Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2019

Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie

The TAG Hungerford award has a good record for recognising talented Australian authors.  Set up by the City of Fremantle in WA to discover authors as yet unpublished, it consists of a cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.  Although I haven’t read the prize-winning books, I’ve read other books by these recipients of the award, including:

I’ve reviewed three winners of the award on the blog

and I’ve also read three of the novels shortlisted for the 2014 award picked up and published by other publishers — 2014 must have been a difficult year to choose the winner because these three are very fine novels: Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones;  Bloodlines, by Nicole Sinclair and The Sisters’ Song, by Louise Allan

The winner of that hotly contested 2014 award was Troppo, by Madelaine Dickie, published in 2016 by Fremantle Press.

Troppo is going to be on the 2020 reading list for the Indonesian book group I belong to, and it’s a good choice for discussion because it’s the story of a young Australian woman who goes to work in Sumatra, offering the perspective of an Australian who is fluent in Indonesian and knows the country quite well.  Like Simone Lazaroo (who won the award in 1993), Dickie writes as an outsider with some inside experience of Indonesia.  Most of the people in our group have a great deal of inside experience of Indonesia, so I’m looking forward to hearing what they think of the novel.

Penny, the central character and narrator of the story, is her own worst enemy.  The book begins with an alarming incident where she hears first-hand from a young woman who had worked for her future boss, Shane, but she decides to ignore those warning signs.  Penny is a keen surfer, telling herself that she’s in Sumatra to manage a coastal resort for a few months so that she can surf in her time off, but really, she’s running away.  She’s evading the problems she is having in her Australian relationship with a man called Josh.  Some years older than her, he is everything she is not: prudent, sensible, and comfortable with routines.  He’s career-minded, and settled-down contentedly in Perth.  But Penny, perhaps because of her disrupted youth which included time out with her father on Bali for a year, likes to party, to drift, and to have an adventurous lifestyle.  Reckless and naïve, Penny is warned off working for Shane by both expats and the locals with whom she is staying, but she ignores the weight of all this hostility and takes up her job at the resort.  (His offer of a huge bonus if she lasts for six months helps her to make up her mind!)

Troppo shows this young woman experiencing a conflict of values.  The novel is set in November 2004, just after the Bali and Denpasar bombings, and just before the Boxing Day tsunami.  In contrast to her free-and-easy year on Bali, she finds the oppressive influence of strict Islamism has spread to the remote village of Batu Batur, and it makes her feel uneasy.  She wants to respect Indonesian customs and culture, and she disapproves of young women flouting the cultural mores with scanty clothing, but she’s used to Western freedoms, and feels resentful of restrictions placed on women because of their gender.

Penny is not a blithe tourist with a romanticised perspective: she observes the back-breaking labour in the rice paddies and feels uncomfortable about her own privileged position.  At the same time, while she knows that she and Westerners like her are regarded as rich by virtue of their capacity to travel, to holiday, and to spend freely in the Indonesian economy, she has finite resources when it comes to returning to Australia.  At home she is certainly not rich, and her erratic work history in the unqualified hospitality sector makes her financial future rather precarious.  But her feelings of guilt lead to impulsive generosity — which of course reinforces local opinion that she has money to burn…

Considering herself well-acquainted with the domestic politics of commercial development in Indonesia, Penny thinks that the hostility to Shane is because of his impact on village life.  But she is inevitably compromised.  Her job involves working in a resort that supplants the local culture with its lavish facilities.  Still, she can see that not only have the local fisherman had their livelihood disrupted by restrictions imposed by Shane, but also that resort development doesn’t benefit the locals if they’re not employed there.  She is aware that most of the thriving businesses on Bali are owned by Australians, not by the Balinese.  And Shane is a typical example of someone who’d rather employ Westerners, called bules (i.e. bullies) in the novel.  Shane would much rather have a barmaid who drinks herself, to serve booze to his customers.

(This reminds me of an ‘guest speaker’ who addressed my class when I was learning Indonesian at Gadjah Mada University.  He was a (Caucasian) representative of one of the major global hotels in Yogyakarta, and he was there to offer employment to any of us who wanted to work in his hotel.  He explained that he needed bilingual staff who understood diner expectations in a fine dining restaurant, and it was easy to deduce the inference.  I thought this was interesting because we were all there on scholarships paid for by the Victorian government to learn Indonesian so that we could teach it in government schools, and yet he was invited there to poach us! This might have been my one-and-only experience of korupsi…)

Corruption, however, is a given in this novel.  Shane is bribing the local police to ignore the way he flouts the law, and the local Indonesians in their desperation decide to deliver some very rough justice using ‘black magic’.  The escalation from hostility to vengeance is what drives the narrative tension and gives the novel its shocking conclusion.

I liked the sophisticated way that Dickie depicted her bilingual character in this novel.  Sometimes she uses an Indonesian word or phrase, and translates it as part of the same sentence, and at other times the meaning is obvious from context.  But the novel also shows Penny being excluded from conversations because the local Indonesians speak Bahasa Lampung, spoken in Southern Sumatra alongside the official language of Bahasa Indonesia.  This technique is a way of showing that Penny remains an outsider in this community, and is not trusted, even by people who like her.

Sue from Whispering Gums reviewed Troppo too.

PS Dickie has just released a new novel: it’s called red Can Origami and I’ll be reading it soon. For more details, see here.

Author: Madelaine Dickie
Title: Troppo
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2016, 264pp
ISBN: 9781925163803
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond: Troppo and direct from Fremantle Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2019

2019 Deborah Cass Prize winner

The winner of the 2019 Deborah Cass prize has been announced.  The winner receives a cash prize of $3,000 plus a three-month mentorship with an established writer. The winning manuscript is presented to Black Inc. publishers for consideration, with the winning excerpt published in Mascara Literary Review. The award package is designed to help an early-career writer finish their manuscript and get their book published.

The Prize honours the life and work of the late legal academic and occasional writer, Deborah Cass. The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Deborah became a prize-winning professor of International Law at the London School of Economics before her death to cancer in 2013.  (Deborah Cass Prize for Writing website).

The following is from the press release, with thanks to Dan Cass  on behalf of the Deborah Cass Prize committee:

The winner of the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for migrant writing is Janette Chen, for her story, ‘Wall of Men’.

Runners-up are Anna Kortschak for her story, ‘Pieces of Nothing’, and Belinda Paxton for ‘Clinging to Space Hardware’.

Judges Melanie Cheng and Lee Kofman praised Janette for her ‘mastery of the short story form, including her capacity to write a good ending, something that can be hard to do in short stories’. One judge said, ‘There are too many earnest works published in Australia. An effortless sense of humour permeates this story, as well as a complex sense of psychology and of a woman’s sexuality.’

The judges cited Anna Kortschak’s ‘poetic and distinct voice. She has a really rich story to tell, which she approaches from a lot of interesting angles.’ They also praised Belinda Paxton’s rich and poetic prose, innovative structure, avoidance of cliché, and the situating of her story in an arresting historical context.

Congratulations to the winner and the runners-up!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2019

2020 Indie Book Awards Longlist

The longlist for the Indie Book Awards was announced today:


  • The White Girl by Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press), see my review
  • The Rip by Mark Brandi (Hachette Australia)
  • Silver by Chris Hammer (Allen and Unwin)
  • There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia), on my TBR
  • Maybe the Horse Will Talk by Elliot Perlman (Vintage Australia), see my review
  • Bruny by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin), see my review
  • Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen and Unwin)
  • The Wife and the Widow by Christian White (Affirm Press)
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch (Hamish Hamilton Australia), see my review
  • The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin), on my TBR.


  • Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Called Helga by Todd Alexander (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch (Allen and Unwin)
  • Against All Odds by Craig Challen & Richard Harris (Viking Australia)
  • Banking Bad by Adele Ferguson (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)
  • 488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct by Kitty Flanagan (Allen and Unwin)
  • Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 1978–1987 by Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
  • See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
  • Tell Me Why by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Back on Track by Bernie Shakeshaft with James Knight (Hachette Australia)
  • Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing), (currently reading this).


  • A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop (Text Publishing)
  • Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden (Macmillan Australia)
  • Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel (Macmillan Australia)
  • Hitch by Kathryn Hind (Hamish Hamilton Australia)
  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review
  • Crossings by Alex Landragin (Picador Australia)
  • Six Minutes by Petronella McGovern (Allen and Unwin)
  • The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean (Fourth Estate Australia)
  • Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (Vintage Australia)
  • Taking Tom Murray Home by Tim Slee (HarperCollins Australia)


  • The Lost Boys by Paul Byrnes (Affirm Press)
  • The Leaf Supply Guide to Creating Your Indoor Jungle by Lauren Camilleri & Sophia Kaplan (Smith Street Books)
  • Australia Modern by Philip Goad & Hannah Lewi (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • Finding the Heart of the Nation by Thomas Mayor (Hardie Grant Books)
  • The Whole Fish Cookbook by Josh Niland (Hardie Grant Books)
  • Ben Quilty by Ben Quilty (Lantern Australia)
  • Australian Designers at Home by Jenny Rose-Innes (Thames & Hudson Australia)
  • Sydney Art Deco by Peter Sheridan (Peter Sheridan)
  • Warndu Mai (Good Food) by Rebecca Sullivan & Damien Coulthard (Hachette Australia)
  • In an Australian Light edited by Jo Turner (Thames & Hudson Australia)


  • The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals by Sami Bayly (Lothian Children’s Books)
  • Into the Wild: Wolf Girl, Book 1 by Anh Do, illustrated by Jeremy Ley (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • Tilly by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Anna Walker (Scholastic Press)
  • The Tiny Star by Mem Fox & Freya Blackwood (Puffin Australia)
  • How to Make a Movie in 12 Days by Fiona Hardy (Affirm Press)
  • Mr Chicken All Over Australia by Leigh Hobbs (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • The Painted Ponies by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • Young Dark Emu: A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books)
  • A Trip to the Beach by Gwyn Perkins (Affirm Press)
  • The Glimme by Emily Rodda, illustrated by Marc McBride (Omnibus Books)


  • The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (Pan Australia)
  • Aurora Rising: The Aurora Cycle 1 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
  • It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing)
  • Monuments by Will Kostakis (Lothian Children’s Books)
  • Weapon by Lynette Noni (Pantera Press)
  • Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard (Fremantle Press)
  • Land of Fences by Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
  • This Is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)
  • I Am Change by Suzy Zail (Walker Books Australia)

Making a big claim for the significance of these awards, their website says that they are the most democratic because

it’s the Australian independent booksellers themselves who nominate their best titles for the year; select the Longlist; judge the Shortlist and vote for the Category and Book of the Year winners. […] Announced early in the award calendar year, The Indie Book Awards are now considered the forerunners of all major Australian book awards.

Well, I hope not.  I’m not disputing the merits of the books: those I’ve read are good reading, and I’m pleased to see two Indigenous authors on the Fiction list and two more on the Non Fiction list.  But I also see what’s not included in those lists.  Certainly as far as the Fiction list is concerned, nearly all the books are published by the big publishers, who have the biggest publicity and marketing machines, and the authors are all well-established authors who can guarantee sales.  These titles will be popular, and good luck to them too, I want more Australian authors to be successful like that as well. But, IMHO, most of the best, most innovative, most thought-provoking Australian fiction which will still be read in the years ahead, comes from independent publishing, which is prepared to take risks.  But they are mostly not represented in these lists.  Flick through the 66 Australian books published in 2019 that I’ve reviewed (so far this year), and you can see why I’m not disposed to acquiesce in the Indie longlists as indicative of the 2020 award season.  It has been good to see that the Miles Franklin has broadened its horizons to include more nominations from small and indie publishers. I’d like other awards to do that too.

So, congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, but I hope that there will also be plenty of other names turning up in the longlists for other awards.

The Poison of Polygamy has to be the most exotic book I’ve read this year. It certainly has the most compelling title…

This is the blurb:

Serialised in 1909–10, The Poison of Polygamy is a rare gem of Australian literature.

The first novel of the Chinese Australian experience, it is a roller-coaster tale of blackmail, murder, betrayal and even thylacine attack, partly based on real people, places and events. Revealing the human face of migration between imperial China and colonial Australia, it recounts the story of a man from southern China who tries his luck on the Victorian goldfields, the wife he leaves behind, and their eventual fraught reunion.

In this bilingual parallel edition, Australia’s and possibly the West’s earliest Chinese-language novel is presented in English translation for the first time. Illuminating introductions explore the work’s historical, cultural and linguistic context, and establish its unique significance in Australia’s literary and social history.

Wong Shee Ping c.1915 (Wikipedia*)

The book begins with a comprehensive Introduction, which, contrary to whatever one’s usual custom, should be read first, because it explains the book’s context and unique characteristics.  It comprises:

  • a profile, written by historian Michael Williams, of the author Wong Shee Ping, and the story of how he came to be identified after years of anonymity; then
  • there is a chapter by Mei-fen Kuo and Michael Williams, entitled ‘Why is polygamy poisonous? An historical context.’ It gives background information about Chinese migration during the Goldrush, and how the themes of the novel mesh with Wong Shee Ping’s political and social preoccupations; followed by
  • the Translator’s introduction, by Ely Finch, which explains the intricacies of Literary Chinese as distinct from translating Mandarin.

The novella follows, in bilingual format, the English translation on the LHS and the Chinese, reproduced from scans of the newspaper The Chinese Times on the RHS.  Extensive footnotes explaining everything from cultural issues to the symbolism of the text can take up a good bit of both pages. This is how it looks:

The Poison of Polygamy, pp. 138-9

So while the book is 446 pages long the actual story is 318 pages and half of those are in Chinese, so the length of the story in English is a mere 159 pages, and with much of that being footnotes, the story can be read in a day.

There are also appendices (probably of more interest to scholars) and maps (which are of great interest to Melburnians who can identify the sites of C19th Chinese businesses where the action takes place.  There are also some photos, including one of a Chinese Nationalist Party convention outside a building designed by Walter Burley Griffin.)

  • Appendix I: Character names and connotations
  • Appendix II: The romanisations used in the translation and the footnotes
  • Appendix III: Business names
  • Appendix IV: The newspaper business and Chinese Australians
  • Appendix V: Place names
  • Maps


This story of the Chinese Diaspora in the Goldrush era has a unique place in our literary history.  It’s thought to be the first Chinese-language fiction in Australia (and perhaps the world) and the novella’s serialisation in Melbourne’s Chinese Times, makes it a very special cultural artefact.

Wong Shee Ping was a Christian preacher, a Chinese revolutionary and a member of a prominent family in Victoria’s Chinese business community. He is reported to have spoken little English, yet he made it his mission to espouse Western-influenced values and ideas. His authorial interventions in the story make it clear that there was a didactic purpose to his writing.  He ascribed the entire problem of Chinese poverty to the prevailing government of the Manchu dynasty, whose exploitative regime made it necessary for families to be separated for many years while the husband worked in destinations far from home.  He is scathing about the position of Chinese women, whose lack of education and subservient position made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, as well as making them ‘silly’.  But he reserves his most potent condemnation for the practice of concubinage, which was destructive of family values and insulting to the senior wife.

The story begins in China, with the central character Wong Sheung Hong and his hapless wife Ma.  Sheung Hong is an opium addict, and a barely literate man, without any fixed vocation, who, while cruelly greedy by nature, had not a penny to his name. Ma, consistent with the expectations of a Confucian society, cares for his old mother, but remains childless. When they get into serious financial strife and have pawned everything they own, Sheung Hong takes up an offer of assistance from his friend, and together they set off for the Victorian Goldfields, leaving Ma to get by on foraged herbs.

The journey by sailing ship is fraught, eclipsed only by the horrors of the overland trek from South Australia to the Goldfields.  (Due to immigration restrictions imposed on the Chinese by the then colonial government, Chinese migrant workers landed in South Australia and trekked overland to Victoria).  Only thirteen of about 70 men survive hunger and thirst, getting lost, being attacked by a Tasmanian Tiger (!) and by Aborigines.  However, once they arrive at the Goldfields, a combination of hard work and (mostly) good luck enables them to prosper.  In time, they set up successful businesses in Melbourne and form a thriving community there.

Meanwhile, Ma endures loneliness and anxiety, waiting for letters (which she cannot read) and remittances (which are irregular).  Wong Shee Ping writes very movingly about the plight of this woman, and her struggle to come to terms with a state of semi-widowhood.  What she doesn’t realise, however, is that her troubles are only just beginning.  When Sheung Hong eventually comes home after many years away, his money burns a hole in his pocket, and before long he has to return to work, managing his friend’s store in Melbourne.  Where he begins to desire a second wife.

And while the reader has very little sympathy for this wastrel, the author clearly explains how lonely men in the diaspora were torn between the values of the West and their homeland.

‘Who knows how many of our countrymen residing overseas have married Western women,’ replied Kung.  ‘In my humble opinion, though, it is at heart a source of displeasure for them.  Why? Upper-class Western women are constrained by racial boundaries, and would almost never lower themselves to accede to intermarriage.  Harlots from the lower class, one would not wish to marry.  And while those of the middle class do occasionally marry, they are as rare as morning stars.  If men should come by them, though, they show in the end too an exalted sense of feminism, and no sense of frugality, so scarcely any such couples keep by each other into their white-haired years.  As to the daughters of Chinese fathers and Western mothers, in the extravagance to which they are accustomed to aspire, and their unbridled feminism, they do not fall short of Westerners, but tend rather to exceed them.  However, they lack the comprehensive education of the Westerners, and the subservient nature of the Chinese.  And their barbarous liberty is not dissimilar to that of the so-called women of liberty in China today’.  (p. 256)

(A footnote explains that the reference to ‘women of liberty’ refers to Western-influenced women in China who were assertive with men, and insisted on their own choice of husband.)

Well, Sheung Hong gets much, much more than he bargained for when he wangles getting a Chinese concubine to Melbourne.  She humiliates him in the community, and when she accompanies him back home to China, she does much worse.

The style of the translation is charming.  Literary Chinese is apparently completely different to the Chinese used for modern writing, resulting in quaint expressions like this one:

Throughout the day Sheung Hong was in the shop, and unbeknownst to him, his house’s interior was the very semblance of a brothel’s, wild bees and wandering butterflies going unceasingly to and fro.  (p.328.)

(A footnote explains that ‘wild bees and wandering butterflies’ is an allusion to ‘womanisers and philanderers’, bees and butterflies having a fondness for flowers, which in Chinese represent women. The Chinese character for ‘wandering’ also has the meaning of ‘loose’ or ‘dissolute’, which is lost in translation.)

One thing that startled me, and wasn’t explained (unless I missed it) was the Chinese practice of buying unwanted children, if there is a prospect of the family line dying out.  Perhaps it had to do with families being unable to support all their children in an era without birth control, but the author is very matter-of-fact about it, with no thought for the relinquishing mothers.  It seems rather chilling to me.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot about all manner of things Chinese while reading it.  While it has a lively plot and a thrilling denouement and it’s perfectly readable for the everyday reader, I’d recommend it more for people who are curious about Chinese history, culture and language.  And scholars of literary Chinese will find the bilingual layout perfect for their purposes.

The Poison of Polygamy was featured on Radio National’s The History Listen program. 

Image credit:

  • Wong Shee Ping c.1915, Trove, via Wikipedia (Portuguese edition).  This Wikipedia page says the photo is from an ‘unknown photographic studio’, but the book identifies it as the Burlington Studios, 294 Bourke Street Melbourne, and they credit its source as the Kuo Min Tang Society of Melbourne.

Author: Wong Shee Ping
Title: The Poison of Polygamy
Series: China and the West in the Modern World
Publisher: SUP (Sydney University Press), 2019, 446 pages, but see above re the actual length of the story.
First published as a serial in 1909-1910 in the Chinese Times, Melbourne
ISBN: 9781743326022
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press

Available from the SUP website and Fishpond:The Poison of Polygamy: A Social Novel (China and the West in the Modern World)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlists

The 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced today.

Category winners receive $25,000 and are eligible for the overall Victorian Prize for Literature, worth an additional $100,000, (the most valuable literary award in Australia).

You can vote for the People’s Choice Award(worth $2000) here until 5pm Monday 20 January 2020.

The winners will be announced in 2020.

Fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Act of Grace by Anna Krien (Black Inc.), see my review
  • Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
  • Simpson Returns by Wayne Macauley (Text Publishing), on my TBR
  • The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab (Giramondo Publishing), on my TBR
  • The Yield by Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House), see my review

Non-fiction, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us about Digital Technology by Lizzie O’Shea (Verso)
  • Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse by Jess Hill (Black Inc.)
  • Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women (Allen & Unwin)
  • Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Girls by Chloe Higgins (Picador Australia)

Drama, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt (Currency Press, in association with Queensland Theatre and Griffin Theatre)
  • Counting and Cracking by S.Shakthidharan and Associate Writer Eamon Flack (Belvoir and Co-Curious)
  • Them by Samah Sabawi (La Mama Theatre, in association with Samah Sabawi and Lara Week)

Poetry, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • Birth Plan by L.K. Holt (Vagabond Press)
  • Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green (Cordite Books)
  • Yuiquimbiang by Louise Crisp (Cordite Books)

Writing for Young Adults, worth $25,000 to the winner

  • How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard (Fremantle Press)
  • This is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text Publishing)

Unpublished Manuscript, worth $15,000 to the winner

  • A Million Things by Emily Spurr
  • Hovering by Rhett Davis
  • In Real Life by Allee Richards

Highly commended

Hmmm, no fiction in the Highly Commended section?


Castaway: The extraordinary survival story of Narcisse Pelletier, a young French cabin boy shipwrecked on Cape York in 1858 by Robert Macklin (Hachette Australia)

The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia by Tim Bonyhady (Text Publishing)

The Thinking Woman by Julienne van Loon (NewSouth Publishing)


  • Anthem by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela (Performing Lines in association with Arts Centre Melbourne)
  • White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King (Samuel French, in association with Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta)


Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press)

The Future Keepers by Nandi Chinna (Fremantle Press)

Young Adult

  • Highway Bodies by Alison Evans (Echo Publishing)
  • Where the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn (Allen & Unwin)

Unpublished Manuscript

  • I’ll hold you by Jenni Mazaraki

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

The Quiet Revolution, Boyer lectures 2012, by Marcia Langton

Every year, ABC Radio invites a public intellectual to give a series of lectures. Inaugurated in 1959 as ABC Lectures, they were renamed as the Boyer Lectures in 1961 as a memorial to Sir Richard Boyer, who as chairman of the ABC had led their introduction.  (You can see past programs and still listen to some of them, here.)

In 2012, Professor Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara people of Queensland, introduced the 53rd series of lectures with a statement that is probably still true today:

The emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades has gone largely unnoticed. (p.31)

While she acknowledges that the numbers are small, they portend  an economic future for Aboriginal people unimaginable fifty years ago. Langton herself, she tells us later in the lectures, was born at a time when Indigenous people weren’t even counted in the census and were excluded through institutional forms of racial discrimination, from every opportunity for advancement.  Indeed, she notes that when in 1968 W.E.H. Stanner gave the Boyer Lectures, After the Dreaming, Black and White Australians, an anthropologist’s view —

— he gave credence, perhaps inadvertently, to the widely held assumption that Aboriginal life was incompatible with modern economic life.  Today, the expectation is quite the reverse. (p. 31)

Indeed it is, and Langton is at her most convincing in the case she makes for a remarkable change in northern Australia, where the Mabo case, and the Native Title Act have enabled opportunities in the mining industry on Indigenous land.  This has led to a surge in employment, home ownership, education and training plus the emergence of spin-off enterprises owned by Indigenous people.  She is quite right when she that these are not the images we see in the media where the focus is nearly always on poverty, disadvantage and violence.  Most Australians, she says, have no idea about the transformation of northern Australia…

But Langton has a combative stance, and she accompanies this good news story with a harsh critique of Left politics, claiming that they hang on to the idea of the ‘new noble savage’, with a preference for describing Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage through a romantic lens.  She is a fierce critic of their implicit support for welfare dependency and their campaigns against economic development on Aboriginal land.  Likewise, she has not a good word to say for government activity, which she dismisses as a roundabout of bureaucrats, agencies, websites, application forms and absurd meetings.  Most contentiously, perhaps, she takes on Tim Flannery as an advocate for the conservation of wilderness areas.  The word wilderness is consistently enclosed in inverted commas to indicate her rejection of the term: what is described by Flannery and others as ‘wilderness’ implies pristine land which has never been part of the economy.  Langton argues that it is no such thing: that these lands were an integral part of the Indigenous economy which was displaced by settlement.  Setting these places aside as sacrosanct National Parks, she says, denies their traditional owners the opportunity to make economic use of their land.

The critique of the left, and of Tim Flannery brought a strong response, from Left groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, the Green Movement, aggrieved academics, and those who attacked her links with mining industries (here).  There is a strong defence of her position here.

All this is old news.  What is still relevant is Langton’s unease about the future, because she was writing as the mining boom began to falter in response to changes in Chinese demand.  Employment in northern Australia consists of three elements: tourism; conservation and land management and mining.  (I think the ADF is a key employer too, but that’s just an impression I have from my reading of Our Mob Served).  It would be more than just interesting to know how Indigenous economic participation has weathered the end of the mining boom; it seems to me that it’s a matter of social justice for Australians to know about this.  Perhaps I’ve missed a Quarterly Essay or a Four Corners report about it, and I’d welcome suggestions for further reading about this.

Author: Marcia Langton
Title: The Quiet Revolution, Indigenous people and the resources boom, (Boyer Lectures 2012)
Publisher: ABC Books, (Harper Collins), 2013, 175 pages
ISBN: 9780733331633
Source: Port Phillip Library

Events like the recent London Bridge stabbing tend to test our tolerance—even when we know that these atrocities are perpetrated by extremists, and there’s ample evidence that extremists aren’t limited to any particular creed or culture, or even to our modern era.  When I sat down yesterday to write a review of a sentimental short story that’s a plea for understanding of the Islamic religion, the timing felt all wrong.  I’m not sure that the timing is any better today—I’m quite sure that if I went looking on Twitter or Facebook there would be all kinds of intemperate trolling going on, and that might be the least of it…


Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an) by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is a short story that I read in French for the bookclub organised by A French Journey where I have French classes once a week.  The book is one of a series called The Cycle of the Invisible, each of which tackles a different religion: one of the tasks we tackled at bookgroup was to translate a brief description to guess which religion the various titles explored.

This short story of only 75 pages in a tiny A6 edition was originally a play, based on the life of the author’s friend.  The sole character was Moïse, looking back over his life growing up in Paris.  It was rewritten as a short story in 2001 and adapted for the screen in 2003.

(This trailer is in French, if you need subtitles, try this, but the film quality is terrible).

Set in the 1960s in Paris, Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran tells a story of cross-cultural friendship.  Moïse a.k.a. Momo is a boy of eleven living in the Jewish quarter of Paris, and when the story opens he has raided his piggy-bank to pay for his first visit to a prostitute.   It has taken him four months to save up from the meagre amount his father gives him to do the shopping. He supplements the groceries by shoplifting from the local shopkeeper, Monsieur Ibrahim, with whom eventually he develops a friendship.

Momo is a very lonely boy.  His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, taking his older brother Popol with her, and his father constantly compares him unfavourably to this absent brother. He is a remote and troubled man, not revealed to have lost all his family in the Holocaust until part way through the story.  Momo’s need for a father figure becomes more than emotional after his father dies, and he devises an elaborate system of deception so that no one knows he is living alone.  With words of wisdom from the Qur’an, and advice about smiling more often, Monsieur Ibrahim guides Momo on a coming-of-age journey which takes them to the Golden Crescent where he was born.

It is a sentimental story, and consistent with the rest of the books in the series, it has religious overtones.  But it seems to me that — although written in the wake of 9/11 — it could only have been set in the 1960s, before hostility between Israel and Palestine became entrenched, i.e. before the PLO was founded in 1964 and the onset of militancy in 1965, before Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, and before  the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987. There is an innocence about this friendship that transcends differences in religion, but with half a century of violence and retaliation in the Middle East and the global phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, the barriers are probably harder to surmount now.

Bizarrely, The Book Depository delivered a German edition of this book: the text was in French, but all the footnotes explaining the slang and cultural references were in German.  So where the dictionary and Google Translate failed me, I remained none the wiser!

Author: Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Title: Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an)
Publisher: Reclam, 2012, first published in 2001
ISBN: 9783150091180
Source: Personal library, purchased from A French Journey


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2019

Rogue Herries, (The Herries Chronicles #1), by Hugh Walpole

Apart from its soporific qualities, I really don’t know what possessed me to read this book! I was browsing at the library when my eye fell upon the spines of the Herries Chronicles, each one of them 4cm wide — which meant that the author’s name was in very large font and I recognised it as Hugh Walpole, the author so wickedly lampooned in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (which I’d read recently courtesy of the 1930s Club). So it’s not as if I didn’t know what I was in for, all 736 pages of it…

Yet the book was widely praised.  Walpole was a best-selling author in his day (and he was astonishingly prolific).  This is the blurb from Fishpond:

Described on its first publication by John Buchan as the finest English novel since Jude the Obscure, Rogue Herries tells the story of the larger than life Francis Herries who uproots his family from Yorkshire and brings them to live in Borrowdale where their life is as dramatic as the landscape surrounding them. Proud, violent and impetuous, he despises his first wife, sells his mistress at a county fair and forms a great love for the teenage gypsy Mirabell Starr. Alongside this turbulent story, runs that of his son David, with enemies of his own, and that of his gentle daughter Deborah with placid dreams that will not be realised in her father’s house. ‘As a feat both of knowledge and imagination the book is huge‘ (The Observer); ‘A superb work of fiction. There is not one tired listless page‘ (J.B. Priestly, The Graphic).

For me, the problem is that the characterisation is set in stone.  Francis Herries is proud, violent, impetuous and spectacularly stubborn when he’s young, and he’s just the same when he’s old.  He takes offence at his brother’s criticism of his decision to live in Borrowdale and never crosses the threshold again.  The love of his life, Mirabell is devastated by the death of her gorgeous young lover Harry, and she never gets over it.  David, Frances Herries’ son (by his long suffering but *surprise!* devoted wife Margaret who conveniently dies when she’s in the way of the plot), takes a childhood dislike to a cousin and is still nursing this grudge in his forties, to the dismay of his wife who *surprise!* gently rebukes him for it and *surprise!* he takes no notice.  Nobody changes, nobody grows in maturity or wisdom.

The setting is the Lake District, so there are dramatic views and dreary fogs, and the story begins with the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 which probably meant a lot more to British readers of the 1930s than it does to those of us with a weak grasp of British history and its succession squabbles.  What did surprise me as an aficionado of Outlander was that there were no consequences for Herries and his failure to support the winning side, but no, Herries is left alone to continue being a rogue as per the title.  Actually, I suspect that Walpole forgot about the mysterious priest who surfaces on and off during the rebellion, because we never find out if he was a spy or what he was up to.

Did Walpole’s English readers from the 1930s like his generalisations about their national characteristics?

Herries did not care for property; they were too proud to think it worth while to amass it.  They cared so much for family, for their own standing, their own importance in England, that no vulgar amassing of wealth could do anything but damage their self-approval.  But then again their family pride was so unself-conscious, so completely taken for granted, that they never thought of it, talked of it or defended it.  The English have always had this quality of confident security, and this makes them remote from the rest of the world  and will always isolate them whether their island continues to be an island or no.  It accounts for their universal unpopularity, for their insular stubbornness, their hypocrisy and their profound calm in a crisis.  It accounts also for a generous warmth of heart hidden under an absurd armour of frigid suspicion of strangers.  It accounts for their poetry, their lack of imagination, their peculiar humour, their irritating conceit and ignorance in foreign countries [including the ones they colonised], and a certain naïve youthfulness which is both absurd and attractive.  (p.606-7)

As family sagas go, this one is probably no better or worse than many others, but it’s just a story without any particular theme and it’s often repetitive. Somerset Maugham had a point after all…

Author: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941)
Title: Rogue Herries (The Herries Chronicles #1)
Introduction by Eric Robson
Publisher: Frances Lincoln, London, 2008, first published 1930, 736 pages
ISBN: 9780711228894
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Rogue Herries (Herries Chronicles)

Like most people in Australia, I don’t usually have shelf-space for books written by Australian politicians.  I don’t mind the occasional political bio such as David Day’s biographies of Curtin and Chifley, but there are only two here on the blog: Margaret Simon’s recent biography of Senator Penny Wong (see my review here) and a very disappointing one of former SA Premier Don DunstanCraig Emerson’s autobiography was another exception.  But when it comes to politicians writing books about their political views, well, I’d rather do my tax return…

However, occasionally a book gets under my guard.  Some readers may remember that I reviewed Two Futures, Australia at a Crossroads about four years ago. It was written by two Labor politicians, (then) backbencher Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts, and the book explored Australia’s long-term future.  It was because I admired that book that I bought Tim Watts’ new one, and it’s turned out to be rather interesting.

(You may remember that it was the catalyst for my recent reading of Bigger or Better, Australia’s Population Debate by Ian Lowe).

As the federal member for Gellibrand, one of Melbourne’s most ethnically diverse suburbs, Watts is witness to the transformation of our society since the infamous White Australia policy was ditched, and this book is a thoughtful exploration of how that came about, as well as a discussion about how this diversity isn’t always reflected in our institutions such as parliament or the board room.

Although this diversity isn’t reflected in rural and regional areas, it seems that survey after survey reveals that Australians are mostly comfortable with multiculturalism, and we don’t (in contrast to monocultures like Japan) tend to feel that you have to be born here to be ‘truly Australian’.  But what is expected is that it’s very important to ‘share national customs and traditions’ to be truly Australian.  

This, says Watts, is a strong platform on which to build a national identity that is based on shared values and experiences, rather than birthright or ethnicity. And what are those elements of our culture that we are expected to conform to?  Oh dear, I fail two of the four that are reported as being ‘especially Australian’: 

  • ‘belief in the fair go (89%);
  • ‘love of the great outdoors’ (89%);
  • ‘a sense of humour’ (89%); and
  • ‘interest in sport’ (82%) (p.122)

Yes, you guessed it, I am not interested in the great outdoors (except for vineyards), and I have no interest in any sport, of any kind.  So notwithstanding having lived and worked and paid taxes here for over half a century, and despite my love of Australian literature, my fondness for my city, and the homesickness that assails me within three weeks of a long-anticipated overseas holiday, it turns out that I am unAustralian.

OTOH 78% of respondents said that was ‘especially Australian’ to have a diversity of background, and I’ve got that, so I expect I’ll get over it:)

Watts is optimistic about the way Australians perceive themselves:

Australians view themselves as egalitarians in norms and manners, connected with the land and the outdoors, open to newcomers to our country, but anxious to preserve Australian values as they are.  When you ask Australians how they feel about national identity and the new diversity in our nation, you hear a much more optimistic story than you would if you listen only to out polarised political debate. (p.122)

Amen to that!

However, I take issue with the suggestion that Australia’s national memory of the First World War is partly shaped by bias.  Watts reminds us of the primacy of the story of Simpson and his Donkey, and compares that with the anonymity of a sniper called Billy Sing.  (You might remember that I reviewed Ouyang Yu’s book about him in 2017).

Billy Sing was born in Clermont in outback Queensland, the country of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the great shearing strikes of the 1890s.  He was a stockman, cane-cutter, cricketer and kangaroo shooter who was said to be able to shoot the tail off a piglet from twenty-five yards when still a boy.  He was a joker and a larrikin whose commanding officer wrote of him: ‘I don’t think there was a man better known or respected and liked throughout the regiment and he deserved it.  He was a good-hearted, well-behaved fellow and a braver soldier never shouldered a gun.’ Sing was the living embodiment of the Australian Legend in a way that Simpson could never be. (p. 71)

He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, was wounded three times, and gassed at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.  But his only mention in Bean’s Official History is in a caption to a photo, which reads ‘Trooper W. E. Sing, 5th Light Horse Regiment, with his observer.  It was estimated that Sing had shot 250 Turks.  Although this was an exaggeration, he was probably the most effective sniper at Anzac.’ (p.70)

That, I think, is why Sing never became a national hero.  IMO It’s got nothing to do with him being ethnically Chinese. A stretcher-bearer is a unifying figure, and a healing one, for a nation in mourning.  Whatever the value of a sniper in military operations, there is something distasteful about a soldier concealed from the enemy picking off victims one-by-one.  It may be necessary, it is obviously brave, and self-evidently it takes great skill, but the mourning families and subsequent generations of Australian schoolchildren would, I think, have felt uneasy about any sniper as the embodiment of Anzac.

But Watts covers a great many more issues that this one.  For a wide-ranging review, see The Guardian.

Author: Tim Watts
Title: The Golden Country, Australia’s Changing Identity
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 231 pages
ISBN: 9781925603989
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $25.87

Available from Fishpond: The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2019

Author event: Tony Kevin in conversation with Caitlin Johnstone

I was in distinguished company tonight to hear journalist Caitlin Johnstone launch Tony Kevin’s new book at Readings in Hawthorn: eminent advocate for human rights and refugees, Julian Burnside AO QC was there, and so were other names and faces that I recognised.  It was a good crowd, keenly interested to hear what he had to say.

Emeritus Fellow of the Australian National University, Tony Kevin is a former diplomat and foreign affairs adviser with an impressive CV (which you can explore in full at his website.) He had postings in the USSR, to the United Nations, in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and as Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia.  Since retirement he has become the successful, prize-winning author of several notable books:

  • A Certain Maritime Incident: the Sinking of SIEV X (Scribe Publications, 2004) was awarded the 2005 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Multicultural Writing and also the 2005 ACT Book of the Year Award;
  • Walking the Camino, (Scribe Publications, first published 2007),  a literary-historical-political travel memoir of his pilgrimage walk through Spain in 2004, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award in 2008. See my review here;
  • Crunch Time, (Scribe Publications, 2009) is an exploration of the causes and proposed remedies to Australia’s global warming climate crisis;
  • Reluctant Rescuers, (self-published, 2012).  It investigated deaths at sea under the Rudd and Gillard Australian Labor governments from 2009 to 2012, from sinkings of overloaded unseaworthy SIEV vessels trying to reach Australia from Indonesia, years during which around 1600 asylum seekers drowned at sea.
  • Return to Moscow (UWAP, 2017) is a cultural-historical-political literary travel memoir of an independent journey he made to Russia in Jan-Feb 2016. See my review here.

Although all of these books have ‘rocked the boat’ to some extent or another, it was this last book, he says, that has made him an ‘outsider’.  Return to Moscow sold well,  it had media coverage, and he was invited to literary festivals (such as the 2018 Melbourne Jewish Book Week where I heard him speak in a panel discussion with Andrea Goldsmith and Jonathan Perlman, discussing ‘The Language of Politics‘).  But within a short space of time, this book which challenged the new Cold War rhetoric, led to closed doors.  He thinks he’s been ‘de-platformed’: despite his expertise he isn’t invited to be on government or university panels, ABC discussion panels, writers festivals, and not even the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. He has had to self-publish his new book Russia and the West, the last two action packed years 2017-2019. As Caitlin Johnstone said, ‘it’s not ok to think Russia is ok.’

The new book is a companion to Return to Moscow which made a persuasive case that under Putin, Russia has improved on many indicators.  It has transtioned from being a failed state to one with a successful capitalist economy and a welfare system providing a safety net for its citizens.  It is coming to terms with its traumatic past (Stalin, anti-Semitism &c) and it pays homage to the 25 million war dead from WW2.   They have rational reasons for their defensive measures, not least the NATO missiles on their borders.

So it makes good sense for the West to have a good relationship with Russia, and yet, as you will know if you pay any attention to the news, the anti-Russian narrative is growing in intensity.  Crucially, the mainstream media is disseminating only one point of view, that Russia is a pariah state.  All the old Cold War rhetoric is back, although communism is dead and buried. And in a bizarre twist, as US politics becomes more and more dysfunctional, politicians have woven Russiaphobia into their narratives, so much so that there are now two competing conspiracy theories, one implicating Russia and the other implicating Ukraine. Australia ought to have an independent stance on Russia, but, according to Tony Kevin, DFAT is now only an implementation agency and Security Agencies (working with the Five Eyes espionage alliance) make policy instead.

Julian Burnside had the last word: you can only resist the system if you know what’s going on, and the West is really good at making sure we don’t know it.

And as an example, which horrified me when I got home to Google what he was talking about, he invoked the US indemnity and cover-up of Japan’s Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).  The Russians prosecuted 12 of the perpetrators in separate war trials, but the US never held any of them to account, and what they did was infinitely worse than anything Mengele inflicted on his victims.  (The Wikipedia article that details the human suffering and the number of people killed is sickening, I wish I hadn’t read it).

Russia and the West: the last two action-packed years 2017-2019, by Tony Kevin is on sale RRP $25 at bookshop events,  or may be posted now for $30 including postage.
Orders to  or TXT message to  0414822171. Payment in advance by Paypal to Tony Kevin.

I haven’t read the book yet, but you can see a review at Eureka Street here.

Further author events are at:

  • Brisbane Wednesday 27 Nov Avid Reader Bookshop, West End , 6 for 6.30 pm , with JAMES O’NEILL, barrister-at-law and geopolitical analyst.
  • Sydney THURSDAY  5 December Gleebooks Glebe, 6 for 6.30 pm, with Bob Carr.  Professor the Honourable Bob Carr was Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) from 2014-2019, and Professor in International Relations. He is now Industry Professor of Climate and Business at the Institute of Sustainable Futures at UTS. Professor Carr is a former Foreign Minister of Australia (2012-2013). He is also the longest continuously serving Premier in New South Wales history (1995-2005).
  • Interview with Phillip Adams on Radio National, on Wednesday this week. 
Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2019

‘Summer’, in Ethan Frome and Summer, by Edith Wharton

The Constable Edith Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome (which I’ve reviewed here) and Summer.  Summer fits nicely into Novellas in November and I’ll be adding it to my Twitter feed with #NovNov.

As the excellent Introduction by Michael Millgate tells us, Summer and Ethan Frome are both set in the moribund back blocks of New England, apparently part of Edith Wharton’s purpose deliberately to challenge the established literary image of the New England countryside, and he quotes from her autobiography A Backward Glance:

For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett. In those days the snow-bound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village streets, or in the isolated farmhouses on the neighbouring hills; and Emily Brontë would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors.  (Introduction, p.13)

What Millgate doesn’t explain is how the wealthy and fashionable wife of a conventional man came to know this.  Yes, Wharton got her hands dirty in her voluntary work during WW1, but that was literally a world away from the setting of this novella.  What on earth could she have known about life as it really was?  Who, living that life, was going to tell this rich, elegant stranger about it?  Was it what’s called ‘common knowledge’? or not spoken about because it conflicted with America’s view of itself? or was it demonising of poor and disadvantaged people, what we might call ‘othering’ today? I couldn’t find anything specific about the mountain people of New England, but I found in a Wikipedia article about hillbillies, that stereotyping of rural Appalachians causes feelings of shame, self-hatred, and detachment […] as a result of “culturally transmitted traumatic stress syndrome” and that they are blamed for their own economic hardships because of labelling as moonshiners and welfare cheats.

[After I’d finished my review, I found Simon’s at Tredynas Days, and he says that Wharton set her story in the area similar to the Berkshires where the author had built a house and got to know the locality and its dour rural inhabitants.  But he also goes on to question what kind of ‘knowing’ that might be, characterising it as passing through these places in her large car with Henry James.  I think many contemporary readers might also feel a bit uneasy about the judgements Wharton passes on these people. What kind of ‘knowing’ takes place when a wealthy woman builds a house, presumably insulated from the fading town and its mountain inhabitants by extensive gardens and servants? Did she ‘know’?  Or did she absorb gossip, stereotyping and suspicion at some remove?]

Whatever about that, the central character in Summer is constantly reminded that she is well out of it when brought down from the mountain as a child, by the lawyer Royall.  She is renamed as Charity, and she takes his surname, but everyone in the town of North Dormer knows more about her antecedents than she does and they won’t forget it. All she knows is that she has been lucky to escape a sordid life among sordid people.  And as you’d expect in a small town in an era where girls had only two options, marriage or spinsterhood, her prospects were compromised by her dubious personal history.

Two complications arise: as she enters adolescence Lawyer Royall is attracted to Charity and she also attracts the attention of Lucius Harney from out of town.   1001 Books says that Royall’s tentative approach raises the spectre of incest, but I can’t see it.  Royall might be her unofficial guardian, but they are not related at all, and the horror of incest in this context of a closed rural community implies inbreeding with all the problems that ensue—it’s an implication that does not apply, not unless the reader draws a long bow and perceives a biological relationship between Royall and the client who asks him to rescue his child or alternatively with Charity’s mother.  IMO, reading this in the 21st century, it seems to me to be more of a #MeToo situation… Obviously, any relationship between them while Charity is underage is inappropriate given the age and power differences between them, and it’s morally dubious to express desire to a vulnerable young woman who has nowhere else to go, even if Royall does back off when she has the courage to reject him.  We might well judge Royall for his behaviour, but that’s not IMO to say it’s incest.

Lucius Harney, OTOH, is closer to Charity in age, the attraction is mutual, and the slow dalliance hints at male respect to some extent.  Harney’s character is not entirely what 19th century British novelists would call a ‘cad’ or a ‘bounder’.  It would be a dull and predictable story if he were.  However, what Charity takes too long to realise is that the social gulf between them makes a future impossible, even if he’s not just enjoying himself with a naïve young girl during his sojourn.  Wharton’s coyness about sexuality leaves it open to the reader to interpret what happens as the expression of mutual sexual passion rather than the act of a more sophisticated male taking advantage of an innocent girl.  Whichever way the reader perceives their romance, the stark reality of Charity’s choices are vividly depicted when Harney leaves town and she flees to what she thinks is her real ‘home’ where in her misery she feels that she ‘belongs’.

Millgate thinks Summer is superior to Ethan Frome about which he says it could be argued that it is lacking in genuine emotional depth and that its most striking effects are achieved by shock tactics most suited to the ghost story.  He thinks Summer is more humane and that the frankness and directness of the presentation of the passionate Charity Royall and the subtle treatment of her relationship with Lawyer Royall […] gives a broader range of relevance. 

I’m not so sure about that.  The sense of entrapment and a wasted life is much stronger in Ethan Frome: we see the tragedy of it in the unforgettable final chapter.  Summer hints that Charity’s future is not as bleak, and while far from a fairy tale ending to a Cinderella story, it’s not as powerful IMO as Ethan Frome. 

The citation in 1001 Books has this to say:

The ending is ambiguous, and continues to mystify and divide readers: does it represent capitulation to the conformism of a small-minded and parochial community, or is it to be interpreted as a genuine resolution of the conflicts it has so convincingly dramatised?

Female despair, or making the best of things when choices are limited? What do other readers think?

PS See Simon’s review at Tredynas Days here.

Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Title: ‘Ethan Frome’ in Ethan Frome and Summer
Publisher: Constable & Co, London, 1965, 272 pages
ISBN: none
Source: Port Phillip Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2019

‘Ethan Frome’, in Ethan Frome and Summer, by Edith Wharton

The Constable Edith Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome and Summer, but I am reviewing them separately because whether or not Edith Wharton considered them ‘inseparable’ as claimed in the default description at Goodreads, they were published six years apart in 1911 and 1917 respectively; one is a short story and the other is a novella; and I read them separately too, with other books in between.  Both are included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, along with The House of Mirth (1905), Bunner Sisters (1916), The Age of Innocence (1920, which won the Pulitzer Prize), and Glimpses of the Moon (1922, see my review).

The Reef, however, isn’t included in 1001 Books, and I wasn’t surprised to find that in the Introduction to this edition, Michael Millgate says that although Henry James admired it (no doubt because it is the most Jamesian of Wharton’s works), later critics have commonly been less certain of the quality of The Reef.  It seems they have the same reservations as I do that the exploration of the central situation only succeeds in inflating it beyond all reasonable proportion. i.e. Anna Leath making a mountain out of a premarital molehill, but see my review for how I came round to the view that the novel is really about trust not sexual propriety.

Michael Millgate‘s Introduction to this edition of Ethan Frome and Summer really is excellent.  Written for this 1965 edition, it predates a biography of Wharton, so its 23 pages include biographical details about her childhood, her unfortunate marriage and divorce, her life in France including her war service, and a good discussion of not only Ethan Frome and Summer but also her other works as well.  Speculating before the availability of her private papers in the Yale Library, which were embargoed till 1968, he writes:

It is a familiar and curious point of speculation whether the inadequacy, in one way or another, of the men in Edith Wharton’s life can be said to have influenced the presentation of her fictional heroes.  Certainly the heroes are all, in the final analysis, less than heroic, unable to confront with sufficient strength or resolution the demands of the situations in which they find themselves, incapable of meeting the needs of the women who depend on them. (Introduction, p. 15)

Well, presumably there is an authoritative bio by now, and perhaps someone who’s read it, can answer that question!


Ethan Frome is (as 1001 Books says) about sexual frustration and moral despair.  Like Summer, it’s set in a turn-of-the-century New England farming community, or what we might less charitably call the backblocks i.e. impoverished rural communities characterised by limited opportunity and populated by people with little education or wider experience of the world.  The reader is introduced to Ethan Frome in the Prologue by an un-named stranger to the town, whose compassionate gaze reveals Ethan to be aged beyond his years, and crippled since a ‘smash-up’.  This narrator, alerting us to the small canvas of the township, learns the story from various informants though most of the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had had troubles of their own to make them comparatively indifferent to those of their neighbours.  Wharton makes it clear from the outset that this is no romanticised pioneer community; although nearly all the characters are long-term residents born and bred there, social isolation adds profound loneliness to the troubles of these people.

By chance, the narrator comes to use Ethan as a driver while he conducts his business in the town, and caught out in a snowstorm, he ends up staying overnight at Ethan’s house.  There the prologue of eleven pages ends, and the story proper (of 80 pages) begins with the first of what turns out to be nine short chapters written from the limited perspective of a third-person narrator, bookending the narrative with a return to the first person narration as the un-named man enters Ethan’s house.

The central narrative takes place twenty-years before, when Ethan, married to a dreary hypochondriac called Zeena, finds his life brightened by the arrival of young Mattie Silver.  She is the orphaned cousin of Zeena, and has nowhere else to go, so (like so many women of that era) she finds herself an unpaid domestic in her only relative’s house.  Ethan, who is then only a young man himself, is attracted to Mattie, and when things come to Zeena’s attention, she wastes no time in despatching Mattie, even though she has nowhere to go, no marketable skills, and no prospect of employment. Zeena #Understatement is not a nice person.

Michael Millgate’s Introduction tells me that Wharton was an enthusiastic home decorator during the years of her American marriage and had even collaborated with a young architect, Ogden Coleman, in a work called The Decoration of Houses in 1897. This attention to interiors reminded me of Marion Halligan‘s writing, which is infused with attention to the fine arts and interior decors.  In Wharton’s story, it is a precious pickle-dish which crashes to the floor that brings about Mattie’s fate: it was a wedding present, all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena’s aunt that married the minister. Zeena kept it with her best things and never used it — and Mattie knew this — but she took it down from its place of safety so that she could lay the table in a special way on the first night that she and Ethan are alone, because Zeena has gone to see a doctor in another town.

It should have been a magical night.  Ethan comes in out of the cold — literally —the portrayals of bitter weather in this story are vivid…

She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and there was no bow at her neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon.  This tribute to the unusual transformed and glorified her.  She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion.  She stood aside, smiling silently, while he entered, and then moved away from him with something soft and flowing in her gait.  She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.  A bright fire glowed in the stove and the cat lay stretched before it, watching the table with a drowsy eye.

Ethen was suffocated with the sense of well-being.  He went out into the passage to hang up his coat and pull off his wet boots.  When he came back Mattie had set the teapot on the table and the cat was rubbing itself persuasively against her ankles.  (p. 67)

All set for what passes for a seduction scene in fiction of this era… but that cat, in pursuit of the milk-jug while they are distracted by their clasped hands… well, you know what cats are like!

The citation in 1001 Books has this to say:

An interplay between external environment and inner psyche is dramatised here; the inarticulacy of the characters is central to the novel, [LH: it’s much too short to be a novel!] which is framed by the words of a narrator whose knowledge of the history he recounts is unreliable.  We are left with disconcerting questions about moral choice and agency, the role of environment in determining behaviour, and the conflict between social mores and individual passions.  Ethan Frome focusses primarily on the suffering of its eponymous protagonist, but it also depicts the social conditions that enable the formation of so manipulative a figure as Zeena.  (1001 Books to Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p 262)

So, no, not a cheery read, but Millgate, quoting Wharton’s autobiography that Summer was written in a deliberate attempt to escape from the pressures of the war, promises a more optimistic outcome…

Ethan Frome was made into a film in 1993.  It seems to have taken considerable liberties with the original.

PS See Simon’s review at Tredynas Days here.

Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Title: ‘Ethan Frome’ in Ethan Frome and Summer
Publisher: Constable & Co, London, 1965, 272 pages
ISBN: none
Source: Port Phillip Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2019

Rickshaw Boy, by Lao She, translated by Howard Goldblatt

This deceptively simple book Rickshaw Boy by Lao She (1899-1966) is a classic of Chinese literature.  According to the helpful introduction by translator Howard Goldblatt, Lao She was a prolific writers of plays, short stories and novels, and his status as one of the most widely read and best beloved Chinese authors is all the more remarkable given his humble beginnings.  His father was a lowly palace guard for the emperor when he was killed during the Boxer rebellion in 1900, plunging the family into dire poverty, which influenced Lao She for the rest of his life.

Despite disruption to his education due to financial difficulties, he was able to graduate from Beijing Normal University and, became a teacher, eventually making his way to the University of London where he taught Chinese from 1924-1929.  He read voraciously and became a great admirer of Dickens, whose devotion to the urban downtrodden and use of ironic humour Lao She found particularly affecting; they would inform much of his own work, particularly the early novels and stories.  He wrote his first three novels in London, and continued writing when he returned to China, mostly writing stories which critiqued the malaise which inhibited development in China and made it vulnerable to foreign incursions.  During what became a turbulent period in Chinese history, his belief in the Confucian ideal of individual moral integrity, shifted as he began to doubt that individual heroism could be of any use in a generally corrupt society.  Yes, hard on the heels of Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow which posited the hopelessness of individual effort to achieve social mobility or even to keep one’s head above water, I read Rickshaw Boy which has the same political and moral message: that individualism is bankrupt in the face of a corrupting and dehumanising social system.

But where the Barnard Eldershaw novel expounded the message in 400+ pages of sledgehammer polemics, the simplicity and elegance of Rickshaw Boy is a different reading experience altogether.  Its central character is an orphaned rural labourer who comes to Beijing (called Beiping in the novel) determined to better himself.  Despite his poverty Xiangzi is the embodiment of the Confucian man of virtue: he beggars himself to dress neatly and to rent the smartest of rickshaws; he offers superior service; he is as classy as a rickshaw boy can be to get the work he wants so that he can buy his own rickshaw and be financially independent.  Never at any time are the disasters which befall him his fault.

If you aren’t already feeling uneasy about the cover image on this book, the descriptions of Xiangzi pulling his rickshaw through all kinds of terrible weather and at the mercy of his customers, will make you realise how degrading this form of human exploitation is.  In the beginning Xiangzi pities the older men, never imagining that he will be old before his time too:

Xiangzi was not heedless of the wretched condition of the old, frail rickshaw men whose clothes were so tattered, a light wind blew through them and a strong one tore them to shreds.  Their feet were wrapped in rags.  They waited, shivering in the cold, at rickshaw stands, wanting to be first to shout “Rickshaw!” when a prospective fare approached.  Running warmed them up and soaked their tattered clothes in sweat, which froze as soon as they stopped.  Strong winds nearly stopped them in their tracks.  When the wind came from above, they ducked their heads down into their chests; wind gusting up from below nearly knocked them off their feet. They dared not raise their heads in a headwind, to keep from turning into kites, and when the wind was at their backs, they lost control of both their rickshaws and themselves.  They tried every trick they knew, used every ounce of energy they possessed, to pull their rickshaws to their destination, nearly killing themselves for a few coins. After each trip, their faces were coated with dust mixed with sweat, through which poked three frozen red circles—two eyes and mouth.  Few people were out on the streets during the short, cold days of winter, and a day of running might not bring in enough for one good meal.  And yet the older men had wives and children at home, while the younger ones had parents and siblings. For these men, winters were sheer torture… (p.95)

Summer is equally perilous, on days when the torrid heat means no one should be doing hard physical labour of this kind.

Nevertheless, Xiangzi is optimistic, hard-working and determined that he will achieve his ambition to own his own rickshaw.  He takes pride in what he does, but after years of slaving away and his ecstatic purchase of his own rickshaw, it is stolen from him when he is press-ganged into the army and he has nothing to show for his labour when he eventually escapes. His next disaster occurs when he is inveigled into a relationship that he doesn’t want and can’t afford.  It’s disastrous for him.

When finally there is the opportunity to find happiness with a woman he loves, his circumstances are too dire to marry her:

He still loved her, but supporting her brothers and her drunken father was beyond his means.  He still had trouble believing that Huniu’s death had freed him, for she’d had her strong points, most prominently her willingness to  help him financially.  However certain he might be that Fuzi would not sponge off him, it was just as true that no one in her family could contribute any incomes.  Love or no love, for a poor man, money talks.  Lasting love can sprout and grow only in the homes of the rich.  (p.241)

And so it goes on. Events conspire to sabotage his every effort, and his simple ambition comes to nothing.  He comes to realise that his abstemious habits in the service of improving himself have been wasted; he may as well join in with the other men, drinking and smoking and spending his few coins on good food, because self-denial and saving has led to nothing.

Sadly, American approval of Rickshaw Boy may have contributed to Lao She’s tragic end.  According to a review of a different book that I came across via The Asian Review of Books, he went to the United States for an extended visit in 1945, where he

… facilitated “ideological harmony between Chinese leftist activists and American diplomats,” particularly through his novel Rickshaw Boy. State Department officials referred to this novel about the class struggle and socialism as “liberal” and “democratic”. In 1945, the government released a special edition of the English translation of the book and directed its circulation among US soldiers stationed in Asia.

Was this why Lao She fell foul of the Cultural Revolution? or was it the impact of an interview given to a foreign couple in which he told them that he could understand why Mao wanted to destroy bourgeois concepts of life but could not write about it because he was not a Marxist. We old ones cannot apologise for what we are, he said.

Not long after that, Lao She was visited at the offices of the Chinese Writers Association by Red Guards, who dragged him outside, where they interrogated, humiliated and probably beat him. He was ordered to return the next day, but, according to reports, when he saw his “courtyard strewn with all his possessions, his house looted, his painting and sculpture wrecked, and his manuscripts, the work of a lifetime in shreds… he did not enter his house but instead turned and walked to [a nearby lake], and there he drowned himself. (Introduction, p. xii)

Everything I read about the Cultural Revolution reinforces my sense of horror about its barbarism.

BTW: In the introduction, Howard Goldblatt address the issue of the title.

Xiangzi is, of course, a young man, not a boy, and while only a few of the characters associated with rickshaws are, in fact, boys, at the time of writing, pullers were known among foreigners as rickshaw “boys” (waiters, servants and other menial labourers all suffered the indignity of being called boys, irrespective of their age).  However distasteful if seems now, “rickshaw boy” fits the period and the tone, and so I follow Evan King [a previous translator] in his choice of English title. (Introduction, p.xv)

BTW The translation is excellent.

Author: Lao She
Title: Rickshaw Boy
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Publisher: Harper Perennial, Modern Chinese Classics
ISBN: 9780061436925
Source: Glen Eira Library

Available from Fishpond: Rickshaw Boy


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

Penny Wong, Passion and Principle, by Margaret Simons

I’m not one of those who dismiss all politicians as self-serving and a waste of space.  I’ve met too many who genuinely wanted to change things for the better, even if I didn’t agree with their choices and/or they didn’t always achieve their ambitions. But I’m also not one of the ‘Penny Wong fan club’ or her 235,000 followers on Twitter.  I just think she’s one of the most interesting politicians we have, and when one of the best journalists we have in this country— Margaret Simons— writes her biography, I want to read it.

Simons bookends the bio with Penny Wong’s lack of enthusiasm for its existence.  She did not want the book written, though she eventually reluctantly agreed to interviews. Famously circumspect, Wong insisted that her personal life remain private, and consistent with her public persona, though she was willing to own her mistakes and errors of judgement, she also refused point-blank to discuss issues such as the destructive leadership debacle or to reveal any cabinet discussions. Simons had to rely on others to learn that amongst Wong’s less well-known political attributes, she has consistently been an astute judge of her leaders, both in terms of their character and their capacity to attract the vote.  Simons is even-handed, using multiple sources to unpack the betrayals, but reading between the lines, it’s clear that Wong values loyalty and stability.  Because that’s how you stay in government, and then you can get things done.

Despite these access limitations, Simons has written an immensely readable book, in the notoriously difficult genre of political biography.  And in the process, despite herself, Wong came to believe that the book might have some benefits…

Not so much the obvious thing

— a high-profile gay person as a role model for others, and ‘that meaning something to vulnerable people

Simons suggested that as the book came into being, she herself

… had come to think of it as being about politics itself: how hard it is, the price that is paid in the struggle to make change, and both the necessity and inevitability of compromise, even when — as with climate change — such compromise may do us in.

Simons likens it to an audience responding to a tragic play leaving the theatre with a greater understanding of the human affairs it depicted. 

Perhaps they might also grasp the humanity behind the headlines — and what it meant for a person of talent, passion and principle to devote herself to delivering the service of political representation.

Wong concedes that maybe a book about her career is just a small way in which we can have that discussion about what we hope for and expect of political representatives and the polity, and what we can do better. 

Simons asked Wong if she thought it was still possible to meet the needs of the nation through democratic political processes:

‘I have to,’ she said.  ‘What is the other path?  We see the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism.  These are bad things.  History should remind us of that.  So what’s the alternative?  We have only this path.’ She quoted Churchill’s famous saw about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others. (p.317)

I learned some interesting facts to add to the Penny Wong narrative.  Although she is hailed as the first female gay Asian in the federal parliament, on her mother’s side, she’s more ‘Australian’ than many of the racists who abuse her.  Her mother’s family, the Chapmans, were pioneers in colonial South Australia, and the reason Penny was born in Borneo was because the White Australia Act meant her Chinese father, Frances Wong, who was in Australia as a student under the Columbo plan, couldn’t get residency here after marrying her mother Jane Chapman.  So Penny was born in what is now the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu, but came to Australia at the age of eight when her parents’ marriage failed.  Hers was the only Asian face at Coromandel Valley Primary School in the Adelaide Hills and she learned to mask her feelings there as a defence against relentless bullying…

She was a brilliant student, winning a scholarship to the elite Scotch college in Adelaide where she excelled at everything she did, including sports and drama.  And as you’d expect, her interest in politics emerged at university where she switched from medicine to Arts/Law.  Her politics were at that time far to the left, but her unwillingness to join the Labor Party was overcome by persuasion from a friend called Lois Boswell.  At the time there was fierce student opposition to the Graduate Student Tax, better known now as HECS, but Boswell challenged her position: what was she doing outside demonstrating when she should be inside trying to influence the future of the party?

Penny Wong replied that she could not, on principle, join a party that was proposing to introduce fees for education.  Boswell referenced the vote that had just taken place — a tie.  It really mattered ‘who was in the room’. Being outside protesting was easy. Winning the debates that mattered was harder. (p.60)

It is because Wong recognises the value of ‘being in the room’ that she has made some decisions that have betrayed her own principles.  Famously, she voted with her party and the government to ban same-sex marriage.  Simons reveals her anguish about it.  On the night of the vote she told a friend, Carol Johnson, that she was in an impossible position, that she felt she had done the best she could. ‘Basically she felt bound by party policy, and that leaving the party wasn’t really an option because what would that achieve?’ 

Johnson thought that the Labor Party didn’t fully understand what it had done to Wong in forcing her to choose between her personal beliefs — her very identity — and her political allegiances.  ‘I don’t think it would have occurred to most of her colleagues just how difficult it was to ask this woman to basically vote for her own oppression… Penny was prepared to do that because she knew that if the law was ever to change, you need to work with the major parties… that it was a longer-term political project.  But it was incredibly difficult and distressing to her.’ (p.148).

Simons also writes with great empathy about the heroic struggle to negotiate agreements at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit when the rift emerged between developed and developing nations over who should shoulder more responsibility for carbon emissions reduction.  Wong and Rudd worked tirelessly to salvage what they could, and both were pushed beyond exhaustion.  In this context, Wong makes an important observation:

At its most basic, there was the need to sleep — at least sometimes.  There was the need, in the maelstrom, to find time to think.  Time to think is a scarce asset in government and under the pressure of the media cycle.  Yet thinking time, says Wong, allows you to ‘settle yourself’… to determine what is urgent, and what is important.  To be creative and think laterally, creatively, about how to get around obstacles.’ Kevin Rudd, she believes, did not give himself enough of it. (p.194)

It’s chastening to think what might have been, if Rudd had taken better care of himself after Copenhagen.

I know, of course, that some readers will take one look at this review and not bother with it because they’re ‘not interested’ in politics. That’s a perfectly legitimate PoV, provided you think the world is just fine the way it is, and that nothing will come along to compromise that.  But if you would like things to be better than they are, well, nothing changes without politics, and in a democracy, that means that means paying attention to the politicians and the policies they promote so that you vote for what you actually want.  What was so noticeable about the ABC’s recent TV program about the opinions and voting behaviour of ‘Quiet Australians’  was that whether it was Newstart or action on climate change, they did not actually support the policies they’d voted for.

There’s an interview with Simons here.

PS (the next day) There’s a review by Jane Goodall here. I don’t agree with her conclusion that For all Simons’s meticulous research, though, the account lacks vibrancy, because the personality at the centre of it is missing. There are few engaging anecdotes or tales of childhood adventures, no confessions of teenage angst.  I think that Goodall is looking for a hidden Penny Wong, and hasn’t understood from reading this book that it conveys a very astute portrait of Wong’s personality.  She is reserved because she has to be: she cops racist abuse every day, and has done since she was a child.  And as for the missing ‘childhood adventures’?  I think this is a remarkably insensitive comment.  Who would want to revisit childhood adventures with a much-loved brother, who took his own life just days after Penny was beginning her career in public life?

Author: Margaret Simons
Title: Penny Wong, Passion and Principle
Publisher: Black Inc Books, 2019, 320 pages
ISBN: 9781760640859
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Penny Wong: Passion and Principle


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

2019 MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award) winner

The 2019 MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award) winner has been announced, and it’s a book I really enjoyed.

*drum roll*

The winner is Songwoman by Ilka Tampke, published by Text Publishing and is the sequel to Skin, which I also liked.  A blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Skin was shortlisted for the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and longlisted for the 2016 Voss.  Songwoman deserves similar acclaim: it is, as I said in my review, likewise solidly grounded in the mud and dirt and ruthlessness of Albion (i.e. Britain) in 47AD when the Romans were consolidating their rule and stamping out the last vestiges of resistance in Wales. It has a brave and feisty central character, always tricky to depict convincingly in stories set in the patriarchal past, but Tempke pulls it off with her mystic character Ailia.

The award is sponsored by @BooksellersAU.

The other shortlisted books were

  • Brontide, by Sue McPherson, published by Magabala Books, a YA novel told via interviews with four high school boys in a small Queensland town
  • Antidote to a Curse, by James Cristina, published by Transit Lounge, a fiction novel set in 1990s inner Melbourne which blends the Bosnian war, an impending AIDS diagnosis, birds and cats.
Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by M. Barnard Eldershaw

Oh, dear, it feels disloyal to The Sisterhood and the feminist Virago publishing project to say this, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a really dreary book.  I’m not surprised that the censored (1947) edition wasn’t popular with the reading public, and now, having read the uncensored (1983) version, I’m inclined to think that the rejection of this novel had little to do with the censor’s scissors.  There are two reasons why I persisted with it: I wanted to contribute to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week at The Australian Legend; and the book is very rare now and hard to get hold of, and it’s part of Australia’s literary history.

Alas, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow has a history more interesting than the story within its pages…

Firstly, it is a work of collaborative writing, by Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.  Both born in 1897 into middle-class professional families, they met at Sydney University but established themselves as independent of their families before turning to writing.  Flora Eldershaw became a teacher, and eventually Head of PLC in Sydney.  Margery Barnard, who had been offered a place at Oxford after winning the University medal, reluctantly became a librarian because her father would not let her take up the place.

In 1928 The Bulletin offered a prize for an Australian novel, and this was the catalyst for them to begin writing together.  Barnard and Eldershaw’s A House is Built shared first prize with Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and they went on to write five more novels during the turbulent 1930s.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was their last novel, and it suffered from the hands of the zealous Australian censor.  (To see just how zealous he could be, see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore.) However, the censor’s cuts weren’t made because of prudery as I had first thought, it was because it ruffled political feathers during the emerging Cold War.

To quote from the introduction by Anne Chisholm:

It is a deeply political book and a brave one, considering that it was written at the height of World War Two.  At the heart of it is the story of how the aftermath of the First World War—the Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe—impinged on the lives of a group of working-class families in Sydney, in particular on Harry Munster and his family and circle.  But Barnard Eldershaw do not stop the story at the outbreak of World War Two.  Writing before the war was half over, they postulate a series of events leading to the invasion of Australia by a right-wing international police force, a revolutionary uprising by left wingers and the destruction and abandonment of Sydney.

It is hardly surprising that the book, when it came to the attention of war-time censors, caused them concern.  Although they confined their cuts to the fictional ending and the build up to the rising, the whole book is in fact provocative in the extreme.  It reveals Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  (p.xii)

Well, you can see the potential for the authors to lose control of their material, and IMO they did.  The story of Harry Munster and his circle is Misery 101, piled on with a trowel and with a surprisingly unsympathetic portrayal of his feckless, selfish wife as the source of most of his troubles.  At first the representation of Harry as the Everyman had my sympathy: he endured the two world wars, the Depression and the inability to escape from poverty in an unfair economy. But then he ceases to be poor, and any moral authority has vanishes because a quixotic (and not very credible) bequest of £200 pounds is hoarded, kept secret from his family, and not used to enable the brightest of his children to get an apprenticeship, because she is a girl.  The opportunity for Barnard’s autobiographical experience of this kind of sexism is wasted because Wanda’s point of view about it is never explored. IMO the characterisation of women is surprisingly weak, reverting to easy stereotypes like female jealousy over a man and portraying the lives of working-class women with a loftiness that contrasts unfavourably with Ruth Park’s authentic stories of slum life in Sydney.

But what really kills this novel is its unwieldy structure.  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is structured as a novel within a novel, and it was the framing novel that really tested my resolve to finish the book.  It’s set in the future in the twenty-fourth century, centuries after the demise of Sydney and all that it represented within Harry’s story.  In this dystopia there is rule by an elite, threatened by a movement for democratic participation in the decision-making process.  None of the characters are well-rounded, and the plot trajectory is painfully obvious even though it keeps being interrupted by the ridiculous device of Knarf reading aloud his entire novel i.e. Harry’s story, to fellow historian Ord.  What these polemic punctuations in the framing novel mainly achieve is to make the reader lose track of the vast array of characters who form Harry’s circle in the ‘historical novel’.  But they also sabotage the power of what is sometimes great writing:

In the middle of the book in the section called ‘Afternoon’, there is a stunning summation of the war.  It’s not entirely accurate, but when you consider that it was written during the war when propaganda and censorship blurred knowledge of the war, it is remarkable that it conveys so powerfully both the big picture of events and their consequences, and also the mood of the people.  After five pages it concludes like this:

The strange old-new life of the armies seeped back to the people at home, altering too the minds of those who waited.  The lives of civilians were regimented.  They learned the value of bread.  They formed new habits.  They learned new tempos and rhythms of work.  In danger they went back to mother earth.  They shared fear and emotion.  A clarification was taking place in the confusion of men’s thinking, sides took more distinct shape, the crisscross faded, the main divisions deepened.  The Right must call Russia ally, however unpalatable the word, the Left must support the war, for the Socialist Fatherland was at stake.  So some of the fissures were closed for the time being, and war became more real, peace more remote.

In Australia war was more than an echo, it was a vibration under foot.

But the impact of these words is promptly undercut by a reversion to Knarf and Ord pontificating in the 24th century:

Knarf paused and looked across at Ord, something more than thought struggling in his eyes.  ‘I can see the pattern of those days clearly enough, an iron framework laid down on the soft tissues of life, and within that framework, like tender, necessary, human breath in an iron lung, life springing anew, under the name of adjustment, repeating its ancient design.  Beyond this again I see an enormous sweep of event, not mechanic, not planned, but the logical outcome of the vast aggregate of human planning.  Beyond its authors’ control, probably beyond their apprehension. We can see it because the astringent of time has simplified and stilled it.  World events in the making must be like a mountain range in the making. Only after centuries is the outline plain and set.  The turmoil of the rock is stilled, the heaving strata fixed.  One is as logical a process as the other, as fore-ordained by the law of cause and effect, as much in ease at one moment as at another.’ Knarf stopped and frowned.

‘Plenty of heaving strata in mind,’ Ord thought, watching him, waiting to see how he would extricate himself from his own thoughts. (p.270)

As does the hapless reader.  There’s another whole half page of Knarf’s frustration that he can’t recapture or even imagine the emotion of living among events raised to the nth.  This happens again and again: occasional fine, purposeful prose that recreates the world of wartime Sydney, is steamrollered by polemics.

Taken as a whole, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow IMO is an unmitigated mess.

But, hey! no less than my literary hero Patrick White admired it. In The Burning Library Geordie Williamson, devoting a chapter to M Barnard Eldershw, tells us that White…

…thought so highly of their final novel, a blend of social realism and science fiction called Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow published in 1947, that he recommended it to his US publishers. ‘I…am amazed it is not better known,’ he wrote to his editor, Ben Huebsch. ‘It is one of the few mature Australian novels, and at the same time it is of universal interest.  The shell is, admittetdly, a little tough, but do get inside it, and I think you will be surprised.  It is full of passion and truth.’

A tough shell, full of passion and truth: here White captures something of the contradictory spirit that animates Barnard’s and Eldershaw’s lives and work.  (The Burning Library, p. 19. See my review of this book here.)

Williamson is an admirer too, though he isn’t blind to the novel’s flaws:

If the monologic intensity with which Barnard attacks economic determinism, militarism and technological modernity in these pages seems overly earnest, a kind of orgasmic Fabian Socialism, it’s worth asking how well irony, our current detault setting, has worked to analyse similar phenomena in the present.  Frantic notation of the everyday, horrified recoil from the inorganic, a sense of community atomised and individual spirit crushed: remove the phonograph crackle from this passage and you can hear Ginsberg’s Howl and Saul Bellow’s Augie March anticipated. From the corporate autists of David Foster Wallace to the poetic diatribes of London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Barnard stands firmly in a tradition as old as William Blake and as contemporary as Michel Houellebecq: writers who stand against the virulent strains of the modern. (p.30)

Monologic intensity… orgasmic Fabian Socialism…yes indeed. But I also disliked the portrayal of helplessness:  Harry’s story is more than an individual spirit crushed.  He is Everyman. Having made his daughter aware of the risks she’s taking by hiding ‘Red’ pamphlets for her friend, this veteran of WW1 muses on the balcony:

Harry wasn’t satisfied, but he knew he couldn’t go any further now.  Ruth felt it too.  She withdrew her hand and walked quickly into the dark room behind them.  Harry stayed, looking out at the houses across the street, but seeing nothing.  Himself, Gwen, Ruth.  Oh hell.  Softly, with the lilt of strong emotion, he began to swear as he had not sworn since he was in the army, words like an unconscious incantation, smooth and natural, for all their ugliness, as the springing of natural sap.  He could do nothing but beat frantically in the web that held him, unable to free himself from his own nature, from the ceaseless entanglement of lives not his own, and conditions to which he did not consent, unable to reach others caught like himself.

The web of a thousand million flies. (p.262)

Harry represents all the trapped and helpless victims of what Anne Chisholm in the Introduction recognises as Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  As in the characterisation of the women, there is a middle-class loftiness about this representation that has as its fundamental premise, that these helpless working-class victims have no agency, and no capacity to change anything — this, in a democratic country that had had universal suffrage since Federation, that had repulsed conscription twice, and that was internationally famous as an egalitarian social laboratory in its earliest years. (I am not referring to the characters’ inability to change anything in the 24th century; as in the conclusion of Orwell’s 1984, that is part of the authors’ point about totalitarian regimes).

Since this post is very long already, there’s no harm in sharing one more opinion that’s different to mine.  The anonymous reader who borrowed this book before me, has annotated her thoughts: on the frontispiece, she has written: Why does a major work remain virtually unknown?  Hmm, I think I know why…

I know that I ought to admire this book, but instead I found it graceless, heavy-handed and boring. It took considerable effort of will to plod on with it. I have A House is Built on my TBR and I’m hoping that it will be a different experience!

The cover art is a detail from ‘Mirmande’ by Dorrit Black, reproduced by permission of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

PS The next day: I’ve found another authoritative source who disagrees with me!  Nicholas Jose recommends it as one of the Five Best Australian Novels at Five Books. (His other four are Merry Go Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (see my review), Capricornia by Alexis Wright, An Imaginary Life by David Malouf and Bliss by Peter Carey.

Author: M. Barnard Eldershaw (the collaborative writing duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw)
Title:  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Publisher: Virago UK, first uncensored edition 1983, first published 1947, 456 pages
Introduction by Anne Chisholm
ISBN: 0860683834
Source: Port Phillip Library

Availability: this library copy is the only copy available in the Victorian public library network, so Victorian readers can only get it by inter-library loan.  AbeBooks is advertising just one copy in Australia, and it’s priced at $75.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2019

Author event: The Journey to Publication. What happens next?

Tonight I had the great pleasure of attending an author event in our local Kingston Arts Centre, and I hope it’s first of many:)

The topic under discussion was The Journey to Publication. What happens next? and the panel consisted of Claire Halliday (chair); Eleni Hale; Amra Pajalic; and Anna Spargo-Ryan. And these are their current books:

(See here for my review of Stone Girl, and here for my review of The Gulf. See Goodreads reviews of Things My Father Taught Me here and  Things Nobody Knows But Me here.

Claire (who was an excellent chair and led the discussion really well) began by asking about the moment when these authors decided they were going to be authors.  Their stories varied a great deal but what they had in common was that none of them had a straightforward path towards a clearly articulated goal.  They all loved writing, but in a working-class family like Amra’s she didn’t even know how to become a writer.  For Eleni, growing up in state care, writing was an emotional escape from a harsh reality and disrupted schooling, but she never thought she could do anything with it until as she said, she ‘came out the other end’ and became a journalist.  For Anna, her writing lapsed during her years as a young mother, and didn’t re-emerge until she was divorced.

The general consensus was that first novels tend to be autobiographical, because it’s hard to be open about the truth as a debut writer.  Anna talked about writing as a means of purging oneself of troubling matters, and whether it gets published or not, it’s good to do it and then be able to move on.  (Andrea Goldsmith once said at a workshop that I went to that first novel/s are practice novels).  It’s aso very important not to get discouraged by rejection: as Amra said, there are many writers more talented than she is but she has books published because she did not give up.  Anna reminded us that rejection is often not about the writing at all: it could be because the publisher’s list is full; because he’s already got a book in a similar vein, or because another publisher has.

But what is crucial is that aspiring writers do their research: find out what kind of books the publisher works with; follow the submission guidelines; and whether you’re sending it to an agent (highly recommended, for debut authors) or direct to a publisher, make sure that the book is the very best it can be, because there are no second chances. And be aware that the process can take a very long time, a wait of 10 months in one case!

(One tip worth knowing is that if a publisher’s website states that they are not accepting submissions, it doesn’t hurt to send a query letter.  If you pique their interest with a brief letter that gets quickly to the point, they may write back and ask you to submit your MS.  Also, check out pitch letters online; there’s an art to writing these pitches and the recipients are busy people so long-windedness is a bad idea!)

What kind of writing leads to a book deal?  Non-fiction pieces, short stories submitted to writing competitions, publication in journals and so on.  You’ll probably have to content yourself with payment for some of it, and not for others.  If the exposure is valuable, not getting paid may be worthwhile.  There was general agreement that it’s a bad idea to publish your work-in-progress on your blog: publishers won’t want to invest in it if people have already read it for free. OTOH building your social media networks is as important as what Claire called ‘the A-team around you’: your beta-readers and supporters.

Of course you can get your family to read your MS, but they’ll probably think it’s amazing.  That’s not what you want.  You want constructive feedback that helps you to identify the flaws and fix the problems.  For that other writers are wonderful, but be aware that they need time for their own writing. Paid mentorships are great, and these are available via Writers Centres, and sometimes through grants from Arts Victoria (or their interstate equivalents). Treat every bit of feedback as a gift because that’s how you become a better writer.

Equally important is self-care.  Rejection hurts.  Amra said that while writing might be your life, it’s important to ‘have a life as well’ to keep a sense of proportion. Eleni said that the best thing about writing her book was the connections she had made.  Writing groups can be a great support but they can also be destructive so find people who uplift you and that you can trust. And Anna reminded us that the best thing is to keep going.  No one will care if you give up: the ones who get published are the ones who work really hard at it.

This was a beaut session, and from conversations with aspiring authors afterwards, I could tell that it was very worthwhile for all of them.

My thanks to the organisers at Kingston Arts Centre – more please!


This drop-dead gorgeous book came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award.  I asked my library to get a copy, and they did:)

These are the books with which it is in contention for the Tasmania Book Prize for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre (worth $25,000 to the winner):

  • Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary, (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Island Story: Tasmania in object and text* by Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane, (Text Publishing)
  • Towards Light & Other Poems by Sarah Day, (Puncher & Wattmann), see the review at Australian Poetry Review

Clearly the judges have a difficult task ahead.  If you haven’t already done your Christmas shopping, Island Story should be on your radar as a beautiful gift book for the thinking person in your life.

You might remember that I posted the description of Island Story: Tasmania in object and text from Goodreads, because I thought its title made it sound like a dry academic text about postmodernism.

A handsome full-colour book pairing unique items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with selections of original writing about the southern island.
Indigenous dispossession, a cruel penal history, gay-rights battles; exceptional landscapes, unusual wildlife, environmental activism; colonial architecture, arts and crafts, a thriving creative scene—all are part of the story of Tasmania. And they find their expression in the unparalleled collection of Hobart’s TMAG.
In Island Story, Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood select almost sixty representative TMAG objects: from shell necklaces to a convict cowl, colonial scrimshaw to a thylacine pincushion, contemporary photography to a film star’s travelling case. Each is matched to texts old and new, by writers as diverse as Anthony Trollope, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Helene Chung, Jim Everett, Heather Rose and Ben Walter.
This is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the island everyone is talking about.

There are sixty objects but I’ll start with the one on the frontispiece. It’s a painting by Harry Buckie, an artist whose works seems mainly to be Tasmanian landscapes, but this one is a domestic interior: a kitchen with a stone flag floor and a combustion stove, with cast-iron pots and a bellows hanging nearby.  A freestanding cupboard and a chair are made of wood, and there’s a shelf with a candle and some boxes that look like the kind of tins that biscuits used to be packed in. Through the doorway we can see that the house is weatherboard and has a water tank: it suggests that this kitchen is of the old type that was built separately to the house because of the danger of fire.

This thoughtful painting is accompanied by a poem called ‘The House Shorn in Two’, by Barney Roberts, a poet born in 1920 and brought up on his parents’ farm in Tasmania.  The poem is an homage to these parents:

The house, now shorn in two,
as if a cruel wind had cut its swath
through my old bedroom.
The chimney, tall, naked, pointing finger,
a token of the warmth that fed us around its hob;
where the old man sat
with a taper made from rushes;
and sucked the red flame
into the black bole of his pipe;
and talked of war in Spain,
and Ruskin.

And your mother,
yours and mine, who bore five children;
and loved them all with a joy,
and lived with a joy,
and gave to us all
the joy she found in flowers,
in early mornings,
in rain on the hill,
in Spring and bird-song,
in God knows what.

I saw it all today
forty years after I lost my front tooth
with a Swannie whistle, off the back step.

The poem goes on to show us parents who once tended a neat flower garden along with their cows, and a kitchen that once smelled of home-baked bread and breakfast bacon, where a woman with eyes as tragic as a dream, or gay, as a coloured scarf upon the line, nursed sick bodies and minor hurts.  She recited Shakespeare to them, and Shelley and Browning and Yeats, only to have the war, her second, /that cut her life /like the hand of Fate /that destroyed the house. The poet knows that next time he comes to see this place of childhood memories, there will be nothing to remain but a grass paddock, as progress strives to hide /the traces of a man and wife /who died.  

These relics of houses are scattered all over Australia, battered by the winds and sinking into the soil, but this combination of image and text is a reminder that a rich intellectual life in some of these houses confounds any stereotypes we might have.  This one painting and poem is reason enough to have this book on your shelves.

But there is more.  Accompanying a photo of a museum collection of skulls, there’s a wonderful account from a Mrs Mary G Roberts about ‘The Keeping and Breeding of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisi)’ in which she tells a surprising fact to those of us who’ve seen these ferocious creatures: she tells us how gentle and still a mother is when nursing her little ones, and even lets a trusted human fondle her head.  This article comes from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1915.

Accompanying images of molten plates and a serving plate is a harrowing story called ‘Ash Tuesday’ from Joan Woodberry.  It’s especially poignant now, with the fires ravaging NSW and Queensland.  Equally distressing is the poem about road kill that accompanies a photo of a stuffed wombat.  It brought to mind Death of a Wombat by Ivan Smith and Clifton Pugh; wombats are such lovable creatures, but so slow, and so vulnerable to speeding vehicles…

A sweet sampler embroidered by Hannah Dyer is accompanied by an excerpt from The Broad Arrow by Caroline Leakey, evoking the horrors of the Cascade factory for female servants; while that infamous Proclamation Board to the Tasmanian Aborigines—yes, the one that promised them British justice—is paired with Jim Everett’s ‘A Short Trip with Shorty O’Neill’, which begins with a protest involving burning a New Zealand flag that’s been mistaken for the Australian one. The ingenuity with which images are paired is amazing…

There are texts from contemporary authors I’ve reviewed on this blog: Helen Hodgman, Carmel Bird, Heather Rose and Christopher Koch; from historic documents; and by authors new to me.  It’s a marvellous collection.  I don’t want to give the book back to the library so I’m going to drop hints to Santa. If you want to do the same, availability details are below.

Authors: Danielle Wood and Ralph Crane
Title: Island Story, Tasmania in Object and Text
Publishers: Text Publishing, 2018, 256 pages
ISBN: 9781925603965
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Island Story: Tasmania in Object and Text or direct from Text Publishing 

PS The winners of the Premier’s Prize will be announced on 5 December.  For more information see their website.

PPS You can read more about the book at The Conversation.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 17/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 3 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre was great.  I went to three sessions, all totally different to each other but they were equally enriching experiences.

My first session featured Katherine Johnson, author of Paris Savages, in conversation with anthropologist Heather Threadgold.  Katherine had the distinction of being the only novelist appearing at this year’s festival, included because the story she has written — like all her other novels — is so closely based on factual events.

As you will know if you have read my review, Paris Savages is the story of three Badtjala people who went to Europe in the 19th century as exhibits in a human zoo.  The catalyst for this novel was a report by Daniel Browning of ABC Radio National’s AWAYE about the discovery of a human body cast in France.  This program piqued Katherine’s interest in the way that people were being taken as living exhibits for display in Europe, and that this was taking place during the Enlightenment.  Her research showed that the exhibition narratives fed into ideas about eugenics and racial superiority, and that the language used persists to this day in the shameful abuse of Indigenous man Adam Goodes.

The conversation also covered Katherine’s narrative choices which allow for insights into these events without appropriating the Indigenous voice.  Her choice to use the fictional perspective of the adolescent missionary’s daughter Hilda allows for insights more perceptive than Müller’s narrow ‘scientific’ perspective, and she also occasionally uses a ‘ghostly’ omniscient narrator who points out the ‘holes’ in the historical record.  She is acutely conscious of the problems associated with telling stories such as this, but she referenced both Peter Carey who says it’s disrespectful not to include the Indigenous presence in our storytelling, and also Indigenous woman Marcia Langton (a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations in Queensland) who says that one way of ‘othering’ is to make people invisible.  There’s another angle to this issue too: telling stories such as this is delicate, and needs to be done respectfully, but it shouldn’t just be Indigenous people doing all the work of bringing these stories to light.

My next session had potential for controversy too, but it turned out to be good-natured and congenial.  A Twitterstorm arose over John Marsden’s new book The Art of Growing Up, and from my observations of the body language of some audience members, I was expecting some hostility to erupt, but it didn’t happen.  Marsden was disarming and chatty, and poked fun at himself and the dangerous art of commenting on contemporary parenting.  His interviewer Mark Smith didn’t shy away from asking the difficult questions about the aspects of the book that caused controversy, and the answers were straightforward.  If there were people there who were unconvinced, they stayed quiet.

In a nutshell, Marsden thinks most parents do a good job, but some parenting is toxic and does the child no favours.  Obviously this is going to arouse defensiveness but he feels that his years of experience as a teacher and principal of his own school means that he has something to contribute and he doesn’t think parenting is sacred territory where no one can go.

He talked about parents who say that their child is their best friend or their hero, and how he thinks this is a fundamental error because the first requirement of a parent is to be an adult. It involves setting limits, showing a child what is acceptable and what isn’t, and it’s important to make it clear how to react to problems and to include a variety of solutions to those problems.  Parents have a responsibility to set their children on the right path: the path to knowledge and the path to wisdom, understanding and insight.  This all seems pretty harmless to me, but he was scathing about parents who rationalise not seeing much of their children with the excuse of ‘quality’ time.  He says it’s ‘quantity time’ that matters because relationships grow out of the time that you spend with the child and that’s a foundation for everything else.

He also talked about ‘curling parents’.  I think this is a reference to some kind of football, because he meant that these were parents who scraped away every obstacle in their child’s way.  In small families this can mean that the child’s landscape is restricted to home, school, the local shopping centre and a few weekend activities and this can be suffocating for children.  Children need to be guided towards readiness for adulthood, and he reminded us that they can have sex at 16 and join the army at 17, and yet there’s no gold pass that turns a child into an instant adult the day they turn 18.

The most controversial aspect of his book is apparently what he has to say about bullying and he’s been accused of victim blaming.  What he says is that he and his staff investigate every accusation of bullying, interviewing the perpetrator, the victim and the witnesses.  (There’s nothing unusual about that, it’s standard procedure in any responsible school, and yes, it’s extremely time-consuming).  But what he nearly always finds is that the victim’s account is rarely the full story.  Kids, he says, are not sophisticated enough to handle conflict maturely, and sometimes the bullying is a response to unacceptable behaviour on the part of the victim.  There is, he acknowledges, capricious, relentless and racist bullying in schools and in society, but it’s a mistake to generalise about all bullying being like that.

I haven’t read his book, because my days of worrying about parenting are over, but I think what he is trying to say is that it doesn’t help when parents can’t hear uncomfortable truths about their children because it makes it even harder to resolve the child’s problems.  I certainly met my share of parents like that when I was teaching, and I used to feel very sorry for their children because it made everything harder for the child.

My third session was fascinating.  Titled ‘Neoliberalism and the Rise of the Right’, it featured Maria Rae interviewing two authors: Dominic Kelly whose book is provocatively titled Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia and Jane R Goodall whose book is called The Politics of the Common Good, Dispossession in Australia. Both authors are very concerned about the way the ideology of neo-liberalism has disseminated itself through economic ideas.

Jane Goodall explained what neo-liberalism is not: it isn’t a laissez-faire, free market, free for all.  It’s actually highly controlled and ideologically driven.  Its central idea is that human intelligence isn’t adequate to discern all the complexities of global interactions, so it should be left to the market to sort everything out.  Dominic Kelly added to this by saying that all the talk that we hear about economic ideas such as privatisation, free trade etc being the best way to run an economy are sold to us as common sense economics, when in fact it’s a political project.

And the way it has come to dominate the discourse began with think tanks and advocacy groups, like Quadrant, the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs), the H R Nicholls Society, the Samuel Griffith Society, and the culture warriors associated with these groups.

Jane Goodall put all this in context by explaining that in the postwar era an Austrian economist called Ludwig von Mises saw the alarming phenomenon of socialist governments turning to totalitarianism and his writings were intended to prevent other governments falling into the same trap.  He wanted to avoid hostile legislation, the abuse of power and the curtailment of freedom of the press. But he was an ideologue too, and these problems have likewise arisen under neo-liberalism.

The talk surveyed economic policies under governments since Whitlam leading to the present situation where the Banking Royal Commission hasn’t punished any unconscionable behaviour in comparison to the punitive provisions of Centrelink’s Robodebt.  Where we have sold our public utilities to make some people very rich, but it hasn’t turned out to be better or cheaper for us.  And where the average citizen remains so captive to misunderstandings that he votes against the reform of franking credits when he doesn’t even get them…

Well, I’m as naïve about economics as the next person, so I left this session wondering whether what I’d been hearing was sound common sense, or left wing ideology equally irrational as the right wing version.  What I do know is that our society is more unfair and meaner than it was when I was young, and that these days it’s easier for people to get stuck in a poverty trap not of their own making.  I would like to see it change, and I’d like to see a genuine contest of ideas over a better way.


Congratulations to the organisers and all the volunteers who contributed to the running of the festival.  There was something for everyone in the program, and everything ran super smoothly. I’ll be putting the 2020 dates into my diary as soon as they become available because this festival is one of the highlights in anyone’s bookish year.




Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 16/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 2 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre continued the theme of Nyaal, which is Wadawurrung for ‘open your eyes’.  In my first session of the day Geelong author Sue Lawson began her conversation with Professor Ron McCallum OA about his book Born at the Right Time by first listing his stunning list of achievements and then addressed ‘the elephant in the room’ by asking how the theme applied… because Ron McCallum has been blind since birth.

The session was indeed an eye-opener.  Sue Lawson is a highly skilled interviewer and it was a warm, funny, laughter-filled session.

McCallum says he was ‘born at the right time’ because he’s among the first generation to be able to take advantage of new technologies that support people with vision disabilities.  When he was a child in kindergarten at the RVIB school in St Kilda Road, he was once tactlessly told that he would end up making baskets in the sheltered workshop, but he had a remarkable teacher called Evelyn Maguire who recognised that he was gifted and told him was special and that he would have a different future.  Indeed he did: as you can see in his profile at Wikipedia, he is the first totally blind person to be appointed by any university in Australasia to a full professorship in any field or as Dean of Law. He has worked for the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; been an ambassador for the European NGO confederation, Light for the World, and he worked on the official review of the Fair Work Act 2009, along with publishing 10 books and numerous professional articles and research papers.

McCallum ascribes his different future to the influence of three women, to whom his book was dedicated: his mother Edna McCallum; his surrogate mother Lois Doery and his wife, confidante and life companion, Professor Mary Crock. His mother nourished his love of reading by reading to him when he had exhausted the small number of Braille books at his school.  He met Lois when he was 25, and she became the reader who read everything to him for 15 years. (It was in this period that technology began to play its part because she could read books onto cassette tapes so that he could listen independently and when he wanted to).

His wife Mary came into his life when he was 37 and had never dated because it was all too complicated.  Instead he had spent all his adult life working 14 hour days, sublimating sexuality and relationships, but she transformed his life.  He told some funny stories about her discovery that there were no mirrors in the house and his discovery of hand cream in the bathroom instead of toothpaste.  But he also said that his career as an academic really took off after he was married because colleagues perceived him as ‘normal’ instead of ‘a nice guy who was no competition’.   Relationships, he said, bring people into the central vortex of society, and maybe people should be more tolerant of people outside it, but that’s how it was in the 1990s.

He has a phenomenal memory.  It’s not as good as it used to be, he said, drawing a laugh when he said he used to know dozens of phone numbers and now he doesn’t because of his mobile phone. He thinks there’s an element of intelligence in having a good memory, but there are also strategies such as sequencing and rehearsing that enable remembering complex strings of information.

The arrival of computers has transformed life for the blind.  In the US there are audio descriptions built into films, so that what’s happening on screen can be heard by the vision impaired using headphones.  This is not mandatory here in Australia, but it can be accessed on Netflix.  To stay informed about current affairs in print, the blind used to have to rely on Radio for the Print Handicapped (3RPH, here in Melbourne, where I used to work as a volunteer reading newspapers, and 2RPH in Sydney) but now there is an App which will read any newspaper or journal aloud.  And the books that McCallum so loves to read can be scanned and read aloud using computer technologies as well.

My second session was an eye-opener too. Chaired by Harrison Tippet, it featured Meg Mundell who was the editor of the world-first collection We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, and contributors Claire G Coleman and Rachel Kurzyp.  Tippet began with some stats about Geelong: there are about 1500 rough sleepers in this city, and there is a shortfall of 7200 places for housing.  Since Geelong is Victoria’s second largest city, these stats give you some idea of the enormity of the problem.

As I said in my review of this profoundly moving book, the theme is ‘place’.  Meg said that though the book grew out of workshops where homeless people were supported to tell their stories, she didn’t want the whole book to be stories of homelessness.  What she wanted to do was to disprove the stereotypes and to show that homeless people do have something to offer.

Claire (who is a Noongar woman) added that there was emotional catharsis in telling a story, and that there were added complexities for Indigenous people.  Home for them is their ancestral land on country, and the place where they live might not be a ‘home’.  Often they can’t live on country, because it’s inaccessible (e.g. it’s mining country), or because it’s too expensive in contemporary cities.  There was great empathy for Behrouz Boochani now in New Zealand because it’s a terrible thing to be afraid to live in your own country, in the way that Kurds under siege are now in fear for their lives.

But the most impressive moment in this session came in question time, from a member of the audience. When a middle-aged women got up and said she was going to make a brave disclosure, I’m sure everyone thought she was going to brave the stigma of admitting that she herself was or had been homeless, but no.  The panel had made some brutally critical comments about Centrelink and this woman then admitted that she worked there.  I think it was sobering for everyone to see that it’s not just a job for the people at Centrelink: there are people who do genuinely care, and who work there doing the best they can because they want to help.

(When I was dealing with Centrelink on behalf of my father, I saw some staff exercising great patience and compassion in the face of outright belligerence and aggression, and while I understand that such behaviour is born of frustration and fear, I can still see that it must take courage to get up and come to work in the morning when you know that you’ll be facing that kind of unremitting hostility.)

My final session wasn’t about a book: it was about a passion project called Tony Wilson, who also writes children’s books and is a football fanatic, has set up a website to showcase the World’s Greatest Speeches.   It features speeches ranging from the political to the satirical, and includes speeches from the everyday: birthday and wedding speeches; eulogies, lectures and acceptance speeches.  What is most revelatory is that it provides the speech in full, so that you can see and hear the context often not obvious from the stellar moments that we tend to remember.

Wilson started out by analysing the features of a great speech like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’.  He identifies repetition, simile and metaphor, allusions and alliteration, antithesis, conduplication (repetition of words or phrases such as ‘I have a dream’) and parallel phrasing (as in ‘We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to gaol together, to stand up for freedom together.)

What makes a speech great is ‘the moment’: Redfern; the Dismissal, the Challenger disaster, and 9/11.  There is also the delivery: using the rule of three and the modulation of emotion.  Of course there must be something to say, as Greta Thunberg says so powerfully in her ‘How dare you’ speech., and a speech needs a good title, such as ‘I am Somebody‘.  The language and writing is crucial (think of Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’); and often humour, originality or surprise are important too.

Wilson welcomes submissions to his site.  If you have a suggestion, get in touch with him at his website.

More from the festival tomorrow…




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