Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2021

Triangle, by Katharine Weber

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with its eerie resonances to 9/11 and a recent documentary to mark its anniversary, is well-known in New York.  But I had never heard of it until it was mentioned in a course about Yiddish Women writers that I took through the Melbourne Jewish Museum. One of the stories we read referenced Jewish girls migrating from the shtetl to work in the garment factories of New York.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City, on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history.  The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was 43-year-old Providenza Panno, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese.

The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Place, near Washington Square Park. The 1901 building still stands today and is now known as the Brown Building. It is part of and owned by New York University.

Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked—a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft—many of the workers could not escape from the burning building and jumped from the high windows. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

The building has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.  (Wikipedia, viewed 31/7/21, lightly edited to remove superfluous links and footnotes)

Although based on this real-life historical event, Triangle is not an historical novel nor (despite its back-cover blurb) a ‘mystery’, (which might account for some of the disappointment seen in Goodreads reviews).  It is an exploration of truth, a satire of dour, misdirected feminism, and an homage to the dead.  This is the blurb:

Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister and fiancé among them, burned or jumped to their deaths from the sweatshop inferno? Are the discrepancies in her various accounts over the years just ordinary human fallacy, or is there a hidden story in Esther’s recollections of that terrible day? Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca Gottesfeld, with her partner George Botkin, an ingenious composer, seek to unravel the facts of the matter while Ruth Zion, a zealous feminist historian of the fire, bores in on them with her own mole-like agenda. A brilliant, haunting novel about one of the most terrible tragedies in early-twentieth-century America, Triangle forces us to consider how we tell our stories, how we hear them, and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.

The book begins with a poem called ‘Shirt’, followed by the fictional Esther’s account of the fire, ‘transcribed’ from her recollections for a 1961 commemorative booklet.  It is is vivid, and horrifying: the sudden explosion, the rapid spread of fire across the overcrowded room, the smell and the smoke and the girls trapped by their long skirts as they tried to crawl under the tables to the door, which could not be opened.  The firemen’s ladders were too short to reach the ninth floor, and the net with which they tried to catch the girls who jumped from the windows wasn’t strong enough.  Esther, who remembered another door that the girls were never supposed to use, escaped upstairs and across a perilous ladder to an adjacent building.

I had to sit down on the curb, I was weak, and there was blood running past me over my shoes, it was water from the fire hoses mixed with blood, it was like a river of blood running past me, it was so terrible, and I just sat there letting it run over my shoes and I couldn’t even open my mouth anymore like I forgot how to talk English and I just watched.  Everywhere on the street there was money.  Coins from everyone’s pockets, because it was payday and so in their pockets and their stockings they had their money, and it fell out from the pay packets or wherever they were carrying it, and it was all over the street.  They told us before we came here, in America the streets are paved with gold, and this day it was true, but so terrible, to see this money in the gutter.  For what did they work so hard, but to have this money? (p.12)

Chapter Two, however, brings the reader to the present day.  We read about the eccentric genius George Botkin, who composes music which translates molecular structures such as DNA into melodies.  George is the long-term boyfriend of Esther’s granddaughter Rebecca and he sits and sings with her as Esther comes to the end of her very long life in a nursing home. Rebecca and George are very fond of each other but what holds them back from marriage is George’s genetic heritage of Huntingdon’s Disease, the consequences of which they know only too well because of Rebecca’s counselling work in clinical genetics.  The strength of their relationship, however, is what enables them to deal with Ruth Zion, a feminist academic who is determined to shoehorn Esther’s horrific experience into her own agenda.

Chapters Four and Seven are ‘transcripts’ of Ruth’s interviews with Esther, fossicking around the inconsistencies in Esther’s story.  Esther gets quite testy with Ruth, and from her conversations and behaviour with Rebecca, we can see why.  Author of “Gendered Space in the Workplace, Past, Present and Future” and her forthcoming 812-page ‘Out of the Frying pan: Women and Children last’ Ruth is insensitive, bombastic, unprincipled, long-winded and often laugh-out-loud funny though that is not what she intends.

Although I was fascinated by the descriptions of George’s music, I didn’t understand what it had to do with what I thought was the main theme until the last chapter.  It’s a description of his ‘Triangle Oratorio’, and this narrative is interwoven with Esther’s voice that the audience never hears.

The critics would, in the days, months, and years ahead, call the Triangle Oratorio ‘a uniquely postmodern amalgamation’ with a ‘melodic inventiveness’ and a ‘powerfully searing narrative impact’ that gives it a ‘bold complexity and authenticity’ that honours the lives lost to the Triangle factory fire with a ‘vigorous affirmation that is both elegiac and celebratory.’ There would be comparisons to Gershwin, to Copland, and yes, to Mendelssohn.  But on the actual night of March 25, at the Isaac Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, with every seat occupied, the 2,804 souls present have no such fine analytic words.  The audience that night has no words at all as the music sweeps over the and blasts them and scorches them.  (p.227)

George’s music makes people hear what it was like.  They hear the machinery, the explosion, and the shouting men and crying women as the chorus of 146 voices rages and begs and pleads and rages again, and the glorious, terrible, destroying music soars around them.  They hear the drums crash together with a boom, boom, boom for each body as it falls, down and down and down, and despairing music darkens the Stern auditorium. 

This is very powerful writing, and Esther reliving events from her deathbed, takes her story to the grave.

Get hold of a copy of it if you can.  My libraries didn’t have it, but I was able to buy a copy online.

Author: Katharine Weber
Title: Triangle
Publisher: Picador, 2006
ISBN: 9780312426149, pbk, 242 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2021

The Vanishing Sky, by L. Annette Binder

The Vanishing Sky asks important questions of contemporary readers.  WW2 has been a constant in film, TV and literature ever since it ended, but almost all of it is from the PoV of the victors, alongside the literature of the Holocaust.  Are we ready yet to consider the suffering of the German people in WW2?  Where do we stand in our assessment of the culpability of the German people as distinct from its leaders?  Can we accept that some at least may not have known about the evil actions of that regime, and how do we feel about those who knew or suspected it but felt they could not do anything either in protest or to help its victims?  Can we forgive, or if not forgive, can we feel compassion?  Can we do this without whitewashing history, and do we risk giving any support to the contemporary rise of an ugly nationalism in Europe?  And specifically, how do we feel about the actions of the Hitler Youth, and those boys who were conscripted to fight in the dying days of the war?

This is the blurb:

In 1945, as the war in Germany nears its violent end, the Huber family is not yet free of its dangers or its insidious demands. Etta, a mother from a small, rural town, has two sons serving their home country: her elder, Max, on the Eastern front, and her younger, Georg, at a school for Hitler Youth. When Max returns from the front, Etta quickly realizes that something is not right-he is thin, almost ghostly, and behaving very strangely. Etta strives to protect him from the Nazi rule, even as her husband, Josef, becomes more nationalistic and impervious to Max’s condition. Meanwhile, miles away, her younger son Georg has taken his fate into his own hands, deserting his young class of battle-bound soldiers to set off on a long and perilous journey home.

The Vanishing Sky is a World War II novel as seen through a German lens, a story of the irreparable damage of war on the home front, and one family’s participation-involuntary, unseen, or direct-in a dangerous regime. Drawing inspiration from her own father’s time in the Hitler Youth, L. Annette Binder has crafted a spellbinding novel about the daring choices we make for country and for family.

I have mixed feelings when I look at the Hitler Youth gazing out of the cover of The Vanishing Sky.  Realising that it was an allusion to the massacre of Jews in the dying days of the war, I froze when I read this passage where Max tells his mother about things that left her shaking in her chair:

…”They dug their own graves and nobody tried to run.  We shot them where they stood. Partisans, the lieutenant called them, but they looked like ordinary people.” He rubbed his eyes and it seemed for a moment that he wanted to say more, and then he turned away.  (p.80)

The Vanishing Sky is in some ways a powerful anti-war novel.  It shows the impact on people who had no capacity to influence events and the reality of warfare on ordinary people. But it also shows that even in a small rural town, people knew that the deportation of Jews was more than that.  When Etta visits Ilse to share her troubles, Ilse shows her the cellar, a warehouse of beautiful and cherished things:

…silver candleholders and serving platters and fine inlaid tables.  Clocks ticked in the silence of that room, porcelain mantel clocks and larger wall clocks propped up one against another.  A grandfather clock stood improbably in the corner, and she wondered who had brought it around the house and down those narrow stairs.  There were tea sets and goblets and dressing combs, cigarette cases and leather-bound books.  Porcelain dolls with fine painted faces sat in a row, their blue eyes open and unblinking.  (p.89)

Ilse has been looking after this museum since old Frau Singer came five years ago, followed by Frau Weinstein and then Frau Stern, all asking the same favour and offering money which Ilse refused to take. Every week she dusts and polishes and winds the clocks:

‘When they come back, they’ll thank me.’  Ilse nodded as she spoke.  ‘They’ll thank me for taking good care of their things.’  And even as she said it, they both knew it wasn’t true. (p.90)

The Jews are not the only ones who went away.

They went away sometimes, carrying only a satchel or a trunk.  She’d seen it herself.  The Weinsteins and the Singers and the Sterns who’d left behind their things.  The two sisters who were prone to twitches and fits, twins who dressed alike and worked side by side for Frau Ebling the seamstress, and they climbed aboard the train one morning and never came back.  Young Hillen with his baby face was gone, and the gypsies went somewhere, too.  They were gone from one day to the next, and there were no more bonfires by the riverbank then and no more dancing.  How easy it was to forget them.  Things changed and the mind adjusted, and it was an act of will to remember anything at all.  (p.90-1)

There are four main characters, told from two points-of-view.  Etta’s perspective—composed in a flat, detached, resigned voice to emphasise her powerlessness— gives us her efforts to understand her difficult husband Josef, who, after WW1, was never able to settle back into his work as a schoolmaster, and now, perhaps sliding into dementia, can’t manage to do any kind of work but is fiercely nationalistic.  From Etta we also learn about her older son Max, inexplicably sent home from the Eastern front and now suffering from PTSD.  She keeps him hidden inside because she fears that Max will one day just ‘disappear’ like Jürgen, Ushi’s intellectually disabled boy.  The systematic murder of ‘unfit persons’ isn’t named; the novel assumes that readers will already know what these disappearances signify.

Etta is quietly determined to hold her family together but is helpless to do so as the German retreat comes towards them.

George, never comfortable in the Hitler Youth, is now conscripted into digging trenches for a useless wall against the enemy i.e. the Allies.  The third person narration from his perspective reveals a sensitive boy who succumbs to a pessimistic sense of inevitability as he sees his comrades die around him.  When the chance comes, he runs away and as he makes his way home on foot, he is given shelter by kindly women in the countryside.  He isn’t always kind to them; his wilful refusal to write letters home was cruel to his mother, desperate for news of him.  But this seems not to be wilful: he is just getting by, day by day, not in control of anything that happens to him.

It’s true that the victims of war in this novel are also those who turned aside and did nothing when they witnessed evil. Binder does not shy away from that.  In the final chapter we see dogmatic refusal to believe evidence when it’s put before them.   But today, when we witness all kinds of evil in the world such as inaction on climate change or inhumane refugee policies or failure to share Covid vaccines, and yet we do nothing or very little, can we take the moral high ground?

She looked like a woman of seventy and not the pharmacist’s wife who used to walk along the streets with her back so straight and her only boy beside her.

‘Don’t give up, Ushi.  You’ll get him home.  You have to keep looking until you find him.’

‘He’s not coming back,’ Ushi pushed her cup aside.  ‘People leave and they don’t come back. My Jens is gone and my Jürgen too.’ Her voice quavered.  ‘They’ve wrecked the world, these men, and they’re still not done.  They’d take the sky if they could.  They’d take the air we breathe, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.’ (p.155)

Thought-provoking novels like this one are my favourite kind of reading.

Author: L. Annette Binder
Title: The Vanishing Sky
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
ISBN: 9781526616715, pbk., 278 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 28, 2021

Giveaway winners from #IndigLitWeek

Apologies for the late draw for these two giveaways: what with lockdown and a broken wrist, things have been a bit disorganised.

For the giveaway of the DVD Top End Wedding, these were the entries:

  1. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  2. Bill from The Australian Legend

The odds were good, and it was no 2 that came up using a random number generator, so Bill, the DVD will be on its way to you soon.

For the giveaway of Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki, these were the entries:

  1. Pam from Travellin’ Penguin
  2. Meredith (MsWriter3)
  3. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  4. Fay Kennedy
  5. (BlueEyes) Meg
  6. Brona from This Reading Life

And the winner is No 3, Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.  I don’t seem to have your postal address (a casualty of my computer woes last year?) so please contact me to let me know where to send the book.

Thanks to everyone who took part:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 27, 2021

The Burning Island, by Jock Serong

This is going to be a brief review because I have a long boring day of medical appointments ahead. *Another* x-ray, the ortho surgeon, and then the rehab physio, punctuated by sitting outside in the car because the Covid rules mean I can’t wait in the waiting room. I am going to be much too cranky by day’s end to write anything.

So, The Burning Island. It’s Bk 2 in the Grayling Family series, and #SpoilerAlert I am already wondering how Serong is going to write Bk 3 because there’s not much left of the family now. Unless…hmmm…no, I’d best keep my speculations to myself. Enough for you to know that of course I will be reading Bk 3 when it comes out.

This is the blurb:

Eliza Grayling, born in Sydney when the colony itself was still an infant, has lived there all her thirty-two years. Too tall, too stern—too old, now—for marriage, she looks out for her reclusive father, Joshua, and wonders about his past. There is a shadow there: an old enmity.

When Joshua Grayling is offered the chance for a reckoning with his nemesis, Eliza is horrified. It involves a sea voyage with an uncertain, probably violent, outcome. Insanity for an elderly blind man, let alone a drunkard.

Unable to dissuade her father from his mad fixation, Eliza begins to understand she may be forced to go with him. Then she sees the vessel they will be sailing on. And in that instant, the voyage of the Moonbird becomes Eliza’s mission too.

Irresistible prose, unforgettable characters and magnificent, epic storytelling: The Burning Island delivers everything readers have come to expect from Jock Serong. It may be his most moving, compelling novel yet.

There are some terrific characters in this novel, but what impressed me most was the way Serong is perfectly at home on board The Moonbird and writes so convincingly about weaving in and out of narrow coves without coming to grief on the rocks notorious for thousands of wrecks during the Age of Sail.  I wonder if he is a yachtsman?

I will admit that I cottoned onto a crucial plot element early on, but it was still enjoyable reading for those who enjoy historical fiction.  It’s respectful of the issues surrounding the activities of George Augustus Robinson and the terrible impact on Tasmania’s Aborigines; and it’s also truthful about the poignant lives of convicts so young that today they would just be starting secondary school.

Oh, and another thing… Serong has won an award for writing a thriller that doesn’t feature violence against women.  There are some gruesome murders in The Burning Island, but only one woman dies and that’s offstage because it happened long ago.  There is violence against Aboriginal women too, but it’s reported i.e. not lingered over in the salacious prose beloved of crime writers.

PS There’s a handy map which traces the voyage so that readers always know where they are!

Author: Jock Serong
Title: The Burning Island
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330086, pbk., 350 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings during Melbourne’s 2020 Lockdown.

I am out of my depth when it comes to reviewing Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe.  When back in 2014 (as you can see in my review), I read Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I was convinced by author Bruce Pascoe’s use of historical sources to show that, before 1788, there was systematic agriculture and aquaculture; permanent dwellings; storage and preservation methods and the use of fire to manage the difficult Australian environment.  On my LisaHillSchoolStuff blog I recommended the text as one that should be widely read and also taught in schools.

So it was chastening to read Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers, the Dark Emu Debate by Professor Peter Sutton FASSA and Dr Keryn Walshe.  I only had to read the Introduction to realise that I was one of the many who read Dark Emu as a revelatory experience when in fact there were for many decades texts in which a simply nomadic’ description of the Old People was rejected.  There’s more to reviewing books in this debate than just reading them.

The author profiles on the publisher’s website are impressive:

Sutton is a social anthropologist and linguist who has, over more than 50 years, contributed to learning and recording Aboriginal languages, promoting Aboriginal art, mapping Aboriginal cultural landscapes, increasing understanding of contemporary Aboriginal societies and land tenure systems, and the successes of native title claimants.

Walshe is an archaeologist with more than 35 years of experience in recording, analysing and interpreting Australian Indigenous heritage sites and objects. She has lectured in archaeology, managed Indigenous heritage museum collections and undertaken site assessments for corporate and government agencies. Walshe continues to write for academic journals, advise heritage managers and give public presentations.

But impressive as these credentials are, it is the authors’ cogent argument which makes their work a corrective to my naïve enthusiasm.  I’m not qualified to judge whether what they say about Pascoe’s selective use of sources is a problem, but I do know that evidence-based truth telling necessitates research across the available knowledge bases.  I knew that Pascoe was not a trained historian but I assumed that his research was extensive and even-handed.

In contemporary Aboriginal studies, including history, archaeology and anthropology, academic expertise includes respecting the knowledge of The Old People, i.e. Aboriginal collaborators in the research who share facts and insights from their expertise. Here it is pertinent to note that one of the blurbers praising this book is Dr Kellie Pollard, a Wiradjuri archaeologist, lecturer and researcher at Charles Darwin University:

Sutton and Walshe show that Pascoe tried, and failed, to overturn over a century of anthropological and archaeological study, analysis and documentation, in addition to Aboriginal oral testimony, of the ways of life, governance, socioeconomic behaviour, material, technological and spiritual accomplishments and preferences of Aboriginal people in classical society and on the cusp of colonisation.

My own common sense and experience as a language learner tells me that Chapter 3 ‘The Language Question’ is persuasive.  All languages have vocabulary that match the cultural practices and needs of their users.  But missing from the research into the 260 distinct languages of Australia in 1788 are words for ‘hoed’; ’tilled’; ‘ploughed’; ‘sowed’; ‘planted’; ‘irrigated’ or ‘reaped’.  If what Pascoe claims is true, then there would be multiple words for agricultural activities in Aboriginal languages.  The only language that has a word for ‘garden’ or ‘to sow, to plant’ is Meryam Mir, a Torres Strait language.  (It’s not an Australian language, apparently; it’s a Papuan language within Australia’s borders.)  These people have considerable gardening vocabulary, and mainlanders did adopt some of their technologies such as outrigger canoes and detachable-head harpoons, but they did not adopt horticulture. Sutton makes a convincing argument that this was a choice: obviously Aborigines had expert knowledge of the plants on which they depended but they did not need to farm them and chose not to.

The uncomfortable truth is that if we want to believe that pre-Contact Aborigines were ‘farmers’ (however that’s defined) we are complicit in preferring ‘social-evolutionism’ to ‘cultural relativism’.  As Tim Rowse puts it in his review at The teller and the tale | Inside Story.

Sutton needs no convincing that Australia’s history is a story of colonial conquest and usurpation, but he objects strongly to Pascoe’s way of questioning Australia’s “legitimacy.” The “most fundamental flaw” of Dark Emu, he writes, is that it implicitly endorses the social evolutionists’ scale of human value: by seeking to redescribe the Old People as agriculturalists it has conceded too much to the idea that agriculture is a higher stage than “hunting and gathering.” Sutton urges us to admire the Old People for what they were rather than for what, in Pascoe’s view, they were becoming.

Sutton’s plea for the inherent worth of the hunter-gatherer way of life (and implicitly, for the right of the Old People and their descendants to assert their unceded sovereignty) is a product of “cultural relativism.” In the “human sciences,” cultural relativism began to replace “social evolution” in the second decade of the twentieth century. It has been axiomatic for the research community on whose works Sutton and Walshe rely, and it has been buttressed, since the 1940s, by emerging international law concepts such as the right of “peoples” to “self-determination.” Popular assent to Pascoe’s assumption that Aboriginal people were more admirable for being agricultural suggests that cultural relativism has not yet undermined social evolution in popular thinking about human history.

Reviews of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers are steadily emerging:

Historian Bill Gammage, as you’d expect from the author of The Biggest Estate on Earth, (with which I was also impressed) takes issue with the authors:

Dark Emu is a history and a polemic; the most balanced response I’ve seen to it is by a historian, Tom Griffiths. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers is a detailed response from an anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, with two chapters and an appendix by an archaeologist, Keryn Walshe. My health stops me from reading all their book, so I’m obliged to cherrypick.

It is unfortunate that he hasn’t read the whole book because IMO it compromises what he has to say.  (And, call me cynical, disrespectful or heartless if you like, but it makes me wonder what kind of health problem stops him from reading the book but enables him to write a 2500 word response.  The Sutton-Walshe book is not an indigestible academic text; it’s written for the general reader like me.)  Anyway, you can read what Gammage has to say in context at The Great Divide | Inside Story  and (all credit to Inside Story for balanced journalism) also a dissenting view at The teller and the tale | Inside Story.

Dr Christine Nicholl’s review at The Conversation is blunt:  this willingness to accept Pascoe’s argument reveals a systemic area of failure in the Australian education system. 

Sutton and Walshe portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state.

In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Other reviews that are not paywalled (though there’s a limit on views at the SMH):

  • Ian Lipke at the Queensland Reviewers Collective represents the matter as an academic stoush and that most people won’t care, but FWIW here’s the link to their review.
  • Ben Wilkie at the SMH says that the debate over which label best fits – farmers or foragers – has obstructed the way towards seeing Aboriginal Australian land and resource management in all its variety and ingenuity. 
  • Michael Davis, also at the SMH says that the success of Dark Emu indicates a public hunger for more information about Indigenous peoples and the extraordinary diversity and resilience of their cultures and societies.  But he then goes on to siphon away potential general readers by expressing a hope that Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, appealing to different audiences, and offering a richly textured alternative interpretation, will add to this conversation and similarly stimulate interest.  Why different audiences? Though the last two chapters written by Walshe are less ‘digestible’ than the  Sutton chapters, the book as a whole is perfectly readable by a competent adult general reader.

I’ve been retired from teaching now since 2014, and I feel no responsibility for updating the knowledge of my colleagues still in the profession.  However, although my professional blog has been dormant since my retirement, it’s still widely used as a resource, with thousands of views and downloads.  So, since I still feel a sense of professional integrity, I’m going to have to revisit my review there and update it in the light of what I learned from reading Sutton and Walshe’s rebuttal.

Authors: Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
Title: Farmers or Hunter-Gatheres? The Dark Emu Debate
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780522877854, pbk.,288 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2021

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an unsettling book, but in a good way. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and featured in last year’s online Melbourne Writers’ FestivalThe Vanishing Half is a story that explores race and identity to expose in all its stupidity the corrupting consequences of racism.  This is the blurb:

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

When I shared my thoughts about the MWF session I wrote that I felt that framing the book as a distinctively American phenomenon was misleading:

This session would have benefitted from including an Australian context.  Indigenous people in Australia, if they were ‘white enough’ could ‘pass’, but if they did, they had to renounce their Aboriginality and avoid all contact with family.  I don’t know much about this but I know that (at least until the threat from Japan in the Pacific War) in both World  Wars Indigenous people were not supposed to enlist but some did if they could ‘pass’.  And during the assimilationist phase of our history, there was also an official system of enabling Indigenous people to ‘pass’ which isolated them from their communities.  I think that some Indigenous people in contemporary Australia often experience a questioning of their identity and this is very hurtful.  But the session was framed entirely from an American context.  Brit Bennett actually said that the situation of ‘passing’ was distinctively American, and I know that this isn’t true, because it occurred in South Africa too, during the Apartheid regime.

So I preface my thoughts by admitting that I read The Vanishing Half framed by what I know about the circumstances in which Indigenous people ‘passed’ in Australia and also by what I know about the importance of family and community to Indigenous people and how the exemption system was intended to destroy these relationships.  There were many scenes in the novel that replicated the Australian context: the angry white child using a racist epithet against her black friend; people of colour being hounded out of white areas; routine discrimination in employment and so on.  One of the most unsettling aspects was the way that the light-skinned African Americans of Mallard had come through bitter experience to accept the violence against them.  The twins witness the murder of their father twice — at home when white vigilantes burst into their home, and again in the hospital when the men come back to finish off their crime.

Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them.  But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for?

‘White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little.’ Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. ‘You gotta follow they rules but they change ’em when they feel.  Devilish, you ask me.’

In the bedroom, the twins sat, swinging over the mattress edge, and pinched at a piece of pound cake.

‘But what did Daddy do?’ Stella kept asking.

Desiree sighed, for the first time feeling the burden of having to supply answers.  Oldest was oldest, even if by only seven minutes.

‘Like Willie Lee say.  He do his job too good.’

‘But that don’t make sense.’

‘Don’t have to.  It’s white folks.’  (p.35)

That devastating last line contains a whole world of cruel history for people of colour all over the world.

The context reinforces it.  The (fictional) town where these twins live is Mallard, where people of colour respond to racism by exercising their own version of it.  For generations, they have bred themselves progressively whiter by excluding darker-skinned African Americans.  Adele, the mother of the twins, tries to prevent Desiree’s relationship with a black man; later, she rejects the very dark-skinned child of Desiree’s marriage.  Yet even these people, the light-skinned people of Mallard who are indistinguishable from white people, are excluded, discriminated against, and subjected to vigilante violence.  It exposes in a visceral way just how irrational racism is.  It shows how even when people of colour try to take control of it by obliterating themselves, fear and hatred still thrives, even on what is merely an obscene idea.  As Desiree recognises: her Daddy had skin so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn over his arm to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him.

In Stella, we see how ‘passing’ can be a response to racism, but it’s a decision that can blight an entire life.  Stella, desperate for a job, ‘passes’ almost by accident, and then has to maintain it to keep not only the job but the freedoms that go with a white identity.  As exemptions did in Australia, this invidious choice means she has to break with her family and vanish into another life, inflicting profound grief on her family who don’t know where she is or why she has disappeared.  She also has to suppress her own grief and maintain an elaborate façade of lies so that her husband and daughter never find out.  Her loneliness, her stress and her guilt is overwhelming and as the novel progresses the trap in which she has enmeshed herself becomes so tangled that there is no going back.

What kind of world do we live in that this kind of barbarity takes place?

This one: the world we’re in…

Author: Brit Bennett
Title: The Vanishing Half
Cover concept by Mike McQuade
Publisher: Dialogue Books, 2020
ISBN: 9780349701455, pbk., 343 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.99

It seems extraordinary that today, so many years after the Holocaust, there are still stories of heroism coming to light. The Just, first published in 2018 as De rechtvaardigen but now available in an English translation by David McKay, is the story of the Dutch Honorary Consul Jan Zwartendijk and his Japanese counterpart, Chiune Sugihara who in the period 16 July – 3 August 1940 enabled the escape of thousands of Jews by providing them with transit documentation and visas out of Lithuania.

Until reading this book, I had little knowledge of Lithuania’s role in the Holocaust.  It is deeply worrying that anti-Semitism is still rife in the country, even to the extent that a Lithuanian court recently ruled that swastikas could be displayed publicly and were symbols of “Lithuania’s historical heritage”.  (See Wikipedia).  IMO it’s not a heritage to be proud of:

The Holocaust in Lithuania resulted in the near total destruction of Lithuanian (Litvaks) and Polish Jews, living in Generalbezirk Litauen of Reichskommissariat Ostland within the Nazi-controlled Lithuanian SSR. Out of approximately 208,000–210,000 Jews, an estimated 190,000–195,000 were murdered before the end of World War II, most between June and December 1941. More than 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred over the three-year German occupation—a more complete destruction than befell any other country affected by the Holocaust. Historians attribute this to the massive collaboration in the genocide by the non-Jewish local paramilitaries, though the reasons for this collaboration are still debated. The Holocaust resulted in the largest-ever loss of life in so short a period of time in the history of Lithuania. (Wikipedia, viewed 21/7/21, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes.)

Zwartendijk became Dutch Honorary Consul in the chaos of WW2.  Lithuania had been independent since the end of WW1, enjoyed a brief period of democracy in the 1920s but lapsed into authoritarianism from 1926.  Both Nazi Germany and the USSR wanted control of the country and diplomatic efforts failed to prevent encroachments by both aspirants. However the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, gave Poland to the Soviets and they in the process invaded Vilnius, which Lithuania considered its capital.  To engineer its return, Lithuania had to agree to Soviet troops being stationed on their soil, to a pro-Soviet government, and ultimately to annexation by the USSR.  Zwartendijk was director of the Kaunas Philips plant being nationalised at this time, and was hastily appointed part-time acting consul of the Dutch government-in-exile represented by the Ambassador in Riga, Latvia, L.P.J. de Decker. No one could have foreseen that with clandestine advice from de Decker, Zwartendijk was to play a pivotal role in the rescue of so many Jews.

All over Europe Jews were fleeing the Nazis, but Lithuania was no safe haven.  Refugees came from German-occupied Western Poland and Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland, and included residents of Lithuania who knew they were at risk too.  When they came in desperation to Zwartendijk, with approval of his boss the Dutch Ambassador L.P.J. De Decker, he conceived the idea of annotating passports to allow entry without visa to one of two Dutch colonies beyond the reach of Nazi Germany: either Curaçao, in the Caribbean or Suriname in South America.  Their route was to take them across risky territory in the USSR to Japan before travelling onward, so they needed a transit visa from the Japanese Consul too.  Zwartendijk was able to speed up operations by having a stamp made so that only his signature was needed, but even with a stamp Sugihara had to write seven columns of Japanese calligraphy for each one.  Both men worked 20 hour days to process thousands of passports: Zwartendijk issued nearly 2,200 before he was forced to leave Kaunas, (and some issued illegally after that) and Sugihara was still providing these life-saving documents even as his train pulled out of the station.  Brokken’s research shows that there are Jewish families in Melbourne who owe their lives to these brave men.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this story is that there is documentary evidence that Stalin personally approved the refugees’ transit through the USSR to Japan.  In 1940 his stance was to stand up against anti-Semitism, and he made notes for a speech in which he described anti-Jewish hatred as ‘cannibalism’ and ‘a crime’. He bragged about the Jewish homeland he had established near the Chinese border: ‘The tsars wouldn’t give the Jews any land, but we have.’  In trying to interpret this quixotic support for Jews, Brokken suggests two motives: that by charging an exorbitant fee for the journey on the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok — in American dollars no less, at a time when the mere possession of the currency meant very heavy penalties — the USSR had valuable foreign currency for the purchase of armaments.  It’s also possible that Stalin intended to boost the Jewish population in Birobidzhan…

Zwartendijk and Sugihara were not the only heroes quietly risking their lives in this way.  The author’s research led to the discovery that the same note in a passport had led to the rescue of a Melbourne Jew called Abram Weiner in Sweden, where the signature was that of the Dutch Consul A.M. (Adriaan Mattheus) de Jong, also guided by De Decker.  It’s not possible to know how Wiener acquired a transit visa for Japan because both Wiener and De Jong are dead, and (no doubt following the prudent disposal of all records by Zwartendijk and Sugihara), no other travel documents have survived.  Weiner may have used the USSR-Palestinian route which emerged after the Kaunas consulates were closed, facilitated by forged British entry visas for Palestine, expertly made by an underground printery in Vilnius. (After the British complained to the USSR about the influx of refugees, the printery was shut down, and the printer was sent to Siberia for ten years.)  But De Jong continued to issue Curaçao visas (nearly 500) and the search began for a Japanese consul who was prepared to overlook the fact that these visas implied that you could easily enter Curaçao or Suriname.  That was not actually so, but the important thing was that they got the visa-holder out of the danger in Lithuania.  (Even if they had to wait out the war in Siberia, as some did, they were still better off. However, those who were Dutch nationals who did reach the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) were interned by the Japanese under brutal conditions.  None of this story has simple happy endings.) The name of this consul in a place called Chita is not given, and this is one of the minor flaws in this book… not all sequences follow a coherent chronology and sometimes it’s difficult to patch information together. De Jong also played a part in British espionage and seems to have an interesting story to tell, including that he was badly treated by the postwar Dutch authorities for showing too much initiative. I hope someone has written a bio of this man.  (I didn’t get far with a Google search, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one).

There was also a Dutch consul in Kobe Japan who intervened to prevent 74 Jews who lacked transit visas being sent back to Vladivostok. Unlike the other diplomats who suffered the consequences of ‘breaking the rules’ Nicolaas de Voogd went on to have a successful career after the war.   In Shanghai there was Ho Feng Shan who defied the wishes of his immediate superior, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin, who hoped to maintain good relations with Hitler.  His motto was ‘Do nothing you cannot justify in Heaven.’ Back in the Netherlands under the German Occupation there was Jan Swartendijk’s twin brother Piet and his brave daughter Ineke also acting courageously without either brother knowing what the other was doing.  Ineke, at seventeen, had thought that her Uncle Jan had played a ‘safe war’, and did not know about his courage until after his death, concluding that a few casual impressions don’t tell you a thing about how people will act  in wartime.

Recounting the bare bones of this rescue operation for a review does not convey the enormity of it.  Like others of the Righteous Among Nations these heroes imperilled themselves and the people they loved because they thought it was the right thing to do.  They worked long stressful hours exacerbated by the need for secrecy.  And each visa issued enabled the escape of whole families who could travel on the same visa.  Some who had common names (the equivalent of John Smith) were able to re-use them for other family members, and so there are many more descendants of these refugees than the mere number of visas. Given that after the war Zwartendijk was reprimanded for breaking the rules and that he died unrecognised not even knowing how many of those he had tried to help had survived the war, it’s important to note that…

… 95 per cent of those with visas from the Dutch Consul in Kaunas survived the war. (p.406)

This is a long book (and a heavy one for a one-handed reader!) and I haven’t been able to take notes as I usually do for a book like this.   I hope that I have given fair weight to all the men and women whose stories are told.

Author: Jan Brokken
Title: The Just, how six unlikely heroes saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (De rechtvaardigen)
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Cover design based a design by Roald Triebels
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021
ISBN: 9781925849295, hbk., 478 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2021

2021 ALS Gold Medal winner

Congratulations to Nardi Simpson, winner of the 2021 ALS Gold Medal for ‘Song of the Crocodile’!

See my review here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2021

The Breaking, by Irma Gold

This debut novel came my way because Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes and Sue from Whispering Gums had both reviewed it, and I wanted to see for myself how it handled the issues it raises.  This is the blurb:

Hannah Bird has just arrived in Thailand. Disoriented and out of her depth, she meets Deven, a fierce and gutsy Australian expat who sweeps her into thrilling adventures rescuing elephants.

As they head deeper and deeper into the fraught world of elephant tourism, their lives become tangled in ways Hannah never imagined. But how far will they go to save a life?

Hannah is about to make a critical decision from which there will be no turning back, with shattering consequences.

The Breaking piqued my interest not because I am sentimental about elephants but because it explores the ugly side of mass tourism and the role of outsiders in ‘righting wrongs’.   Hannah is the stereotypical naïve young tourist, escaping the minor troubles of a comfortable life by visiting an ‘exotic’ culture on a shoestring.  As fellow Australian Deven in exasperation soon makes clear, Hannah has not bothered to find out anything about the country she is visiting.  Deven, who has issues of her own, clearly enjoys being the possessor of knowledge about Thailand, and takes the clueless Hannah under her wing, introducing her to the culture of street life and teaching her scraps of Thai.  (Later on, Deven volunteers as a teacher in a village school so teaching must be in her blood.)

But Deven also introduces Hannah to the Worthy Cause, i.e. the rescue of elephants which these days are used less as workhorses and more to entertain the ‘bucket list’ type of tourist with circus performances, tricks and rides.  Deven is passionate about the rescue of these animals which suffer greatly throughout their very long lives, and as the novel reveals in graphic detail, the elephant’s submission to their mahout is achieved through the process of phajaan i.e. breaking its spirit with extreme cruelty when it is very young.  (Though you can infer some of what goes on from the Equipment section, none of this is alluded to in the bland article about mahouts at Wikipedia which has been edited significantly to remove references to phajaan, see Verification in the Talk section).

With sexual attraction emerging between Hannah and Deven, the pair join an elephant rescue operation, putting in long hours of back-breaking, dirty labour.  They clean the elephants, and they clean up after them; they feed them and they spend hours preparing their food.  They tend their wounds and they rejoice when elephants take their first tentative unchained steps. They get to know and love individual elephants and they find that the work they are doing is very satisfying.  But that is not enough for Deven.  She knows, (as everyone else involved in these projects in Asia and Africa does), that the problem of elephant exploitation and cruelty is systemic and that they are making a difference only to a small number of individual animals.

(Though the novel is not explicit about this, the depiction of the ‘yobbo’ Aussie tourist shows that activism also needs to tackle the pressure exerted by this type of tourist.  That needs to be done not in Thailand but in the source countries of the tourists who arrive expecting tricks and rides.  Making ethical tourism the only kind of acceptable tourism is a project for wealthy western countries.)

Big, the Thai in charge of the rescue project explains that changing the culture and way of life in Thailand is a slow process, and this is where a careful shift in characterisation occurs.  Deven has been the leader: strong, intelligent, decisive, street-wise and morally persuasive.  Her interactions with Thais show a respect for Thai culture.  She speaks enough of the language to get by in everyday situations; she dresses respectfully; she eats what they do; and she derides Hannah’s Western-tourist expectations about the kind of accommodation they are given. But Deven is also impulsive and she sees things in black-and-white; as right or wrong.  Hannah has been a clueless follower: getting lost; getting ‘ripped off’ in bargaining; needing an interpreter; naïve about the way elephants are trained.  However, it is Hannah who sees the nuances that pass Deven by: that there are families with hungry children who are dependent on the income the elephants provide and that well-meaning outsiders taking the moral high ground can do more harm than good.  Over the course of the novel we see Hannah emerge from star-struck follower happy to go along with things without argument, to making tentative steps towards voicing her dissenting opinions, and finally to taking charge when the crisis occurs.

It took longer to read this book than I expected because some of the animal cruelty scenes left me wanting a break from the reading, but overall I admire this author for bringing these issues to attention in a nuanced way.  The author has ‘skin in the game’: she has worked on rescue projects in Thailand and in the Afterword she suggests rescue projects which would welcome financial support.  But the novel as a whole represents the complexity of activist involvement in these projects, and the novel itself is a powerful way of promoting ethical tourism.

Thanks to Sue and Theresa for bringing it to my attention.

Author: Irma Gold
Title: The Breaking
Cover design: Kim Lock
Publisher: Midnight Sun, 2021
ISBN: 9781925227819, pbk., 265 pages
Source: Kingston Library


All Human Wisdom is the second of what will be a trilogy titled Children of Disaster (Les Enfants du désastre). Like The Great Swindle it is an historical novel set in the wake of World War 1, a period of reconstruction in the ruins of Europe.  It is book-ended by two funerals, symbolic of Death as Master of Europe in the 20th Century. This is the blurb:

February, 1927. The great and the good of Paris gather to attend the funeral of the powerful millionaire, Marcel Péricourt. His daughter, Madeleine, is poised to take charge of his financial empire, but it seems fate has other plans for her. Her young son, Paul, with one unexpected and tragic act, will place Madeleine on the path to ruin and degradation.

Faced with the adversity of men, the greed of her time, the corruption and the ambition of her associates, Madeleine will have to deploy reserves of intelligence, determination and also a Machiavellian instinct to survive and rebuild her life. This task is made all the more difficult in a France that can only watch, helpless, as the first flames of the inferno that will soon ravage Europe begin to take hold.

Revenge is a tawdry emotion.  They say that at some time everyone feels a desire to avenge some wrong, because vengeance is tied up with perceptions of wickedness, injustice and betrayal. Parents and teachers often deal with a desire for revenge because children have a primitive view of right and wrong and its consequences. Children mostly grow out of acting on these feelings. Most of us grow a sense of perspective, and we either allow justice to take its course, or simply move on, absorbing the sin against us as part of life’s journey. We learn that revenge does not make us feel better.

But if justice fails, or the damage is profound and irreversible, what then?  And is the role of Avenging Angel different if a victim extends her own vengeance to avenge also on behalf of another, an innocent?

These are weighty questions which define the difference between the Old Testament and the New: an eye for an eye, or forgiveness and love.  More prosaically, these alternatives lie at the heart of our justice systems: rejection by society and punishment versus rehabilitation and restitution.  It is easy to forget that they lie at the heart of this novel as it rampages along in a complex plot which is often exciting and sometimes droll.  But when the reader reaches the end of the book, the question remains: Is Madeleine, (sister to Édouard, the disfigured central character of The Great Swindle) more sinned against than sinning?

As in The Great Swindle, the novel traverses a scandal which exposes the French Establishment as corrupt and venal in high places.  Madeleine loses everything not because of the Great Depression but because professionals she should have been able to trust manipulated and exploited her.  But the corruption of values extends below stairs too.  Madeleine is also betrayed by those close to her, people exacting their own revenge for the careless way that a very rich and indifferent woman has behaved.  All societies have values which bind them together: when the national motto of France Libertéégalitéfraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), ceases to mean anything, society falls apart and chaos ensues.

The corruption of the media, along with its cynicism and its power to influence, is likewise relevant to contemporary life.  In a subplot involving an opera singer performing for Hitler, her spectacular refutation of Nazi appropriation of music is suppressed by the master propagandist Goebbels, leaving the restoration of her reputation to one lone and powerless voice.  The novel asks, is the French media any more truthful?

Let none of these musings overwhelm the pleasure of reading this novel.  Like its big, baggy fore-runners in Victorian narrative, there are secrets, betrayals, and subterfuges along with lively plot twists and reversals.  There are numerous characters all conspiring against each other, all in the looming shadow of the coming debacle.  Does—should? a world war dwarf their concerns? Where does the last book of the trilogy go from here?

Author: Pierre Lemaitre
Title: All Human Wisdom (Couleurs de l’incendie)
Children of Disaster #2 (Les Enfants du désastre #2) Trilogy
Translated by Frank Wynne
Design by Andrew Smith
Publisher: MacLehose Press (Quercus), 2021
ISBN: 9780857059000, pbk., 423 pages
Source: Kingston Library

I’m not up to writing up the sessions I’m ‘attending’ at the suddenly online version of the 2021 Yarra Valley Writers Festival.  I had accommodation and tickets booked, and was cursing because I couldn’t attend in person because of my broken wrist, and lo! along comes another lockdown and the festival is cancelled and has pivoted online as it did in 2020. As my wise old mother used to say, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. 

If you can, do what I did and buy a weekend pass for $65 which means you can watch sessions from your own home, live and for the next week.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2021

Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski

Swimming in the Dark is a stunning debut for author Tomasz Jedrowski.  It’s a coming-of-age story in more ways than one. This is the blurb:

Set in early 1980s Poland against the violent decline of communism, a tender and passionate story of first love between two young men who eventually find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide—a stunningly poetic and heartrending literary debut for fans of Andre Aciman, Garth Greenwell, and Alan Hollinghurst.

When university student Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp, he is fascinated yet wary of this handsome, carefree stranger. But a chance meeting by the river soon becomes an intense, exhilarating, and all-consuming affair. After their camp duties are fulfilled, the pair spend a dreamlike few weeks camping in the countryside, bonding over an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Inhabiting a beautiful natural world removed from society and its constraints, Ludwik and Janusz fall deeply in love. But in their repressive communist and Catholic society, the passion they share is utterly unthinkable.

Once they return to Warsaw, the charismatic Janusz quickly rises in the political ranks of the party and is rewarded with a highly-coveted position in the ministry. Ludwik is drawn toward impulsive acts of protest, unable to ignore rising food prices and the stark economic disparity around them. Their secret love and personal and political differences slowly begin to tear them apart as both men struggle to survive in a regime on the brink of collapse.

Shifting from the intoxication of first love to the quiet melancholy of growing up and growing apart, Swimming in the Dark is a potent blend of romance, post-war politics, intrigue, and history. Lyrical and sensual, immersive and intense, Tomasz Jedrowski has crafted an indelible and thought-provoking literary debut that explores freedom and love in all its incarnations.

For Ludwik, negotiating the discovery of his sexuality in the 1980s, it’s not just hesitancy about who to reveal himself to, and the when and how; it’s that Poland under the Soviet yoke confers power to those with ‘connections’ and not only denies the most basic of needs to its ordinary people, but also exploits shame and fear about ‘deviancy’ to blackmail its informers.  As a boy Ludwik had listened to illegal radio broadcasts with his mother and grandmother — without really understanding what they were about except that they were clandestine because they were from the West.  It is not until his relationship with Janusz deepens (that name reminding the reader of Janus the two-faced god) that Ludwik becomes aware of the corruption of his society and the abandonment of its socialist ideals.  He has a kindly landlady called Pan Kolecka who has fond memories of freedom to travel beyond pre-war Poland and whose sole pleasure now is to bake, but as the economy collapses she has to queue for days in order to get basic foodstuffs. Janusz OTOH has friends with connections who live in luxury, symbolised by expensive German cars, designer clothes from the West, gourmet foodstuffs and the latest in popular music.  Ludwik sees a washing machine for the first time in his life and feels a stab of anger for Pan Kolecka who has done her laundry by hand all her life.  She tells him that she is queueing for a possibility, queueing for something, maybe queueing for nothing but she has hope that even the longest queue dissolves eventually. Just how unrealistic this is becomes clear when she becomes gravely ill and cannot even get a medical appointment, much less the medications to save her life.

Ludwik dreams of freedom, and with Giovanni’s Room as the (clandestine) catalyst, he is hopeful that he can get funding for a doctorate to study the author James Baldwin because the authorities will approve of any critique of American, including  racism.  Ludwik’s dreams and reality collide when he realises that Janusz is willing to compromise all that matters in order to get ahead…

Jedrowski convincingly captures the doubts and anxiety of young love as Ludwik idealises his loved one in a forested Eden, contrasted with the grubby decay of the city and its baroque past for the portrayal of disillusionment and melancholy as Janusz reveals his true self.  I have been dipping into Growing Up Queer in Australia (edited by Benjamin Law) and this uncertainty in the adolescent years is a common theme, as it is for all young people, but even in liberal societies, it’s a life journey made more complicated by sexuality that’s different to the ‘norm’.

Swimming in the Dark is a thoughtful book. It doesn’t just shine a light on the contradictions of communism, it shows that societies that tolerate corruption and indifference to the common good, must be challenged.  Solidarity is beginning to emerge in the timeline of this novel but there are risks in supporting it.  This story made me wonder yet again about how much the West has benefited from migration of the disaffected and whether things would be any better in evil regimes if we had better ways of supporting change from within.  OTOH Western interference has so often been a catalyst for more misery so perhaps the impetus for change has to come from the people themselves…

Author: Tomasz Jedrowski
Title: Swimming in the Dark
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2021, first published 2020
ISBN: 9781526604989, PBK., 229 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2021

The Snow Line, by Tessa McWatt

The Snow Line by Canadian author Tessa McWatt, is more of a meditation on culture, identity and ageing than a plot-driven novel, though the conclusion may leave some readers in tears even though it’s not an unexpected ending. This is the blurb:

Old and young. White and brown. Male and female. British. Indian. Other.

Four strangers from around the world arrive in India for a wedding. Together, they climb a mountain — but will they see the same thing from the top?

Londoner Reema, who left India before she could speak, is searching for a sign that will help her make a life-changing decision. In pensioner Jackson’s suitcase is something he must let go of, but is he strong enough?

Together with two unlikely companions, they take a road trip up a mountain deep in the Himalayas, heading for the snow line — the place where the ice begins.

But even standing in the same place, surrounded by magnificent views, they see things differently. As they ascend higher and higher, they must learn to cross the lines that divide them.

The first thing I noticed when I strayed to Goodreads to copy the blurb is that the Canadian blurb is entirely different.  It labels the book a King Lear story for brown girls, which baffles me because the only thing it has in common with Shakespeare’s play is that it features an old man brought low.  But Jackson is not brought low by the betrayal, ambition or jealousy of those who ought to love him; it’s his ageing body that fails him.  So if anyone who has a different interpretation of King Lear can make sense of this claim for me, I’ll be very interested!

Brought together by Jyoti and Aditya’s wedding (which enables an incisive commentary on caste and class in modern India), Reema from London and Yosh the yogi from Vancouver dislike the extravagance. Monica from Toronto is content to take photos of her tourist experience, though she’s anxious that her family should not find out that she’s not The Great Success that is expected of those who migrate.  She is not the only one with identity and belonging issues arising from migration and transcending the caste system that still apparently persists in a not-so-subterranean way in India.  In Canada, Yosh avoids Indians who will be able to detect that his family, now worth millions in US dollars, was once considered Untouchable.  Reema’s father in London has rejected his birthright and become profoundly anti-Indian and determinedly British.  He sends her press clippings about Indian atrocities against women.  She has a Scottish boyfriend who doesn’t understand why she dislikes Kipling. She is wrestling with the contradictions of a potentially lucrative, career in western music and her discovery of the intricacies of Indian music. Reema is just not in the mood for a wedding!

To make things worse, she finds herself lumbered by Jackson, a Brit in his 80s.  Having worked as an engineer around the world, including on the dam that displaced Reema’s family, he has used this trip to attend the wedding of an old business acquaintance as a catalyst for him to find a resting place for his wife’s ashes.  The young guests cut him no slack when he makes one of many post-Independence faux pas, they have him pegged as a colonialist and Reema has to remind them that it is an Indian value to show respect to elders.  He is determined to be independent but he is deluding himself with memories of how fit he and his wife used to be.  He’s also struggling with the realisation that he didn’t know her well enough to know where she would have liked her ashes to be.

When he decides that he wants to inter the ashes above the snow line of the title, he is tagging along where he is not wanted, inadvertently sabotaging potential romance and causing resentment that just like in the old days the British are getting what they want at the expense of others.

McWatt is a deft and perceptive author and I’d love to quote a passage or two, but that’s a bit beyond me while I’m one-handed!  So the best thing to do is get a copy and read it for yourself…

Author: Tessa McWatt
Title: The Snow Line
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021
ISBN:9781925849028, pbk., 238 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2021

Songbirds, by Christy Lefteri

Songbirds, by Christy Lefteri, is every bit as rewarding to read as her debut novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo.  This is the blurb:

‘It began with a crunch of leaves and earth. So early, so cold, the branches shone with ice. I’d returned to collect the songbirds. They are worth more than their weight in gold.’

Yiannis is a poacher, trapping the tiny protected songbirds that stop in Cyprus as they migrate each year from Africa to Europe, and selling them on the black market. He dreams of finding a new way of life, and of marrying Nisha, who works for Petra and her daughter Aliki. Nisha is raising Aliki, mothering her own child Kumari back in Sri Lanka by the screen of a phone.

When Nisha disappears, Yiannis is convinced he is responsible, paralysed by heartbreak and fear. Petra is forced to care for her child again, and when little Aliki insists that they find Nisha, she begins to see that Nisha hasn’t simply run away, and that no one else will bother to look for her.

With infinite tenderness and skill, Christy Lefteri has crafted a powerful story about the unseen who walk among us, cleaning our homes and caring for our children – what it is to migrate in search of freedom, only to find yourself trapped. Songbirds is a triumphant exploration of loss, the strength of the human spirit and the unbreakable bonds of courage, and of love.

In this meticulously crafted story, the narratives of Petra and Yiannis alternate, each adding to the fragments of information about this mysterious disappearance, each compromised to some extent by the lack of trust they have in each other. From time to time there is a brief intrusion of a narrative that seems to have nothing to do with Nisha’s story, until late in the book when the reader can ‘join the dots’.

Both Petra and Yiannis are flawed characters, reprehensible in some ways.  Yiannis’s poaching is sordid and cruel, entirely consistent with his trade before he lost everything in the GFC. Petra’s neglect of the people in her life, especially her daughter Aliki, is monstrous, not adequately explained by her bereavement years before.  Both these characters have back stories that invite judgement, as does the Greek Cypriot community in which they live, all of them exploiting so-called guest workers, all of whom are trapped in debt by the system that lures them from poverty into enslavement.

Lefteri deftly traces a credible path to redemption.  Petra, who depends on Nisha’s long hours of labour without ever knowing anything about her as a person, and Yiannis, who loves her without ever understanding the insurmountable difficulties of Nisha’s life, negotiate bureaucratic and community indifference and considerable danger in their quest to find her.  The author’s gift for characterisation realises a superb cast of personalities, not the least of which is the ancient Mrs Hadjikyriacou, who gets a new lease on life when she looks after Aliki for Petra, and brings laughter back into the child’s life.

What I really like about Lefteri’s novels is that she shines a light on important social issues that plague our global world.  She achieves this by personalising the issue in unputdownable narratives with unforgettable characters.

Highly recommended.

Author: Christy Lefteri
Title: Songbirds
Cover design by Emma Rogers
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781786580825, pbk., 365 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2021

TRIAL VOICE RECOGNITION Lean Fall Stand, by Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor is one of the most empathetic, observant authors writing today.  In Even the Dogs he showed us what it’s like to be invisible in Britain’s underclass, and in Reservoir 13, he showed us how at first the media is all over tragedy—intrusively so—and then how as time goes by and the mystery of a missing child is never solved, the journalists move on and even local people forget.  Now in Lean Fall Stand we see how the invisible army of carers lose everything they value when disability strikes someone for whom they are responsible.

That was the draft I had started before I broke my wrist. What follows is my first try at using voice recognition.

John Lear four extent I John MacGregor this was a terrific book

MacGregor he’s he is M in pathetic empathetic or for all for or fax that overrides thoughtful box



When an Antarctic research expeditions I was wrong consequences are far reaching for the men involved and for their families back home

Robert docx right of Être of Antarctic fieldwork holds the clue is to what happened but he is no longer able to communicate that.

While and that his wife against the sharp contrast of her new life as a carer.  Robert is forced to learn a whole other way of being in the world.

I warning winning novelist John MacGregor returns whether stunning novel mesmerising a entertain daily art explanation of heroism and explores the indomitable human impulse to tell our stories in when words fail us an invitation online between sacrifice and selfishness this is a story of the undervalued at recognised a range it can take dusty get through the day.

This was an attempt to use voice recognition in a word document.  If you want to see the blurb that I was reading aloud to train the computer, you can read it at Goodreads.

So, you get the idea…

But I do want to tell you about this book.  I’ve already read two books since and started a third, and I need to jot down my thoughts while they’re fresh in my mind.  What follows was typed left-handed…

The novel is written in three parts.  The first part is a thrilling disquieting narrative about three men in Antarctica.  Robert ‘Doc’ Wright is an old hand.  He has been going to Antarctica for many years.  He is experienced, capable and pragmatic, but he is a bit resistant to change such as the new-fangled Satphones.  He cuts corners sometimes.

When first-timer Thomas separates from the group so that Luke can take a better photo, Robert allows it.  When a sudden storm blows in, disaster strikes.  In the ensuing drama Robert’s narrative becomes very confused.  Is it hypothermia, or something else?

Luke, in a panic, tries to organise rescue but everything goes horribly wrong.

Part Two is told from the perspective of Robert’s wife.  Anna is used to long periods alone.  She brought up their two children herself, because Robert was only home rarely.  It’s not a great marriage but it persists through inertia.  This gave her space to follow her own scientific career but she has to drop everything to go to Robert’s side when he is medically evacuated to Santiago…

What follows is a nightmare.  The assumption is that she will become his carer.

Her adult children drop by but the enormous responsibility falls to her, and the way in which this takes over every waking hour is brought alive by pages and pages of sentences beginning with ‘She had to’ …. followed by one task after another, some of them unpleasant and all of them an affront to his dignity and hers.  It reminded me of the enormous responsibility of new parenthood: the 24/7 demands and the exhaustion.  The difference with a new baby is that it’s a responsibility that comes with joy and that as the weeks go by, the baby becomes more and more independent.  Life opens up as a unit of two becomes a family.  For Anna this new life shuts her in.

Part Three traces Robert’s journey towards communication.  Budget cuts limit access to speech therapy, and he ends up in a group of people who for various reasons can’t communicate.  Robert’s struggle to tell the story of what happened in Antarctica makes a hero of him after all, but ultimately Anna is the hero of this novel.

Highly recommended.

Author: Jon McGregor
Title: Lean Fall Stand
Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins) 2021
ISBN: 9780008204914, pbk., 282 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2021

Where the Fruit Falls, by Karen Wyld

Karen Wyld’s Where the Fruit Falls came my way via a session called ‘The View from Country’ at the Margaret River Writers Festival.  The theme of the session was that storytelling is a strong cultural tradition in the Indigenous community, a way of teaching knowledge, honouring Country, and reinforcing community bonds, and also been a powerful tool for sharing testimonies that have been historically silenced.

Taking the form of a family saga, Where the Fruit Falls tells the story of four generations, beginning with an Irishwoman’s migration to Australia.  Maeve Cliona Devlin has four grandchildren: three blue-eyed, freckled, light-haired grandsons from her daughter Margaret’s marriage to Frank Browne, and her dark-skinned granddaughter Brigid from Margaret’s earlier liaison with an Indigenous man called Edward who died during the war.  When the story begins Maeve is an old woman, and it is Brigid who is caring for her in her dying days.

Symbols are used throughout the narrative to amplify the multi-facetted ways that skin-colour is used to define and divide.  The trees of the title refer to the apple tree seeds that Brigid’s Irish grandmother brought to Australia; and the bush apple (Bloodwood) birthing tree to which Brigid is guided by her Aboriginal grandmother.  Both grandmothers love and accept their granddaughter’s mixed-race identity, but Maeve tries to comfort Brigid when she is teased at school by telling Brigid that she was like a little potato; her skin might be brown like the earth, but inside she was just like everyone else. (p.12)

Birds signal coming events. According to Maeve, who knew the secret language of birds, there were two types:

…those that led you to good fortune, and those that led to no good.  It was almost impossible to tell the two apart, usually not until it was too late. (p.16)

The third of a conspiracy of ravens are a premonition of death; but the Willy Wag-tail demands Brigid’s attention and is the catalyst for her epic journey to find a place to belong.

Days of walking follow, which reminded me of the epic journey depicted in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, except that those girls knew they were walking home.  Brigid doesn’t know where she’s going, or even if there is a home for her anywhere.  However, she meets a young man called Danny, and is barely eighteen when she gives birth to twins — light-skinned Maggie and dark-skinned Victoria (Tori).  Brigid, Maggie, and Victoria are all outsiders, and all experience racism in different ways: in this way the author shows that Aboriginality is not about skin colour. Brigid is judged for associating with Aboriginal people although she does not know (or accept) their ways.  Maggie identifies as Aboriginal but her light skin means that she is judged by others to be white.  She is deeply hurt when dark-skinned Victoria says she does not understand the daily impact of racism in the way that she does, but she knows it’s true.

Photography is a sinister phenomenon in the novel.  Desperate for work, Brigid takes work as a housekeeper for a photographer, only to find that she can’t escape from his pornographic representation of race and violence.  Tragedy ensues, and later, her daughters find themselves enmeshed in the way his sordid work has value in the art world.

In a lament for the Stolen Generations, the girls and their mother have an unmitigated sense of confusion, alienation and longing for family. Separated from their culture and community, they yearn to belong.  So they search for kin and Country, without really knowing what it might be, and not recognising it—sometimes even rejecting it—when they stumble across the language and lore that is theirs by birthright.

Reconciliation, however, is possible.  Tori has, for a long time, held onto a silver pendant that belonged to her mother Brigid.  It was fashioned from a seed from the first apple tree to bear fruit in Australia.  It is not until the last pages of the book that Tori reveals it to Maggie, because she hasn’t been ready to wear it.  The last page of the book is Margaret’s apology to Brigid for failing her.  She stood aside and let Granny Maeve raise her daughter, when she should have taught Brigid how to withstand the hate from people who wouldn’t accept difference.

I should have wrapped you in love.  I regret not having properly prepared you for the world you’re about to venture into. (p. 337)

The Apology to the Stolen Generations was long overdue when Kevin Rudd rose to open the 40th Parliament of Australia by saying Sorry.  As I write this, I am currently reading Finding the Heart of the Nation by Thomas Mayor, which is about the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take so long to achieve the aims of that document….

Karen Wyld is of Martu descent, from people of the Pilbara region in Western Australia

Author: Karen Wyld
Title: Where the Fruit Falls
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2020
ISBN: 9781760801571, pbk., 344 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $27.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2021

A short break

I’m sorry, I’m going to have to take a short break. I’m typing this one-handed because I’ve broken my RH wrist. I tripped on some uneven pavement when walking Amber and fell. I’ve hurt my left hand too and both knees so I was lucky I didn’t do more serious damage.

When I’m off the strong painkillers I’m going to see how much I can do with voice recognition on my desktop but for now, I’m best off in bed with a book.

So apologies for not responding to comments, I will be reading them on my phone but it’s too hard to do more than that.

Thanks to everyone who sent good wishes via FB and Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2021

Finding the Heart of the Nation, by Thomas Mayor

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.

Thomas Mayor is an author like no other ever featured here at ANZ LitLovers.  A Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia country in Darwin, he learned to hunt traditional foods with his father and to island dance from the Darwin community of Torres Strait Islanders. One of his teachers recognised his talent for writing, but—never imagining that he would become one of the first Torres Strait Islanders to achieve mainstream publication—at seventeen, he took up a maritime traineeship to become a wharfie instead.  And now he’s an author of a very important book in our nation’s history, Finding the Heart of Australia, the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth. 

This is a book that took me on a learning journey.  I knew, like everyone else, about the Uluru Statement.  But I knew it only from reductionist media reports.  Mayor’s book brings it to life.  It begins with ‘an invitation to listen’.

The eloquent words of the Uluru Statement make an affirmation that the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands have never ceded sovereignty — not when first colonised by the British, and not with the enactment of the Australian Constitution in 1901.  The words remind us that colonisation did not extinguish the sacred link that no other civilisation on earth can claim — that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are born from, remain attached to, and will return to be united with ancestors stretching back an amazing 60,000 years.  At the same time, the Uluru Statement acknowledges the sovereignty that we all share, as citizens of Australia.  (p. 1)

People learn skills in all kinds of ways, and Mayor learned the skills of negotiation and organisation when he became a union official, and this is why, in this most remarkable book, the union movement is thanked in the Acknowledgements.  Thanking the leadership and the members, he writes:

As Australian unionists you’ve done more than further your own wages and conditions, you’ve also lifted the standards of living for all.  You’ve won our universal health care (Medicare), the standard eight-hour day, annual leave, personal leave, and the opportunity to retire with dignity, among other standards that are far too many to simply take for granted.  You’ve consistently stood with First Nations people.  (p.250)

The ACTU stood with First Nations people again at Congress 18, carrying a motion moved by the author Thomas Mayor, which amongst other matters, declared that:

The ACTU and Australian Unions will continue to work to identify, increase and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists and the broader community in a campaign to ensure a strong, self-determining, First Nations representative voice; a commitment to a Makarrata Commission for Treaty making and a necessary process of Truth telling which will lead to true reconciliation.

The significance of this support from the ACTU is that, almost before the ink was dry, the Turnbull Government in 2017 rejected the ‘Statement from the Heart’, putting the nation in same invidious position as it was for the decades of refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations, politicising something that should be bipartisan policy.  The Opposition, however, re-committed the Australian Labor Party to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. when Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, declared in parliament:

  • a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament;
  • a Makarrata Commission that will oversee agreement and treaty-making; and
  • a national process of truth-telling.

Mayor’s book, Finding the Heart is a beautiful book, with full-colour photos and Indigenous artwork.  In ‘Kunturu Kulini’, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and a master storyteller through the art of film-making, tells the story of the artwork the that borders the Uluru Statement (see here) while ‘Dreaming Together’ by lead artist and Anangu law woman Rene Kulitja explains the cultural significance of it, which is amplified by an annotated reproduction of it on the following pages.

‘From All Parts of the Southern Sky’ tells the story of Referendum Council will culminated in the Uluru First Nations Constitutional Conventions.  It acknowledges the skill and expertise of significant leaders in key roles, particularly Alywarre woman Aunty Pat Anderson and Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble-Cobble nations woman, as well as acknowledging ancestors, heroes of the resistance, and past and present leaders and activists.

In ‘My Journey,’ Thomas Mayor tells his story of how he came to recognise that the skills he’d learned as a negotiator and organiser could be applied to First Nations activism. This section is written in a disarmingly humble style: this is Mayor recalling his arrival at a trial dialogue on constitutional recognition.

Have you ever walked into a room of living legends: people you’ve read about but never expect to meet? As I stepped into the hotel lobby in Melbourne, I immediately saw the familiar faces of high-profile Indigenous leaders, and I felt like I was simultaneously conspicuous and invisible.  (p.35)

In the next chapter, ‘A Constitutional Moment at Uluru’, he begins with

I’ve never considered myself a spiritual person.  On the flight to Uluru, I wasn’t praying to a god to bless us with a powerful consensus.  On the short flight from Darwin to Uluru, I read the Australian Constitution.

I read it from beginning to end.  It wasn’t hard to read.  Our constitution provides structure and rules; it is how power is shared.  As a workplace delegate, I had learnt to understand the nuances of words in agreements and legislation.  Every word could make or break our livelihoods. (p.39)

That document is the rule book for all Australians, no less.  The rule book that has allowed efforts to remove or diminish our existence.

Mayor acknowledges that there are opposing views about constitutional reform.  It’s hardly surprising, he says, when participants at the convention came from communities all over our vast country, and as a collective of 700,000 Indigenous people, they will always have different views, especially when you consider that…

… when Indigenous people gather, we bring with us the effects of colonisation, racism and inequality — intergenerational trauma both physical and mental.  To varying levels, the wounds are still weeping; the wounds are angry and raw.  Our internal conflict is part of our journey, though it doesn’t diminish our hope. (p.41)

Mayor has wisdom for a young man.  (He’s only in his mid forties).  He says:

To speak about the conflict at Uluru is vitally important, because it happened, and conflict is a normal part of collective decision making.  The nature of consensus making is that the outcome is never everything that everyone wants. (p.42)

(Wouldn’t it be great if everyone understood this?)

The conflict, which of course *sigh* was widely reported, made the next day’s agreement all the more wonderful.

It was an unforgettable moment.  The Uluru Statement from the Heart was endorsed with standing acclamation and raucous celebration. (p.43)

Now all we need is for the rest of Australia to catch up.  (Starting with those old fogies in the Parliament).

The rest of this book features the voices of the people behind the Uluru Statement.  It’s a wonderful book, thoughtfully considered and beautifully presented.  This is a book to cherish as an important document on Australia’s road to a mature relationship with its Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement remains a live political document, and a call to action.

You can find out how to offer your support here.

BTW for those interested in the abysmal history of constitutional reform and the prospect of achieving the Voice to parliament, this article is depressingly accurate:  Timing is (almost) everything | Inside Story

Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia Country in Darwin.

Author: Thomas Mayor
Title: Finding the Heart of the Nation
Artwork by Shatla Mayor
Design by Gayna Murphy
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2019
ISBN: 9781741176728, hbk., 251 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.

It is with great pleasure that for #IndigLitWeek, I am hosting a guest review of the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, by regular reader and now guest reviewer Sonia Adam.

Sonia Adams is an educator, poet, and PhD candidate from the United States. Her areas of scholarship are contemporary American multiethnic and global literatures. Sonia is currently at work on her dissertation, which examines Black Diasporic Feminist literature, centreed on Black and Black Indigenous writers from Australia, England, Canada, and the United States. When she’s not busy with teaching and other academic tasks, she enjoys watching movies, socializing with family and friends, listening to music, and reading great literary novels, memoirs, and poetry.

In the introduction to Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, editor Dr. Anita Heiss asserts that the richness of Aboriginal identity, life experience, and cultural heritage evince imprints of “invasion and colonisation”, yet it creates a tapestry of stories that are bold in voice and vivid in detail and imagery. A dominant narrative propelled by mainstream media is that Australian Aborigines are prone to addiction, poverty, and violence. The writers featured in this collection counter this prevailing narrative by embracing Aboriginality as a state of being in country. They embrace “personal and family histories, their pain and heartache” as well as knowledge of “what it means to grow up as a First Nations person” (2).

The diversity of life stories across age, gender, culture, and place are evocative and compelling. Resiliency is a central thread woven throughout this tapestry of essays. In “It’s not over”, Bebe Backhouse discusses the conundrum of having to prove or justify his Aboriginality as a mixed race person. Backhouse learned through living experience that he needed to combat the falsities of racism and classism to claim his authentic identity and place in the world as an Aborigine and pianist: “I became more than what was expected of me. I was dedicated to becoming someone, for my teacher, for my family, for my people, for myself”(20). The threads of resiliency and memory are shaped into patterns of ancestral lineage, cultural knowledge, and community in Carol Petterson’s essay “Too white to be black, too black to be white”. White supremacy and the government’s removal policies permeated Petterson’s Noongar family, resulting in her removal and placement into a native mission home. The caste system deeply impacted her sense of self where she internalized racism and colorism. Racist epitaphs like “worthless boong” and “filthy boong” as well as the myriad forms of abuse at the mission home became ingrained in Petterson’s consciousness. Being stuck between the binaries of ‘black vs. white’ and ‘subject vs. other’ are difficult to deal with, but Petterson conveys to readers that painful memories of the past can be used as ‘fuel’ to ignite a passion for education, tribal sovereignty, and social justice activism. Petterson’s mother was a central force in helping Petterson claim her Aboriginality: “My mother had instilled in me our tribal identity and told me to never forget who you are and never forget where you come from” (190). The pattern of tribal identity runs through the rest of the life stories in the collection.

There are some essays that take on a satirical approach to addressing issues or white racism, cultural intolerance, and identity politics. “Dear Australia” by Don Bemrose is a rigorous epistolary essay, tackling myriad forms of discrimination used against him and other Aborigines within the white-dominant society. What is particularly striking about Bemrose’s writing style is that he uses humor and sarcasm to reveal official language, false sentimentalism, and cultural assimilation perpetrated in society to pacify what in reality is white fragility. I want to highlight three key passages from his essay here:

“I’m sorry I identify as Gungarri and Aboriginal. I know you would prefer I added ‘part’, ‘quarter’, or some other quantifier to signify that I am less than full” (26)

“Please forgive me for being unsuccessful with my suicide attempt at the age of twenty-three. I know, one less loud-mouth, thinks-he-is-educated Abo would have been a great addition to your incredible world-leading youth suicide statistics” (27).

“Please forgive me

“Thank you for teaching minorities to hate other minorities” (29).

Bemrose use of the phrases- ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Please forgive me’, and ‘Thank you’- subverts the stigmatization of Aborigines found in some past and present legal reports and news reportage as means of sympathizing with their plight, which Bemrose suggests is patronizing and simply phony. Bemrose ends his essay with a strong connection to country and confidence as a gay Aboriginal man who is educated and artistically inclined.

Dr. Heiss commemorates the life of the late bilingual teacher, spoken word poet, and land-sea rights activist, Alice Eather. I found Eather’s essay “Yúya Karrabúra” particularly poignant for her honesty in sharing her personal challenges with mental illness, cultural displacement, and the stigma of being a mixed-race Aboriginal woman navigating both black and white communities. I also admire Eather’s desire to unapologetically claim her Aboriginality within the public sphere, advocate for the reconciliation of Black Indigenous and white people, and preserve her Maningrida community from oil fracking companies. The poem that opens her essay offers snapshots into her ancestral histories. It also invites readers to partake in the custom of Yúya Karrabúra, ‘fire is burning’, where healing and restoration can take place. Since reading this essay, I sought out more information on Eather through online articles and the documentaries The Word: Rise of the Slam Poets (2016) and Stingray Sisters (2016). The few articles I’ve read were skewed by speculations on what led to Eather’s death. I refuse to see Vale Alice Eather as a tragic figure. Toward the end of Eather’s essay, She offers words of encouragement and affirmation while charging herself and readers to claim responsibility:

“Out of all of this, this whole story, I believe we have to take responsibility for ourselves and what we do in our lives” (84).

Eather’s life story is a testament to the legacy she has left behind for her family, students, and Maningrida.

The essayists featured in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia range from being newly published writers like sisters Susie and Alice Anderson to accomplished authors like Tony Birch, Terri Janke, and Ambelin Kwaymullina. As an African American women of Caribbean heritage, I discovered common ideas and values amongst the camaraderie of voices in this anthology. I became more informed about the intersectional issues that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders face along with other Black diaspora folks. I’ve included Eather’s essay in my ‘Literature in a Global Context’ course because I wanted to expose my students to literature that explores different facets of Black Indigenous life in Australia. For my upcoming ‘Satire in Literature’ course, I plan to teach Bemrose’s essay. The conception and publication of this essay collection signifies literary and social justice activism. As Dr. Anita Heiss informs readers, “this anthology is not one of victimhood: it is one of strength and resilience, of pride and inspiration” (2).

Anita Heiss is a Wiradjuri woman from NSW.

Editor: Anita Heiss
Title: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959810

Thanks, Sonia, for your contribution to #IndigLitWeek!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2021

Homecoming, by Elfie Shiosaki, and a giveaway

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.

While I’m on a roll with poetry (which I don’t often review here), it’s a good time to introduce a new-to-me Indigenous poet. Elfie Shiosaki is a Noongar and Yawuru writer and also a Lecturer in Indigenous Rights at the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia.

Homecoming is not her first book. Last year, with Linda Martin she edited an anthology of prose and fiction, Maar Bidi: Next Generation Black Writing. But Homecoming is the first book she has authored in her own right.

And because I accidentally bought two copies, I have a spare for a giveaway for readers with an Australian postcode! Express your interest in the comments below and I will do a draw in a day or two.

This is the blurb:

Homecoming pieces together fragments of stories about four generations of Noongar women and explores how they navigated the changing landscapes of colonisation, protectionism, and assimilation to hold their families together.
This seminal collection of poetry, prose and historical colonial archives, tells First Nations truths of unending love for children—those that were present, those taken, those hidden and those that ultimately stood in the light.
Homecoming speaks to the intergenerational dialogue about Country, kin and culture. This elegant and extraordinary form of restorative story work amplifies Aboriginal women’s voices, and enables four generations of women to speak for themselves. This sublime debut highlights the tenacity of family as well as First Nation’s agency to resist, survive and renew.

Elfie Shiosaki has restored humanity and power to her family in this beautifully articulated collection and has given voice to those silenced by our brutal past.

In three sections named Resist; Survive; and Renew, Shiosaki tells the story of her family, especially the women, and she introduces them like this:

Our grandmother’s stories teach us about Aboriginal women’s ways of being in our many worlds.

Olive Harris’s recorded storytelling from 1994 is a graphic representation of the irreparable loss that haunts the Stolen Generations. She pieces together fragments of her story, not even knowing when she was born so in a way / I am not eighty-four / see? :

I was born in Perth     somewhere
my father       was up in Onslow     working on the jetty
my mother     was in Perth

there was a ship that took my mother down to Fremantle
it was called the Amelia
so I called myself      Olive Amelia

when my mother died
I was only eight months old
I was sent to a home

She goes on to tell her memories of that bleak ‘home’, but concludes this section with

the people who used to live around there
I asked them what my mother was like

they said she had beautiful red hair. (p.4-5)

These fragments are followed by her father William Harris’s letters to A O Neville, the so-called Protector of Aborigines in the early 20th century.  They are heartbreaking to read:

I am anxious to have my children     home with me

He has done what Neville thought was necessary:

increased wages
a suitable place to live in

the conditions under which they would be living
would be the same as any ordinary working man’s home

He appeals to A O Neville as a father himself, who should understand the feelings of one.

The impact of these letters is reinforced by images of the actual handwritten letter, retraced by the author, followed by the story of Koorlang and the cruel punishment she received for reacting to the slap of a nurse.  In later pages we learn that Koorlang is Olive’s daughter*, that Olive fled north to evade her child being stolen from her and that Koorlang had ten precious years of her mother’s love before she too became of the Stolden Generations.

Harris is indefatigable, and he never gives up his quest to have his children back, as we see from his powerful Letter to the Editor of the West Australian in 1925. What, I wonder, did the newspaper’s readers think when they saw it?

I am certain the majority of people in this State
have no idea     how cruelly the natives are treated

that they are outlaws

that without doing anything

forfeit their rights to live in freedom in their own land

they can be taken from any part of the State
compelling to live in prison
on reserves

why make Pariahs of natives in their own land? (p.28-9)

He wrote again and again, to the Sunday Times in 1926, again to the West Australian in 1928.  He was active in drawing attention to other kinds of injustice too:

I would remind Parliamentarians
and others who object to the half-castes having a vote

many of that despised class
fought in the Great War

now they are refused a vote
they are not allowed to enter a public house

even to take shelter from a storm. (p.104)

Olive, in her later years, tells her grandchild about her life on the cusp of womanhood meeting white friends at Cottesloe Beach.  These moments of great happiness and excitement when this cosmopolitan, confident and daring young woman was at ease in the many worlds she moved in, are not in the archives because there were years of this woman’s life when she evaded the surveillance of the government. 

Family history is a popular hobby in Australia, and there would be many who enjoy finding mention of their families in the official records.  I wonder how they would feel is they discovered a record like Olive Harris’s Personal History card, held in the Aborigines Department.  It records her reunion in 1927 with her father who stated that he would find suitable employment for her in the District, and her ongoing years of employment, as monitored by The Welfare, and the way her wages were ‘banked’ by the department. William Harris writes to the Sunday Times calling this kind of indentured work legalised slavery

I don’t see how it could be called anything else

under it
the squatter gets all

the native nothing.  (p.41)

This is how the author responds to finding these archives:

The Gaze

looking directly into the face of it
I wanted to look away

I could feel the cold gaze
on my family

on me

its coldness crept into my own spirit. (p.115)

There is also this powerful portrayal of A O Neville, which says so much in so few words:


Mr Neville
he did
not know

the way
he looked
at her



the way
we look
at him

now (p.134)

This hybrid prose-poetry collection is a tribute to resilience, courage and the power of memory to transcend the dry fragments in official archives.

*You can listen to a ABC podcast about this book here.  (I recommend that you do, because in it Shiosaki explains that Koorlang represents more than one person, not just Koorlang’s daughter as I had thought.)

If you would like your own copy, add your name to the comments below and I’ll draw the giveaway soon.

Elfie Shiosaki is a Noongar and Yawuru writer from WA.

Author: Elfie Shiosaki
Title: Homecoming
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925768947, pbk., 143 pges


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