Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week in July to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (7 to 14 July).

This is a week when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is Voice, Treaty, Truth. This This theme acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always wanted an enhanced role in decision-making in Australia’s democracy.

ANZ LitLovers’ contribution to NAIDOC Week is to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing, and I hope that many readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.

If you would like to participate,  your choice of indigenous literature isn’t restricted to a focus on Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori literature.   Participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.)

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous years of ILW  the reading list is now extensiveFor reasons of space and time and personal preference my reading list is mostly literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form —short story, memoir, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other useful reading lists) is on the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List in the top menu. (There is a list of Indigenous Women Writers there too.)

Thanks to all those who joined in last year and have encouraged me to host the week again.


  • If you’d like to participate simply say so in comments below.  Tell us what you think you might read in the comments box to help spread awareness of what’s available. .  You never know, you might encourage someone else to try the book too! (You can always change your mind later if you want to).
  • Bookmark the page for Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers 2019 (as soon as it’s posted) so that you can use the comments box there either
    • to provide the URL of your review on your blog, your Goodreads page or your Library Thing page, or
    • to share your thoughts as a comment and then I’ll add it to the reading list.
  • If you would like to write a guest review of your book for ANZLL I will happily host it here too.

From the TBR I will be reading these titles from Australia:

and from New Zealand

Most of the above titles can be purchased using the links to fishpond, but publishers don’t generally make it easy to find (or find about) indigenous writing.  I find the most useful sources for indigenous titles are

  • UQP – use their Browse Books menu to find David Unaipon Award winners, titles from the Blak & Bright Festival, and Black Australian Writing;
  • Wakefield Press – choose browse by category from the top RHS side of the home page (under the search box).  Not all these titles are by indigenous authors so choose carefully;
  • and indigenous publishing houses Magabala Books and Jukurrpa/IAD Press

(There is, of course, AustLit’s Black Words, but there’s not much point in me supplying a link to a subscription-only resource.)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek & #NAIDOC2019 hashtags on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2019

Invented Lives, by Andrea Goldsmith

It’s hard to express the intense pleasure of reading Andrea Goldsmith’s new novel, Invented Lives. It’s not just that it’s an absorbing novel that held my interest from start to finish, it’s also a book filled with insights that will stay with me for a long time.

While the central character in Invented Lives is Galina Kagan, a Russian émigré to Melbourne, and the novel focusses on her feelings of loss and not belonging, there are other kinds of exile in the novel.  One of the most interesting is that of Sylvie Morrow.  This older woman, mother to Andrew Morrow who’s fallen in love with Galina, is reminiscent of Philippa Finemore in Goldsmith’s Modern Interiors (1991).  Like Philippa, Sylvie suffered a kind of exile imposed by her gender, because women of her generation were excluded from full participation in society.  She was too young to experience the liberating effects of WW2 on women’s work, but in adulthood was just the right age to be relegated to postwar domesticity.   And just as Philippa finds widowhood liberating, Sylvie in middle age experiences a different kind of widowhood that opens up new worlds for her long-stifled energies too.

Galina’s courage is the catalyst for Sylvie’s metamorphosis.  It is the 1980s, and Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR have enabled Galina’s emigration from Leningrad in the wake of her mother’s death.  Lidiya had been the sole surviving member of her family, the others having fallen victim to Stalin’s Terror.  But as secular Jews even under perestroika Lidiya and Galina still had few prospects in anti-Semitic Russia, and they were sceptical of Soviet reforms.  So when restrictions on Jewish travel were relaxed, mother and daughter submitted requests to leave, knowing that they were signing over the right to change their minds.  When Lidiya dies, the bereft Galina grasps the opportunity anyway, and comes to Melbourne, chosen as her destination because of her chance encounter with Andrew Morrow.

Andrew was in Leningrad to study mosaics when he helped Galina to her feet after she took a tumble on the icy pavement.  You’ll need to view the slide show on my travel blog to see these stunning mosaics in the Church of Spilled Blood in what is now St Petersburg.  But about half way through the novel, Galina and Andrew have a little tiff about the power of art.  She’s just beginning to forge a career as a children’s book illustrator and he’s an art academic specialising in mosaics. In a throwaway line that he doesn’t really believe, he says that art never saves lives.  She, the child of a survivor of the WW2 Siege of Leningrad, knows better.  She knows from her mother that inspiring broadcasts of Olga Berggolt’s poetry gave hope and that she was a symbol of strength and determination to survive; she knows that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written in honour of the besieged city and that its performance by starving musicians gave the city energy instead of despair.  Galina knows that Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’ in the prison lines at the height of Stalin’s Terror told people that the world would know of these terrible times, and she knows that people risked their lives to read samizdat in post-Stalinist times because they knew it would make them stronger. 

Galina wondered what had made Andrew say something to demonstrably wrong.  Given his own frailties and the fact he was an artist himself, she expected that there had been many times when he had turned to art to pull him out of the mire.  Of course he must know about the power of art to fortify and save. (p.230)

Andrew deflects this conversation onto her thoughts about the power of love—and that reveals an interesting divergence of opinion too…

There is also an unexpected thread about letters.  It’s impossible not to think that perhaps this thread derives from Goldsmith’s own bereavement when her life partner died,  because I have not so long ago gathered cherished letters from my father into an album.  Sylvie Morrow collects letters, and as she shares her passion with Galina, she explains that letters—from an era when people set aside time for letters— written without artifice […] with no claims to posterity […] are revealing and intimate.

‘And how much more precious does a letter become—not to me, the collector, but the original recipient—when the writer of the letter has died.  Think of it: for the wife who lives on after her husband, the man whose brother has passed away, the woman who’s lost her best friend, death does not alter their letters. I think that’s profound.  You’re able to sit by yourself reading your beloved’s words, savouring them, responding to them, just as you did when they were alive.  Death, which changes almost everything, leaves letters untouched.’ (p.217)

What, I wonder, will today’s digital generation have as solace, without letters?

Another thread that I could relate to, was the way Andrew takes Galina on excursions round ‘his’ Melbourne, showing her the landmarks of his life:

… they had driven to the Dandenong Ranges for the flashy parrots, to Warburton by the river to search for platypuses, to Phillip Island for the plump koalas wedged in the forks of trees, to famous flower gardens and eucalyptus forests.  They’d seen giant earthworms and fairy penguins, and quaint places like a house clad entirely in shells (p.223.)

[The house clad in shells was a wonderland: it was known as the Fairy House and I took The Offspring to see it in Cheltenham before it was so sadly demolished in the 1990s. Click the link to see photos.]

Well, The Spouse took me on tour too, when we were courting, showing me the landmarks of his life: his family home and play spaces at the neighbours’; his primary and secondary schools; the sea scout hall and the yacht club and the rock pools.  Then the farm and the pony club and his grandfather’s farm as well.  And I felt a similar twist of envy:

—nothing to do with the grandeur of the place, it was its mere presence.  She couldn’t pass a school and say, ‘That’s the school I attended’; she couldn’t identify an apartment building and say ‘That’s where I grew up’.  She couldn’t point to the granite embankments of the Neva where she watched the ships, or the Tauride Palace she went for the children’s concerts.  Without her own landmarks, her Soviet self, still so dominant in her, became impossible to share with others, and what they saw was an amputated version of who she believed herself to be.  There were times when she felt a stranger to herself.

Leningrad landmarks, experiences and friends, explained who she was and how she had come to be this way.  Forced to live detached from all that had formed her, she had tried so many ways of melding her Russian experience of self with the Australian one she was struggling to construct. (p. 123)

But whereas I could eventually visit ‘my’ England and share at least some of my childhood landmarks with the Spouse, for Galina the exile is permanent.  Part of the deal for Jews leaving the USSR was that they could never return.  She tries to shed her Soviet self, but two years later she’s knows it’s futile.  She’s still homesick…

This is an important aspect of migration that people should try to understand.  Even when home is a place from which one has fled, even if there were aspects of it that were abhorrent, and even when the new country is a wonderful place, it can still be hard to feel grateful as people expect you to be when they have always lived in the same place.

I loved this novel.  I was so sorry to come to the end, not because some issues remain unresolved (though they are), but rather because I was so absorbed in the lives of these characters that I wanted more.

Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Title: Invented Lives
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2019, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781925713589
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available direct from Scribe Publications (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: Invented Lives

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 24, 2019

Book Giveaway: Kindred, by Kirli Saunders

In anticipation of Indigenous Literature Week for 2019, I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of Kindred by Kirli Saunders, founder of the Poetry in First Languages project.

This is the press release:

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people. Kirli is the Manager of Poetic Learning and Aboriginal Cultural Liaison at Red Room Poetry and founder of the Poetry in First Languages project. She was awarded ‘Worker of the Year 2017’ at the NAIDOC Awards in the Illawarra/Shoalhaven region and was nominated for a national NAIDOC Award in 2018. Her first children’s picture book, The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic 2018), was selected for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and is published internationally.

Kirli’s poetry has been published by Cordite and Overland and is embedded in infrastructure at Darling Harbour and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne. Her poem ‘A dance of hands’ was Runner-up in the 2018 Nakata Brophy Prize. Kirli has been a Writer in Residence at Bundanon Trust, Q Station and The Literature Centre, Fremantle for ‘The Sound of Picture Books’.

And this is the blurb:

Kirli Saunders debut poetry collection is a pleasure to lose yourself in. Kirli has a keen eye for observation, humour and big themes that surround Love/Connection/Loss in an engaging style, complemented by evocative and poignant imagery. It talks to identity, culture, community and the role of Earth as healer. Kindred has the ability to grab hold of the personal in the universal and reflect this back to the reader.

You can read an interview about Kirli at the Centre for Stories and find out more about her at her blog.

You can see from these examples of Kirli Saunders’ poetry at Cordite (‘Grief’ is particularly powerful) that this is a Giveaway worth winning!  But if you want to be sure of a copy, you can buy it direct from Magabala Press.


Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round in time for you to read it for Indigenous Literature Week.

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).  Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Author: Kirli Saunders
Title: Kindred
Publisher: Magabala Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925591149


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2019

The Grass Library, by David Brooks

The Grass Library is a gorgeous book.  Anyone who loves animals will be enchanted… but it’s a book that will challenge your thinking as well.

David Brooks is the author of some books I’ve really liked.  He’s a very versatile writer, publishing poetry, short fiction, essays, non-fiction and novels, two of which I’ve read and reviewed here: The Umbrella Club (2009) and The Conversation (2012), and before that, The Fern Tattoo (2007).  But The Grass Library despite its fanciful name, is a work of non-fiction, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  This is the blurb:

A philosophical and poetic journey recounting the author’s relationship with his four sheep and other animals in his home in the Blue Mountains. Both memoir and eloquent testament to animal rights.

But that doesn’t really convey the fun and delight in reading this book.

It had never occurred to me that even a word-processor can be ‘speciesist’.  Mulling over whether it was an appropriate use of the word ‘tragedy’ to describe the fate of a cicada trapped to die in its own shell, Brooks considers the Shakespearean sense of tragedy and how we tend to reserve it not only for humans at the top of a human hierarchy—kings, Caesars, generals— [or a beautiful young princess whose power lay in her celebrity status] but we also apply it in the non-human realm for larger, more powerful creatures, such as lions, elephants, and whales.  But the fate of a cicada halfway through its metamorphosis seems to Brooks to be tragic too:

Why then did I have such conversations with myself about the term?  But the cultural discourse is speciesist, the very language is speciesist (the Word program, for example, at just this moment, tells me that the word ‘speciesist’ doesn’t exist: no point in asking it about anti-speciesism, then, or counter-speciesism, trans-speciesism), in ways that contain and constrain one just as a cicada’s shell must contain the larva—except that they, cicadas, seem to have found a way to get out, even if not every one of them succeeds. (p.128)

[Mind you, I’ve heard people talk about sporting defeats as tragedies too, so I think perhaps that ‘tragedy’ is a word that lends itself to pondering about a sense of proportion].

Brooks and his partner T. are vegans, and they’ve transitioned from an inner city life to a small property in the Blue Mountains.  They share the property with four ‘rescued’ sheep—Henry-Lee, Jonathan, Jason and Orpheus Pumpkin—plus a dog called Charlie and other animals not exactly there by invitation, such as (inevitably) possums who eat their tomatoes; a rat that I’m surprised they didn’t name Houdini; foolish ducks who lead their ducklings into a pond that’s too deep, and the occasional snake.  It’s the complexity of this menagerie and its needs that brings all kinds of ethical dilemmas if you believe as they do, that all the members of this ‘postmodern herd’ have an equal right to life.

[I confess that here I part company with Brooks and T.  I’m ok (of course) with the sheep and the dog. I don’t mind the possums (though I think that if they’re going to help themselves to my vegies they ought to help with the labour). Ducks and any other birds are welcome any time; and I can even tolerate the snake because I grew up with them in the back yard so I know that distrust is mutual.  But the rat? Um… no.  No…

[LH: It’s not just that they spread disease.  Tonight on Gardening Australia, there was a report about conservation efforts at Melbourne Zoo to rescue the critically endangered Lord Howe Island Stick Insect. Totally extinct on the island after the introduction of rats.]

But I still enjoyed having my assumptions interrogated by the ideas in this book.

I also liked learning that Henry and Jonathan like to visit the space just outside the Writing Room when Brooks plays music.  These sheep have catholic tastes, but they don’t visit when there’s no music.  They don’t come when it’s just the author in the cabin.  Perhaps, he muses, it’s a substitute for the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

Is it too much to call these herd sounds music?  I don’t know.  The other day as I drove into town I heard a composition by the Californian sound designer Steven Baber made of sounds from different parts of a bicycle.  He could tune the spokes of a bicycle wheel, he was saying, so that every spoke had exactly the same pitch.  And there were mudguard sounds, tyre sounds, handlebar sounds, frame sounds.  I wonder what he’d make from grazing sounds, or Henry and Jonathan’s wanderings through the scrub, their rummagings and settlings in the coop. (p.87)


What’s most interesting about this book is the way it is so sensitive to the perspective of animals, but is witty rather than sentimental.  For example, sheep do not share the human love of books…

Amongst other things, human spaces, non-sheep spaces, can be dangerous.  Henry and Orpheus Pumpkin have each taken a stumble from the veranda stairs, and Jonathan has tumbled down the three stairs from the cabin kitchen into the writing room.  And boring.  All the books in these rooms!  Leaves of Grass doesn’t smell of grass at all! Antic Hay doesn’t smell like hay.  There is no grain in Silo.  A Body of Water is undrinkable.  A Million Wild Acres is barely five centimetres wide. By the same token, one could get annoyed by the way the sheep, when one is carrying something from the house to the cabin, or the car to the house, or one part of the yard to another, will come up and insist on investigating, or one could build the likelihood of such investigation into one’s movements, showing them what one is carrying: a roll of masking tape a can of paint, a box of papers, one’s computer, one’s cup of coffee (which isn’t to say that, unless one’s prepared to share, one should carry bread or fruit or leafy vegetables when the sheep are anywhere near).  Doubtless our own relations with them would be all the smoother—and better informed—if we felt the same kind of curiosity.  (p.146)

My curiosity about animals has certainly been stimulated by reading this book!

Highly recommended.

PS My apologies to the friends whose blogs I usually visit.  This week I’ve been laid low by a shoulder so painful that although I’ve read three books while indisposed, I haven’t been able to sit up at the computer to review them—or to read new reviews by my friends.  I’ve got some catching up to do, and at the moment, 15 minutes in a chair is my limit.

Author: David Brooks
Title: The Grass Library
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2019, 221 pages
ISBN: 9780648202646
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available direct from the publisher or from Fishpond: The Grass Library

I have just picked up Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia from the library today, and over lunch, I read Chapter I: It Starts With Stories.  The chapter explains the rationale and the process used for gathering the untold stories of Indigenous Service in our armed forces, and so it was that—reading about why the Indigenous contributors to the book valued it so much—I came across this, and wanted to share it because it’s just so true:

Books can also have a different cultural capital from websites and films (important as they are) and can help meet the expectations of the people who shared their stories.  Books say: ‘this is worth knowing and keeping’. and they make the stories accessible to the reading public to hold, talk about and keep.  A book does not flit past your eyes like a film or website.  It lasts.  It can be passed around family members and community, dog-eared and loved until it eventually disintegrates. A book in your hand does not need high-speed internet connection to access it.  More than anything, a book helps to reinforce the authority of the speakers and encourages others to refer to their words.  It can be picked up in years to come and read by future generations.

Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edited by Al;lison Cadzoe and Mary Anne Jebb, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2019, ISBN 9780855750718, p.10

More about the book when I’ve read it…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2019

Little Stones, by Elizabeth Kuiper

Little Stones is fiction written so convincingly that it reads like a memoir.

It is the story of Hannah Reynolds, who is growing up in a single-parent family in Zimbabwe just as the country is falling apart.  Her coming-of-age coincides with the collapse of the economy; hyperinflation*; erratic power and water supply; shortages of basics like petrol and wheat; and the ‘confiscation’ of white-owned farms by the ‘Warvets’.  Hannah is only ten, so she doesn’t always understand what’s going on, although she’s skilled at bypassing the adults’ attempts to shelter her from the situation:

During dinner, Nana, Grandpa and Mum started talking about the Warvets again.  The Warvets were a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe, and these days almost every conversation would end up being about them.

It’s when she finally expresses her anxiety that her grandparents might give their farm away to another family, that her mother explains, that the War Vets were not an extended family.  They were a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

Her mother’s reassurances turn out to be hollow, however, and the day comes when Nana and Grandpa are given 24 hours notice to get out, and they come to live with Hannah and her mother**.  Both of them are at a loose end in an urban environment but have difficulty finding work, Grandpa filling his idle hours getting underfoot with unwanted household repairs, and Nana dismayed that she doesn’t have the IT skills to get any kind of office work.

But Hannah’s family is wealthy by anyone’s standards.  She has a pool, and a trampoline, and she goes to an expensive school where her best friend is Diana Chigumba.  Her father is wealthier still, because he drives a BMW while her mother gets by with an ageing Mazda.  Mum, in this book, is a bit idealised, while Father turns out to be a nasty piece of work, but Hannah still loves him, despite his insistence on access visits being more about maintaining control of his ex-wife. (And that, I think, is authentic.  It’s a dreadful thing for children to have to choose between parents, because children—in my experience as a teacher comforting many of them in separated families— usually do love both parents, no matter how awful one of them might be).

The tension ramps up as thuggery and violence come to Hannah’s home, and though at her age she doesn’t understand what has happened, the reader does:

…I heard a crash: the sound of glass shattering; then a scream that chilled the blood in my veins. Then silence.

After a while I could hear men’s voices speaking in rushed Shona.  I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.  The only words I understood were coming from my mother.

‘Don’t touch her. Don’t touch her.  Do whatever you want to me, just don’t touch her.  Don’t hurt her, please.’ (p.171)

Hannah has been drilled at school about what to do.  In a home invasion, she has to pretend to be asleep and she cowers under her doona.  Later, she notices that her mother’s eyes were glazed over like a zombie’s, with blood pooled at the end of a cut on her lip.  After the men are gone, Hannah is full of questions, and her mother looks up from the spot on the floor that she’d been staring at.  Her eyes were unfocused, and her voice came out heavy and robotic.  Hannah isn’t told what has happened, but she has never forgotten that night.

The understated allusion to this and other violence, muted by the narration of a child, is all the more powerful in its impact.

In the wake of this event, on top of everything else, the conflict between her parents escalates, compounding the trauma.

Issues of race and privilege are handled with aplomb: Hannah’s mother is a small l-liberal who counts gays and people of colour among her friends and colleagues at the Stock Exchange, but her father is still old-school and Hannah recognises that while Grandpa thinks he’s progressive, he’s still racist in the way that he talks about Africans.  There’s also an insufferable woman called Karen Parker who represents the stereotypical racist attitudes of her class.  Hannah herself has an epiphany about the teacher who’s been so strict about teaching them Shona.

She was tough, but she wasn’t horrible.  And, in retrospect, I understood her frustration.  All she wanted was for us to learn the language of the Shona people.  The people whose land we lived on. And I understood why she was usually angrier with the black students than the white ones.  They were meant to be the best at Shona.  The fact that some of the kids couldn’t speak their own language, the language of their people, demonstrated that the British imperialists were winning.  It did not matter that white people were being removed from their farms, and fleeing in droves to the United States and the United Kingdom and, in our case, Australia: the crushing effects of colonisation were still being felt, over and over. (p.255)

Little Stones is a compelling novel that humanises the contentious headlines that we’ve seen here in Australia. It will be very interesting to see what Kuiper writes next…

According to Wikipedia: Inflation rose from an annual rate of 32% in 1998, to an official estimated high of 11,200,000% in August 2008 according to the country’s Central Statistical Office. This represented a state of hyperinflation, and the central bank introduced a new 100 trillion dollar note.  So when Hannah, her mother and Ruth talk in billions and trillions when shopping, it’s not hyperbole.

**The exodus of white farmers led to severe grain shortages in Zimbabwe, and since the resignation of Robert Mugabe (whose tacit support of the so-called War Veterans enabled the farm invasions) the government is encouraging them to return. (ABC News 2018)

You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Elizabeth Kuiper
Title: Little Stones
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 264 pages
ISBN: 9780702262548
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from UQP or Fishpond: Little Stones


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2019

Avenue of Eternal Peace, by Nicholas Jose

I am indebted to Wakefield Press for their June 4th Tweet about this book, “as topical and revelatory as when first published”.

I hunted out a copy at the library as, almost contemporaneously, there were mass protests in Hong Kong, against a proposed Extradition Bill which would not only enable extradition from Hong Kong to China, but would also enable the integration of aspects of Hong Kong’s legal system (which is basically British, i.e. innocent till proven guilty) with China’s (which is basically socialist, i.e. guilty as soon as you are charged).  But it is not just the prospect of this change to the protections of Hong Kong’s separate legal system that is a matter of concern.  Those of us who remember the horror of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989 have been watching these protests in Hong Kong with alarm in case the violence escalates.  The situation as I write is that the proposed Bill has been dropped, but protestors are maintaining vigilance despite the violence against them by their own government.  It was the eerie confluence of this protest movement in Hong Kong, with the 30-year anniversary of the democracy protests which ended in the massacre, that made reading Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of Eternal Peace such riveting reading.

Nominated for the 1990 Miles Franklin Prize, Avenue of Eternal Peace was Jose’s third novel, and it was written from an ‘insider’s’ perspective.  In 1986-87, Jose worked in Shanghai and Beijing, teaching at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the East China Normal University, and after that was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990.  This is the blurb from Jose’s website:

Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace is the boulevard leading to Tiananmen Square. The world witnessed what happened there in May and June 1989, but ultimately came no closer to understanding the riddle of contemporary China than a TV screen montage. Now, in an atmospheric and penetrating novel that takes place a short time before the massacre, Nicholas Jose captures this city of contradictions, its people, and a moment in history much as Christopher Isherwood did for 1930’s Berlin.

Wally Frith, the hero-observer of this remarkable novel, is an Australian doctor and university professor specializing in cancer research. Middle-aged, emotionally bereft, recently widowed, he feels himself burnt-out. Therefore he readily accepts an invitation to come as a visiting professor to Peking Union Medical College, China’s leading teaching and research hospital. The prospect pleases: new scenes, new people, new life… and beyond these vague expectations, he has a particular goal–to meet Professor Hsu Chien Lung who, years before, had written a trail-blazing paper on cancer, and who Wally believes may still be on the faculty there. But Professor Hsu seems to have vanished; perhaps he never existed. The search, which has its macabre as well as comic elements, is stalled, and Wally meanwhile immerses himself in the ordinary (sometimes extraordinary) life of Beijing, newly exposed to Western influences, and in a state of vigorous contradiction.

This extraordinary, kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled novel shows us a China the TV cameras couldn’t photograph—the China inside the hearts of its people. It is a moving and revelatory experience by a writer who was a witness to history and to a people’s dreams.

What drives the novel initially, is Wally Frith’s search for Professor Hsu Chien Lung, and the author (writing in 1989) draws on recent discoveries that cervical cancer is caused by a virus.  Frith’s wife has died of cancer, so his search for cancer treatments is personal: he’s a no-nonsense man (i.e. not interested in quackery) but he has over time witnessed a change in cancer treatments from those that were based on a ‘remove-the-invader’ approach using either surgery or radiotherapy or a combination of the two, to a recognition that the cancer is caused by the body itself in response to poisons or triggers of some kind and that the malformation originated from viruses.  What he needs is clinical data, and he thinks Professor Hsu has it.

Knowing what we do of socialist regimes and the way that people can ‘disappear’, makes the disappearance of Professor Hsu not only mysterious but also potentially dangerous for Frith.  But his ability to speak Chinese wins him friends, and the experiences he has enable the author to paint a fascinating portrait of China in this transitional period of economic reform. But what remains the same despite the reforms is the fear of speaking out, of being non-conformist, of criticising the government, and of being constrained by opaque power structures that can stymie any project or individual’s progress without anyone knowing why.

There are some amusing scenes in the novel:  Frith attends awful boring social events amongst expats, and he has a sexual encounter which turns out to be amusing too.  Amongst the people he meets are a perennially unlucky basketball player, peasants, an opera star, and corrupt businessmen,  but he also meets strong, resilient women and people who have found a way to survive not just the Cultural Revolution but also a pessimism that to Western readers seems more than justifiedHowever it is as the novel moves towards its conclusion and the inevitability of the democracy protests that the tension ramps up… I don’t know how this novel ended before it was revised in 2008, but it’s certainly a sobering ending now.

(PS SBS on Demand is currently screening Chimerica. a series about a photojournalist on a quest to find the ‘Tank Man’ who stopped a column of Red Army tanks in Tiananmen Square.)

Author: Nicholas Jose
Title: Avenue of Eternal Peace
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Revised Edition, 2008, first published 1989. 278 pages
ISBN: 9781862547995
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Wakefield Press, where you can also buy it as a eBook.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2019

Trinity, by Louisa Hall

Trinity by Louisa Hall (b. 1982) was an impulse loan from the New Books stand at the library.  It was nominated for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, which was won by Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (which I reviewed here).

Trinity, set in the US in the 20th century, is narrated by seven (fictional) people who knew Robert Oppenheimer.  Some people call him the Father of the Atom Bomb, but I think that ‘father’ is too benign a word to use (even though, of course, I know that not all fathers are benign).  Oppenheimer was not the sole instigator of the nuclear age, but he was head of the Los Alamos laboratory that developed the first nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, and he oversaw the first successful detonation in July 1945.  He was essential to the project.

There are plenty of people who interpret Nagasaki and Hiroshima as events which shortened the war against Japan and saved lives.  There are also people who thus judge the motivation for the decision to drop those bombs as humane.  I am not one of them.  Even if I accepted those grounds (which are disputable) and could theoretically acquiesce to the decision to bomb Hiroshima, the decision to bomb Nagasaki shortly afterwards is insupportable.  I think the decision to use those bombs was about demonstrating not only that the US was the supreme military power, but also their capacity to dismiss the cost to human life.  Stalin won his war by ignoring the cost of casualties on his own side, and the US won the peace by demonstrating that they could be equally pragmatic about the cost of human lives in the pursuit of their objectives.  Those bombs were intended to show Stalin that the US would not be squeamish if the Cold War escalated.

So you can see that I read this book without much sympathy for Oppenheimer.  The ‘Testimonials’ include

  • Sam Casal, a secret service agent who tailed Oppenheimer in 1943;
  • Grace Goodman, a rather star-struck WAC (Women’s Army Corps) among the military at Los Alamos in 1945;
  • Andries Van Den Berg, a former colleague now working on a project in Paris in 1949, a man denied a visa to return to the US (probably due to Oppenheimer’s betrayal);
  • Sally Connelly, a wannabe novelist with an eating disorder, who works for Oppenheimer in 1954 at Princeton;
  • Lía Peón, on the holiday island of St John in 1958, one of a gay couple and has an unhealthy curiosity about Oppenheimer’s court room appearances under McCarthyism;
  • Tim Schmidt, a student in Massachusetts, 1963, reflecting on the ‘rehabilitation’ of Oppenheimer’s reputation in the Kennedy era
  • Helen Childs, Princeton, 1966, a journalist interviewing Oppenheimer just before he dies.

Trinity, however, is about more than Oppenheimer and his contrary behaviour: his affairs; his support and betrayal of his Communist friends; and his on-again/off-again support for nuclear weapons.  The novel also explores the way people believe what they want they want to believe: how they delude themselves and how they can justify unethical behaviour when it suits them.  These characters with their testimonials often tell us more about themselves than they do about Oppenheimer.  They reflect on their own betrayals, their refusals to admit reality, their inability to see the truth, and their folly in acquiescing to what’s expected of them rather than choosing for themselves.  The saddest and most convincing of these characters is Sally, whose sister is devastated by the images she sees of Japanese victims, and who can see no future in a world where these weapons threaten everyone.

There are scenes in the novel that make me wonder if they really happened.  In Grace Goodman’s chapter (p.82) she reports on a meeting where scientist are demurring against the use of the bomb and Oppenheimer manages to swing the mood of the audience in favour of conceiving it as a lifesaver.  In Sally Connolly’s chapter, she hears a radio report where panellists were discussing the war in Korea and how Truman had ordered atomic devices to be assembled at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Apparently B-29 bombers were flying practice runs from Okinawa to North Korea, dropping dummy atom bombs.  The panellists on the radio were debating the effectiveness of using nuclear weapons against North Korea, despite the fact that every important building in the country had already been destroyed by our bombers, and despite the fact that the Soviets had nuclear weapons as well, and had already tested two additional bombs since their original 1949 test. ( p.132)

Is this true? I looked it up at Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links):

The U.S. dropped a total of 635,000 tons of bombs, including 32,557 tons of napalm, on Korea, more than during the whole Pacific campaign of World War II.

Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed as a result. The war’s highest-ranking US POW, Major General William F. Dean, reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland. North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defences were “non-existent.” In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed their population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay commented: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets. On 28 November, Bomber Command reported on the campaign’s progress: 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, along with 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon and 20 percent of Uiju. According to USAF damage assessments, “Eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated.” By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.

I find this shocking, and I’m embarrassed that I had to read a novel to learn about it. (No wonder North Korea wants nuclear weapons to defend itself!)

Sally, in her testimonial, says that she feels an affinity with Oppenheimer because they both had no control of the system. He told Truman that he had blood on his hands, and Truman wouldn’t meet with him after that.  His erratic behaviour, she thinks, was because he was trying to retain influence at a time when opposition to the H-bomb was seen as traitorous—as was any suggestion that there should be transparency about nuclear secrets, to eliminate the need for an arms race.  Continually under suspicion because of his connections with communists, he was desperately trying to persuade Truman not to test the first H-bomb. 

And we all know how that worked out.

It’s true, of course, that the Nazis were developing nuclear weapons, so it was only a matter of time before they were available, and it isn’t reasonable to blame just one man for their use, especially not when he seems to have tried to put the genie back in the bottle.  Louisa Hall’s novel doesn’t give Oppenheimer a voice to explain himself, but it does make one thing clear: the thirst for knowledge is not an unambiguous good, and now that so many states are nuclear armed, there is no redemption for any of those who brought these monstrous weapons to fruition.

Author: Louisa Hall
Title: Trinity
Publisher: Corsair, an imprint of Little Brown, London, 2018, 324 pages
ISBN: 9781472154057
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Trinity: Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2019

La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool), by George Sand

La Mare au Diable (1846) is the fifth book that I’ve read in the original French instead of in translation, and the second I’ve read by George Sand.

The novella is one of a series of four pastoral novels by George Sand (1804-1876): the others are François le Champi (1847–1848), La Petite Fadette (1849), and Les Beaux Messieurs Bois-Doré (1857).  This edition is a student edition published by Nelson, and it still bears the sticker from Hall’s Book Store in Bourke Street, where those of us of a certain age bought all our school text books. The book once belonged to the father of Bill from The Australian Legend and in beautiful copperplate, it bears his name and the date from September 1949.  So the book is a real treasure, with a story of its own, thank you Bill!

As we know from Indiana (which I also read in French, see my review) George Sand was subversive.  Notable for smoking in public and wearing men’s clothes, she was also acerbic about marriage because of her views about equality of the sexes.  However, La Mare au Diable is, at first glance anyway, a story of a happy marriage, a devastated widower, children in need of a mother, and in-laws pressuring their father into marrying again (because they have had to look after the children while he works on the farm.)  And though the fates conspire against true love for most of the novel, it ends up satisfactorily.

However, the novella features two strong women who refuse to be pressured into marriage until they are ready.  I have summarised the plot at Sensational Sand (here, but don’t go there if you want to avoid spoilers), so suffice to say here that the woman that Germain is supposed to marry has been a widow for two years and has been playing off three suitors against each other for all that time because she’s not in any hurry to marry again.  She doesn’t fancy any of them, but their presence signals to other men that she hasn’t settled on widowhood and is open to the right offer. She is wealthy and has no children to support, so she has more choices than other women do.

But despite much more limited choices, the other woman, the one that Germain has fallen for, possibly under the influence of the Devil’s Pool, doesn’t fancy him either, because he’s almost twice his age.  He’s also sulky and pessimistic.  She loves his children and enjoys looking after them, but she’s alert to the dangers of being left a widow by a husband much older than she is.  more importantly, she would rather live in poverty, without work, than make marry someone she doesn’t care for.  (This same young woman has also refused the advances of her #MeToo employer, and subsequently refused a bribe intended to keep her quiet about it. )

So why doesn’t she care for Germain?  He’s handsome, and while not rich, he’s certainly better off than she is.  A poor girl sent off to be a shepherdess in another village because her mother’s farm can’t support the two of them, can’t afford to be too choosy, right? Well, despite her capitulation at the end, Marie is a good judge of character.  She’s strong enough to tell him that he should be making his own choices, not just doing what his in-laws say he should do.  He’s a lugubrious fellow, and he gives up too easily: it’s she who takes the initiative when they are stranded in the woods, and it’s she who has the skills and ability that enable to survive a bitterly cold night after he’s got them lost.

An observant reader will notice other things too.  Germain takes her under his cloak because she’s used hers, not his, to wrap up his child against the cold.  There’s not a lot to eat, and she takes barely a morsel because he’s used to eating four times a day and she’s used to being hungry.  She tears her skin dealing with the kindling for the fire while he watches on, impressed by her skills.  Marie doesn’t judge him for this unmanly selfishness, but I have no doubt that George Sand meant her readers to do so.

A very interesting little book!

PS The book is listed in the 2012 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but not in the 2006 edition that I’m tracking.

Author: George Sand, (the nom de plume of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin)
Title: La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool)
Publisher: Nelson, Paris, London, Edinburgh & New York, 1947, first published 1846, 282 pages (A6)
ISBN: none
Source: gift of Bill Holloway from The Australian Legend.

You can read the story for free (in English) at Project Gutenberg, and you can listen to it in French at LibriVox.

Cross-posted at Sensational Sand.

An excellent write-up of an author event I attended recently with author and writing teacher Mairi Neil…

Up the Creek with a pen ...

library plans.jpg

Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

alan marshall sculpture.jpg

This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall…

View original post 2,611 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2019

Real Differences, by S.L. Lim

Real Differences is the debut novel of S.L. Lim, who was born in Singapore but came to Australia as an infant, and (as the blurb says) has spent a good part of her life toggling back and forth between the two places.  Perhaps this bi-cultural experience is what enables her to cast a forensic eye on the illusions we have about Australian multiculturalism, social class and ‘the fair go’…

This is the blurb:

This is a story of a friendship so connected that without it one is not whole but lost.
Middle-class, clever and white, Nick is a child of privilege while his best friend Andie is the daughter of Indo-Chinese refugees. Despite their very different backgrounds, they share a conviction they can change the world for the better.
At the outset, Nick is pushing papers in a dead-end job while Andie is embarking on a secular crusade against world poverty. This generates conflict with her white husband Benjamin, who feels that Australians should come first. Meanwhile, Andie’s cousin, the teenage Tony is burdened by his parents’ traumatic past and impossible expectations. To their dismay, he finds solace in radical faith.
S.L. Lim acutely captures the dreams and disaffections of a millennial generation. Real Differences is an emotionally resonant novel about idealism, ethical ambition, and love, filled with unforgettable characters. It ultimately asks us the most important question of all: What is our life for?

Lim’s characters occasionally stray into polemics when they are passionate about issues, but the issues they raise are real.  At the same time, there is a strong focus on the feelings of the characters.  The generation depicted in the novel spends a great deal of time thinking about things and analysing their own motivations, but they can be blind to flaws just like any generation.  The narration shifts between Nick and an omniscient observer, and the intimacy of this technique enables the juxtaposition of all the characters’ internal thoughts with subsequent dialogue.  Towards the end of the novel, for example, we see an image of domestic harmony….

Benjamin cooked breakfast for the two of them: eggs and tomatoes in a pan, buttered toast and coffee.  It looked like breakfast in a cartoon about happy breakfasting. (p.240)

…but this episode is juxtaposed with dialogue that shows a marriage falling apart in rising conflict. The scene goes on to reveal that Ben, married to an Indo-Chinese character, is dismissive about casual racism at social events and can’t understand why Andie arcs up because he doesn’t confront it.  Knowing that Tony’s family had to flee Indonesia in the anti-Chinese riots in 1998, she wonders how loyal her husband and friends would be if they were confronted by guns and flaming torches, when they won’t even stick up for her when someone tells a stupid joke that patronises people who are not White.  And she realises that while there may be no such thing as colour in a mixed-race relationship such as hers, the price of it is her dignity because she is being given the status of an ‘honorary White’ instead of being valued as who she is.

This gulf between them is one of many situations in the novel that show characters interrogating the ethics of their behaviour.

For Nick, empathy is a foreign concept, and it’s not just in matters concerning racism:

I got back from London a lot richer than when I had left.  I had taken a position in a firm which specialised in corporate restructuring, a euphemism for wiping the blood off the floor after a corporate collapse.  This firm had experienced an unexpected boom after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

‘You’re the Grim Reaper,’ my boss explained.  ‘So go forth and reap.’

I did feel sorry for the people who had just been fired.  Still, there was definitely a sick pleasure to it, watching the best and brightest of the City encounter failure for the first time in their lives.  They were ferociously ambitious, educated to the hilt and possessed of intelligence which was limited but acute.  You could see the bewilderment in their eyes as circumstances got the better of them for the very first time.  (p.49)

So, no, Nick’s not a likeable character, but then none of them are.  Andie is insufferable about her work in secular philanthropy, Ben is smug about his social status, and Nick’s girlfriend Linda is so blasé about everything it’s exasperating just to read about it.

In a fundamental way, Linda was more honest than I.  She had her code of adulthood, which meant adhering to one’s interest at all cost.  Whether from her experiences or due to some intrinsic part of her personality, she had become convinced at an early age that other people were fickle, and human relations inherently extractive.  The only rational response was to take what you could get, before your so-called friends vanished in a puff of smoke, or your boyfriend revealed the duplicity she seemed to anticipate from all men.  The strawberry sweetness was both reality and ruse: she had leached her persona of frustration, anger and regret, believing no potential partner would tolerate such unseemly displays of emotion.  She kept strict control over her mind and heart. She could be moved by a work of art, but only temporarily: it was something to be consumed, not to be consumed by.  (p.100)

But the most troubling character is young Tony, who at fourteen abandons the Christian religion of his overbearing parents and becomes a Muslim.  What with the fallout at home and his alienation from his peers, it’s easy to see how he gets sucked into a group preaching radicalism.  There is rather a lot about his zealous embrace of Islamic teachings as he progresses through school and goes on to university, but the ultimate catastrophe still comes as a surprise.

It’s an interesting debut, and it’s refreshing to see an author embrace diversity in the friendships she depicts.

Author: S L Lim
Title: Real Differences
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019 288 pages
ISBN: 9781925760286
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and Fishpond: Real Differences


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2019

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

It was when I was recently reading In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne that I came across the name Sam Selvon: in a nod to the antecedents of his novel, Gunaratne had named one of his characters after the author who was the first to tell the story of Black Caribbean men who came to London in the mass migrations of the postwar period. Sam Selvon’s most famous book The Lonely Londoners (1956) is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and as I have discovered from even a brief Google search, Selvon is the subject of a great deal of critical interest.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an introduction by Susheila Nasta, but it’s not necessary to read it.  My advice is to plunge straight in and enjoy the distinctive voice that Selvon pioneered in this novella. Selvon (1923-1994), who came to London as a young man looking to advance his literary career, was born in Trinidad of Indian parents who had migrated from Madras, and his maternal grandfather was Scottish, but the voice that narrates the story is an invented Trinidad creole, partly like standard English, but also with non-standard grammar and distinctive Caribbean idioms such as ‘liming’ (which means to hang out).  For those not keen on reading ‘dialect’ it’s not difficult to understand at all, as you can see from this excerpt about Bart searching for his girl after her father sent him packing in a torrent of racist abuse:

He must be comb the whole of London, looking in the millions of white faces walking down Oxford Street, peering into buses, taking tube ride on the Inner Circle just in the hope that he might see she.  For weeks the old Bart hunt, until he become haggard and haunted.

Knowing that she like the night lights, at last Bart get a work at a club as a doorman, and night after night he would be standing up there, hoping that one night Beatrice might come to lime by the club and he would see her again. (p.51-2)

In an article called ‘Seeking Sam Selvon’ in the journal Transatlantica, Kathie Birat writes that

It is the narrator who sets the tone and rhythm of the narrative, gradually drawing the reader into his way of presenting the world, seducing him with the use of a dialect that goes almost unnoticed, that presents no obstacle to the reader’s understanding, but that determines his perception of the story being told.

The narrator initiates the reader into the world of Moses and friends, in the same way that Moses, an old hand who’s been in London for ten years and acts as a reluctant mentor to new arrivals, initiates his friends into his version of London life.   In the same article, Birat also explains the impact of a different language on the reader:

The reader “hears” the dialect spoken by Selvon’s characters because it clashes in significant ways with the system of standard English, thus producing a noise, a remainder, to use [the philosopher] Dolar’s term, which draws attention to language itself and to the ways in which it produces meaning. It is the gap, the discrepancy between standard English and dialect, that the reader hears and that leads him to search for the significance of this difference, to account for it in terms of meaning.

In other words, it’s the language that enables the reader to recognise that the London of the book is not the London that everyone is familiar with.

The characters, who are almost exclusively Black Caribbean men, speak a more economical version of the same language.  In this excerpt, Moses,  is amusing himself with the credulous Lewis:

‘Moses’, he say, ‘you think is true that it have fellars does go round by you when you out working and — your wife?

If you tell Lewis that the statue on top of Nelson column in Trafalgar Square is not Nelson at all but a fellar what name Napoleon, he would believe you, and if you tell him that it have lions and tigers in Oxford Circus, he would go to see them.  So Moses giving him basket for so.

‘How you mean,’ Moses say. ‘That is a regular thing in London. The wife leave the key under the milk bottle, and while you working out your tail in the factory, bags of fellars round by your house with the wife.’ (p.53)

Unfortunately for Lewis’s wife, Lewis believes Moses and what happens brings to the fore the way women are talked about and treated in the story.  What Selvon was showing was the dislocating effects of family disruption: huge numbers of single men yearning for female companionship and family life, and equally, the way that the emptiness of the life they created as a substitute failed for those few women who did manage to join their men.

The story structure is episodic: it is based around the everyday experiences of the men, living from day to day in chance encounters rather than in the kind of middle-class daily rituals of English life that they could not access.  The fragmented nature of the novel and its invented language symbolises the way these men have come in search of a fantasy, similar in some ways to the fantasies of Commonwealth citizens around the globe, perhaps like Australians in the 1950s who thought of Britain as ‘home’ although they had never been there and were certainly not treated like family when they turned up expecting to be made welcome.

Although I suspect that this novella is not widely known, I think it’s an important 20th century novel: it offers a world where Blackness is normalised, and the characters—Moses, Sir Galahad, Five Past Twelve, the irrepressible Cap and Aunty Tanty who takes no nonsense from anyone—are not just unforgettable, they represent a new kind of London, one which was changing not just in the colour of its citizens but also (as a consequence of WW2) in terms of class:

It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades [Black Caribbeans], because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down.  A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they still can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n.  All over London you would see them, going shopping with a basket, or taking the dog for a walk in the park, where they will sit down on the bench in winter and summer.  Or you might meet them hunch-up in a bus-queue, or waiting to get the fish and chips hot.  On Friday or a Saturday night, they go in the pub and buy a big glass of mild and bitter, and sit down by a table near the fire and stay here coasting lime [hanging out] till the pub close. (p.61)

That solidarity with the lonely widows, and the pathos of sad old men singing below the windows of the high and mighty because they don’t want to be seen begging, was a side of London not often recognised in mid-20th century fiction.

Highly recommended.

Update: Emma reviewed it some years ago at Book Around the Corner.

Citation source:

Kathie Birat, « Seeking Sam Selvon: Michel Fabre and the Fiction of the Caribbean », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2009, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2009, consulté le 08 juin 2019. URL :

Author: Sam Selvon
Introduction by Susheila Nasta
Title: The Lonely Londoners
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2006, first published 1956, 139 pages
ISBN: 9780141188416
Source: Geelong Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: The Lonely Londoners (Penguin Modern Classics)

Growing Up African in Australia (2019) is part of a series: Black Inc also publish Growing Up Queer in Australia (Aug 2019, which you can pre-order here); Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (2018, see here, and read my review); and Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008, see here).  These books are revelatory: they share a diversity of experiences from multi-voiced; multi-cultural; multi-origin; and multi-gendered Australians.  The stories can be heart-warming, poignant, challenging, confronting and even nakedly hostile, but all of them will change the reader’s perceptions and misconceptions about what it’s like to be part of a minority.

The minority in this book is the Afro-diaspora.  The anthology includes writers with origins in Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, South Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zambia, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Kenya but also (because of the ongoing impact of slavery) those of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Guyanese and Afro-Brazilian descent.  Some contibutors came to Australia as middle-class skilled professionals, others as refugees, and many were born and educated here, some with African-Australian origins that go back many decades.

I was intrigued by the composition of the 35 writers featured in Growing Up African.  Although there was a diversity of contributors, so many of them worked in the arts: in dance, theatre, spoken word performance, visual arts, and music.  I liked this, because we don’t often hear directly from people working in the arts… after all, if they wanted to express their ideas in words, they wouldn’t be doing it in other art forms, eh?  But there were also other contributors in other fields and some CVs are impressive in any context: activists, a journalist, a litigant, a gay Imam who runs a support group for young Muslims questioning their sexuality, and a doctor.  Some were writers by profession or ambition, while others were busy doing other things but contributed an essay anyway.

I’m going to focus on two essays because they stood out to me.  Other readers will have their own favourites.

‘Both’ by Vulindlela Mkwananzi writes movingly about the parents he hardly knew.  His Australian mother was travelling in Zimbabwe when she met his father, a printer.  Both were activists: he was fighting apartheid from Zimbabwe while she was a campaigner for women’s liberation.  But they were both killed in a car accident when he and his twin brother were three, and they were raised by his birth mother’s Australian best friend.

It wasn’t until I grew older that I started to ponder how controversial it was for both my parents’ families to have mixed-race grandchildren, for different reasons. […]

For my family in Zimbabwe, it meant that my brother and I might grow up not knowing our culture — we might not be raised the ‘African’ way.  For my mother’s family in New South wales, it was a shock to have ‘coloured’ children, a point of shame and a source of exclusion from a conservative white community that prided itself on its self of ‘Australianness’.  (p.101-2)

Mkwananzi goes on to say that he can’t express in words how thankful [he] is that [the best friend’s] family took us in, as they truly are very special people to my brother and me. 

Yet, he also says, recounting an example of everyday casual racism, that his stepmother had no idea of the experience of growing up as African-Australian.

I realise her pain in her powerlessness to protect us from what our physical appearance means in Australia.  It also makes me realise that she can have all the compassion in the world, but will still never quite understand what it means, and what it really feels like, to be in our skin here. (p.103)

And he discovers that he was naïve to think that he would fit in, in Zimbabwe.  There, it’s his light skin that’s pointed out and remarked on, with people asking us why we had African names but were so white.  

I began to comprehend the strange position of being from two distinctly different cultures — there is literally nowhere on the planet where the majority of people look like you. (p.103).

The title of his essay is explained in a plea that comes from the heart:

I always find strange that people with parents from two different cultural backgrounds are called: half-caste, mixed race, coloured.  Why do I have to be half?  Why caste? Why mixed?  I am both: it is what makes me who I am, and in my romanticised moments, I see my birth as proof that love conquers all. (p.102-3)

(This is quite a different viewpoint to the contributor Keenan McWilliam who writes that my parents’ ‘Love sees no colour’ t-shirts were inadvertently erasing the identities of my brother and me.’)

It won’t surprise regular readers of this blog that I was also very taken by the essay ‘Negro Speaks of Books’ by Inez Trambas.  Trambas has parents from the Central African Republic and of Greek origin, and she’s baffled by Tasmanians of Mediterranean origin who are not very empathetic towards new generations of migrants, considering the postwar hostility they experienced themselves.  (This was the subject of Felicity Castagna’s thoughtful novel No More Boats (2017). It’s a must-read.)  Inez had the good fortune to have a fabulous school librarian:

Despite its isolation from mainland Australia, my primary school did a pretty good job of having lots of different kinds of literature.  I didn’t read any books by African authors in primary school, but I was exposed to lots of South-east Asian authors.  This was due largely to my fabulous school librarian.  She always let me read in higher grades than I was supposed to.  She would also always give me the new releases she got in.  I often think about her, because she exposed me to the only brown characters I knew.  The only books with brown characters I read were because she put them directly into my hands and said, ‘I’ve checked this out for you already.’ (p.185)

Only teacher librarians have the time and skills and knowledge of what’s available to tailor reading to the needs of the individual child.  We must get back to funding teacher-librarians in primary schools!

Growing up in a home where books and literature and poetry were valued turned Trambas into an inveterate reader, and (using her city library card) she read beyond the curriculum when she went to an elite girls’ secondary school in Melbourne on a scholarship.  She has some excellent suggestions for how schools could be an excellent place for learning about critical issues like the intersection of race and gender and she began an Instagram site called Negro Speaks of Books which is an allusion to the Langston Hughes poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.  I think this is a very powerful form of activism (and there are other impressive activists included in the book) because I know how my own beliefs, attitudes, and yes, prejudices, have been altered by reading books that made me look at things differently.  And I really liked her concluding paragraph:

I read for enjoyment and fun, and I read to find out about people’s lives, to imagine how my life could be: it’s not for any grander reason than that.  But we do ourselves a great disservice, whoever we are,  when we don’t read widely.  When you read work written by black authors and Indigenous authors worldwide — when you’re reading at the intersection of so much, from people who’ve been underrepresented for 500+ years — you come to understand how the world works.  They have all the stories to tell, and without them, every other story will be inaccurate. (p.191)

You can read an extract from Growing up African in Australia here.

Finally, a shout-out to my niece who worked on this book at Black Inc. K, the Acknowledgements thank you (and others) for your unwavering support—I’m proud of you, and delighted to see you upholding the family tradition of contributing in fields that make a difference:)

Editors: Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan
Title: Growing Up African in Australia
Publisher: Black Inc, 2019, 280 pages
ISBN: 9781760640934
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Growing Up African in Australia


Tonight it was my pleasure to attend an author talk at the Booroondara Literary Festival. It was held at the Camberwell Library’s Parkview Room, and the speaker was much loved Australian author Rosalie Ham, author of four novels all set in quixotic rural communities:

  • The Dressmaker (2000), made into a film of the same name and starring Kate Winslet
  • Summer at Mount Hope (2005)
  • There Should Be More Dancing (2011, see my review)
  • The Year of the Farmer (2018, see my review)


I’ve read all of Ham’s novels, and I’ve read quite a few articles about her in the media too, but she was as fresh and funny as if I’d never heard of her before.  She told droll anecdotes from her own experience of farm life and her uncommunicative father,, telling us that he never spoke unless it was to say something important, and what was important to him was the importance of farming, the weather, and the unreasonableness of banks, water boards and people who don’t appreciate their own dependence on farming.  When after her father died her brother delivered exactly the same lecture, she decided that it was time to tell the story of the man on the land, a story to correct the misconceptions that people have about rural life.

Even though she was told repeatedly that the sections about water and irrigation were boring and that no one would buy a book with the word ‘farmer’ in the title!

The disconnect between perception and reality is fuelled by shows like The Farmer Wants a Wife (which I correctly guessed is a rural version of The Bachelor) and McLeod’s Daughters. But one aspect of McLeod’s Daughters that might be apt is that women had the lead roles.  I’ve never actually seen this TV series because of my antipathy to advertising on TV, but Ham says that the role of rural women, who tend to be neglected in literature, has changed.  Australian farms—contrary to perception—are mostly owned by not by foreign corporations but by families, yet they don’t support families as they used to.  So women usually have to supplement the family income with paid work, and dad tends to be the one looking after the children, fitting it in around the farming.  Isabel in The Year of the Farmer is typical: many rural women get up at four in the morning, run a business from home as well as handling the farm administration, and manage domestic responsibilities as well.  (Readers might remember that Michelle Scott Tucker in Elizabeth Macarthur, A Life at the Edge of the World made frequent mention of the number of women who had primary responsibility for a farm in Australia’s early colonial history, yet it is usually men who are credited with being agricultural pioneers.)

Ham finished up her talk about The Year of the Farmer with an entertaining slide show featuring her adventures with the filming of The Dressmaker.  She has a wickedly funny sense of humour!

Many thanks to the Camberwell Library staff for hosting this event.  I have tickets for another author talk at the festival: biographer Ann Blainey talking about her new book King of the Air, and we are looking forward to that.

PS We enjoyed a very nice meal afterwards at Con Noi Italian Trattoria.  Delicious food, prompt service and very reasonably priced!

Little Zinnobers (2000), with its unusual title, is the debut novel of the winner of the ‘Russian Booker’, Elena Chizhova.  She won the award for The Time of Woman (2009), which was about life in Soviet Russia following the 900-day WW2 German siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  I haven’t read that one, but Goodreads says it’s about the secret culture of resistance and remembrance amongst the mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters of Russia. Well, so too is Little Zinnobers,  a novella which features characters almost entirely female and is about an heroic yet quixotic teacher teaching fundamental human values in a totalitarian state.

In the illuminating Afterword, which I recommend reading first, the title is explained.  It derives from characters in the fairy tales of E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), which most of us will know only from the three stories on which Offenbach’s opera ‘The Tales of Hoffman‘ is based.  But in Eastern Europe Hoffman’s collection is as well-known as Grimm’s and Perrault’s, and Chizhova could expect many people to recognise the allusion: it comes from a tale called ‘Klein Zaches, gennant Zinnober’ which means ‘Little Zaches, Great Zinnober’ in which the dwarf* Zaches is put under a spell that makes everyone think he is more handsome and intelligent that he really is.  Chizhova’s novel not only exposes the children in F’s class as ‘Little Zinnobers’, but also the Soviet State itself.

According to the Afterword, the novella is partly autobiographical.  It tells the story of a pupil besotted by her charismatic teacher, who teaches a selective group of pupils the works of Shakespeare, in English.  Beginning with demands that they recite sonnets by heart though they barely understand the Early Modern English that Shakespeare used, F then progresses to theatrical performances of selected scenes, in costume, which come to be performed for astonished Western visitors observing the Soviet system of education.

But while the performances impress, as did Soviet achievements in science, space and medicine, they are likewise achieved at great cost.  The narrator gets her first audition after scrubbing the classroom on her hands and knees, and she later risks her health after a near fatal bout of pneumonia because she fears that she will lose her favoured place with F.  The pupils are not the cohesive team that they appear to be: they sabotage each other, they spy on each other, and they blackmail each other, just as people do in a surveillance state.  Their teacher is loved, as most of us love our country, but she is also sometimes erratic, cruel, brutally demanding and impossible to please, and her punishments are extreme and capricious.  Just like the Soviet leadership.

There is much to enjoy in this novella, but it is difficult reading.  The Afterword really is excellent, not just in terms of this novella but in terms of Russian and Soviet literature in general.  (Consulting Goodreads, I find that Rosalind Marsh has written half-a-dozen interesting books about Russian literature.)  Without this Afterword, I doubt if I would have understood as much as I did, had I not read it first.  There are footnotes throughout the text, some of which explain elements that non-Russians are unlikely to know, but others point to a more detailed explanation in the Afterword.  But the choppy narrative style, and the fragmented episodes do sometimes make it difficult to follow the sequence of events and to understand motivations of the characters.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting example, yet again, of the veiled way in which Soviet/Russian writers use satire to expose socio-political issues that are still relevant today.  And it enabled me to read some of the excerpts from Shakespeare with fresh eyes, like this one, which F listens to as she nears death:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws
And burn… (Sonnet 19)

Terrible and soft, tender and inescapable, merciless and magnanimous, even as stonework, undulating as desert sand, hot and impenetrable, inexpressible and determined, invisible and dense, like air — her last cycle, about her adversary, the one she faced, one to one, from birth to death, like a seawall under high tide’s onslaught.  (P.126)

There is a profile of Chizhova at Read Russia.

*As in many fairy tales, Hoffman’s tale presents an offensive stereotype of the dwarf.  I apologise for this but it’s not possible to explain the meaning of the title without reference to the original fairy tale.

Author: Elena Chizhova (b. 1957)
Title: Little Zinnobers (Крошки Цахес)
Translated from the Russian by Carol Ermakova
Afterword: Rosalind Marsh, Oxford University
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 236 pages (169 pages for the novella and 67 pages for the Afterword), first published in Russian in 2000
ISBN: 9781911414384
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications


 Indigenous Literature Week 2019 at ANZ Litlovers

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

For information about ILW 2019, click here.


Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2019 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of indigenous writing!

You are welcome to add your review/s early (or late). I will be monitoring this page until the end of July.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:


  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodReads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

  • If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
  • Or, if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the permanent Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, click on the link at the top of this page.

2019 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors

Under construction, (until we get our first review)

Maori Authors

Under construction

And from elsewhere…

Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma,

Further reading

  •  Your suggestions are welcome!
Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2019

New Zealand Review of Books, Pukapuka Aotearoa

It’s been a while now since I subscribed to the ABR: I abandoned it because too often it was reviewing too many books by authors who weren’t Australian.  Since things might have changed since I last subscribed, I checked the contents of their current issue (Jun-Jul 2019) and found reviews of books by Jeanette Winterson (UK), Anand Giridharadas (US), Hal Brands and Charles Edel (US), Ted Chiang (US), Fernando Aramburu (Spain) and Toby Faber (UK).  Not a lot, perhaps, and they were outnumbered by books by Australian authors, but still, the inclusion of authors who get plenty of exposure in other publications means depriving seven Australian authors of much-needed space and exposure.  The ABR’s menu also lists categories of reviews across the arts, i.e. theatre, music, opera, film, visual arts, TV and games, and festivals.  Interesting, perhaps, but not books, which is what you might expect from a journal calling itself the Australian Book Review…

So I thought I’d share my thoughts about New Zealand Books, Pukapuka Aotearoa which is a quarterly review published with the support of Creative New Zealand. I picked up the Summer and Autumn editions for 2018 at the Auckland Writers Festival, and have been browsing them on and off ever since I got home.  It’s an impressive journal, entirely about Kiwi books…

Reviews vary in length, from one to two pages, and since it’s mainly NZ fiction that I’m interested in, I was pleased to see that novels get plenty of column space.  There were reviews of novels I’d reviewed myself, such as Patrick Evan’s Salt Picnic, Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke and Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum, plus those on my TBR such as C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel.  There were some books I hadn’t heard of or was hesitating over and have now added to my wishlist, such as Gone to Pegasus by Tess Redgrave, Amy Head’s Rotoroa, and Tess by Kirsten McDougall.  There were also a couple that I now know would not be to my taste!

I was also interested in a review of Maurice Gee’s memoir Memory Pieces because it impacts on his fiction (some of which I have on the TBR).

There was an amusing but pertinent piece called ‘Is the book launch dead?’ by Graeme Lay, and a droll account of a writer’s residency in an arctic cottage in Dunedin.  On the more serious side, there’s a thoughtful two-page spread by Tim Hazledine about the pre-conditions for demagoguery, a question also relevant to Australia and explored in a collections of essays called The Big Questions, What is New Zealand’s Future?  The review of a book by Gerald McGhie, Balancing Acts, Reflections of a former New Zealand diplomat intrigued me too: sometimes a good review can pique one’s interest even if one is unlikely ever to read the entire book, and this review was excellent.  A review of a book called After the Treaty also resonated because at the Auckland Writers Festival we had attended a session with one of the contributors, Vincent O’Malley.  He spoke authoritatively about the injustices of the New Zealand wars and how they have not been acknowledged—in much the same way that Australia refuses to acknowledge the frontier wars and the massacres of our Indigenous people.

So often, here in Melbourne, there are excellent public lectures by people of note, but for various reasons, I rarely get to them.  The NZB carries a review of a published lecture at Victoria University… it’s about art history at one end anchored by the appearance of the television in domestic living-rooms and the other by Facebook live-streaming in our pockets.  This lecture, by Christina Barton, has some challenging ideas about art history, arguing that no major scholarly work has been written on the role of television and its partner technologies, the video camera and later mobile phone, as signifiers and as sites of experimentation in New Zealand art since 1970.  The reviewer Melissa Laing isn’t entirely laudatory, which takes courage IMO in a small literary community.

Children’s and YA books are also treated seriously, with reviews of good length and perspicacity, and the ‘Bookshelf’ feature lists new releases across a variety of genres, including a couple that look very interesting indeed.

Most pleasing of all was the last article in the Summer edition which featured the book on which a museum exhibition was based.  Palmerston North has an excellent museum, and when we visited they had a display of WW1 print music and a video about one of their most prominent composers… no, not Alfred Hill, though his work was featured and you could listen to a recording of one of his patriotic songs, but Joy Wilhemina Taylor, who was a prolific composer and much loved at the time.  Good-bye Maoriland sounds like a lovely book, and I’ve added it to my wishlist as a book which offers a different slant on the history of the Great War, covering not just patriotic songs, but also songs of mourning as well as the contributions of dissenters and pacifists.

In the Autumn edition there was also a write-up of the results of a recent survey, which showed that not enough readers know about this terrific journal, and that readers typically want more reviews of their favourite genre.  (We’re a difficult lot to please, eh?) Well, I missed the survey because I was one of those who’d never heard of the journal, but now that I know about it, I’ll share my opinion, here:  This journal does exactly what it ought to do.  It provides a guide for readers of Kiwi books.  And it certainly made me want to buy quite a few books!

It costs $44NZD to subscribe, or $30 for the digital version. To subscribe, go to and see more on their Facebook page:


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2019

There, There, by Tommy Orange

With Indigenous Literature Week coming up next month at ANZ LitLovers, this is a good time to look at Indigenous literature from other places around the world.  (ILW has always welcomed contributions featuring reviews of any First Nations’ books, but my focus has mainly been Australian and New Zealand Indigenous literature.)

There, There is by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma… and straightaway the use of the term ‘enrolled member’ raises interesting issues about identity.  The unnamed narrator  addresses these in ‘Interlude’:

We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nations Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day, or we never think about it at all. We are Urban Indians and Indigenous Indians, Rez Indians and Indians from Mexico and Central and South America. We are Alaskan Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, and European expatriate Indians, Indians from eight different tribes with quarter blood quantum requirements and so not federally recognised Indian kinds of Indians.  We are enrolled members of tribes and disenrolled members, ineligible members and tribal council members.  We are full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighth, sixteenth, thirty-seconds.  Undoable math. Insignificant remainders. (p.136)

This melancholy observation raises the question of who decides whether you are in or out, and why.  It seems to be just like Aboriginality in Australia which can be contested by bureaucratic eligibility rules, by shock jocks and the tabloid press, and by Indigenous communities themselves.  But in Orange’s novel, some of the characters are struggling with identity on another front as well.  Because of family dysfunction, some members of the younger generation don’t know who their parents are and it’s not just that this means that they can’t know which tribe they belong to, they also feel a sense of rootlessness.  Orvil, Loother and Lony have no memory of their estranged mother except for the idiosyncratic way she named them, not because she couldn’t spell but because she wanted them to be different.  Naming is important in this novel because—as in Australia—so many were re-named to suit the colonisers’ purposes, and often with banal or offensive connotations.

These three boys have had no contact with their birth mother because they were brought up by their great-aunt, but in the age of Facebook it seems inevitable that they will find each other, and indeed this meeting becomes predictable as the plot stalks towards a grand dénouement at the powwow in Oakland.  But Edwin’s discovery of his father shows that it’s easier to track down a parent using his mother’s Facebook profile than it is to actually own up to having used her account to an astonished virtual father.

There, There raises issues similar to those that recur in Indigenous Australian and New Zealand writing.  Confusions about identity and authenticity; dislocated and dysfunctional families; endemic violence against women; substance abuse; widespread unemployment offset by a burgeoning Indigenous ‘industry’ where those struggling to help each other often have unresolved issues themselves.  (A barely functioning alcoholic, for example, is an addiction counsellor who counts her own success rate in days, not weeks or months).

The problem of authenticity is an important one, but is it valued?  Edwin listens to playlists from First Nations DJs who offer the most modern, or most postmodern, form of Indigenous music [he’s] heard that is both traditional and new-sounding. 

The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past.  The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern? So to get close to but keep enough distance from tradition, in order to be recognisably Native and modern-sounding, is a small kind of miracle these three First Nation producers made happen on a particularly accessible self-titled album, which they, in the spirit of the age of the mixtape, gave away for free online. (p. 77)

So this small kind of miracle isn’t worth paying for… and the creatives behind it can’t make a living from it.

The narrative tension comes from Tony Loneman’s plan, revealed in the first chapter, to steal the prize money at the powwow. Indians come from all over to compete as the best drummer or dancer &c, and the prize money is paid in the form of gift cards, brought to the venue in a safe.  The author stresses the contemporaneity of events through details like these gift cards, but also references the use of smart phones, Facebook, drones, and 3D printing.  The characters’ skill and ingenuity in using these technologies show that they have potential which is underutilised, misapplied or wasted in fruitless endeavours.  The exception to this is Dene Oxendene, who gets a grant to record stories from people attending the powwow.  He has no real plan other than that he wants to use his dead father’s camera as a kind of homage, but his natural inclination for listening, and his subjects’ desire to tell their stories when most people deny them a hearing, seems to have the desired effect.

There, There made quite a splash for a first novel.  It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (2019),  the National Book Award for Fiction (2018),  the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction (2018), the Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2019), the Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction and for Debut Author (2018), and the Aspen Words Literary Prize (2019).  It also won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize (2018), the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award (2019), The Centre for Fiction First Novel Prize (2018), and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (2019).  It became a bestseller, yet Marlon James blurbs it as a ‘thunderclap’, which suggests to me that (despite an impressive Wikipedia list of writers from peoples indigenous to the Americas) the issues of identity, authenticity, dispossession and disadvantage raised in this novel hadn’t previously had much attention in the US.

BTW the curious title is apparently an allusion to a comment by Gertrude Stein on discovering that her family home in Oakland had been into a carpark: ‘There is no there there,” she apparently said, a sentiment any of us can relate to when we go back somewhere we’ve lived, only to find it unrecognisable. But for the characters in this novel, this sentiment urges them to accept that the past is gone and that they must make new memories out of adaptations to the new reality.

Author: Tommy Orange
Title: There, There
Publisher: Harvill Secker UK, an imprint of Vintage (Penguin Random House). 2018, 295 pages
ISBN: 9781787300361
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: There There


I’ve skipped a couple of these due to life getting in the way, but here we go again with this month’s #6Degrees…

This month’s starter book is Murmur by Will Eaves, which won the 2019 Wellcome Prize.  Apparently it references the appalling postwar treatment of Alan Turing, because he was gay.  Turing was the mathematician who cracked the Enigma Code during WW2 and was crucial in defeating the Nazis.  I haven’t read Murmur, but I have read other books about the cruel suffering of gays, and I credit E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice (1971) with being the novel that enlightened me.  This is how I began my (pre-blog) review at Goodreads:

Published posthumously in 1971, Maurice is set immediately before the First World War and tells the achingly sad story of a young man’s realisation that he is homosexual.  In the circles that I move in today, homosexuality is no longer an issue, except for the occasional intolerant old fossil. For Maurice, however, the issue is social in the sense that his homosexuality in that time and place imposes an appalling loneliness and despair about never being able to love in his own world. But for Clive, Maurice’s lover, religious issues are a torture.

The social impact of rigid adherence to religion is also the basis for The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja (transl. R.J. Maguire) but the context is Indonesia’s imminent independence and the possibility of a strict Islamist constitution and sharia law.  So although the struggle for independence and the choices that had to be made are never mentioned, it’s a very political novel.

I like political novels.  They make us think about the constitutional and legal structures that impact on everyday life.  They make us question decisions that governments make in our name.  Sometimes as in Rohan Wilson’s new novel Daughter of Bad Times they force us to confront unpalatable truths about cruelty and neglect in which we are complicit, so that hopefully we are roused to action.  Novels can transform us into progressives and activists.

Which we can be, if we want to be, in a democracy. I’m currently reading  Little Zinnobers by Elena Chizhova (transl. Carol Ermakova), and it shows that it takes heroism to try it in more repressive regimes.  This is the blurb:

Is it possible to cultivate fundamental human values if you live in a totalitarian state? A teacher who has organised the school theatre sets out to prove that it is. Whilst the pupils rehearse Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies under her ever-vigilant eye, Soviet life begins to make its brutal adjustments. This story can be called a book about love, the tough kind of love that gets you through life and death.

Little Zinnobers also includes an excellent Afterword by Prof Rosalind Marsh from Oxford which puts the novel in context and explains some of its allusions.  One of those allusions is to the Russian concept of the Superfluous Man. I haven’t read the specific examples that Marsh references, but I have read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (transl. C J Hogarth), and he was a ‘superfluous man’ i.e. a fatalist and a nihilist, because under the iron rule of the Tsar, there was no opportunity for him to contribute his talents.

In complete contrast to that fatalism is the idealism shown in The Naturalist by Kiwi author Thom Conroy.  It’s based on the real life story of Ernst Dieffenbach (1811-1855), a German physician, geologist and naturalist during the early colonisation of New Zealand, and he didn’t give up on his attempts to make the colonisers show respect to the culture they were invading.  It’s a glimpse of what might have been.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from one idealist to another!

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2019

Bloomsday in Queenscliff

At last, I get to fulfil a long held ambition: I’ve wanted to attend a Bloomsday event for a very long time, and this year I’m not only attending Bloomsday at the Bookshop in Queenscliff, I’m participating in it as one of the readers.

This is the bookshop’s press release about the event:

Bloomsday is an annual celebration of Irish writer James Joyce marked around the world on 16 June, the day Ulysses is set in 1904.

The Bookshop is celebrating Bloomsday in Queenscliff this year with a public reading of Ulysses.

Join our celebration by volunteering to read from Ulysses for 15 minutes at The Bookshop on Sunday, 16 June 2019.

No particular knowledge of Ulysses is assumed or required. How much we read – and for how long – will be determined by the number of volunteer readers.

We are finalising the reader schedule now so if you’d like to be a reader please sign up on our Facebook event page.

We’re celebrating all things Irish on Bloomsday so we’ll have a range of books by Irish writers on display and we’ll be serving Guinness.

Whether you read or not we hope we’ll see you at The Bookshop on Sunday, 16 June, for our first Bloomsday in Queenscliff event.

As you will know, if you were with me on my Ulysses journey back in 2009-10 and read my Disordered Thoughts of an Amateur over many months, I agree with Marilyn Monroe that anyone can read Ulysses.  You don’t need to be a genius, because it was always intended to be read by ordinary mortals.  So this event should be a lot of fun:) (And this will be the right occasion to wear my John Hanly check scarf that I bought in Dublin!)

The Bookshop in Queenscliff is at 84 Hesse St.

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