Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2016

After the Carnage, by Tara June Winch

After the CarnageLast night as I was idly watching the ABC news, I was struck once again by the contrasts in the worlds we live in.  There was a report about some footballers being pensioned off for new blood… a disproportionately long report, I thought, featuring a lot of hand-wringing by the decision-makers and some desolation by fans.  Normally I just glaze over during sport reports and read whatever’s on the coffee table while I wait for the weather report, but when one of the people behind this decision used the word ‘horrific’ to describe the emotion of wielding the axe, I took notice.  Because in the same news bulletin there was a report about the earthquake in Umbria and further news about the deteriorating situation in South Sudan with a young woman telling us she was raped within eyesight of UN peacekeepers supposed to be providing a safe haven.

Well, of course, the footy guy didn’t know about Umbria when he was interviewed, and possibly not about Sudan either, (though the news editor obviously did) and all things are relative anyway, aren’t they?  But still, it is a real pleasure to pick up a book by an Australian author who’s been and seen a bit of the world and knows what the word ‘horrific’ really means.

A Wiradjuri woman, Tara June Winch burst onto the Australian literary scene with the publication of her award-winning first novel Swallow the Air.  (See my review). Aged only 20 when she wrote it, she showed that she already knew more about horrific situations than most Australians do, but as the recipient of the international Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Award in 2008-2009, she has been mentored by Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.  (I have his memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood on the TBR).  This is what he says about her writing:

The quality of her writing, her eye for the miniature of life, fleshes out both place and persona, and ultimately guides the reader into her action.  She is gifted.

Short stories are not my thing, but this collection overcame my reservations for the same reason that Family Room by Lily Yulianti Farid did. (See my review).  These stories have serious intent.  They challenge thinking.  They demand attention to the issues raised.  Where Farid was wrestling with feminist issues in the context of a corrupt patriarchal society, Winch is dissecting the displacement that disrupts the lives of individuals as well as the wider society.

In ‘The Last Class’ some refugees bond together as they learn French, but they struggle to understand why they must leave their culture behind when there is little prospect of them being admitted to the wider society anyway.

The afternoon classes were taught by Martine.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked her.  She’d always start conversations that often turned into arguments among the students.  She brought up polygamy, racism, brought up politics and homosexual parenting – I was open-minded, I thought, but many of the other students weren’t and often someone’s homophobia, rightly perhaps, lost them friends. One girl, Alia, seemed nice enough when I first met her, but after she started to say in class how disgusting homosexuals were, how horrible, I could never look at her again.  I’ve always thought, if you don’t have something worthwhile to fight about, don’t fight at all.  Another student, Sufjan, had got angry one day too; he’d stood up and yelled, ‘We don’t f—– fit in here, yes we are here, yes there is no war in the street, but it isn’t our home, we aren’t really welcome. My wife can’t find a job, after school I can’t find a job.  What will we do? Watch television? Our children will hate this country of France because they’ll see we never become nothing here. We stay as nobody here.’ (p. 29)

In one paragraph Winch has nailed an international dilemma: how to absorb an incredible diversity of people and respect their identities and yet retain national principles about diversity and gender equity – when at the same time the unskilled jobs that used to ease the transition for migrants have markedly declined in a technologically advanced society?  Even if he is a skilled worker, Sufian is part of the human wreckage…

Before long the students discover that a change in philosophy is to sabotage the number of lessons they can have.

…Martine told us the news.  She took the whiteboard marker out and drew numbers on the board as she explained. She said, ‘Now you were all able to get 350 hours in total, okay.’ She drew a big 350 on the board, put a slash through it, that universal code again.  After this class, she explained, there was no more funding, no more money for the program, and she said ‘Fifty hours maximum,’ and she drew a bigger 50 on the board, circled it with the marker. She explained that after this class, we couldn’t come back and ask for more help with French.  She was disappointed about it, and explained her disappointment then: ‘After this, there’ll be students, but they will be Americans, Canadians, Australians and British, and others; students will have to pay a lot of money for these classes. (p.31)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The title story ‘After the Carnage, More’, humanises the aftermath of an explosion in Lahore:

I look up and I remember a veneer of redstarts and house crows, the birds leaving the slip of clear sky, sky rapidly remodelling itself in ash.  I’d wondered if it was the first time I’d seen the birds of Lahore from that angle.

I’m conscious, alert enough to know that I’m in a hospital corridor, lying on my back still, which means either that I am relatively unharmed according to the order of triage, or worse – and more likely – the hospital is understaffed and too many were hurt. (p.35)

His first question to harried staff is about his wife…

Winch takes on the baby trade in China, (‘Baby Island’); the racism inherent in employment in corporate America, (‘Failure to Thrive’); and the intransigent sexism of men who leer at women’s bodies so that some women might well welcome the anonymity of the niqab. (‘Meat House’).  I’m not entirely convinced by that… it seems to me to be like swapping one kind of abuse for another, but that’s why these confronting stories might be an excellent choice for bookgroups or classrooms – there’s plenty to think about and discuss.

Apparently there is a new novel in the pipeline.  I’m really looking forward to that…

PS Although there is a distinctly international flavour to these stories, Winch hasn’t lost her essential ‘Australian-ness’ as can be seen in her very first story, ‘Wager’

I remembered the taste of coins, house keys, zipper ends – sometimes I could lick a brass key and all of my childhood would return.  I remembered I used to pry conch shells off the reef, collect hot wattle flowers and suck out the honey inside; I used to feed the possums that came near my bedroom window at nights.  They’d scratch at the fly screens until you pushed a bread crust out, I’d save them from school lunches.  (p.3)

I’ve added this book to the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List.  If anyone else reviews it and would like their review added to the list, please let me know in comments below.

PPS I’m a bit disappointed in the book cover design.  It doesn’t seem to contribute anything at all to the book, in fact, given that it’s a somewhat sombre collection, it’s deceptively cheery IMO .

Author: Tara June Winch
Title: After the Carnage
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2016
ISBN: 9780702254147
Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Available from Fishpond: After the Carnage or direct from UQP.


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa and fellow blog readers,
    I appreciate the review of the short story collection, After the Carnage, by Tara June Winch. Several years ago, I read Winch’s novel Swallow the Air as well as some of her nonfiction pieces. Due to the subject matter and international scope of the stories, the fiction collection can reach a broad range of readers.

    Winch’s collection seems to mirror Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short story collection, Foreign Soil. Like Winch, Clarke explores issues of racism, cultural intolerance, sexuality, and class across countries and regions. The paperback of After the Carnage won’t be available in the U.S. until October. I look forward to reading the collection and sharing Winch’s stories with my colleagues and students.

    The ABC radio show will feature an interview with Winch conducted by the host Daniel Browning on Saturday 9/27.

    Thank you for the review Lisa. I plan to read the memoir, The Tears of Strangers and cultural criticism text, Talking to My Country, by Australian Aboriginal Journalist Stan Grant.

    • Thanks:)
      That’s great, I’m so glad you were able to source Stan Grant’s book!

  2. Perceptive comments in your post, Lisa, about the world we live in – I agree it’s hard to watch the news at times especially when 15 minutes can be devoted to the latest football transfer or retirement, and a city in Yemen or somewhere else has been bombed and merits a 30-second glance. Regarding the short stories – just from the snippets quoted, a gifted writer indeed and I hope will be widely read. Today when many people claim a poverty of time, the short story may gain a resurgence. (Says one who loves the genre and has fingers crossed!)

    • Ah yes, I knew you’d like this!
      [Readers, Mairi is the editor of anthologies of short stories from the Mordialloc Writers Group, and she’s had more than a few published elsewhere too].
      One of the things I like about the blog review is that there’s room to quote from a book, so that potential readers have some idea of a writer’s style. Sometimes that has more impact than any words I might ever write in the review…

  3. Seeing as I’m one of the guilty ones who watch the news for the sports coverage, I’d better be careful about what I say. Not that there is any justification for using the word ‘horrific’ to describe the decision not to employ four older footballers after the end of this season. But, sports commentators are often easy marks for their misuse of words when a lot of them are not well educated and should be commended and encouraged.
    And to get back on topic, I think I should give Swallow the Air a try

    • If I had my way, Bill, you would get a whole sports broadcast just for you, just not in the middle of the real news!
      I didn’t know that about sports broadcasters…

  4. We’re becoming a world which is running out of words to describe some of the events that happen around us. When a problem about a football transfer is described as horrific how can the same word then have meaning when applied to the appalling situation in Italy right now or Syria or the refugee crisis? I blame many broadcasters for this, they use words too freely and then Viewers pick them up….
    I probably won’t read this book simply because it’s a collection of pieces and I’m finding I don’t get on well with them so am reigning back there. although i do have the newest Periene to read which is a collection of pieces from the Jungle refugee camp in France so I’m not entirely consistent !

  5. Agreed. And images don’t work any more either. We were galvanised by the photo of the child fleeing from US napalm in Vietnam, but that Syrian child who washed up on the beach? The one sitting in painful bafflement on a chair in a Syrian hospital? Oh, everyone talked a lot about how poignant it was, but the fact that social media had lifted its head above the cat videos to take any notice was the news, not the child and his tragedy and not a thing has changed and there’s no groundswell of outrage to make it happen. Forgive me if I sound cynical but maybe these pictures don’t have an impact when they’re swiped in and out of vision with a quick ‘like’ on a phone. Or maybe people really, really just don’t care.
    I hear you about short stories. Each to his own, and I like the long form of the novel, though I also enjoy a nicely constructed novella. I usually leave it to Sue from Whispering Gums to review them because she loves them and she’s really good at it. But this author is something special in Australia – her novel Swallow the Air has been on school curricula for years now, and so I thought, well I’ll just read one and bring it to people’s attention, and much to my own surprise I just kept reading, one after the other!
    Which just shows that I’m not consistent either, and hey, we don’t have to be!

  6. Onto the wish list this goes!

  7. […] “After the Carnage” by Tara June Winch, see my review […]

  8. […] After the Carnage by Tara June Winch, see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

  9. […] Tara June Winch After the Carnage (Penguin), see my review […]


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