Last night as I was idly watching the ABC news, I was struck once again by the contrasts in the worlds we live in. There was a report about some footballers being pensioned off for new blood… a disproportionately long report, I thought, featuring a lot of hand-wringing by the decision-makers and some desolation by fans. Normally I just glaze over during sport reports and read whatever’s on the coffee table while I wait for the weather report, but when one of the people behind this decision used the word ‘horrific’ to describe the emotion of wielding the axe, I took notice. Because in the same news bulletin there was a report about the earthquake in Umbria and further news about the deteriorating situation in South Sudan with a young woman telling us she was raped within eyesight of UN peacekeepers supposed to be providing a safe haven.
Well, of course, the footy guy didn’t know about Umbria when he was interviewed, and possibly not about Sudan either, (though the news editor obviously did) and all things are relative anyway, aren’t they? But still, it is a real pleasure to pick up a book by an Australian author who’s been and seen a bit of the world and knows what the word ‘horrific’ really means.
A Wiradjuri woman, Tara June Winch burst onto the Australian literary scene with the publication of her award-winning first novel Swallow the Air. (See my review). Aged only 20 when she wrote it, she showed that she already knew more about horrific situations than most Australians do, but as the recipient of the international Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Award in 2008-2009, she has been mentored by Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. (I have his memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood on the TBR). This is what he says about her writing:
The quality of her writing, her eye for the miniature of life, fleshes out both place and persona, and ultimately guides the reader into her action. She is gifted.
Short stories are not my thing, but this collection overcame my reservations for the same reason that Family Room by Lily Yulianti Farid did. (See my review). These stories have serious intent. They challenge thinking. They demand attention to the issues raised. Where Farid was wrestling with feminist issues in the context of a corrupt patriarchal society, Winch is dissecting the displacement that disrupts the lives of individuals as well as the wider society.
In ‘The Last Class’ some refugees bond together as they learn French, but they struggle to understand why they must leave their culture behind when there is little prospect of them being admitted to the wider society anyway.
The afternoon classes were taught by Martine. At first I wasn’t sure I liked her. She’d always start conversations that often turned into arguments among the students. She brought up polygamy, racism, brought up politics and homosexual parenting – I was open-minded, I thought, but many of the other students weren’t and often someone’s homophobia, rightly perhaps, lost them friends. One girl, Alia, seemed nice enough when I first met her, but after she started to say in class how disgusting homosexuals were, how horrible, I could never look at her again. I’ve always thought, if you don’t have something worthwhile to fight about, don’t fight at all. Another student, Sufjan, had got angry one day too; he’d stood up and yelled, ‘We don’t f—– fit in here, yes we are here, yes there is no war in the street, but it isn’t our home, we aren’t really welcome. My wife can’t find a job, after school I can’t find a job. What will we do? Watch television? Our children will hate this country of France because they’ll see we never become nothing here. We stay as nobody here.’ (p. 29)
In one paragraph Winch has nailed an international dilemma: how to absorb an incredible diversity of people and respect their identities and yet retain national principles about diversity and gender equity – when at the same time the unskilled jobs that used to ease the transition for migrants have markedly declined in a technologically advanced society? Even if he is a skilled worker, Sufian is part of the human wreckage…
Before long the students discover that a change in philosophy is to sabotage the number of lessons they can have.
…Martine told us the news. She took the whiteboard marker out and drew numbers on the board as she explained. She said, ‘Now you were all able to get 350 hours in total, okay.’ She drew a big 350 on the board, put a slash through it, that universal code again. After this class, she explained, there was no more funding, no more money for the program, and she said ‘Fifty hours maximum,’ and she drew a bigger 50 on the board, circled it with the marker. She explained that after this class, we couldn’t come back and ask for more help with French. She was disappointed about it, and explained her disappointment then: ‘After this, there’ll be students, but they will be Americans, Canadians, Australians and British, and others; students will have to pay a lot of money for these classes. (p.31)
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The title story ‘After the Carnage, More’, humanises the aftermath of an explosion in Lahore:
I look up and I remember a veneer of redstarts and house crows, the birds leaving the slip of clear sky, sky rapidly remodelling itself in ash. I’d wondered if it was the first time I’d seen the birds of Lahore from that angle.
I’m conscious, alert enough to know that I’m in a hospital corridor, lying on my back still, which means either that I am relatively unharmed according to the order of triage, or worse – and more likely – the hospital is understaffed and too many were hurt. (p.35)
His first question to harried staff is about his wife…
Winch takes on the baby trade in China, (‘Baby Island’); the racism inherent in employment in corporate America, (‘Failure to Thrive’); and the intransigent sexism of men who leer at women’s bodies so that some women might well welcome the anonymity of the niqab. (‘Meat House’). I’m not entirely convinced by that… it seems to me to be like swapping one kind of abuse for another, but that’s why these confronting stories might be an excellent choice for bookgroups or classrooms – there’s plenty to think about and discuss.
Apparently there is a new novel in the pipeline. I’m really looking forward to that…
PS Although there is a distinctly international flavour to these stories, Winch hasn’t lost her essential ‘Australian-ness’ as can be seen in her very first story, ‘Wager’
I remembered the taste of coins, house keys, zipper ends – sometimes I could lick a brass key and all of my childhood would return. I remembered I used to pry conch shells off the reef, collect hot wattle flowers and suck out the honey inside; I used to feed the possums that came near my bedroom window at nights. They’d scratch at the fly screens until you pushed a bread crust out, I’d save them from school lunches. (p.3)
I’ve added this book to the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List. If anyone else reviews it and would like their review added to the list, please let me know in comments below.
PPS I’m a bit disappointed in the book cover design. It doesn’t seem to contribute anything at all to the book, in fact, given that it’s a somewhat sombre collection, it’s deceptively cheery IMO .
Author: Tara June Winch
Title: After the Carnage
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016
Review copy courtesy of UQP.