Although they suffer jibes from people who suspect it, it is this generation that does not know about its Aboriginal ancestry because Elizabeth suppresses her memories of her early life, Grigor insists that she is as white as anybody, and Patricia dies young too, without telling her siblings any fragmentary memories of their mother.

The characterisation of Daisy and Daniel, the dysfunctional two youngest, is illustrative of the psychological damage caused by institutionalisation, but it’s overdone.  Neither of them have any redeeming features, especially in contrast with Patricia who endures their cruelty, blaming and rejection like a martyr.  Bob, who is the eventual father of Candice and as the eldest of the institutionalised three, is the first to be released into Patricia’s care.  But as an adult he becomes an abusive husband, insisting on a patriarchal role.  His wife Carolyn is an unlikely doormat, given that by the time this happens it’s the 1980s and the women’s movement is well-established, but she gives up her career at his demand and finds fulfilment in her children.

Other more unlikely events concern Thomas.  Without revealing spoilers, I found it unconvincing that in WW2 he could circumvent Australia’s racist enlistment laws by going to the UK to enlist in the RAF.  Where did the money come from?  It took weeks by ship and it cost a small fortune to travel in the days before the jet age, beyond the reach even of middle-class Australians.  And how did he circumvent wartime restrictions on travel for private passengers?  And then he gets into Oxford to get his doctorate?  Just like that?? Hmm.

Home is not an entirely successful novel, but the author’s choice to fictionalise a family’s pain through the Stolen Generations is a potent reminder of the long-term damage done.  It also shows the strength and resilience of the generation rediscovering its roots, and the possibility of transcending the damage.

This is my sixth (and final) book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.  I have other books by Indigenous authors to read, but I’ll read them during the year.  I don’t just read books by Indigenous authors during ILW, but any time!

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: Home
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2004
ISBN: 9780702234071
Source: Personal library, purchased secondhand from Fishpond.

Available from Fishpond: Home (On the day I looked there were both new and secondhand copies).

Not content with a hectic bookish week with Indigenous Literature Week here on the blog, together with Rare Books Week events and the launch of a NAIDOC week art exhibition organised by my local council, I finished off the week with the launch of a beaut new novel based on the life of George Orwell.  This involved a drive down to Queenscliff, which necessitated a very nice lunch at 360Q on the waterfront.  After that we did some strolling about in art galleries and antique shops and then it was time for the event.

It wasn’t, technically, at the Bookshop At Queenscliff, but it was their event, held in the Uniting Church on Hesse St.  (The pews are padded, so it’s comfortable). Matthew from the bookshop was in conversation with the author, Dennis Glover, and it was an excellent introduction to what looks like it’s going to be enjoyable reading.  I say that because as Dennis Glover was reading a page or two, I skipped ahead and read some of the rest of it.  (This is what I used to do at school, and *chuckle* I often got into trouble for it).

Dennis Glover (who has a PhD in history from Cambridge) is a speechwriter for all the Labor luminaries you can think of, and he writes essays and other non-fiction stuff for various media organisations, and he’s the author of The Art of Great Speeches (2010) and Orwell’s Australia (2003) – but The Last Man in Europe is his first venture into fiction.  (So technically, this is debut Australian fiction, but an emerging author, Glover is not!) The novel is a fictionalised account of the last three years of Orwell’s life when he was writing 1984, (which was originally going to be called The Last Man in Europe).

1984 first edition (Wikipedia Commons)

There is a worldwide resurgence of interest in 1984 (because of That Dreadful Man and the era of Fake News), and it’s often admired as a prophetic novel.  But apparently the book was instantly popular when it was first published in 1949 because Orwell was writing about his own times, about the rise of fascism during the Depression and the dangers of totalitarianism.  1984 was a warning that it could happen again.  But on his deathbed, Orwell contacted his publisher Warburg because he was concerned that the book was being misinterpreted as anti-Communist propaganda, and he demanded that Warburg put out a statement to the effect that the book was a warning that people everywhere – including in democratic states – need to be watchful, to guard their freedoms, and that it all depends on us to do that.

Glover says that 1984 is both political and personal.  There are elements and experiences from Orwell’s own life, such as the naming of Room 101 as the torture room.  This comes from when Orwell had a job in WW2 writing war propaganda, where he had to attend meetings at the Ministry of Information (now London University).  Orwell found these meetings sheer torture (don’t we all?) and they were held in, you guessed it, Room 101.   There’s also the Hate scene in 1984 which comes from when Orwell attended a Mosley fascist rally as a journalist, and Glover thinks that Winston’s relationship with Julia is based on his first wife, the girl from the fiction department.   Other aspects of the novel were also familiar to readers in the postwar era in England: like the characters of 1984 they were experiencing the misery of rationing  – which included some things which were not rationed during the war because after the war Britain had the additional burden of also feeding the people of Germany during the Allied Occupation.  (There was still rationing when I was born, and when my older sister born in 1949 was a baby, the family was restricted to one egg a week).  Britons were living the greyness of life under austerity until well into the 1950s.

Glover originally set out to write non-fiction about all this, and then toyed with the idea of writing SF about Winston’s son overthrowing the regime, but while he was doing the preparation for this he found that the writing of 1984 was intrinsically interesting.  He was also inspired by the novel HHhH by Laurent Binet (see my review) which fictionalised historic events (without being ‘historical fiction’ in the sense of the genre as it is usually understood).  He found that the story of Orwell’s novel is full of great dramatic events and that it would make a great literary story.

Photo by Ken Craig, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Wikipedia Commons)

Glover went to Jura in Scotland where Orwell famously wrote his novel, and he says that the remoteness of this place shows how desperate Orwell was to write his book while he still had time.  He was seriously ill with TB, and the journey to Barnhill – even now – is an arduous trip which includes a seven mile walk at the end of it.  Orwell was a day’s journey away from a doctor, and isolated from neighbours too.  But he needed to escape London and the world: he knew he was very ill and he was determined to write the novel that was a message for us all.

I haven’t seen a review of The Last Man in Europe yet but I like the sound of it and plan to read it soon-ish.  If anyone else has read it, let me know!

Author: Dennis Glover
Title: The Last Man in Europe
Publisher: Black Inc, 2017
ISBN: 9781863959377
Source: personal library, purchased from The Bookshop at Queenscliff, $29.99.  (The Spouse also bought the new edition of 1984, which has an introduction by Glover, I think that makes three copies we’ve got now!)

Available from Fishpond: The Last Man in Europe: A Novel

 

I first heard of Boori Monty Pryor when I discovered his children’s book Shake a Leg (2010) illustrated by Jan OrmerodI loved it straight away and incorporated it into lessons for students of all ages.  You can see why from the inspired image on the front cover, black and white kids together, the white kid learning the Shake a Leg welcome dance from the others.  It’s a great story because it’s set in a pizza parlour where the indigenous proprietor has learned the secret of the sauce in Italy (and speaks Italian) so it’s showing indigenous people successfully retaining their ancient culture while living in the modern world.   And it’s funny too.  You can see a video of the author reading it at StoryBox.  (If you don’t want to sign up, you can see a bit of it as a preview).

Two years after Shake a Leg was published, Boori Monty Pryor was appointed Australia’s inaugural Children’s Laureate, and as his memoir shows, this prestigious appointment celebrated the work he does in bringing Indigenous stories to schools all over Australia and beyond.  He was also an Ambassador for the National Year of Reading in 2012.

Maybe Tomorrow was published in 1998, before these honours acknowledged the value of the work that Pryor had been doing for a long time.  The memoir begins with the stark story of the tragedies that have befallen his family.  Most of us know the facts about the alarming rate of suicide and premature deaths amongst Indigenous people, but Pryor makes it personal.  He tells us first about one brother, then another, then a sister, then a nephew.  There are family photos in the book that show the parents and other members of the family and it’s hard to imagine how so much grief could engulf one family without crushing them.  Yet Maybe Tomorrow is an uplifting book, acknowledging the pain yet filled with optimism and determination to stay strong.

When I speak about the deaths of these four special people who died before their time, it’s not to make people say, ‘Oh, poor little blackfulla’ or make us look like victims.  What I want people to do is to really sit down and ask, ‘Why did these people die?’ Because it is an important part and structure of this country.  I’m not just speaking about my family.  Most Aboriginal families I know have lost one or two people in the same way.  As an Aboriginal family you expect that.  You really do expect that.  (p.4)

Pryor leaves the fringe camp of his home, and joins the air force where he learns important skills.  He plays sport – football and basketball – as a way of belonging in two worlds.  He becomes a DJ, he does modelling.  And finally he settles into a role that is demanding but fulfilling, doing presentations in schools that showcase his Aboriginal culture and heritage with story, dance and music.

For a long while I didn’t know why I went off to the city and did all these things […]

It was all to do with me being a link, one of the many links.  There are a lot of people who are links across the land.  The links between Aboriginal culture and the white people.  (p.118)

But he never turns his back on home.

I never turned my back on this place, Yarrabah, even though I grew up in Townsville and then moved away down south.  It’s the strength I get from Yarrabah that makes me able to get up and communicate with audiences of white people.  You can’t explain it.  Your spirit is here.  It is a feeling all around you.  A track of black mothers through time immemorial.  There’s nothing to beat that.  (p.199)

(One of the things I learned from this book, that I didn’t learn as a tourist in Townsville, is that Townsville is named after Robert Towns  who was involved in the slave trade, euphemistically called indentured labour or ‘blackbirding’ for the sugar and cotton industries.  Dalrymple’s Hotel is named after a white man who was known for killing Aboriginal people.  Wouldn’t you think they’d  change the name?  But no, as recently as 2005 they installed a statue of Towns.  What does it feel like, to be an Aborigine, in a town where they’d do such a thing?  I can’t imagine.  It beggars belief.)

Pryor reveals that it takes courage to do his presentations in schools.

It takes a lot to stand up there and face a hundred and fifty, two hundred kids, just in my juddah-jah – my little red undies – and nothing else on except this paint.  When I say paint, I mean this ochre that comes from this earth.  When I put it on, nothing can touch me.  It’s my shield or my plate of armour.  It’s something no one can take from me, my link to the strength from my past.  Believe me, you need it.  You’ve never met any of these students before in your life and you’re standing up there in your underpants.  Sometimes you’ll be standing up there in front of a whole school of adolescent girls.  (p39)

He acknowledges the strength of his own English teacher as a role model for his work:

There was an English teacher who was very special – he was a wonderful man.  He taught me how to use words instead of fists and he also had faith in me that I could write. I suppose through my eyes, at that time in my life, he was pretty uncool.  He wore shorts and long white socks.  I can’t remember him ever laughing.  All my mates thought he was pretty square – the way he spoke, his mannerisms and expressions – trying to teach this rabble the importance of using words.  I never imagined back then that one day I would be standing up in schools in front of mobs of hormonally disturbed adolescents.  At least he had his clothes on! (p47)

In primary schools the kids ask all kinds of questions, but they are rarely intentionally hostile.  Pryor says:

Don’t be afraid to ask a question.  It doesn’t matter if it is demeaning, racist, silly, ignorant, any question at all.  I will answer it truthfully and to the best of my knowledge.  If you don’t ask you will never know.  (p. 72)

Still, it’s confronting to see some of the ugly questions that secondary school students ask.

In this class, a young boy got up and asked in a really snide voice, ‘How come you Aboriginal people are so slow?  You don’t progress yourselves, and you’re lazy, and you get drunk all the time.’  Even in a situation where you expect a question like this, it still hits you like a bullet.  I asked him, ‘What’s your name?’ This is how I get my breathing space after a question like that. I get my composure so that I can answer constructively and not just fight fire with fire.

You have to be the water to put out the fire.  If you fight fire with fire, everything burns.

I went on, ‘Let me ask you something. Can you speak an Aboriginal language?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Do you know any Aboriginal dances?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know any Aboriginal songs or stories?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you read any books that Aboriginal people have written?’ Every question I asked, he answered ‘no’.

By now I’d cleared myself of my anger and I went on to say, ‘I can speak your language. I can do your dances.  I know your stories, I read your books. So who is the slow one?  Who is being lazy? Aboriginal people were forced to learn your ways.  Here you are being offered a chance to learn.  No one is forcing you.  You must do this for yourself. (p.63-4)

Maybe Tomorrow is a book full of insights like this.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I’ll conclude with Pryor’s advice from page 5:

Start with the basics.  Look at the Aboriginal history from your own area and then you can go on and flow out into the bigger picture, which is the rest of Australia.  There’s a bigger picture than Australia too.  There’s the rest of the world which we’re connected to now. Going beyond Australia to the rest of the world, that’s huge.  But to have your strength, you’ve got to start from your own area.

Pryor is descended from the Birri-gubba nation of the Bowen region and the Kunggandji people from Yarrabah, near Cairns.

This is my fifth book for 2017 Indigenous Literature Week.

I live on Boonwurrung (also spelt Bunerong) land, guarded by Bunjil the eagle.  (You can hear how to pronounce the name of this language here.  Click on the marker in the southeast of metropolitan Melbourne.) Every time I host Indigenous Literature Week I read something that teaches me more about the history of the land I live on.   The language of my area is described as extinct at Wikipedia, but at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages website it says that Victorian languages are in ‘revival mode’ and that there are language awareness workshops for non-indigenous people.  So maybe one day I will be able to start learning it…

Author: Boori (Monty) Pryor
Title: Maybe Tomorrow
Publisher: Penguin, 1998
ISBN: 9780140273977
Source: Personal library, purchased secondhand somewhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2017

There’ll Be New Dreams, by Philip McLaren

Philip McLaren, a Kamilaroi man from the Warrumbungle Mountain region in northwestern New South Wales, is a most extraordinarily versatile author:  Wikipedia tells me that he’s an academic with a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at Southern Cross university, lecturing in Canada, England, France, Spain, Germany, New Zealand and of course Australia.  He writes literary fiction, detective stories and thrillers, and also non-fiction, social commentary, screenplays and academic essays. Of his seven novels, I’ve read Sweet Water, Stolen Land (see my review).  Alas WP doesn’t tell me which four have been translated and distributed internationally.  He’s won the David Unaipon award (in 1992) and the 2010 Prix Litteraire des Recits de l’ailleurs (a French prize for foreign literature).

But, says Wikipedia, McLaren has also worked as a professional musician and exhibited paintings and sculpture in London, Toronto, Vancouver, Nassau and Sydney.  He’s also

a writer, producer, director and editor in film and television; and previously as a set designer, animator, illustrator, graphic designer and scenic artist for networks NBC, CBS and ABC in the USA; CBC and CTV in Canada and the Seven, Nine and Ten Networks in Australia as well the NZBC in New Zealand. He has amassed well over 100 on-screen credits.

It’s these experiences which enliven the provocatively titled There’ll Be New Dreams.  The books I’ve read about Aboriginal culture have been enlightening about the ways in which the Dreaming lives on in the present, but in McLaren’s novel new dreams and a contemporary sophisticated and sometimes international lifestyle are superimposed on an ancient land and a people keen to be successful survivors of a catastrophic invasion by European settlers.  It’s written in the form of linked short stories about an array of people from different eras and living in different places, but the one constant is their Aboriginal identity.

The Table of Contents brings together what seems at first to be a bewildering confusion: there are eleven dreams, starting with Ralph in Coonabarrabran in 1950 and then in Dream Two his relationship with Lottie in 1952, in 1961, then moving to Redfern in 1961 and 1966, then Parramatta in 1967 and 1969, then back to Redfern in 1973, this period coinciding with the historic referendum in 1967 and the emergence of land rights and other human rights for indigenous people from 1972 onwards.  Dream Three brings us Emma in New York in 1952 and 1953, followed by Dream Four, which starts in La Perouse in 1905, and then back to 32,000 BC in Yabbra, on to Matlong in 1770, back to La Perouse in 1905 and concluding in Woolloomooloo in 1929.  Except that ‘concluding’ is the wrong word to use because as the Dreams progress the reader sees that nothing concludes, everything is connected through time and place and family.

The novel raises many issues, but the most compelling is the premature death of one of the characters in police custody.  But it’s not tackled in a heavy handed way.  While characterisation in depth is not one of the strong points of the novel (not intended to be, IMO), this character like others, has flaws, including some which bring him to the attention of police in the days when they were rarely held to account for the brutality they dished out at whim.  When legal representation becomes available and a police prosecution fails, they are out for revenge and they have long memories.  But his young wife has a long memory too, and she never gives up trying to have the matter properly investigated.  There’ll Be New Dreams is not, as I’ve seen it labelled, a ‘police procedural’, because the interest is in justice as a human right, not a who-or-whydunnit.  And the novel also explores historic injustices of people unknown to authorities such as a good-time-girl (who happens to be indigenous) who is lost overboard and whose death goes unremarked except by the son left without family as a result.

I particularly liked Dream Seven, about the Music Man.  A child prodigy at the violin wows the world, but has difficulty (as child prodigies often seem to do) in maintaining a career and a sense of confidence once the ‘cute little black kid’ factor has waned.  There was a universality about this story as well as particularity about his circumstances as an adopted child.  And I liked Dream Ten, about Dundiway, who makes an astonishing amount of money as a busker in New York and Paris with his didgeridoo.

There’ll Be New Dreams is, as the blurb says, a wild ride:

Sophisticated and profound, human, pacy and funny, There’ll Be New Dreams is a Shuttle-ride of a novel. Philip McLaren gives us a view of the world through realistic, yet highly individualistic characters, in a journey from earthy country town to city rhythm and the wonderful harbour of dreams. A voyage of talent through marriage, official kidnap, family roots, mystic Clevermen, music, art, courtroom battles, the charm of youth and the tragedy that lurks in a darkened alley or a splash of molten metal: Love, choice, chance and hidden forces, those sometimes eerie, somehow right patterns of life, bring the unforgettable Lottie to her ultimate fate. How could a busker on the New York subway have anything to do with this?

I’m not entirely sure that I’ve pulled all the threads together… I knew I should have watched that TV show called Cleverman! but I enjoyed the ride.

ILW 2017This is my fourth book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Philip McLaren
Title: There’ll Be New Dreams
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2001
ISBN: 9781875641765
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Magabala Books

Availability: Looks to be out of print, even at the publisher’s website. Try Fishpond: There’ll be New Dreams , they may have secondhand copies, usually cheaper than AbeBooks, otherwise Brotherhood Books

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #4

The wounded wing was no problem today because Hidden Treasures was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Rd so there was no straphanging on a tram today –  I drove in with my arm propped on a cushion and parked in the car park.   Easy:)

It was a wonderful session.  The presenter was Elisa Bunbury, one of three curators in the Print and Drawings department of the NGV, and she was knowledgeable and interesting, and relaxed about questions from the small audience.  The room we were in was designed for showing items from the rare prints and drawings collection, so it’s not very large but there were plenty of tables with space around them so that people could walk around and look at everything properly.  No touching, of course!  I was interested to learn that prints and drawings actually comprise about one-third of the entire NGV collection, but that’s not the impression you get as a gallery visitor because the prints and drawings can’t be left on permanent display.  The paper and inks are vulnerable to deterioration and can’t be restored like paintings can, so displays of prints and drawings are changed every four months, and then they are rested before being displayed again.  (The curators track how long each item is exposed to light for, to ensure that they don’t get damaged.)

The items I liked best were the illuminated manuscripts.  Back in 2008 the State Library hosted an exhibition called The Medieval Imagination and I loved it so much I lashed out and bought the catalogue and spent months browsing through it on lazy Sunday mornings.  So it was wonderful to see three exquisite personal prayer books: the Office of the Virgin from 1300 is the second oldest in the NGV collection, and two Books of Hours, the Wharnecliffe Hours (named after its owner, who probably commissioned it) and a Florentine Hours in Humanist Renaissance script rather than the Gothic script of the other two.  They were all highly decorated with gorgeous art work and calligraphy, and I learned the meaning of a ‘red letter day’.  In a Book of Hours, a red letter designated something important, so a ‘red letter day’ is one that’s important.

Not all illuminated manuscripts were done by monks and nuns, and some of the illustrations are (a-hem) Chaucerian in vulgarity.  There can also be errors in the texts, when the copyist was tired or had poor Latin.  Sometimes the person who did a particular page can be identified by their mistakes, but mostly these artists are anonymous.  My photo’s not great but you can just see the two smaller Books of Hours at left, and you can also see a stunning acquisition from the Felton Bequest, Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse, which was acquired from the Barlow Collection and it’s in excellent condition because Barlow apparently only collected the very best and he made sure that his copy was printed before there was any wear on the copper blocks used to make the prints.  (You can see the woodcuts, one for each page of the book, at Wikipedia.)  Did Dürer do it all by himself?  Scholars aren’t certain, but if he did work with others he certainly pushed them to a very high standard of workmanship.

On the other side of this first table were  treasures from the Colonial era. Elisa explained that, because of the intense interest in the settlement of the unknown continent, publishers rushed to produce books as soon as ships returned with specimens, journals and artworks.  John Stockdale’s Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay was not the first book but it was the first illustrated one, and it came in a coloured edition, or in B/W.  Our NGV copy is the coloured edition, which is why it’s in good condition – colour illustrations were done on better quality paper.

John Lewin’s Natural History of the Birds of NSW (1813) is notable because Lewin was the first artist to come willingly to the colony.  Collectors in Britain employed and funded people to come to Australia and bring back specimens and artefacts.  The prints in this book were made in Australia because Lewin brought out his own press, and the prints were hand-coloured by him and his wife.

 

Joseph Lycett’s Views of New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land comes from a later period when the emphasis was on how well settled the colony was, and how peaceful the natives were.  They weren’t, of course, they were fiercely defending their lands against the invasion, but the good folk in Britain did not get that impression from this book which was designed to encourage migration.  After landscape printing started in about 1810, this type of landscapes book was common around the world at the time, with books of regional landscapes in Britain and America and so on.   And last, but not least, that lovely little book of sketches of plants in the Castlemaine area was made by Ann Paulson, an Englishwoman who came out to work here between 1858 and 1866.

The other table displayed more modern artbooks, and again my ignorance of avant-garde artists means that some of this was a bit lost on me.  I really liked a small ‘travel’ book by local Melbourne surrealist Peter Ellis, but I wasn’t sure if it was subject to copyright so I didn’t photograph it.  The book was like the small Moleskine travel books I take with me when I go overseas, but Ellis has his handmade, just for him, and he fills them with sketches of this and that.  Sometimes he sketches an exhibition of other surrealists that he’s been to see, and sometimes he just draws weird objects and juxtapositions that occur to him.

There was also a copy of the earliest art book made in Australia: it’s called Night Falls on the Ti Tree and it’s by Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede (1905) and you can see a page from it here because like many of the NGV’s holdings, it’s been digitised.  The style reminded me of an edition of The Hobyahs that I’ve seen, and that’s probably because the Japanese style of this book was very influential.

Well, that’s it for Rare Books Week for me for 2017.  I was going to go to an event in the Percy Grainger Museum, but that’s on the Melbourne University campus and that means trams again.  So I’ll have to pass on that…

 

 

Maralinga's Long Shadow

Indigenous readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story is a book I picked up from the NAIDOC week display at the Parkdale branch of Kingston Libraries, and it raises an interesting issue in terms of authorship.

This week is Indigenous Literature Week, and I’ve always wanted it to be about books authored by Indigenous people.  But in this instance, Yvonne Edwards died unexpectedly just as – after a long and busy life as an artist and activist – she had at last begun working with author Christobel Mattingley on writing her story.   Mattingley has therefore constructed Yvonne’s story from interviews and conversations with Yvonne, an interview on ABC Radio’s Message Stick and some input from Yvonne’s family and friends.  It is profusely illustrated with beautiful art works by Yvonne and there are some photographs as well.

While the artworks tell the vivid story of Yvonne’s people, the Anangu people of what is now known as Maralinga, the book is written in the third person in English that is simple and direct, and includes some use of Pitjantjatjara.  It does not purport to be Yvonne’s own voice but it does appear to be written entirely from her perspective.  Although there is a comprehensive author’s note at the back of the book which explains its genesis and her method, still,  it’s not possible to glean from any signals in the text whether this perspective or parts of it have been inferred by the author or drawn directly from Mattingley’s interviews and conversations.  The reader has no way of telling which of the opinions expressed are the sympathetic opinions of the author or the recorded opinions of the subject.  The tone is always respectful of the subject and the draft was approved  by members of Yvonne’s family.   So it seems to me that the book sits awkwardly in a space between a rather naïve way of writing biography written for the children’s or YA market, and a genuine attempt to reproduce the story that Yvonne would herself have told, in words she would have used, and telling a story that otherwise might not have been told.

Anyway…

The story begins in the years long before atomic testing:

Before Maralinga the Anangu people cared for their country for generation after countless generation.  Their land was their being, their spirit, their life.  They knew no other.  They wanted no other.  They loved its rockholes and red sands, its creatures great and small, its trees, its bushes, its flowers, its fruits.  Above all they cared for its kapi, its water, its precious water, and used it wisely, walking many miles from one rockhole to another, always seeking permission from Wanampi, the Rainbow Serpent, who guarded each one, before they took the living water.  (p.1) [This page is accompanied by a detail from Yvonne Edwards’ (undated) painting of Wanampi.]

It goes on to briefly record the arrival of European settlement, dispossession and the Lutheran mission, but it is the peremptory evacuation from their homelands and removal to Yalata by the atomic commission that is the main focus.

But without warning, life at Ooldea was brought to an end for its Anangu people.  Suddenly they were forcibly removed from this ancient oasis, cut off from its life-giving waters which had sustained their ancestors through countless cruel droughts.  All because two groups of walypala, people in faraway cities, could not solve their differences.  The United Aborigines Mission executive ordered the South Australian branch to close its mission at Ooldea.

On 24 June 1952 the Anangu were told to leave.  It was a turbulent day of deep distress.  They wept and wailed, and over 60 years on they still wail at the memory of the betrayal, and how they were forced to leave.  East, west, north, south they went or were sent.  Walking, or on the train. Or on trucks taking them from the home and heartland, which many would never see again.

So the Anangu were sent to the country of another Aboriginal people, land to which the Anangu people were not related, land which the South Australian government had taken.  Land which walypala farmers did not want because it was too hard, too harsh.  Limestone land, hard and harsh under bare brown feet.  So different from the soft red sand the Anangu had always known.  (pp.19-21)

What is shocking about this dispossession is that it is so recent.  It did not take place during Australia’s colonial history, or in its settlement phase.  It occurred within living memory and although the land has now been restored to indigenous ownership, it is irrevocably damaged by radiation.  Yvonne Edwards blames that radiation for the cancers that killed some of her family members.  She had tragic losses, including the death of her first born son who had been taken from her and adopted out, and who in adulthood had not long been reunited with his birth family again.  Yet hers was a life of sustained achievement, creating beautiful artworks, and active in her community, especially in trying to reduce the harm done by alcohol.  She was determined to make Australians aware of the Maralinga story, and with other members of her community had previously worked with Mattingley on a children’s picture book called Maralinga, The Anangu Story, also written from an indigenous perspective.

These resources would be useful for indigenous studies programs in schools, but because they are written from the indigenous perspective, they would need to be balanced by additional materials.  It’s important that students be given the facts, and taught strategies that enable them to make up their own minds.  That’s what history is about.  So while I myself am strongly opposed to nuclear armament and believe that the use of the land at Maralinga and elsewhere in Australia was unconscionable, in the interests of a balanced curriculum, I’d be teaching the students to interrogate these two Mattingley books objectively, and I’d be providing materials that explain more about The Cold War and nuclear testing than is presented in the books.

BTW All the royalties from the book have been given to Yvonne Edwards’ five surviving children.

ILW 2017This is my fourth book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.

Author: Christobel Mattingley
Title: Maralinga’s Long Shadow, Yvonne’s Story
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760290177
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2017

Bouquets to Kingston Library

ILW 2017Before I toddle off to bed, just two quick photos:  these are from my local library where they have created a display of books for NAIDOC week.  Below you can see the display at the Parkdale branch (now less one book which I borrowed myself!) and under that there’s what’s left of the display of children’s books by indigenous authors, the gaps on the shelves are where books have been borrowed!

Well done, Kingston Library staff!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #3

I only made it to one event today: my wounded wing seemed to be on the mend, but you don’t get to choose which arm you use to straphang when you’re on a crowded tram and the trip back from the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University didn’t do me any good at all.  So I had to skip the evening session on Contemporary Book Design at the State Library  and go home early instead…

It was still worth it.  First of all there is a wonderful exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery in the Baillieu: it’s called Plotting the Island – Dreams, Discovery and Disaster, and it features fabulous old Dutch, French and British maps from the Age of Maritime Exploration.  It’s on until July 16th, so there’s still some time left if you can get there to see it.  The books and maps come from the Rare Books Collection at Melbourne University, and they really are breathtaking.  I particularly like the early Dutch ones, from the days when they knew only the west coast and represent only half of our continent, leaving it tantalisingly unfinished as if to tempt some brave soul to venture forth and map the rest of it.  But the Dutch ones are also beautifully coloured and have exquisite pictures drawn on the edges so that, for instance, there are scenes from heaven along the upper edge, and from hell below.

My biggest excitement, however, was seeing a book that I referred to in my recent review of Brian Castro’s new book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria.  In the novel, Castro’s hero reads a very special book

… in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Well, here it is, the very same book!  It’s not a very good photo … because it was taken surreptitiously with an ordinary old Samsung in a room dimly-lit to preserve the books and maps from deteriorating in bright lights.

There were also indigenous artefacts, quaint old navigation tools and some lovely specimens including a lovely rainbow lorikeet.

Once I had browsed around the exhibition, I made my way to the Leigh Scott Room for Art on the Page presented by Susan Millard who’s in charge of Special Collections at the Baillieu, and of rare books in particular.  The room itself is a delight: Leigh Scott was the university librarian in the 1930s, and I think the treasure trove of books lining the walls may have been his own personal library.  Through the floor to ceiling windows you look out onto the south lawn, which even on a grey day like today was very beautiful.  There is no doubt that Melbourne is the loveliest of our universities.  There are some awful 1960s architectural blobs, but more recent buildings are stunning, and of course the old Quad and the Old Arts buildings are gorgeous.

The Art on the Page session was really a sneak preview of an exhibition that’s coming to the Baillieu in August.  The books we were shown were all art books, mostly created with art works to complement poetry, and all limited editions.  As you can see from my photo they were all placed on special cushions to protect them: these books were mostly unbound (and stored in slip cases) so Susan was able to carefully lift out individual pages and show them to us in our small group.

Very soon I realised the limitations of my knowledge of the early 20th century art scene in Paris: taking notes, I could spell Matisse and Miroir, but there were others I simply didn’t know.  They were mostly abstract artists, though one had done some realist illustrations for Wuthering Heights, but it was all fascinating anyway.  The exhibition is going to show how Australian artists were influenced by the milieu in Paris, many of whom as the years went by had fled the Spanish Civil War and then the Nazis.   The immigrant theme is going to be an important one in the exhibition, as many of our artists expressed their sense of unbelonging in poetry and art.

It was interesting to me to see that in an era when most contemporary poets struggle for publishing opportunities, some poets (e.g. Antoni Jach) are published in these exquisite illustrated special editions which are sold amongst a network of collectors who can afford them.  Susan made the point, when someone asked for a definition of a ‘rare book’, that it was important for these limited editions to be collected.  Usually rare books are collected because they are old, or vulnerable, or yes, rare.  But some contemporary books are added to the university’s collection now because they have a cultural and aesthetic value, and they will be rare before long, and people will want to study them in the future.

Hopefully a good night’s sleep will restore my shoulder to order, and I will be able to go to tomorrow’s Hidden Treasures from the NGV!

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