Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 22, 2019

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Circe was another ‘catch-up-with-the-hype’ choice, but this one I didn’t regret bringing home from the library.  Like Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles (which won the Orange Prize, see my review) it’s undemanding, enjoyable ‘historical’ fiction, and appealing to anyone interested in Ancient Greek mythology.  Perfect for when I was bogged down with another book: not quite wanting to jettison it, but wanting something else for bedtime reading.

Circe is a chronologically coherent rewrite of the ancient stories of Circe, written from a feminist perspective.  The Circe of Homer and Ovid gets a bad press: the daughter of the god Helios and either the goddess Hecate or the nymph Perse, she is a violent, predatory female who uses her powers as a witch to wreak vengeance when she is thwarted.  Famously, she used her powers of transformation to create the monster Scylla, and to turn Odysseus’ men into pigs while she delayed his journey home.  In John Williamson Waterhouse’s painting at left, she is offering a cup laced with drugs to Odysseus, and you can see the docile pigs and the allusion to the tame lions that roamed her isolated island home. You can also see Eurylochus lurking in the background: he was the only one to suspect Circe’s treachery and was able to warn the wily Odysseus…

In Miller’s story, Circe gets a makeover.  She, alone among the gods, has a moral compass.  They are wilful, carelessly cruel, and unambiguously selfish.  For Circe to feel compassion as they do not, she cannot be a goddess, so in Miller’s version she is descended from the nymph Perse, not Hecate.  However, she retains the ‘gift’ of immortality and some magical powers, though she says they are an act of will, which can be learned by mere mortals too.

She angers her powerful father when her attraction to a mortal causes her to cast a dark spell, and so she ends up exiled on the island of Aiaia. Her visitors cause her nothing but trouble, but although she is an independent woman, she yearns for company and so she tolerates the visits of Hermes, messenger of the gods but more often merely indulging his love of gossip. In this novel, Circe is a psychologically credible character: she feels love and loss, she takes pride in her achievements and feels guilty when her acts of vengeance cause the deaths of innocent people.  When she becomes mother to the fractious Telegonus, she feels that fierce, overwhelming love that every parent knows.

Written in first person entirely from Circe’s point-of-view, the novel shows us a woman negotiating the patriarchy of the ancient world. She is an astute observer of men, even as a child:

Her [mother’s] hair was a warm brown, so lustrous it seemed lit from within.  She would have felt my father’s gaze hot as gusts from a bonfire.  I see her arrange her dress so it drapes just so over her shoulders.  I see her dab her fingers, glinting, in the water.  I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times.  My father always fell for them.  He believed the world’s natural order was to please him. (p.2)

But her mother was no fool when Helios came courting:

My mother knew he was coming.  Frail she was, but crafty, with a mind like a spike-toothed eel. She saw where the path to power lay for such as her, and it was not in bastards and riverbank tumbles.  When he stood before her, arrayed in his glory, she laughed. Lie with you?  Why should I?

My father, of course, might have taken what he wanted.  But Helios flattered himself that all women went eager to his bed, slave girls and divinities alike.  His altars smoked with the proof, offerings from big-bellied mothers and happy by-blows.

‘It is marriage,’ she said to him, ‘or nothing.  And if it is marriage, be sure: you may have what girls you like in the field, but you will bring none home, for only I will hold sway in your halls.’

Conditions, constrainment.  These were novelties to my father, and gods love nothing more than novelty.  (p.2)

(You can see the very effective cadence of Miller’s prose: frail she was and went eager to his bed… these rhythms convey a sense of an archaic language even though the words are all contemporary.  It’s very cleverly done.)

Men are challenged, and humbled — whether they know it or not — over and over again in this novel! But Circe has no admiration for her mother’s kind of female scheming.  Rather, she wryly wonders whether her mother values the gifts Helios brings her on the birth of her children, more for the amber beads or for the envy of her sisters when she wore them.  Circe has more admiration for her rival Penelope, because they share the same protective urge for their children.

Not every rewrite of a classic to give it a feminist twist is successful, but this one is.

Image credit: By John William Waterhouse – en:Image:Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus.jpg, Public Domain,

Author: Madeline Miller
Title: Circe
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2018, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781408890073
Source: Bayside Library


I’ve been thinking about this latest beautiful book from Wakefield Press during my (almost) daily walk with Amber*…

You might think, with Melbourne in the depths of winter, that our suburban gardens would be a bit bleak.  But you’d be wrong: already there are jonquils and daffodils in the avenue; there’s a stunning white camellia lush with blooms next door; purple and white hardenbergias are weaving through the fence in our street’s most ambitious garden (created by a Vietnamese couple who are an inspiration to us all); on the trellis outside my library window there is one stubborn spray of white jasmine that has no business flowering in July; and there’s a wattle just about ready to burst into bloom — early next week, by the look of it.   I’ve tried photographing these gorgeous splashes of colour that brighten a dull day, but really, they need an artist to paint them…

And when it’s bucketing down, like it did last week, the flowers are outside, and I’m not.  Which is where this stunning book comes into its own.  Curled up by the fire, with a nice cup of tea and some crumpets, I’ve been reading Blooms and Brushstrokes with delight.

Created by mother-and-daughter team Penelope and Tansy Curtin, Blooms and Brushstrokes is an A-Z of flower types, as painted by Australia’s best practitioners of floral art, but also showcasing the art-historical trajectory of Australian art.  The task of selecting the artworks was difficult: still lifes were very popular in the first half of the 20th century and many of them were painted by well-known names: Nora Heysen, Vida Lahey, Adrian Feint and Margaret Preston.  Margaret Olley’s passion for painting flowers means that just about the whole book could have featured her still lifes.  But Bendigo Art Gallery curatorial manager Tansy, and her mother Penelope, a passionate gardener and freelance editor, wanted the book to be representative of the art canon as well as of the flowers.  So there also are beautiful artworks by artists you’ve probably never heard of.

And surprisingly, some flowers just didn’t make the cut.  The humble violet that makes its uninvited way under the banksia in our front garden hasn’t been featured in an art work of any note, and the same is true of the snowdrops which used to herald warmer weather in my mother’s Melbourne garden (before she debunked to the Gold Coast).  So the book skips from — Sweet Peas in ‘Floral Still Life’ (1917) by Horace Trenerry and ‘Tulips and Wild Hyacinths (c1920) by George Lambert which you can see here in the Art Gallery of NSW — to Lucien Henry’s ‘Waratah**’ (1887) ; Water Lilies in Riddle of the Koi (1994) by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus; and the Wisteria in the exquisite ‘Chatelaine’ by Robyn Stacey also in the Art Gallery of NSW.   (The book is worth having for this one photographic tableau alone.  I don’t often wish to be rich but I want this artwork.  I want it in my house, where I can see it every day.  I want this one too. And all of these — especially the one with the books.   (Maybe not the watermelon, I can get by without that one.)

The striking artwork on the front cover is by the Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou who died in 2018 aged only 57.  The work is called ‘Blinded’, and it’s a portrait of her daughter Olympia, from a series called Eden. The series was commissioned by the Centre for Contemporary Photography, to create works that respond to the Melbourne General Cemetery:

These highly evocative works, created as Papapetrou contemplated her own mortality and the legacy she would leave, also explore the language of flowers and ‘the metamorphosis from child to adolescent and adolescent to adult, and a oneness with the world, fertility and the cycles of life.’ This transition was an ongoing theme throughout Papapetrou’s oeuvre, with the artist’s own daughter, Olympia, at times providing inspiration; this series includes portraits of Olympia and her friends.  In this work the crown imperials represent majesty, while the rose is the well-known symbol for love.

The Eden series also contains a strong religious or spiritual sensibility, appearing to allude to representations of catholic saints.  Blinded invites us to consider the stories of saints and the miracles they perform. The girls [in Papapetrou’s Eden series] are enclosed in a floral embrace that symbolises their unity and acceptance of this miraculous thing we call life. (p.80)

Fritillaria imperialis ‘Rubra Maxima’ (Wikipedia*)

The plant that’s featured is one I’ve never heard of: fritillaries, which are rare, especially the large and flamboyant crown imperials. They belong to the lily family, endemic to mountainous ares of Turkey, western Iran and east of Kashmir, but they were once grown in English cottage gardens.

Blooms and Brushstrokes is a sublime work of art.  My favourite pictures (after ‘Chatelaine’) have literary associations: one is Joshua Smith’s ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’ (1943) and the other is ‘Sitting Room, Mulberry Hill, (1927) by George Bell.  We have this one at the NGV, and it’s almost certain that the woman reading beside a sumptuous flower arrangement is Joan Lindsay herself.

But I also love the striking B&W photography of Viva Gillian Smith (‘Still Life with Daffodils’ 1995) and Max Dupain’s Angel’s Trumpet (‘Salvadorium Dalii, 1982), and  I’m impressed by the subtext in the internationally famous Indigenous artist Tracey Moffat’s Cherbourg No 1, from the ironically series Picturesque Cherbourg: stunning red ‘native’ bottlebrush not contained by the white picket fence.   There is so much to love in this book, it would make a beautiful gift, but it would take strength of character to actually give it away.

Highly recommended.

**I have to say that I much prefer Margaret Preston’s Waratahs.  She painted many of them, and we have one of the best in the NGV.  IMHO in the painting by Lucien Henry, the turquoise of the vase and the background compete with the rich ruby red of the waratah and leach out some of the colour.

* Just in case you didn’t know, (and any excuse to show off her cute and lovable self will do), this is Amber, an occasional guest reviewer here at ANZ LitLovers.

Image credit: Fritillaria imperialis ‘Rubra Maxima’ (Wikipedia) by mhaller1979 –, CC BY 2.0,

Authors: Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin
Title: Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral history of Australian Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 210 pages, 23 x 28cm
ISBN: 9781743056493 (hbk.)
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available direct from Wakefield Press and from Fishpond: Blooms and Brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian art

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2019

Perth (New South City Series #8), by David Whish-Wilson

One of the interesting aspects of the New South City Series is that the authors vary in their approach to the task.  David Whish-Wilson has surveyed Perth by using the landscape as a catalyst for his observations and memories from the landscape, covered in four long chapters:

  • The River
  • The Limestone Coast
  • The Plain, and
  • The City of Light.

The book is also influenced by the author’s current preoccupation with his family:

Because my three children are relatively young, and because I spend so much time with them, it’s natural that my experience of the city often revisits my experiences as a child.  Down on the beach after sunset, I watch them settle as the colours on the horizon fade and they begin to sense the night’s quiet ghosting, inhabiting the darkness in a way that’s really only possible in a city like Perth,  It’s a city with presence, but balanced with an expansiveness that is perfectly suited to dreamers… (p.121)

That expansiveness is in part due to Perth being ‘one of the most sprawled (120km long) cities on earth.’  It’s a city very dependent on cars, and it’s a bit startling to read that

… to sustain an individual in Perth’s current housing stock ‘tales 14.5 hectares of land, seven times the world average.  Western Australians, Saudi Arabians and Singaporeans share the increasingly dishonourable status of being the most unsustainable people on  the planet. (p. 213)

It’s disconcerting to read about their rates of homelessness too, not that Melbourne has anything to be proud of on that issue either…

Another issue that would be interesting to contrast with Melbourne has to do with the obsession with sport:

Perth’s obsession with sport has literally shaped the character of the city.  Some eighty percent of all open spaces within the city limits are sporting grounds, which are in turn used by only five percent of the population on very rare occasions. (p.250)

I wonder if that’s true of Melbourne too?  The area where I live has countless sporting grounds, and our local council (like most others, probably) spends a vast amount of ratepayers’ money maintaining them and building infrastructure like stadiums, changing rooms, watering-systems and carparks, and as far as I can tell, there are never any complaints about this expenditure.  Indeed, when it comes to voting for community grants, sporting projects win every time over anything else.  As in Perth (with the exception of the golf courses because the wealthy play golf whenever they like) the majority of these sportsgrounds are play places for dogs during the week.  But they are certainly used at weekends.  Woe betide any pooch that strays onto a match in progress!

Perth Skyline by Dot Silbereisen

Perth made me realise that it’s been too long since I visited the most westerly of our cities. The book was published in 2013, and some places seem completely different to how I remember them.  Some lovely buildings have been lost from the CBD, and it’s changed the ambience.  You only need to look at a 1980s painting I have of the Perth skyline and the one on the cover of the book to see it; I suppose you’d see the same sort of changes in any modern city but Whish-Wilson suggests that Perth has been more rigorous in protecting its suburban sprawl from medium and higher-density housing than in conserving the lovely old sandstone buildings that I remember. This video shows some of historic buildings that have been lost, and their replacements.  Not all of them are awful, but I can see why some Perth residents rue the demolitions.

Perhaps it’s true, as one senior architect I spoke to about the Elizabeth Quay project remarked, that a consistent development narrative such as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, a response to and vision of the city in currency since the 1880s, with its implicit undertones of excellence and playfulness, might have made all the difference in Perth, too.  Large parts of other cities were sacked in the name of building capacity, of course, but the scars in Perth seem to be deeper, the memories perhaps longer. (p.273)

Hunting around online for more images, I came across a more optimistic perspective on Perth’s historic heart.  There’s an App that you can download to guide you through the historic precincts to do a Stadium Walk, an Architecture Walk and an Art Walk.  I have downloaded it for future use…

My memories of the light in Perth accord with the author’s:  it’s what I remember of Fremantle when our ship docked there en route to Melbourne, and it’s what I remember from winter-time visits to The Offspring when he was networking UWA’s library computers in the 1990s.  It’s what’s celebrated in Dot Silbereisen’s painting.

Whish-Wilson’s book is not a travel guide.  It’s a blend of memoir, history and literary reminiscence, and parts of it reminded me of T A G Hungerford’s Stories from Suburban Road (which I reviewed here).  There is the same nostalgia for a childhood that allowed freedom to roam: swimming, fishing, exploring derelict buildings, and all of it apparently without parental anxiety.  There is the same celebration of mothers who make do and yet enable a marvellous childhood; and there is the same evocation of a landscape qualitatively different from the concrete jungles of today.

The reader learns about a variety of Perth identities: Indigenous elders; early settlers; bushrangers and entrepreneurs.  Many writers get a mention, including Elizabeth Jolley, Stephen Kinnane, Robert Drewe, Amanda Curtin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Josephine Wilson, and of course Tim Winton.  There are also musicians and artists, but these allusions passed me by, because I didn’t know them.  (I did find myself wishing that there were images of the artworks and statues, but none of the books in this series seem to have illustrations.) Some readers may feel the same way about the allusions to unfamiliar books and authors.  The point is well made that until comparatively recently, Perth’s isolation meant that they relied on their own creatives for entertainment.  Because I’m not interested in popular culture, I don’t know if their artworks and musicians are known beyond WA, but their writers certainly are!

Author: David Whish-Wilson
Title: Perth
Publisher: New South City Series #9, New South Publishing, 2013, 292 pages
ISBN: 9781742233673
Source: Bayside Library

The City Series is available from Fishpond:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2019

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Yes, I know, everyone else read this book three years ago, and I’m only just reading it now that McEwan has another book out for us to enjoy.

The thing is, it has an unborn baby narrator, and my track record with oddball narrators (galahs, babies, dead people) isn’t great.  All of them have one thing in common and that is that they are helpless observers, fated to be unable to change the course of events.  And so it is in Nutshell, where the pregnant mother, Trudy, plots the murder of her husband, John, with his brother and her lover, Claude.  The unborn baby delivers a wide-ranging and often arch view of the rotten state of Denmark the world — taking pot-shots at everything from Islamic extremism to climate change and the US using torture, and he shows off his what he thinks is his erudite knowledge of literature and poetry, all gleaned not from reading, of course, but from podcasts, like many a faker who pretends to have read The Canon.  But he also, in considering his future, vacillates between love of one parent over another, and wanting vengeance for his father’s death but not wanting to pay the penalty himself.  Hamlet? Yes.  Credible? Hardly, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Nutshell is also a satire on the crime genre itself.  Even inexperienced readers of crime novels can see the flaws in the murder plot, and they are meant to.  The novel moves inexorably towards a dénouement that is always in plain sight.  The baby might think he has influenced events, but he is self-deluded, just like everyone else in the novel.  The perpetrators are not as smart as they think they are; and John with his efforts to make Trudy jealous is merely banal (like his poetry).

And just as McEwan skewered the newspaper industry, oh, waaay back with Amsterdam, in Nutshell, he satirises the contemporary obsession with what passes for news.  Baby’s rants are drawn from the scripts of Facebook and talk-back radio: scanty scraps of current affairs from a facile 24/7 news service, delivered as half-baked opinion.  Baby knows as much about Korea as the reader most commonly does: they have a bomb to scare us with, and they are Bad.  Baby’s shallow view of the world, his lack of agency, and his preoccupation with personal matters is ours too.

Nevertheless, the book is enjoyable and it has a satisfying ending.   Pure entertainment…

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it here and Kate from Books Are My Favourite and Best reviewed it here.

Author: Ian McEwan
Title: Nutshell
Publisher: Jonathan cape, 2016, 199 pages
ISBN: 9781911214335
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2019

Mother of Pearl, by Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a well-known literary identity in Melbourne: she’s Director of Writers Victoria, and she’s an award-winning writer of crime novels. Mother of Pearl, however, is a departure in genre, written as the creative component of her PhD thesis.  It’s a novel about commercial surrogacy in Thailand.

Readers might remember the grotesque story of an Australian sex-offender who had used commercial surrogacy in Thailand and then refused to take one of the resulting twins because the child had Down Syndrome.  Thailand has since banned commercial surrogacy (and so has Nepal and India) but that just means that agencies have debunked to Cambodia where surrogacy remains unregulated, and desperately poor Thai women are still travelling there to have embryos implanted.

So although Mother of Pearl is set in Thailand before commercial surrogacy was outlawed, the issues raised remain relevant today.  The novel explores the situation from the perspective of Meg, a Melbourne woman who has never come to terms with her infertility; her sister Anna who has spent her entire career as an aid worker trying to empower women in Southeast Asia; and the surrogate Mukda, a single mother who wants to improve the life chances of her son by earning the kind of money she could never otherwise earn.

Like an increasing number of us, I suppose, I’ve seen both sides of assisted reproductive technology, close up.  I’ve seen joy at the arrival of a longed-for baby, and I’ve seen the unresolved mental health issues caused by the promise of IVF as against its real success rates. These are now more transparent in Australia, but at best they’re around 35% for women under 30, and there’s always a gap between ‘clinical pregnancies’ and live births.  But it’s not so long ago that women were lured by false promises when the success rate was extremely low and the probability of a baby remained a dream for most who tried it.  And I’ve formed the view that the longer a woman persists with years of unsuccessful IVF the more likely it is that an obsession forms.

It’s that pathway that is followed by the character of Meg.  A chance encounter with a couple of gays and their new baby born through commercial surrogacy in Thailand is the trigger for her suppressed yearning to erupt into a new quest for a child.  And so begins the journey into what is an unfamiliar culture, a change in her relationship with her sister, and a steeliness about the transaction that will make some readers feel very uncomfortable.  Anna has to reconcile her professional concerns and her love for her sister, while the surrogate Mukda has to negotiate emotional burdens of her own.

I was interested to see that Savage also depicts the impact Meg’s childlessness has had on her friendships. :

She’d known Eleni, Simone and Michelle since school; and Annika since they studied gold-and silversmithing design together.  Perhaps it was her imagination, but Meg sensed the relief in the room was not all hers.  All four of friends had children […] Meg realised it had been a long time since her friends had talked about their kids in front of her.  She was grateful for their sensitivity, though it bothered her too, to think that they’d spent years tiptoeing around her.  (p.239)

What the author doesn’t show is the unreasonable rage that a childless women might feel when people aren’t sensitive.  Normal ‘water-cooler’ conversation about weekend family life can be interpreted as deliberate cruelty, when of course it’s not.

The book is written in three parts: Preconception; Gestation and Afterbirth, and although the reader feels fairly confident that a baby will be born, the narrative tension is maintained by the uncertainty that surrounds commercial transactions of this type.  Will it be healthy?  Will the birth mother hand over the baby?  Will the mother who has no genetic relationship with the baby bond with it?  However, I think it’s the ethical decisions that will engage readers most: the pressure that Meg puts on her loved ones to get what she wants; Anna’s angst about her role in facilitating something she feels uneasy about; and the implications of using women’s bodies within a culture where they have little power in the way of decision-making.

Reading group notes are available from Transit Lounge.  See also Surrogate, a Novel, by Australian author Tracy Crisp.

The striking cover design in by Peter Lo.

You might be interested to read Angela Savage’s post about switching genres here.

Author: Angela Savage
Title: Mother of Pearl
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 318 pages
ISBN: 9781925760354
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge or Fishpond: Mother of Pearl


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2019

The Kadaitcha Sung, by Sam Watson

The Kadaitcha Sung is a confronting book, and if I hadn’t declared my intention to read it when I announced the 2019 Indigenous Literature Week, I wouldn’t be drawing attention to it by reviewing it at this time.  My purpose in hosting Indigenous Literature Week every year since 2013 has been to celebrate Indigenous Writing with the aim of promoting reconciliation, but this book does nothing to further those aims.

In fact, I might not even have finished reading it. It’s a nasty book, full of vengeful violence, drunken brawls, racist hate-filled sprays, and brutal exploitative sex against women and gays.

So why then was it awarded the National Indigenous Writer of the Year award in 1991? Why would anyone give such an award to a book that depicts Indigenous people in a way calculated to cause disgust and reinforce negative stereotypes?

The only interpretation I can come up with is that the novel is an allegory for the violence visited on Indigenous people since colonisation.  The horrific way that rape is depicted can be seen as a metaphor for the way White people have treated Indigenous people as objects and discarded them afterwards.  But whatever the author’s intent, the Black characters’ violent treatment of women, both Black and White, is highly problematic and revolting to read, as are the gratuitous details of sadistic homosexual rape by and on characters both Black and White.  Sex as an instrument of power is an ugly thing in any context and the very rare instances of tenderness in this book are mercilessly quashed by the demands of destiny in the plot.

Black on Black male violence is equally problematic.  The vengeance visited on Booka Roth, which is the driving focus of the plot, seems to be a metaphor for the punishment due to Indigenous people who were complicit in the settlement of Australia, people who in a different context would be called quislings.  While The Kadaitcha Sung is an angry book, explicit in its characters’ hatred of White Australians, who are expressly stated to deserve any violence inflicted on them, most (though not all) of the violence is between Blacks.

However I am bereft of ideas to interpret a scene in which a brawl erupts because a cabbie refuses service to a drunken Aboriginal woman who has previously lost control of her bowels and vomited all over his taxi.  This episode only reinforces negative stereotypes.

The book begins with a cosmological myth: I don’t have the resources to know if this is the author’s creation or an authentic myth.  It might be an amalgam of several myths, as the myth underlying the ABC’s Cleverman series apparently was.  Whether authentic or a work of imagination, this prologue features ancestral beings in the kind of power struggle common to ancient myths from around the world, culminating in twin brothers Koobara and Booka vying for a father’s favour and the role of Kadaitcha Man, dispenser of retributive justice and armed with the power of life and death. The rejected one takes up a satanic role in the world, while the supreme being Biamee, unable to act, looks on from afar.  Koobara appears from the prologue to have been vanquished, but unknown to Booka he has fathered a son by a white woman.  This son, Tommy, despite his alienation from his own culture, is destined to become the new Kadaitcha man once he is initiated.

By the time the novel begins in late 20th century Brisbane, Booka’s concept of payback against his own people means that over the centuries since First Contact, he has formed an unholy alliance with the infamous Native Mounted Police, and is directly complicit in the dispossession of Indigenous people in general and massacres in particular. So, just as Booka believes that he is entitled to extract vengeance from those he thinks have wronged him, Tommy, heir of the Kadaitcha man, is commissioned by the ancestral spirits to kill Booka.  To do this Tommy has magical powers, the assistance of a mentor called Ningi, and a priapic death spirit called Junjurrie.  Oh yes, and there’s a set of Kundrie stones which confer power, and Tommy has to retrieve the eighth one from Booka in order to restore powers to Biamee. (In that respect the skeleton elements of this avenger plot seem to follow a Superhero movie script. But Superhero movies are all based on simple binaries from ancient myths about Good v Evil anyway.)

As with books featuring magic realism, the reader has to suspend disbelief every time manifestations of magic occur in the otherwise brutal realism of the plot.  The reader also has to buy into the underlying theme of vengeance as a legitimate driving force for behaviour, and is confronted by the idea that innocent individuals can be marked for death because of the sins of their fathers before they were born. Thus every migloo (White person) is guilty and deserves punishment; any theft is justified because the migloo stole the land; and Black Australians don’t have to recognise White Law because White Australians don’t recognise Black Law. The ‘logic’ of this point of view is expressed by contrasting the capital punishment meted out by a court of law to Bulley for the murder of one White policeman, while the murder of hundreds of Black men, women and children in numerous massacres has gone unpunished.

(Assuming that I have interpreted things as the author intended), I am not sure that all readers will recognise the book as an allegory.  In fact, I doubt if many would persist in reading The Kadaitcha Sung.  I think it’s been written to be horrific because what has happened to Indigenous Australians is horrific, and perhaps Watson felt that readers should know more about the reeking truth of it.  Maybe Watson just couldn’t contain his anger and frustration about the denial of Australia’s Black History and wanted to shock people into recognising it.  Nevertheless I regret that I spent $50 on a hate-filled book that was (for good reasons IMO) out of print and hard to find.

OTOH it would be fascinating to know the inside story of Penguin’s decision to bring it to publication, eh?

You can download a review by Maureen Fuary in the Australian Aboriginal Studies journal (1993, no 2) here. She expresses similar concerns to mine, but recognises the book’s importance.  We part company when she writes that it cannot be dismissed by not reading it.  Indigenous people have every right to be angry about past and present wrongs, but I can’t see any merit in advocating retaliatory racism, hatred and violence, because that offers no solace, no way forward and no hope. To me, The Kadaitcha Sung seems like the literary equivalent of ‘hate speech’.  (It’s for that reason that I haven’t quoted anything to back up my interpretations: I don’t want to offer any means of spreading Watson’s words to extremist groups and the like).

I have, as always, shared my honest response in this review of the book, but I’m aware that as a non-Indigenous person, some might say that I have no right to pass judgement on it in the way that I have.  My response to that could be that I’ve read a great deal of Indigenous literature, but never encountered anything as unpleasant as this novel.  However, I’m open to hosting an Indigenous review of the book, (subject to the review meeting my style guidelines and family-friendly language because this blog is recommended as a resource in many school libraries).  Use the Contact form on the About page if that’s what you’d like to do.

PS Thanks to Titian at Kingston Library, — whose help was above and beyond the call of duty when the reference book I needed was out on loan — I have been able to check the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter) to see if The Kadaitcha Sung is included in it.   Titian enabled me to access a digital version of the relevant page.  An excerpt from the prologue for The Kadaitcha Sung is in the anthology, with a profile of the author, but there is no commentary about the novel to guide its interpretation or explain its significance.

Author: Sam Watson
Title: The Kadaitcha Sung
Publisher: Penguin, 1990, 312 pages
ISBN: 9780140111729
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Grisly Wife, $50.00

Availability: out of print.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2019

The Yield, by Tara June Winch

I liked this absorbing book so much, as soon as I’d finished it, I read it all over again. There is so much to discover within its pages!

The Yield is the long-awaited second novel of Wiradjuri woman Tara June Winch who transfixed the Australian literary scene with her first novel Swallow the Air in 2006 (see my review) and followed that up in 2016 with an impressive short story collection called After the Carnage (see my review). That collection had an international perspective (Winch now lives and works in France), but The Yield is unmistakeably Australian.

This is the blurb:

Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind.

August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.

The central motif that threads all through is the missing:  missing people; missing history; missing documentation; a missing dictionary, missing artefacts and other memorabilia; and a missing language.  But the people who are missing are not from the Stolen Generations; they are missing because of dysfunctional modern life, which is a consequence not just of the Stolen Generations but also because of the other things that are missing in their lives: safety and protection; a secure family life; respect and fairness, and the opportunity to thrive and prosper without having to leave their community.  Their stories are told through three distinctive narratives: August Gondiwindi in the present day; Reverend Greenleaf’s anguished letters to the British Society of Ethnography in 1915; and Poppy Gondiwindi’s missing dictionary.  While the reader knows the content of the letters and the diary, August does not, which gives the novel its narrative tension because she needs that information to stave off the looming second dispossession.

Reverend Greenleaf is the German missionary who set up the Prosperous mission.  Winch charts both his paternalistic ambitions, and the violence he witnesses against the Indigenous people by frontier townsfolk.  Writing in 1915, he has fallen from grace, so to speak, from being a missionary whose role commands respect even from people who don’t like his (paternalistic) protection of the Wiradjuri, to being an outsider himself, a victim of anti-German sentiment as an enemy alien during WW1.

Poppy’s dictionary, which is his attempt to rescue his endangered language Wiradjuri, may not sound like an engaging way of storytelling.  But it is, and the best way I can explain how it works is with an example.  Each week in my French class, we talk about something we’ve done during the week, and in one of my accounts I mentioned Bunnings.  ‘What is Bunnings?’ asked our recently arrived French teacher.  ‘A hardware store’, someone answered.  But that’s not enough to explain how Bunnings is part of the cultural fabric of suburban Melbourne, like Myer is to the CBD.  So we explained how it’s a chain of mega-stores, about its sausage sizzles and DIY classes, and how families and DIY aficionados jostle with tradies in the aisles. (Update 14/7/19, I’ve just thought of this: there is also Bunnings’ more dubious history of ‘dispossessing’ family owned hardware stores.  The chain’s huge footprint simply obliterated any local competition by ruthlessly undercutting prices, making it impossible for competitors to survive).

There are so many elegant examples of this expansion of the idea of a dictionary, that it’s hard to choose.  Poppy begins the book like this:

I was born on Ngurambang — can you hear it? — Ngu-ram-bang.  If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words.  Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language — because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.  (p.1)

But on page 33, we learn how to say

where is your country? — dhaganhu ngurambang The question is not really about a place on a map. When our people say Where is your country? they are asking something deeper.  Who is your family? Who are you related to?  Are we related? (p.34)

On page 103, we learn not just the Wiradjuri word for the Southern Cross, but how the children learned:

star constellation the Southern Cross — gibirrgan Sometimes only the women would come and collect me and we’d go and sit by the fire at the riverbank.  They taught me how to count up to a thousand by counting the stars.  First we’d start at the less bright ones, I’d count along my toes, count with each joint in my legs, then the brighter, those I’d count with my arms, elbows, fingers, then the brightest with my face, tap tap tap on my nose, eyes, chin and ear all night.  The brightest stars were gibirrgan — the constellation of the Southern Cross, which features on this country’s flag — it’s made of five bright stars almost in a cross shape.  The woman told me the story of gibirrgan once, and they’d begin the story with ‘When the world was young.’

Poppy’s dictionary isn’t just an old man’s memories.  It’s from this diary that we deduce what happened to Jedda, and we learn that his wife Elsie was no pushover.

rib — dharrar In the Book of Genesis  2:18-22 it says that woman was made from man’s rib.  Elsie said, ‘That’s a load of b—s—. ‘  I laughed. […] Anytime we argued in our marriage, she’d scream and point to her side, ‘I’m not your dharrar!  You want a dharrar, get to the butcher!’ It’s a good insult that one, I hope we taught the girls that — not to be anyone’s rib. (p.106)

Names are significant in this novel: beyond the obvious allusions in the (fictional) place names of the Prosperous Mission and Massacre Plains, and the droll barb behind the Rinepalm Mining Company, there are also significances in the names of people.  Rev Greenleaf who anglicised his German name is painfully naïve; August’s missing sister Jedda has the name of a 1955 film whose plot involves taboos (and is indirectly referenced in Poppy’s dictionary entry for ngurrungarra (which means lust after, passionate).  August herself is anything but venerable and eminent. She has been away in London for a decade, but has returned more painfully confused and disorientated than ever.  She has been missing to her family; but although she is physically present in their lives, she is still psychologically absent.

‘Maybe I just feel weird, I don’t know.  Stuff changes.  I feel as I’m just floating through life or something.  Like my whole life I haven’t really been me.’ (p. 143)

She also realises that her absence has led to further losses:

She’d never heard Poppy talk politics before, but he’d been talking about Native Title with Joey; it was as if she’d missed out on a version of him.’ (p.143)

(I felt exactly the same way when I met professional colleagues of my father at his funeral.  A different version of someone I thought I knew intimately).

The significance of the brolgas on the cover?  It’s an inspired choice by designer Adam Laszczuk. Poppy’s dictionary mentions many birds, sometimes telling their creation story, and other times explaining their behaviour and relating it to the behaviour of humans (e.g. the aggressive attacks by plovers and magpies).  But at Poppy’s smoking ceremony it is a lone brolga that holds them all transfixed:

 [August] spied the lone bird at the edge of the dam, dancing, as did her nana, who stopped moving when she noticed. It was as if the bird were coming towards the fire.  Everyone else was looking too.

It was a brolga.

A few family members pointed in the direction of the dam where the red bonnet of the brolga rose and fell, and its white and blue-grey feathers opened and collapsed. At the edge of the water, with its stick-thin, sinewy legs and dipping knees, it danced.  It flapped its wings, showing its black underside.  When it bowed its head August thought she could see its yellow eye.  It had a trumpet call, its caw rising, rising.  Then its beak dipped right down to the ground — and up, up its wings went, the long body of he bird rose, its legs cycling in the air before it fell again.  As the brolga hit the ground, a wing, then the other, whooshed into the smoke blowing in the field.  One leg up, and then the other leg joined so that the brolga was airborne for a moment, and then as its body, atoms, molecules joined the ground its head rose up with the billow of dust, rising.  Over and over, the brolga repeated the dance.  There was music.  Everyone was still, watching — seeing suddenly not the freedom of the bird, but its belonging.  (p.163)

The sound track on this video is annoying, but the video is the best of those I could find:

I’ll conclude with Poppy’s definition of murru:

marks or tracks, impressions of passing objects — murru This is the tracks the snakes, the goanna, the birds and us make as we crisscross the world.  We all leave murru behind, so leave a gentle one. (p.128)

The Yield is a wonderful book.  Highly recommended.

Author: Tara June Winch, A Wiradjuri woman who now lives in France
Title: The Yield
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 342 pages
ISBN: 9780143785750
Review copy courtesy of Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond The Yield, and good bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2019

The Uncle’s Story, by Witi Ihimaera

The Uncle’s Story (2000) is a mid-career novel from Witi Ihimaera, New Zealand’s best-known Māori author because of the popularity of The Whale Rider (1987) which was made into a film. (See my review of the novella). He has sixteen novels to his credit, including Bulibasha (1994) which I reviewed here.  As the NZ Book Council’s website explains, although his intentions have changed over time, he is an author who writes about ‘the emotional landscape of the Māori people’, and their political and social reality.

The Uncle’s Story confronts the awkward truth of Māori hostility to same-sex relationships.  Ihimaera came out explicitly in 1996 with Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which (I gather from Goodreads reviews) is set in New Zealand and is a raunchy novel about reconciling sexuality with family. The Uncle’s Story traces the same issues, but it explores the story of Sam Mahana, whose existence has been excised from the family because he came out as gay.  Decades later his nephew Michael finds out about Sam when he too refuses to conceal his sexual identity and comes out to his family — and is also exiled from his community because of it.

Obviously things have changed in New Zealand because they legislated for same-sex marriage in 2013, well before Australia did.  But this novel tells a story of the not-so-recent past, when Sam was tied to a fence and flogged by his own father, and was refused burial in the marae (One thing readers need to note is that Ihimaera makes no concessions with Māori terminology or language.  Either you read it with Google Translate at hand* or you just press on without knowing what is meant in some parts.) The marae is a the communal meeting place used for sacred and social purposes in Māori communities (and elsewhere throughout Polynesia).  Entry is by invitation, and there are traditional rituals to usher visitors and family members into it. Sam’s father Arapeta is the hyper-masculine patriarch, his word on all matters is law, and he enforces it with brutal violence.  When he says that there are no gay Māoris, no one dares argue until his grandson Michael forces the family to confront the issue.

Michael tells his story in the present, in first person narrative.  Sam’s story is told through the journal that Auntie Pat has kept hidden for decades.  It reveals the story of his relationship with an American helicopter pilot called Cliff Harper, and the scenes of jungle warfare in Vietnam are every bit as confronting as you might expect.  In Vietnam in 2007 I saw the Cu Chi tunnels and the Vietnamese booby traps designed to main but not to kill, and Ihimaera does not spare the reader the horror of this grotesque war. It’s obvious from various scenes that his intention is to force an inclusive redefinition of masculinity.  Cliff and Sam are every bit as brave and heroic as any other man.

Michael’s courage is of a different order.  Emerging from a disastrous relationship with Jason, and dismissed from his family entirely, he embarks on a more political role through his consultancy work with the Arts Council.  In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, he sees it as crucial that Māoris recognise the existence of gays among them instead of denying their existence.  And he recognises that this cruel silence is common to other First Nations as well. In America at a First Nations conference, he tackles the denial, but he also gets the opportunity to seek out Cliff Harper so that he can explain the true story about the end of his relationship with Sam… however, #NoSpoilers things don’t go as he expects.

Most modern societies now enable same-sex couples to have children through assisted reproduction, but The Uncle’s Story doesn’t offer that resolution.  Instead, what is proposed is a bi-sexual alliance with Michael’s longstanding friend Roimata, a strong and decisive character who can enable him to continue his all-important whakapapa (genealogical line) because she will marry him and bear his children while accepting his sexuality. Perhaps to some that’s an acceptable solution during a transitional period of attitudinal change, but it still denies same-sex couples the right to the companionship and security of living together and making a family with the one you really love.

Whatever about that, what the novel clearly shows is the loneliness of people who are excluded from their own communities by rigid traditions.  Most of us need the love and support of our family and friends when an important relationship fails.  None of the gay characters have this support, and Auntie Pat lives with a huge burden of guilt all her life because of a childhood impulse based on something she didn’t understand but could never confess.  The Uncle’s Story is a powerful novel that I won’t forget.

Highly recommended.

Witi Ihimaera is descended from Te Aitanga A Mahaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngati Porou tribes, with close affiliations with other Maori tribes.

* Even with Google Translate, one can get risible results.  These are the last lines of the book, and they follow Michael’s solemn promise to Sam that he will always tell his story:

… I will tell your story to everyone I meet, whether they want to hear it or not. I will tell them how you loved a man and how wonderful that love was. With that love I will bind the outer framework of the world with the inner framework.

I have realised, Uncle Sam, that the telling of our stories will bring a location and a history to the world that we build.  We who are gay and lesbian must fix the stories with firmness and solder their knots with purpose so that they become part of the narratives — the foundations, walls and roof — all people tell about each other.  We must speak our stories, we must enact them, we must sing our songs throughout this hostile universe. We must bring a new promise to life and a new music to the impulse of history. (p. 371)

Tuia i runga, tuia i raro
Tuia i roto, tuia i waho
Tuia i te here tangata ka rongo te Ao
Ka rongo te Po
Tuia. Tuia

Click on it, click it down
Dig in, print out
Put on the human love that the world hears
Night will hear
Tuia. Tuia

I’d love to know how this lament should be properly translated.

Author: Witi Ihimaera
Title: The Uncle’s Story
Publisher: Penguin, 2000, 373 pages
ISBN: 9780143018988
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Uncle’s Story


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2019

Rare Book Week 2019: Legal Luminaries and their Libraries

Our last event for Rare Book Week was held today at the Victorian Supreme Court library.  The train from Sandringham was running, the rain gods spared us, and the library (as you’d expect, given the ubiquitous lawyers in Melbourne’s legal precinct), was conveniently close to nice places for lunch.

Victorian Supreme Court exterior (Wikipedia)

The building is both beautiful and suitably impressive. Built between 1874 and 1884, in Renaissance Revival style and faced in Tasmanian bluestone, the building consists of a square enclosing a circular courtyard, with the eight courts within the wings.  I have been in one of these courts when I was on a jury, and a very sombre space it is indeed.

Supreme Court Library reading room (see attribution below)

The Supreme Court Library is underneath the dome.  It’s a stunning room, with an decagonal reading room table similar to the one in the State Library reading room, with the library stacks in recesses leading off the side walls.  Between the wings there are portraits of assorted legal big wigs most of whom appeared to be long dead and gone — with the exception of the rather incongruous one of the first female supreme court judge, the Honourable Marilyn Warren AC.  (Incongruous, I hasten to say, not because she’s a woman, but because of the modern style of painting, and the others are all bewigged and robed in red). The other exceptions were a fine portrait of the first Chief Librarian, John Schutt (whose name *smacks forehead* I forgot to note) and one of William Barak (1824-1903), included because he was a prominent figure in the struggle for Aboriginal rights and justice.  As the factsheet tells us:

… the portrait holds pride of place among the Court’s past and present Chief Justices — a fitting tribute to a man considered as the last Chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe.

Victorian Coat of Arms (Wikipedia*)

The dome and balcony (Photo: The Spouse)

I have consulted my copy of How to Read Buildings, a Crash Course in Architecture by Carol Davidson Cragoe (2008) but I can’t find the proper term for round windows in a dome, but these ones are painted glass.  We were told that (since the building predates Federation) the coats of arms are not the Australian one [with its IMO dopey kangaroo and emu] but the Victorian coat of arms, which we could not really see so high up but from below looked suitably dignified.  I now regret Googling to see what it actually looks like. If we ever get round to having a republic, and a nice new flag, perhaps we could then turn our attention to our soppy coats of arms.  I am all for cherishing history and all that but really, someone was having a laugh at colonial pretensions when these coats of arms were designed.

Yes, I digress…

On display there were also exhibits of interest to feminists everywhere.  It is 50 years since the landmark 1969 Menhennit ruling on the legality of abortion in Victoria, which was the first legal precedent with regard to abortion law anywhere in Australia.  The ruling in R v  Davidson stated that abortion might be lawful if necessary to protect the physical or mental health of the woman. The cabinet contained Justice Menhennit’s notebook from the trial, and reactions to it from the time.

BTW that’s not Justice Menhennit in the portrait, that’s Sir Henry Arthur Winneke who was a Chief Justice of Victoria and the 21st Governor of Victoria from 1974 to 1982.  He presided in some notable cases too.

Justice Joanne Cameron was the first speaker, and she spoke about how she owes her love of the American poet Emily Dickinson to a school librarian.  If you saw the recent film and/or have read Dickenson’s poetry, this was familiar territory, but she shared with us ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz’ and ‘I Could Not Stop For Death’ as examples of Dickenson’s innovative style which was ‘a world away’ from ‘the heaving bodices of Wuthering Heights’ and the US Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman.

Tim McFarlane (from McFarlane Legal, a firm that specialises in mediation) was next to speak, and charmed us immediately by confessing that he was not just a bibliophile but also a bibliomaniac and a sore trial to his family because of the books all over the house. He likened his collection to the Golden Days Radio station playlist, with a bit of everything: biographies and autobiographies, books about trains and explorers, legal histories and so on.  He started off by showing us a prized copy of Biggles, a collection which he says he started as an inducement to an offspring who was a reluctant reader.  The tales of derring-do were a great success, and his son is now a keen reader as well.

McFarlane became fascinated by St Thomas More since he was nine years old.  (Yes, St Thomas More as in A Man for All Seasons, which many of us read at school and also saw as a film.)  Someone gave him a copy of St Thomas More by Elizabeth Ince, and he now has 50 books about him including a rare 1840 edition by W. Job Walter.  (He confessed to not having read them all, but plans to do so in retirement).  His fascination with More extends to having visited the cell in the Tower of London from which More was executed, not an easy excursion to arrange because it’s in a part of the Tower not open to the public.

Voss (1957), dust jacket designed by Sidney Nolan

The next slide was of a first edition of Patrick White’s Voss. Yes! McFarlane also collects first editions of Miles Franklin winners, just like I do, only *pout* he’s got all of them, even the elusive Dal Steven’s Horse of Air which I could only read as a tatty old paperback on loan from a regional library. Apparently he belongs to an all-male book club, (whose members have threatened to expel him if he ‘outs them’) and (like my optometrist, who also belongs to an all-make book club) they take turns to choose a book.  Many of their choices have been MF winners, and he has a high opinion of Oz Lit.  (Well, we bonded straight away, of course!)  BTW he likes the art work on the first editions because they are works of art in themselves.  True, though not recently, alas.

Our last speaker was the Chief Librarian, Laurie Atkinson, who told us all about the Classics Collection.  These books were primarily donated by Sir Redmond Barry and are a gentleman’s collection imported from London.  With great ceremony a selection of these were brought downstairs in a red velvet bag, and we were treated to a slide show of special pages from

  • Leaves from the journal Our Life in the Highlands, which was a gift from Queen Vic herself and suitably inscribed in her own hand.  Apparently she was persuaded to publish these journals of her travels in Scotland, England and Ireland and her yachting trips, and she kindly distributed them widely including to our Supreme Court Library.  Yes, there are scholarly books about how heavily edited these journals were, but hey! it doesn’t take much imagination to guess that any negative opinions about the Scots or the Irish would have been very promptly excised, eh?
  • Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. This, unlike most of the books in the Classics Collection, shows signs of being very well read.  Make of that what you will!
  • Byron’s Poetical Works, complete with the bookseller’s stamp: it’s from Guillaime’s, a Colonial Bookseller in London.
  • Volume 1 of the Complete Works of Voltaire – a gorgeous edition with #envy beautiful illustrations.
  • A Handbook to England’s Cathedrals, a sort of travel companion, with the library’s Rules glued inside the front cover.  (You can see an example of this in my slide show below). Ms Atkinson had us all laughing when she said that the first thing librarians do when they get a new book is to ‘mutilate it’ with stamps, and accession numbers, and yes, rules.  (Which apply, BTW only to men, since it was assumed that only men would be using the books.  Women can do whatever they like with them!)
  • The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter.  It wasn’t actually a ‘trial’, it was a parliamentary debate about whether George IV could divorce her or not. (He was not the mad one, that was George III). Unlike most of the books in the Classic Collection, this one is actually a law book.  And so was the next one, a more sobering choice:
  • The Trial of German Major War Criminals 1945, which is a collection of speeches from the Chief Prosecutors.

The last book was a bound catalogue of the Supreme Court Library.  It contains a list of all the books (of course) but also a list of all members of the legal profession, including where they came from, e.g. from the Inns of Court in London.  I wonder if family historians know about this treasure trove of information?

We were then invited to take a look at the Classic Collection, up a spiral staircase on the first floor.

Image credits:


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 12, 2019

Ned and Katina, by Patricia Grace

Patricia Grace DCNZM QSO (b. 1937) is a significant Māori writer of novels, short stories, and children’s books and her work has won multiple awards and is widely translated. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand tells us that she is:

… of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent, and is affiliated to Ngati Porou by marriage. She has gained wide recognition as a key figure in the emergence of Māori fiction in English since the 1970s. Her work, expressive of Māori consciousness and values, is distinguished also for the variety of Māori people and ways of life it portrays and for its resourceful versatility of style and narrative and descriptive technique.

In 1975 she published Waiariki, the first collection of short stories by a Māori woman writer, and in 1978 she followed that with one of the first Māori novels, Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps. Wikipedia lists the novels that followed as

But the inclusion of Ned and Katina as a novel is an error.  It’s not a novel, it’s a double-biography, and it’s not even a work of creative non-fiction using imagination to fill in the gaps.  Much as I have enjoyed all of her other books, this one is a bit of a disappointment.  The book was commissioned by the sons of Ned and Katina, who met when he was on active service on Crete in WW2 and she was a village school teacher in a place that made heroic efforts to protect allied servicemen from the Nazi Occupation.  But the book suffers, in my opinion, from the uneven focus on the two protagonists.

What soon becomes apparent is that despite an abundance of letters, photographs, voice and video recordings, interviews, log books, articles and memorabilia, Katina’s voice is mute.  The book primarily focusses on Ned’s Māori family history; his service in a Māori battalion and its cultural mores*; his service history including being separated from his unit; his time on Crete evading capture but finally being taken as a POW; his repatriation to England due to injury; and the anguish of his unanswered letters to Katina back on Crete.  There is background about her family, and village life, and the dangers faced by villagers supporting the allies, but almost none of this is in Katina’s words, and very little of it is from her personal perspective.

And when the couple are finally reunited, and Ned brings Katina to New Zealand as his bride, we learn nothing about how she coped with the cultural shock, with not knowing the language, or how she felt about being so far from her family, or how she made friends of her own outside the Nathan family.  Mindful of Eleanor Limprecht’s thoughtful novel The Passengers (see my review) which told the story of an Australian war bride in the US, I was expecting Ned and Katina to capture something of Katina’s emotional experience.  It’s frustrating not to know whether this is because of Katina self-censoring her feelings, or if the adult sons or other family members have in any way suppressed content that would have detracted from the family narrative of a great love story.

In the Introduction we see an admission that hints at the possibility that Grace may not have had permission to tell the whole story:

All told, the writing of Ned and Katina has been a group effort—quite a different experience for me from flying solo on fiction. For the first time I was writing a story I did not own. It was new, challenging, a shared adventure. (p.11)

Is there any significance to the fact that so far, it’s an experiment that Grace hasn’t repeated?

Ned and Katina is a story of great heroism and accomplishment, and it tells the story of a little known aspect of WW2, but the story fails to engage.

Clark Issacs at the Otago Daily Times was more impressed than I was.

* The cultural mores of Māori servicemen as detailed in this book make an interesting contrast with the Indigenous servicemen in Australia.  Our Mob Served (which I reviewed for Indigenous Literature Week 2019) is a collection of oral testimony from Indigenous men and women who served in Australian Defence Forces, from the Boer War onwards.  Where Māori served together in the same Battalion, insisting on elaborate farewell and returning ceremonies as well as distinctive protocols for bring the dead home, Indigenous Australian service personnel were integrated into regular units and appear from the testimonies to have valued the opportunity to be treated the same as any other Australians.  (Which was not generally their experience in civilian life, either before or after their service.)

Author: Patricia Grace
Title: Ned and Katina, a true love story
Publisher: Penguin Books, New Zealand 2009
ISBN: 9780143007401
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2019

Rare Book Week 2019: Medieval and Early Modern Marginalia

Sue from Whispering Gums and I have faced off many a time over the issue of marginalia: she does, and I don’t — but *chuckle* she would have won hands down today because this morning’s Rare Book Week event about marginalia was fascinating:)

The event was presented by Dr Anna Welch from the State Library of Victoria, and what she showed us was that marginalia is much more than jotting down a few thoughts on the sides of a page.  Some marginalia helps to establish the provenance of a book, while other examples offer commentaries on the text, and not always serious commentary at that…

In the back of a beautiful 17th century book bound in vellum there was some droll doggerel about St George and his dragon, while in a book called Egypt and the Pyramids (1814) by the scholar who decoded the Rosetta stone, someone who was ‘showing off’ added commentary not just in English and Ancient Greek – but also in hieroglyphs.  Then there was the terse comment in a 1599 English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which simply said that ‘Hanbury is Machiavellis – scrape-tongue.’  If only we could know who Hanbury was!

And similarly intriguing is the case of the library’s first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726): as many will know the book was published naming (the imaginary) Gulliver as the author, though of course his contemporaries knew that the real author was Jonathan Swift.  Inside the book there is a ‘portrait of Gulliver’ and on the reverse side, it’s annotated ‘Gulliver himself’.  Is the portrait really of Swift? Have a look at the Charles Jervis portrait of Swift (1710) and see what you think.

Then there were examples of marginalia as censorship.  In the library’s 2nd edition copy of Copernicus De Revolutionibus, you can see the Inquisition’s censorship of the bits they didn’t like.  They didn’t ban the whole book, they just redacted parts that they thought were heretical.  They used some kind of ink which has deteriorated so it looks as if they’ve actually cut chunks out of the text, which is a pity because with today’s technology we’d probably be able to read the original.  Petrarch fared better: his prohibited poem mocking the Avignon papacy is simply annotated with a cross and the word ‘prohibiti’ to warn people off.  It was up to the reader to decide whether to risk the flames of hell or not!

Occasionally, marginalia is an accident.  An inky fingerprint in A devoute treatise in Englysshe, published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1531 reminds us of the human element in the making of books, back in the days when each one was hand written, not printed.

Then there are children’s doodles.  The academy of eloquence (1670) was a schoolboy’s textbook, and some time in the 19th century some lads amused themselves in a dull lesson by inscribing their names on the back page.  Terence’s Comedies (1585) is lavishly illustrated by a lad who preferred to draw than learn his Latin.  And a young lady called Ann Mansell decided to practise her penmanship and to draft a letter in her father’s copy of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1627). Imagine what he might have said when he saw it!

Sometimes, marginalia is just a case of re-using paper in an era when it was very costly.  There are drawings throughout a 16th century copy of the Life of Benedict of Nursia: some of them are really impressive. And sometimes it’s just a bit of ribald poetry or a heartfelt reflection, as in the case of a book annotated in Latin, which translated means I sought rest, and found it nowhere, unless I was in a little nook with a book. 

But most impressive is the kind of 15th century medieval marginalia that we associate with illuminated manuscripts.  The library has a good collection of these, many of which were on display some years ago when they held an exhibition called The Medieval Imagination. (The book at left is the catalogue; apparently it’s now out of print so my copy is a bit of a treasure, eh?) Dr Welch showed us a leaf exquisitely preserved in the flyleaf of the Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, (1495) and there were many examples of drolleries, faces, and coats of arms in the borders and decorative elements of a Pontifical from Paris  c 1500-25, and a Book of Hours from the Southern Netherlands c 1490.

Sue, you will be pleased to learn that marginalia is now studied as an artform, and we were referred to a text titled From the Books, State Library of Victoria, Redmond Barry Reading Room 000-999, which is the result of some research done in 2016.

Plants found in New Holland (Dampier)

In the afternoon I went to a session called Rakish Plundering or Scientific Enquiry, but it was a bit of a disappointment.  From the title and the blurb I was expecting an examination of the career of William Dampier, who was an explorer, navigator and naturalist but also a buccaneer.  (Some readers might remember my enthusiastic review of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell).  I had assumed that we would see something of his account of his expedition along the coast of Western Australia, A Voyage to New Holland in 1703, and an evaluation of his contribution to cartography and natural science. That’s not quite how it worked out.  But the rest of the audience seemed happy enough, and it was interesting to see some of the very old maps from the library’s collection.

Tomorrow we investigate the law library in the Supreme Court.  I hate to think what Melbourne’s transport system has in store for us then!

Update, the next day: I had a lovely email today from Anne Welch, and she suggests that I should remind readers that you can always see medieval books on display in the library’s World of the Book exhibition, most of which feature marginalia.  It’s good advice, because tourists — both local and international — often don’t realise that Melbourne’s cultural institutions have remarkable collections equal to the great museums of the world due to there being so much money sloshing around here because of the Gold Rush.  In those days extravagantly wealthy people regarded philanthropy as a public good, and the institutions that they built and the cultural trusts that they set up benefit us still.

Image credits:


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2019

On Identity, by Stan Grant (Little Books on Big Ideas)

Stan Grant’s contribution to the Melbourne University Press Little Books on Big Ideas series is called On Identity.  I’ve read a few others in the series: David Malouf’s On Experience; Susan Johnson’s On Beauty; Germaine Greer’s On Rape; Paul Daley’s On Patriotism and On Fairness by Sally McManus.  I like these books: one can read them in an hour but they deliver ideas to think about for a lot longer than that.

Not so long ago, Sue at Whispering Gums reported on Mark Kenny in conversation with Stan Grant and that was why I pounced on this book as soon as I saw it in The Bookshop at Queenscliff. (I was in too much bother with a whiplash injury to do a blog post about that: it will have to suffice to say that I had a lovely time at Bloomsday and many thanks to the bookshop for putting it on.)

This is the blurb for On Identity:

Stan Grant asks why when it comes to identity he is asked to choose between black and white. Is identity a myth? A constructed story we tell ourselves? Tribalism, nationalism and sectarianism are dividing the world into us and them. Communities are a tinderbox of anger and resentment. He passionately hopes we are not hard wired for hate. Grant argues that it is time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. On Identity is a meditation on hope and community.

Grant takes issue with identity politics because it has become a battleground.  It holds the battle for power, our politics or ideology, our faith or our atheism, all our love and hate.  In that space we become strangers, even strangers to ourselves. 

James Ley comments on the same problem in his review of Nam Le’s On David Malouf (from the Writers on Writers series published by Black Inc). Discussing the issue of authors and critics having to choose whether identity is relevant or not to the author’s work, he writes:

In this apparent double-bind resides a difficulty for author and critic alike. Ideally, such questions [of identity] should be seen as neither determining nor irrelevant. But in practice they can be treacherous to negotiate. In the decade since The Boat was published, the cultural politics around these issues has only become more fraught. The communal realm of culture appears increasingly balkanised; protocols around literary representation have sharpened; the discussion of art is frequently couched in proprietorial terms. Identity and personal experience are often taken to be authoritative, the only valid means by which we might assess a text’s value and legitimacy. (Above cultural constraints: Nam Le on David Malouf, by James Ley, SMH, May 3, 2019)

Stan Grant feels that he would not need to tackle identity as an issue in a perfect world, but identity has been foisted on him.  He is a self-identified Indigenous Australian who counts himself among the Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharrawal and Irish, and it’s important to him that his identities embrace all and exclude none.  This is only partly because he could never choose what he wanted to be: he was labelled with names such as ‘Aborigine, half-caste, Aboriginal, Indigenous, and other labels he won’t dignify by repeating them.  Official names for people like him have over time determined their destiny: in his own family a great aunt was taken from her family because she was a ‘half-caste’.  At other times in Australian history being ‘black’ meant that life or death was chosen by others.   And yet, as he says, as for so many other Indigenous Australians, to be born black meant always having to explain myself, because I wasn’t really black at all.  If I am the sum of genes, I’m as white as I am black.  

[Readers will remember Anita Heiss’s powerful Am I Black Enough For You written after her Aboriginality was questioned.]

Grant admits that as a young man, he looked away from everything that was not Aboriginal, but then (quoting Wordsworth) found the ‘shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.’

Identity becomes a prison-house. We are locked in with only those who are deemed to be our own for company.  It is the prison-house of our own imaginations—these fictions, these stories carefully woven from collective memories, memories that are not even one’s own, but we are convinced are more real because of that. Collective memories are the most evocative memories of all.  They are handed down with the authority of ancestry and how can we doubt our ancestors? (p.59)

But now, with the passing of the years, he does not want to choose between a black or white identity because that means denying some members of his family, his White grandmother in particular.

While I think know that there are some Indigenous people who feel differently about this, I agree with Grant that it’s an important conversation to have.  In a play that I’ve just read, Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui, one of the characters points out that that the majority of Indigenous people marry non-Indigenous people.  If we assume that the stats she quotes are correct, that means that there are many people of mixed heritage and some or many of them may also be struggling with the rigidities of contemporary identity politics too.

It is difficult to convey the richness and sophistication of Grant’s essay because he weaves the thoughts of poets, writers and philosophers into aspects of Australia’s Black History and his own personal history.  But I wonder whether he might have made a more convincing, more accessible case if he had written in simpler language, less poetic, and less dependent on the reader being familiar with the allusions he chooses.

Author: Stan Grant
Title: On Identity
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, Little Books on Big Ideas series, 2019, 95 pages
ISBN: 9780522875522
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Bookshop at Queenscliff, $14.99

The Spouse and I made a rare trip to the CBD today for a Rare Book Week event.  There are no trains running from our side of the city into the CBD and roads are blocked off all over the place because of Victoria’s Big Build so getting there was every bit as horrible as we had expected, but it was definitely worth it.

The session was called The Medieval Darwin, presented by Dr Anne Holloway from Monash University, and I loved every minute of it.  This was the blurb:

Charles Kingsley paved the way for twentieth-century fantasists such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is equally well known for his enthusiasm for Darwin, and his role in the professionalisation of History. Through his works held at Monash Special Collections, Anne Holloway will explore the re-purposing of medieval ideals developed during the crusades to frame and communicate Darwin’s ideals of evolution.

Dr Holloway began by telling us about Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).  Yes, the one who wrote The Water Babies. Now if you look it up at Wikipedia today, you will see from the first paragraph that it was written as part satire in support of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  But if like me you read it as a child, that satire probably passed you by entirely and you will not have noticed either that it is a scientifically accurate fairy tale

My copy, inscribed ‘To Lisa, with best wishes from Sheila, Shaun and Andrew, Christmas 1963’ lost its cute dustjacket long ago.   I haven’t read it since 1963 but what I remember of it was that it was a typical 19th century didactic tale, replete with characters like Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and her counterpart Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.  Tom, the dirty little chimney-sweep is transformed into a dear little water baby, learns to be good, helps his old Master Grimes to repent, and it all ends up more or less happily ever after (though when Tom is restored to being a human because of his Good Works, he and his friend Ellie never marry because no one ever marries in a fairy tale, below the rank of a prince or princess).

Little did I know! There is much more to The Water Babies than that, and its background is a story in itself…

Charles Kingsley was a pillar of the church, and enjoyed access to the higher echelons of Victorian society (including the Royals) while also doing practical things like forming workers’ cooperatives to alleviate poverty.  But he was also, like other gentlemen of his era, a geologist and naturalist and was made a Fellow of the Royal and Linnean Societies.  And because of his correspondence with Charles Darwin, he received an advance copy of The Origin of Species (1859)…

Kingsley recognised that Darwin had ushered in a new Science era, and a new area of science as well. And although he was a conservative chap in lots of ways, and was (to put it mildly) constrained a little by his profession in the sense that as a Preacher of Note he could hardly choose not to believe in God, he was a fervent supporter of Darwin’s theory.  Along with Thomas Huxley (who was known as The Other Bulldog) he defended Darwin from his critics, and his help was particularly useful because he was a member of the Church Establishment.

The Water Babies illustration (anon)  p141 (Blackie & Son, undated)

And one of the ways he defended Darwin was to write The Water Babies.  It was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine from 1862-63 and published as a book in 1863.  On display at the session at Tonic House were some beautiful old editions that showcased the vivid illustrations from Dr Holloway’s slideshow.  As you can see at right in my mid-century edition published by Blackie and Son,  20th century editions tend to have more line drawings, and don’t feature Tom looking like a little black ape.  (In fact, my edition has only three illustrations, and none of them show him as a dirty little chimney sweep).

The real intention behind The Water Babies was to popularise Darwin’s theory in a palatable form.  The book depicts Tom’s physical and moral evolution and within its pages the story mocks aspects of the contemporary debate, asserting that getting bogged down in obscure details missed the point entirely, which was, Kingsley thought, about the evolution of proper behaviour through science.  In this respect, he actually went further than Darwin, exploring both the opportunities for advancement through good behaviour and the possibility of regression through bad behaviour.  Apparently Kingsley shared his thoughts about the risk of ‘degeneration’ with Darwin, who then went on to write The Descent of Man in 1871.  (And they quarrelled over it).

Looking at The Water Babies today, I wonder at my ten-year-old self reading it.  It is very cleverly done, because the sly allusions and the satire don’t get in the way of the story from a child’s point of view, but still, some of it would challenge most readers of that age and I can’t fathom now how much of it I understood.

…the great fairy Science, who is likely to be queen of all the fairies for many a year to come, can only do you good, and never do you harm; and instead of fancying, with some people, that your body makes your soul, as if a steam engine could make its own coke; or, with some other people, that your soul has nothing to do with your body, but is only stuck into it like a pin into a pin cushion, to fall out with the first shake; — you will believe the one true,

orthodox,                         inductive,
rational,                           deductive,
philosophical,                   seductive,
logical,                             productive,
irrefragable,                     salutary,
nominalistic,                    comfortable,
and on-all-accounts-to-be-received

doctrine of this wonderful fairy tale; which is, that your soul makes your body, just as a snail makes his shell.  (p.58)

LOL If I looked up ‘irrefragable’ in the dictionary back then, it certainly didn’t lodge in the brain and I had to look it up now.  (It means irrefutable, see here for how to pronounce it).

So where does the Medieval fit into all of this? Well, amongst his other accomplishments, Kingsley was also an historian, at a time when history was not studied as an academic discipline.  Historians were not academics, they were politicians and novelists using history for their own purposes, and Kingsley (who also wrote historical novels) was one of the first to think about history in empirical way.  And he, Dr Holloway told us, was a medievalist who revolutionised the study of the Middle Ages.

The problem with studying the Medieval period in stuffy old Anglican England was that the Middle Ages was indisputably Catholic.  It didn’t resonate.  The period was barbaric: Inquisitions, endless brutal wars, and everyday violence which did not sit well with the dominant Protestant world view of the 19th century.  The Middle Ages needed a makeover, and Kingsley supplied it with his novel Hereward the Wake (1866). He did this by reframing the Catholic past of a rebel who fought William the Conqueror as an evolutionary step towards the Protestant present.  In fact, Hereward’s transformation is not unlike Tom’s evolution in The Water Babies.  An outlaw makes peace with William the Conqueror, chivalry evolves to create a good man — and lo! Proper Protestant Civilisation is the result. (Clearly I need to read this book.  It’s available at Project Gutenberg, if you want to beat me to it.)

Dr Holloway was an entertaining presenter so this was a great start to Rare Book Week.  Many thanks to the organising team!

Ouch! There’s an impressive thunderstorm happening outside and I’d better shut down before the power goes out again…

PS: One of the sessions I had planned to go to this week, was Scattered Leaves, Medieval manuscript fragments in Australian and New Zealand collections presented by Dr Rose Faunce.  The session was to have been about how new technologies are allowing scholars to reconstruct digitally the thousands of medieval manuscripts which today survive in fragmentary form, offering tantalising glimpses of lost works.  Participants were to have been able to see some of the manuscript fragments from collections in Australia and New Zealand, and to learn about the links made to related fragments in collections around the world. The event, however, was cancelled due to the sudden death of the presenter’s husband, Professor Thomas Faunce, and I want to acknowledge his passing.  He was an expert in health law, bioethics, nanotechnology, the environment and international trade, and held joint appointments in the ANU College of Law and the ANU Medical School, while also practising medicine and law.  The winner of five Australian Research Council Discovery Grants, his research reflects his incredibly diverse background and was at the leading edge of health, science and law.  His research tackled some of our biggest challenges, including climate change and food security, so his passing is a great loss to the ANU and the research community.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2019

Convincing Ground, by Bruce Pascoe

The battle site became known as the Convincing Ground, the place where the Gundidjmara were ‘convinced’ of white rights to the land. The Gundidjmara were beaten in that battle but never convinced of its legitimacy.

The title of Bruce Pascoe’s survey of Victoria’s colonial history is also the name of a place: the Convincing Ground site in Portland Bay is on the Victorian Heritage Register as the probable first recorded site of a massacre in this state.  There had been tensions between the local indigenous Gunditjmara people and whalers who had set up a station at Portland in the late 1820s, and the conflict erupted into violence over who had rights to a beached whale some time in 1833-34.  Estimates vary but it is thought that between 60 and 200 Gunditjmara people were killed. The exact date is not known (and the authenticity and details of the event are contested) because there were only two young survivors and the massacre wasn’t documented until a journal entry in Edward Henty’s diary in 1835.

As Bruce Pascoe says: This is not a history, it’s an incitement. Pascoe isn’t an historian: he’s a writer from the Bunurong clan, of the Kulin nation, a teacher, a farmer, and a researcher working on preserving the Wathaurong language.  And the point is that while it may not ever be possible to verify the precise circumstances of this or any other massacre in neat and tidy documents, there is no doubt at all that the settlement of Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, involved frontier violence.  James Boyce, (who is an historian) makes this abundantly clear in his award-winning history 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia which I reviewed here. What Pascoe’s book offers is an Indigenous point of view about these and other events, based on oral testimony as well as the documentary record:

I love my country and its people.  While working on a dictionary for the revival of the Wathaurong language I kept turning up new information on how the Kulin Nation (the clans surrounding Port Phillip and Western Port bays) defended their land.  There was plenty of unused material in the archives but more importantly I was told stories and shown diaries, letters and photos by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians which proved crucial to an understanding of those turbulent days.  Few of my sources were scholars and they had had no previous opportunity to paint the picture of their ancestors’ lives.  From that perspective our national story looked quite different and it seemed unfair that most Australians’ knowledge of their homeland was blighted by a cruelly inadequate history.

This book is for the Australians, old and new, black and white.  Some might find the style offensive and abrupt but it has been written so that Aboriginal Australians can recognise themselves in the history of their country.  Too often Aboriginal Australians have been asked to accept an insulting history and a public record which bears no resemblance to the lives they have experienced.  (p. ix)

So yes, Pascoe doesn’t beat about the bush, and sometimes his tone is abrasive and his sarcasm is a bit heavy-handed.  The stories about the violence are confronting to read, and these feelings are exacerbated by Pascoe’s uncompromising assertions about White behaviour.

The Convincing Ground should remind us to bite our tongues every time we utter the sentiment that ‘Australia is the only nation founded without a war.  It’s a myth, a joke, the most ridiculous intellectual folly we could commit, and yet the point at which we could remind ourselves of the true history of the nation we avert our face and allow the battleground of our soul to be obliterated, wash our minds of memory, impoverish our intelligence with deliberate contempt. (p.94)

Reading this made me search my own posts to see if I had made, or quoted the same sentiment.  I had, and have updated this post to acknowledge its falsity: Australian Foreign Affairs #4: Defending Australia, edited by Jonathan Pearlman.

Pascoe’s tone reveals his frustration about what he interprets as wilful myopia:

I’ve addressed halls of your academics whose hearts burst with compassion for Timor, Africa and India.  Never forget those nations you mighty young, but please turn about and look your countrymen in the face.  Most of your parents and grandparents never had the courage or the tools but you have access to both.  (p.95)

And although you might not like the way he expresses this, (because IMO one might equally say that it’s not a good idea to make assumptions about beliefs, attitudes or behaviour based on anyone’s identity), he has a valid point to make about making assumptions unless you hear it from Indigenous people themselves:

Remember if you are white not to guess at what your black countrymen and women think, they have perfectly functioning ears, tongues and minds. (p.95)

And therein lies the value of this book. It challenges us to think.  Not necessarily to agree, or to concede his point, but to consider it with an open mind.  I don’t agree with everything in its pages, and some of it, especially what he has to say about deficiencies in the education curriculum [1], is out of date and just plain wrong.  But I recognise that Pascoe is articulating the pain, the frustration, and the justified anger of many Indigenous people.  And although he may not know it, he also articules the outrage that many of us feel about continued injustices, about the refusal to listen, about the History Wars, and about the entire Howard agenda which persists in the current government’s refusal to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Many of us don’t need Bruce to tell us that walking across a bridge was only a beginning, (p.238) but many of us yearn for genuine reconciliation and grasp any opportunity to express that yearning, even if it’s only symbolic.

[1] I was at a literary event last year where a young woman who looked to be barely out of her school years, stood up and said that she hadn’t learned anything about Indigenous dispossession at school.  Well, that can only have been because she wasn’t listening when it was taught.  In the past curriculum frameworks varied from state to state and not all were as inclusive as they should have been, but since 2014 when the Australian National Curriculum was introduced, Australia’s Black History been compulsory learning.  The AC is taught from Prep to Year 10 in all Australian schools, (including private ones if they want to keep their funding), and there are three mandatory cross-curriculum priorities, one of which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.  What this means is that Aboriginal perspectives are to be included in the 8 key learning areas (English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, The Arts, Technologies, Health and Phys Ed and Languages.) For example, it you teach the solar system in science, introduce it with the fact that Indigenous people studied the stars, had their own names for the constellations and other bodies in the solar system[2], and used the predictable movement of the stars for navigation as well as hunting and agricultural practices.  You can see some of the work done to include Indigenous perspectives at my school here.

And specifically addressing whether or not the darker side of Australia’s Black History is to be taught, this excerpt from the Australian Curriculum website makes it quite clear.  The underlining is mine, and at my school this theme began in Year 4 when the children studied Australian exploration, a unit that began with learning about the Indigenous songlines that criss-cross Australia, that acknowledged the crucial role played by Indigenous guides, and specifically addressed the deficiencies in the documentary record e.g. that Indigenous guides were usually not named.  If it had been available then, I could have used Australia’s First Naturalists (2019) as a reference. This is from the AC website:

Humanities and Social Sciences

The diverse cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are explored through their:

  • long and continuous strong connections with Country/Place and their economic, cultural, spiritual and aesthetic value of place, including the idea of custodial responsibility. Students examine the influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples on the environmental characteristics of Australian places, and the different ways in which places are represented.
  • experiences before, during and after European colonisation including the nature of contact with other peoples, and their progress towards recognition and equality. In particular, students investigate the status and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, past and present, including civic movements for change, the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to Australian society, and contemporary issues.
  • exploration of how groups express their particular identities, and come to understand how group belonging influences perceptions of others.

The use of primary and secondary sources, including oral histories, gives students opportunities to see events through multiple perspectives, and to empathise and ethically consider the investigation, preservation and conservation of sites of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

And note that the use of oral histories is specifically mentioned, which counters Pascoe’s concerns about the deficiencies of written records:

History relies on the written records of the period and diaries are some of the most valuable, particularly those where the diarist is not writing for a political purpose, that is, with a view to laundering their own reputation.  Much of the official colonial correspondence however, is so corrupted by prejudice, or, like Batman’s treatries and Kilgour’s forgeries[3], so full of lies, that they are next to useless as true reflections of what is happening. (p.106)

Maybe it’s true that these topics aren’t always as well-taught as they could be, but speaking from my own experience it’s also true that resources and professional development are inadequate, and help that should come from Indigenous consultants within education departments isn’t always forthcoming. I myself have had some discouraging experiences.  The curriculum is there, the good will is there, but a lot needs to be done to make it easier for busy teachers to access practical resources.

[2] Where I live, on Bunerong country, Meeniyan is, for example, the word for the Moon.

[3] James Kilgour of Port Fairy forged signatures on a document that exaggerated squatters’ losses to justify violence against the Aborigines in that area.

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title: Convincing Ground, Learning to fall in love with your country
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007, 302 pages
ISBN: 9780855755492
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square

Available from IATSIS. They have it as an eBook too.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2019

Black is the New White, by Nakkiah Lui

Black is the New White is the title of a smash-hit play which premiered in 2017, and after sell-out performances by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2018, is coming to Melbourne later this year.  The playwright is Nakkiah Lui who will be familiar to viewers of Screen Time and her six-part series Kiki and Kitty on the ABC comedy channel: she is a Gamileroi and Torres Strait Islander woman.  The play won the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting in the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and Allen and Unwin have this year published it in paperback form.

So how to review a play that I haven’t yet seen performed?  I can tell you that I loved reading it; it’s a provocative, clever and witty play that playfully navigates cross-cultural issues among middle-class successful Indigenous people.  Via the comic setting of a Family Christmas and its classic moments of conflict, the play interrogates assumptions about class, race, success, and privilege in a delicious romcom with elements of slapstick punctuating pause-and-make-you-think moments.

Here’s a promo that will serve as a synopsis:

And here’s a sample of the laugh-out-loud dialogue between Francis and Charlotte who are hoping for the right moment to break it to their families that they are engaged:

Francis: ‘Artisanal bread shop’ is the worst phrase I’ve ever heard any human being say.’

Charlotte: But imagine not having to bring your work home with you.

Francis: I think you’re being a bit classist and romanticising the poor and the working class.

Charlotte: Okay, I am not being classist or romanticising the poor or the working class.

Francis: You’re not?

Charlotte: Okay, well, first of all, aren’t you being classist assuming it’s only poor or working-class people who work in shops? Maybe there are rich people working in shops? Also, as a Black woman /

Francis: / Here we go.

Charlotte: As a Black woman, a White man, such as yourself, should not be discrediting the place of privilege from which you make your judgement, Francis.  Which, may I point out, is the Whitest name possible, Francis.

Francis: Well, look, it’s not my fault that my name is Francis.  It’s not my fault I was born White /

Charlotte: / Here we go again.

Francis: More wine?

Francis kisses Charlotte to shut her up.

Charlotte: Did you kiss me to shut me up?

Francis: Yes. See, us White people have all the solutions. (p.11-13)

Finally I refer you to this enticing review at The Guardian.

If like me you’re not in the habit of reading playscripts (except maybe for Shakespeare), do yourself a favour and try this one, especially if you’re not in a position to see the play.

Author: Nakkiah Lui
Title: Black is the New White
Publisher: Alen and Unwin, 2019, 192 pages
ISBN: 9781760527341
Source: Kingston Library Service




Cultural warning: Readers are warned that this page contains the names of deceased persons and in quotations from the past, may use terminology that reflects attitudes or language used that are considered inappropriate today.

As I foreshadowed a fortnight ago when I brought this book home from the library, Our Mob Served tells the mostly untold story of Indigenous service in Australia’s defence forces.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in ever since the Shrine of Remembrance developed a unit of work about Indigenous Service for primary schools.  In developing and adapting the unit for my students and other teachers, (see my professional blog) I learned a lot, but back then was frustrated by a lack of resources to enhance my background knowledge.  Our Mob Served fills this need perfectly because it curates individual Indigenous stories into one coherent text, and I expect that there will be a review by the professional historians at the Honest History website before long.

What this book does so well is to reveal why Indigenous Service deserves special recognition.  It takes nothing away from the rest of our defence forces to acknowledge that Indigenous people enlisting to protect their country did so in spite of the way the country from which they had been dispossessed had systematically discriminated against them from the beginning of European settlement.  They were driven  off their lands by frontier violence; their food sources were compromised by the new agriculture; men, women and children were massacred; and whole populations have been decimated by disease.  They were denied citizenship, the vote, and legal recourse to the courts, and they were expected to work for little or no reward while excluded from society and without the hope of economic or social mobility.  Throughout most of the 20th century Stolen Generations children were taken from their families in a program of eugenics, and families and communities across the country often never saw their children again.  Why would Indigenous people want to fight for a regime like that?  The answer is both simple and complex.  The simple answer is that they love their country, and want to defend it.  The complex answer is covered in Chapter 3 of this book.

Chapter I explains the rationale and the process used for gathering the untold stories of Indigenous Service in our armed forces.  It begins with a quotation from Mick Dodson:

Aboriginal history is so rich because it comes from an oral tradition…The stories are rich and they make up an important component of the history of our country since the British colonisation.  And we need to record those stories for future generations. It’s a vital story to be told. (p.2)

There are 180 oral history accounts recorded during ‘Yarn Ups’ and interviews; oral history and photo recording sessions with veterans and ex-service people or their relatives, held around Australia in 40 locations between 2014 and 2017.  The book is organised into themes which emerged from the interviews, but there are also silences in the text, silences which emerge from ancestors not wanting to revisit past trauma, but also because of cultural protocols that encourage watching and listening and discourage asking too many questions.  Disruptions to family transmission of some stories are also a consequence of the Stolen Generations, but it also increases the demand to be heard now.  So it was a complex research project, but one IMO of immense value.

Chapter 2 covers Australia’s conflicts and wars.  It’s depressing how many there have been.  The chapter acknowledges the Frontier Wars but the focus of the book is Indigenous participation in ‘overseas’ wars declared by opposing nation states.  Although the records are unclear, some took part even in the Boer War (1899-1902) with nine Indigenous troopers and a private identified so far among the 16,000 Australians who fought.  Many more took part in WW1, in the infantry and in the Light Horse, as well as in the artillery, engineers, and the flying corps.  Harry Thorpe and Albert Knight were among Indigenous servicemen decorated with Distinguished Conduct Awards and other honours, and Alfred Hearps was promoted to second lieutenant.  There were also two Indigenous nurses, though the name of only one, Marion Leane Smith, has been identified so far.  In WW2, an estimated 3000 Indigenous Australians served in the army, the navy and the air force, and made a major contribution to labour and reconnaissance work on the northern coast and in the Torres Strait Islands.  Notable names include Reg Saunders who was a commissioned officer, and Sergeant Len Waters who was a fighter pilot, while Charles Mene, Tim Hughes and others were decorated for bravery.  Indigenous personnel also served in the Malayan Emergency (1948-60); Borneo (1963-66); the Korean War (1950-53); the Vietnam War (1962-75); in Peacekeeping missions in Somalia (1992-94) and East Timor (1999-2003); and in the Gulf Wars of 1990-91 and 2003-9 and in Afghanistan (2001-present).

Chapter 3 explains the special appeal of serving in the military.  Joining the military meant that Indigenous people could be free from movement restrictions that segregated them into missions and reserves.  It offered opportunities for education and training, it provided paid employment, and it enabled economic and social mobility.  But eligibility to enlist was a contradictory process: there were conflicting definitions of ‘Aboriginal’ and there were erratic restrictions.   In WW1 Indigenous men were prohibited from enlisting but many did so anyway; in WW2 they were initially allowed to enlist only if they were not ‘too’ Aboriginal, and then restrictions were relaxed because of the manpower shortage for the defence of the northern coastline.  When the draft was introduced for Vietnam, some were called up, while others were excluded.  Indigenous women were not allowed to enlist at all until the women’s services were formed in during WW2.  There are vivid stories from Vietnam veterans in this chapter as well as a profile of Stephen Jones, a Yorta Yorta man who is the first known graduate of the Royal Military College in Duntroon, in 1977.  He had a distinguished career including a post as Military Attaché to the United Nations.  It’s notable also that a tradition of serving in the military tends to run in families.

Chapter 4 is called ‘Mates’.  The editors make the point that while politicians, media advisers, journalists and others often hijack the word ‘mates’ for their own purposes, especially around Anzac Day and related events, the Aboriginal servicemen and women who feature in this book experienced mateship in the services genuinely and honestly and saw it as central to their continuing sense of belonging.  This chapter also explores in more detail the extraordinary records of service within families, with successive generations enlisting along with members of the extended family too.

Chapter 5: ‘Equal’ explores the ways in which Indigenous servicemen and women were able, in the military, to transcend the usual discrimination:

Aboriginal people could be the boss, in command of white men and women, an occurrence that was rare outside the services until recent decades.  Many people spoke of rewarding careers, gaining promotions, realising their potential and their leadership skills. (p.104)

This does not mean there was no racism, which often occurred during the training stages of service and when recruits were young.  And it was often associated with darker skin colours:

Many Australians were raised to associate skin colour with identity rather than the cultural, familial identity Aboriginal people know to be the basis of their own identity. (p.105)

Often the racism occurred in civilian settings, with Aboriginal men being refused a drink alongside mates in the pub being a common issue.

For Aboriginal men denial of that right could be the ultimate insult and exclusion.  Drinking publicly with mates was a ‘demonstration of equality with other Australians’ and had powerful symbolism.  For their descendants, reflecting on their fathers’, uncles’, or grandfathers’ experiences, the unfairness of servicemen and women coming home to prejudice — having served their country — was galling. (p.105)

It was perhaps especially hurtful on Anzac Day.

What was also hurtful was the denial of benefits after the war, but more than that, that exclusion affected the lives not only of the veterans, but also their descendants. Chapter 6: ‘Country’ explains the way that Indigenous servicemen and women were denied grants of soldier settlement blocks that were available to their white mates after WW1.  Our Mob Served cites the case of Herbert Lovett whose request for a block was denied, even though he had the support of the Portland Shire Council and RSSILA (the predecessor to the RSL). Herbert’s son John currently has an unresolved case for compensation because as he says, he had a ‘wrongful life’ and his father did too because he was denied an asset that can be shown to have been an economic benefit to other soldiers and their descendants who did receive a land grant.

Chapter 7: ‘Taken Away’ reveals an aspect of service that is even more shameful.  When husbands and fathers were away on war service, their wives and children became much more vulnerable to the devastating practice of child removal under the policies that affected the Stolen Generations.  Children grew up not knowing their families and thus not hearing any news about the parent on active service, exacerbating the sense of loss.  They were unable to know about their cultural inheritance or about the war service of their parent, sometimes not even knowing that their father had been killed on active service.  In the case of the evacuation from Darwin after it was bombed by the Japanese, Aboriginal children were taken south — away from their land and family — and not always returned.  The voices of contributors to this chapter are particularly poignant.  These lines are from a poem called ‘The Black Rat’ by Iris Clayton, which is about her father Cecil Clayton who was a Rat of Tobruk:

He sold his all medals he once proudly wore / They were of no use to him any more


He fought for this land so he could be free / Yet he could not vote after his desert melee. (p.188)

Iris never knew her brave father because she, like all but one of her siblings, was taken from her family at Leeton to the Cootamundra Training Home for Aboriginal Girls.

Another heart-breaking story comes from Clarence Harradine, whose letter in August 1945 reveals that he was never told that his children were taken away while he was on active service.  His son Lionel wasn’t reunited with his father until 1955, and Lionel didn’t find his two siblings until adulthood when his mother died.  These stories are harrowing, and it beggars belief that such cruelty occurred in these cases because of a parent’s war service.  And because Indigenous war service has only recently begun to be recognised as meriting special attention, most people, when they talk about the sacrifices made by people serving in the military, do not know just how grievous the sacrifice was for many Indigenous families.

Chapter 8: ‘Identities’ covers the situation for Aboriginal families that included an ‘enemy alien’, for example, those who had married or had relationships with Japanese pearlers in northern Australia were interned as well.  And because Aboriginal identity was decreed by officials, and often in confusing and irrational ways, eligibility or ineligibility to serve or be drafted was a cruel lottery.

Chapter 9 is called ‘Healing’ and it covers the awkward process of returning to civilian life, whether as a POW coming home from Singapore or from the chaotic environment in Iraq.  Living in remote communities can make it more difficult to access help for PTSD or for recurring bouts of malaria.  Their descendants’ stories in this chapter often reveal the bewilderment of children encountering a barely-known father behaving in strange ways, ranging from a former POW refusing to have rice in the house, or a Vietnam veteran spending long solitary hours down on the river bank.

Chapter 10: ‘Found, Told and Treasures’ reveals the process by which Indigenous people research the untold stories of their families, using the National Archives of Australia, service files, and the Australian War Memorial collections.  The editors say that the most comprehensive, intimate and storied of all archives are people’s personal collections, especially their photos — many of which are used to enhance the text.  It is profusely illustrated with family and official photos which bring the people to life, and what shines through this book is the pride on their faces.  It’s beautiful to see.  But there are also poignant diaries and letters home from the front; a ‘death penny’ from WW1; a treasured greatcoat; memorial plaques and the Reg Saunders Commemorative Stone at Lake Condah.  The sort of mementoes we all like to have, but all the more important if the family has been fractured.

Chapter 11 is called ‘Recognition’ and it traces the distinctive ways in which Aboriginal families have commemorated service.  It is only in recent years that there has been much in the way of official recognition and this book is an excellent contribution which deserves a wide readership.  All secondary schools should have a copy, and so should each branch of the RSL.

Also recommended reading for this topic is: Defending Country, by Noah Riseman and Richard Trembath

The book includes notes and a comprehensive index.

Editors: Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb
Title: Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2019, 399 pages
ISBN: 9780855750718
Source: Kingston Library Service

I came by this book through serendipity: I was chatting with Kiwi freelancer Elizabeth Heritage who works in the book trade and NZ media, and I asked if she knew of any new Maori publications.  She put me in touch with the people behind a book that features amongst its contributors, a Maori author called Te Awhina Arahanga.  ‘Crip the Lit‘ was formed in 2016 by Trish Harris and Robyn Hunt as a way for Deaf and disabled writers to have their unique voices, perspectives and stories included and valued in mainstream writing in New Zealand. Here We Are, Read Us is their first publication, featuring eight authors, each vignette consisting of a profile of themselves: an illustrated portrait accompanied by a symbol on the picture frame, with the writer then explaining the metaphor in 150 words.

As you can see when you visit their websites, the eight authors featured in Here We Are, Read Us have impressive writing CVs:

This is Te Awhina Arahanga’s profile:

When I turned 50 I wrote a note to myself: blow bubbles, buzz with bees and dance in the clouds. My head has always been in the clouds with way too many internal conversations. It makes it hard to concentrate, so I tend to drift. Or procrastinate—eyes looking upward towards the streaks and puffs, time capsules of the past and what could be.

I’m a professional graffiti artist who is also a poet. I write on walls in museums and exhibitions, and on interpretation panels. It’s an odd genre. The words begin flat as if sleeping on paper, handwritten with a Black Pilot V5 or Lemy fountain pen with an extra fine nib—always black ink, never blue. The finished versions are typed and mounted.

I was once embarrassed to admit I’ve been legally classified as insane. You end up with scar tissue—mentally, emotionally and physically. Every now and then you get some peace. It’s not often, but when it comes it’s usually because you have a black pen in your hand and a cloud overhead. (p.15-16)

Why do you write?

The rewards can be very personal. When my son was interviewed for a prestigious overseas scholarship the panel asked what he’d take. He said a rugby ball and a poetry book called Darkness in Light. When your son chooses your poetry, other accolades are insignificant. (p.20)

You can see another vignette at Jane Arthur’s review of the anthology here.

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from Pasifica poet and author Tusiata Avia that explains the huge significance of this small book:

Recently, I wrote and performed a series of ‘coming out’ poems.  Previously I hadn’t written much about epilepsy except in veiled ways.  Writing helps me say: Epilepsy is not shameful.  It too, is part of my life.  Being in this publication is part of that. (p.4)

Authors: Tusiata Avia, Steff Green, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Charlotte Simmonds, Michele Leggot, Trish Harris, Te Awhina Arahanga, and posthumously Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde, 1906-1939)
Editor: Trish Harris
Artwork: Adele Jackson
Title: Here We Are, Read Us: women, disability and writing
Produced in 2019 with funding from Creative New Zealand, Whitireia and Weltec Research and Innovation Fund, Rehabilitation Welfare Trust, and Wellington Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Trust Board, and supported by Arts Access Aotearoa.

Available for free in these formats: e-book, large print, audio, Braille and more.  Download it here.

Limited print copies of the book (in pocket A6 size and large print A4 size) are available by emailing here. There may be a small charge for postage.

Libraries, as we know, are great places for community events, and this week for #NAIDOC Week the Bayside Library service offered a cooking demonstration using bush food ingredients  Our presenter was Nornie Bero from the island of Mer (a.k.a. Murray Island) in the Torres Strait.

Photo credit: Mabu Mabu Facebook page

Nornie is a chef trained in London and Melbourne, and she runs her own food stall at the South Melbourne market.  It’s called Mabu Mabu, which is a saying in the Torres Strait that means ‘help yourself’:  it’s how they welcome people to a feast or dinner and is always followed by a joyous celebration of food and family.  But although (yay!) there is soon going to be a restaurant in Yarraville, Nornie’s real mission is to spread the word that Australia’s native bush foods are delicious and their use should be mainstream.  After all, she says, in multicultural Australia we have taken readily to all kinds of cuisine, why not our own?

Indeed. See, for instance, these suggestions from SBS for Nine Delicious Ways to add Bush food to your Breakfast.

Nornie acknowledges that at the moment, problems of supply and demand — and the unfortunate marketing of bush foods as ‘superfoods’ — mean that bush foods are often expensive.  But this dynamic young Indigenous woman has forged her own solution to that: she is partnering with Bunnings to help promote native plants that you can grow at home and add to your dinner.  They are easy to grow, and they should be cheap.  Nornie says that her focus is about everyday cooking with healthy food.  And as the interest in bush foods grows, the price will drop.

(That’s not to say that the book Australian Bush Superfoods* is useless.  Ignore the hype about ‘superfoods’: the book is excellent because it features each plant on its own page with a full colour illustration and suggestions for its use.)

Tasty greens

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating, so we began the session by tasting a selection of ingredients.  We tasted Karkalla a.k.a. pigface which is a succulent alternative to cucumber, is beaut in salads and stirfries and can be pickled.  There are other succulents such as Samphire, Arageti and Iceberg but although they are mostly in season all year round, their timing is bad: July is when they’re not in season! (BTW I am not sure about the spelling of some of these ingredients, I welcome corrections). Other greens include Warrigal Greens i.e. Australian spinach, but it’s better than spinach because it doesn’t have a lot of water content and it holds itself more — so it’s good for pasta.  Sea parsley has more flavour than regular parsley, which seems to be becoming more insipid in flavour each season.

We then moved on to fruits, tasting Passion berries, Muntries (emu apples, so called because the emus munch them), tart desert limes for making marmalade, and Rosella i.e. hibiscus, which with the addition of some extra sugar is delicious.   (Which you will already know if you have tried Wild Hibiscus in your champagne cocktails).  Hibiscus is also good for sweet chutneys, of the type you see on cheese platters. Some of these fruits are quite tart to start with but mellow on the tongue, and it was great to see some young kids who already had adventurous palates and were happily tasting and enjoying the experience along with everyone else.


Then Nornie introduced spices, one of which I use often.  The Native Pepperberry is the star ingredient in MasterChef contestant Matthew Hopcraft’s beef and pepperberry pie.  (The recipe is in Food to Feed the Family (see here), and it is to die for.  For no other pie will your friends drop what they were doing to come round and have a meat pie for dinner!) But what I didn’t know is that there are two types of pepperberries so I have some more culinary exploring to do.

Well, it turns out that Saltbush Dried is the Black Man’s oregano, and is good with potatoes, yams. polenta and pasta, while Lemon Myrtle leaves are great for teas, desserts, curry pastes and stews.  There’s also a Desert Herb blend like an Italian herb mix which is apparently great in dukkah, and then there’s wattleseed.

Wattleseed has a nutty flavour, like hazelnuts, and can be ground down and used in scones and muffins.  It was easy to try it at home because I already had some but hadn’t found the right way to use it. As it happens I had just made some fresh yoghurt and ricotta, so I had plenty of leftover whey, and I had already planned to try an American muffin recipe from a company called King Arthur, see my recipe below which has metric measures, and and the wattleseed.  The muffins are scrumptious, and of course insanely healthy because of the low-fat whey.

Ingredients for canneloni

Possibly also insanely healthy were the cannelloni that Nornie made for us to try.  Using a food processor she blended ricotta cheese, dragon fruit, icing sugar and ground Strawberry gum flavouring (i.e. from a strawberry gum tree, not chewing gum flavour!)  With the help of a couple of children in the audience, she piped the mix into ready-made cannelloni shells and the audience devoured the lot in no time.

As a teacher, I was impressed by the way Nornie managed the food hygiene side of things.  The kids, of course, had not washed their hands.  Without a word on that subject, she arranged their hands so that they only held the plastic piping bag, and she held the cannelloni shells.  Tactful, without breaking the rules for food that we were all going to eat. But I was also impressed by Nornie’s friendly and engaging style: she is passionate about this cause, but she is good fun, cracking all kinds of jokes while imparting the message.  SBS Food, this amazing Indigenous woman deserves her own cooking show!

Many, many thanks to the staff at Beaumaris library for a most informative and entertaining session!

Recipe for Wattleseed whey muffins (I can’t get WP to upload it as a doc, sorry. )

Wattleseed whey muffins

  • 200g plain flour (you may need to add a couple of tbsp more if the mix turns out to be too runny)
  • 100g sugar (I use caster, but ordinary is fine too)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp wattleseed ground (or cinnamon or nutmeg)
  • 225g mixed fruit and/or nuts (any kind, I used raisins and sultanas for this batch;
  • ¼ cup crushed nuts (extra) (walnuts, hazelnuts, whatever is open in the pantry)
  • 50g vegetable oil, optional, for moistness (I used walnut oil because I had some open)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 230g whey (1 ¼ cups) or half and half milk and water if you haven’t got whey.


  1. Preheat the oven to 215°.  Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin pan.
  2. Blend the dry ingredients.
  3. Mix in the fruit and/or nuts.
  4. Combine wet and dry ingredients.  Do not overmix.
  5. Fill each cup in the muffin pan to 2/3 full.
  6. Bake 15-18 minutes.
  7. Store well-wrapped for up to 3 days at room temperature of up to a month in the freezer.

*Australian Bush Superfoods
by Lily Alice and Thomas O’Quinn
Published by Explore Australia
ISBN: 9781741175400

Photo credit: Mabu Mabu Facebook page

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 8, 2019

The White Girl, by Tony Birch

Perhaps I shouldn’t question the opinion of one of Australia’s most prominent literary critics, but it seems to me that Geordie Williamson labelling the characterisation of this novel as easy binaries in his review* misses the point…

The White Girl is a story about people who’ve grown up in a binary world, among the powerless, the poor, the uneducated and the dispossessed.  They have learned from their history and their own experiences not to trust people in positions of power – policemen, The Welfare, teachers, missionaries and bureaucrats.  The story is set in the Menzies era, but today, they could add Centrelink to that list.  And this attitude that the powerless inherit when they are young and sometimes carry with them into adulthood can translate into assumptions about the people they meet: good or evil; kindly or cruel; trustworthy or not; helpful or exploitative.   Those who are fortunate need to understand that while it isn’t always a fair assumption to make, this short-hand binary view of the world can be a form of self-protection for an underclass.  Depicting it in literature is a legitimate thing to do.

And in presenting this world the way Indigenous people too often experience it, Tony Birch isn’t lapsing into easy binaries: he’s a highly skilled, award-winning author who knows exactly what he’s doing: quite apart from using historically valid sources for his content, (which I’ve certainly come across in Indigenous memoir) Birch is not only offering a window into what can be an Indigenous view of the world, he’s also using recognisable character types just like Charles Dickens did when exposing social problems to an indifferent society.  (But Birch is a good deal more economical than Dickens, the book is only 272 pages long, and written in piercingly deft contemporary prose).

On the verge of (illegally) leaving town Odette takes her granddaughter Sissy to visit the cemetery:

After visiting with her parents Odette walked Sissy past the other graves, explaining the connection she had to family and Odette’s childhood friends.

‘You need to know all of these people,’ she said, ‘and you must remember them.’

Sissy looked around at the headstones.  ‘There’s a lot of people here, Nan.  How will I remember all of them?’

‘Through the stories,’ Odette said.  ‘I’m telling them to you, and it will be your job to remember.  It’s just like the story in the book you’re reading.  The story of the dog from Africa.  You told me about that today, and already I can remember it.  Our stories are not written in any books, which means you’ll need to keep telling them to your own family one day.’ (p.131)


And how to do that for a wider audience, is an author’s choice.

Odette and Sissy need a permit to leave their home on the margins of a (fictional) country town called Deane.  Odette, who spent years in domestic service, is now a self-employed artist who sells her greeting cards to a retailer in the nearest town, and despite the privations of their shabby home, she’s a responsible and loving parent to the motherless Sissy.  But they need to escape the attention of an officious new policemen called Owen, who’s replacing a lazy drunk called Shea, because Sissy, for reasons readers will soon recognise, has the white skin of a father she’s never known.  What should shock readers is that Odette’s well-founded fear that the authorities will separate her from Sissy, takes place during the era of my childhood and within living memory of many others who read the book.  Odette is not her granddaughter’s guardian, and neither is Sissy’s long-vanished mother.  Because this family is Indigenous, Sissy is automatically a ward of the State.  This is occurring during the early 1960s, when the movement to grant long-overdue citizenship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was emerging.  The circumstances of this novel are not ancient history, or First Contact history, or Colonial history.  They are mid-20th century history, post WW2 history, and a history that was taking place at the same time that I, a child born 10,000 miles away, was granted an Australian citizenship denied to the First Nations people of this land. If you’ve ever wondered why Indigenous women are so strong, it’s because they grew up without the basic human and political rights that White Australians had, and they haven’t forgotten it.  Last year’s NAIDOC theme was ‘Because of her, we can’ and Birch’s novel is an homage to Indigenous women who’ve held families together, against the odds.

I don’t want to give Williamson’s review more air than it deserves, but his suggestion that The White Girl is aesthetically deficient while offering its readers a thrill to righteousness is offensive and patronising. Should we not feel indignant that fellow Australians and the First Peoples of this land were treated this way?  Are these stories not worthy of telling?

When Williamson writes that the characters are shunted to their allotted places like sheep being run through a drafting race,  and that the author has a responsibility to explode the assumption that we creatures are so easily tagged in the first place he implies that Birch lacks nuance.  Did he read this dialogue between Odette and a friend called Jack?

A policeman has been rude to Odette, but she feels no hostility towards him:

‘…And that policeman, I’d have been surprised if the man had treated me any differently than he did.  I don’t have the time to take blame out on a fella like him.’

‘But he was rude to you.  How’s he without blame?’

”Because they’re the ones we deal with every day of our lives.  Police.  Not the Welfare or the ones who write the rules for the government.  Think if you were the police, Jack, knowing that one day you’d be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family.  If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn’t do that job.  This fella giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry at us.  Maybe even hate us.  The only way they can get by.’ (p.164)

Since when have critics been in the business of telling authors what their responsibility is?

My advice is to get hold of a copy of The White Girl and read it.  Read it for its vivid characterisation, the tension in the plot, and emotional investment in a story that tells fundamental truths.  Read it for a window on a different world.

Read it to see Odette and Sissy negotiating rush-hour crowds on the city train station: their inexperience with city life reminded me of Amy’s move to Sydney in Olga Master’s Amy’s Children.

Read it to discover how riches are relative:

…Odette had no time to hide the pile of notes sitting on the table.  Sissy had never seen so much money.  She sat down at the table, rested her chin in her hands, and stared at the bank notes.

‘Hey Nan.  You see all this?’

‘I do indeed, Sweet.  I just counted it.’

‘Who does it belong to?’

‘Well, technically me.  But seeing as we’re related, I guess it belongs to you as well,’ she smiled.

‘That’s a lot of money there, Nan.  We must be rich.’

‘Well, in the world out there,’ Odette said, nodding towards the front door, ‘it wouldn’t make us rich, although it would keep us out of harm.  But if you’re talking about a black woman with a long dead husband and a grandchild to care for, that’s a different story.  Yeah, I suppose we’re rich.’ (p. 127)

And read it to discover the story behind that bath on the front cover!

*In The Australian.  It’s paywalled so there’s no point in providing the link.

Author: Tony Birch
Title: The White Girl
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 2019, 272 pages
ISBN: 9780702260384
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available direct from UQP and Fishpond: The White Girl


ILW logo 2019


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

I’ve hovered over Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia a couple of times in bookshops, but decided against buying it.  I think it’s a perfect book for international visitors, or for backpackers and grey nomads travelling around Australia, but I’m more interested in my local Melbourne history than this book has space to offer.  My Go-To book for the 60,000 year old story of Indigenous Melbourne is Meyer Eidelson’s Melbourne Dreaming (2014)published by the Aboriginal Studies Press, because it features lots of wonderful walks around my city.  You can see my adventures on the Bayside trail in my review.

I also have Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia (1988) which was recommended to me, I think, by Sue from Whispering Gums.  It’s a big coffee-table type book, with beautiful full colour photography illustrating Burnum Burnum’s journey all the way round Highway One (and not leaving out Tasmania!) Burnum Burnum (1936-1997) was a Woiworrung and Yorta Yorta man from Wallaga Lake in southern New South Wales, and was a high profile activist, actor and author.  A Churchill Fellow, he achieved remarkable things despite growing up in children’s homes run by NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board, but as Wikipedia notes:

He may be best remembered for planting the Aboriginal flag on the white cliffs of Dover on the Australian Bicentenary Day of 26 January 1988. This was his tongue-in-cheek way of claiming England, as Arthur Phillip had done to Burnum Burnum’s homeland in 1788 when arriving with the First Fleet.  (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links, viewed 7/6/19)

As with the Langton book, I turned first to Aboriginal Australia’s section on Victoria, where there is an explanation of villages and farming techniques that are only now becoming more widely known thanks to Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking publication Dark Emu, Black seeds – agriculture or accident? There’s a whole double page spread with illustrations about the south-west Mara People’s engineering works for their eeling industry—in Lake Bolac, Mt William, in the Toolondo District, Lake Condah.  These are places close to home where I’ve visited, but not known the Indigenous story at the time.  This whole chapter features places I am likely to go to, while the extensive section on Melbourne itself includes the dreaming story of the Port Phillip region—the story of Bunjil the eagle whose statue stands seven metres high at Docklands.  The infamous story of Batman’s Treaty is retold, and there is a magnificent picture of William Barak in full regalia including what looks like his possum-skin cloak, but also sunglasses and an amused smile.  In fact there is a great deal to read and enjoy about Melbourne, and Victoria, and the other states of Australia as well.

But much as I like the wealth of detail in Burnum Burnum’s book and the walking trails to follow in Melbourne Dreaming, I think that Welcome to Country has a broader appeal.  It is written as a tourist guide, to enable travellers to plan an itinerary that includes Indigenous culture, and to encourage business and tourism operators to get a bit smarter about the opportunities that are out there.  If research has found that domestic visitors have little interest in Indigenous tourism, then Welcome to Country shows its readers that there are lots of interesting things to do, and they don’t all involve outback travel because many attractions (such as gourmet food and culinary tourism!) appeal to urban Australians like me.

Marcia Langton’s chapter about Victoria begins with a festival to attend: Tanderrum, a gathering of the five clans of the Kulin nation with a ceremony which marks the beginning of the Melbourne Festival in October…

… and continues with sporting activities to attend such Dreamtime at the G (the Melbourne Cricket Ground) or a visit to the Harrow Discovery Centre and Johnny Mullagh Interpretive Centre in the Wimmera to learn about the Indigenous athletes in the first Australian international test cricket team.  She covers Indigenous heritage in our national parks, including the Grampians National Park, the Brambuk National Park and Cultural centre, and she suggests cultural tours, such as the Aboriginal Heritage Walk through the Royal Botanical Gardens opposite Birrarung Marr; the self-guided driving tour along the Bataluk Cultural Trail; and the Tower Hill Visitor Centre near Warrnambool.

Langston also suggests art galleries, museums and cultural centres such as the Altair Fine Art Gallery in Werribee South; Birrarung Marr in Melbourne; the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum (a must-see, IMO); the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Torquay; the Sandra Bardas Art Gallery in Healesville; and the Koori Heritage Trust at Federation Square.  And there’s also an invitation to sample Indigenous food and cooking at the Charcoal Lane Restaurant in Fitzroy. So although there’s only eleven pages in this Victorian section of the book there’s plenty to do.

But that’s not all there is in Langton’s book.  In fact, I’ve traversed it back-to-front, because it begins with an extensive Introduction to Indigenous Cultures, offering information and guidance about how to enjoy authentic tourism opportunities.  The ToC gives an indication of the topics covered:

  1. Introduction
  2. Prehistory
  3. Cultures and Languages
  4. Kinship
  5. Art
  6. Performance
  7. Storytelling
  8. Native Title
  9. The Stolen Generations
  10. What if your guide is not Indigenous?
  11. NAIDOC Week
  12. Business and Tourism
  13. Cultural Awareness for Visitors
  14. Glossary
  15. Endnotes.

Welcome to Country is a beaut book to whet the appetite for learning more about the world’s oldest living culture.  It’s available in digital editions, which are probably the most suitable way for travellers to buy it because the hardback edition would be heavy in a suitcase or backpack.

Author: Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations in Queensland
Title: Welcome to Country, a Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia
Publisher: Hardie Grant, 2018, 233 pages (hbk.)
ISBN: 9781741175431
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Marcia Langton: Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia and all good bookstores

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