Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2017

No More Boats, by Felicity Castagna

As aspect of Australian policy that has long irritated me is that apparently it’s anti-refugee sentiment in the ethnically diverse western suburbs of Sydney that drives our unconscionable refugee policy.  These electorates are crucial to electoral success and so both political parties kowtow to their hostility to refugees who come to Australia by boat.  The irony is that these loud, unfeeling and disproportionately influential voices come from people who themselves came to Australia by boat.  (Who, perversely, take no notice at all of refugees who arrive by air and then seek asylum, and apparently have no objection to the hordes of people who overstay their visas either).

Felicity Castagna, winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award in the Young Adult Fiction category for The Incredible Here and Now, explores this phenomenon in her new novel No More Boats.  It’s uncomfortable reading, but it’s an important book and it shows how fiction can shine a light on contemporary issues in society.

Antonio Martone is a product of the Populate or Perish immigration programs of the 1950s.  With his good mate Nico, he has been a hardworking success story in the construction industry, building good solid houses with craftsmanship and care.  He owns his own home and has others too, as investments.   But things are unravelling: he has been badly injured in the workplace accident that killed Nico; he is alienated from his wife and children, and he feels that his security is compromised because of the hysterical media response to the Tampa crisis.

Castagna builds her story slowly, weaving the narratives of Antonio, his wife Rosa, and his children Clare and Francis.  Rosa, facing the empty nest and anxious about Antonio’s strange behaviour, is plagued by regret.  She left Antonio once before, and wonders if she could have made a more interesting life for herself like her neighbour Lucy did when the 1970s came along and there were opportunities for women to reinvent themselves.  Rosa’s life as a housewife is empty and unfulfilling, and she is disappointed by the ingratitude of her kids.  They don’t share her ambitions for them and they don’t appreciate the sacrifices she’s made.

Castagna has been a high school teacher and it gives authenticity to her characterisation of the adolescent Francis and his mates Jesús and Charbel.  Francis is a source of constant frustration to Antonio and Rosa: he is bone idle, he oozes foul language, and in a marijuana-induced haze, he drifts in and out of the family home with no apparent purpose in life and no respect for anyone.  Rosa and Antonio think that they can take some satisfaction in Clare’s achievements, but they are rudely awakened when they find out that months ago Clare gave up her job as a teacher without telling them, and is working in a bookshop…

There is a claustrophobic atmosphere of inertia in this novel.  All the characters conceal their thoughts, and conversations slide past each other:

In the kitchen Francis and Jesús took beers out of the melting ice in the sink.  John Farnham asked questions from the stereo speakers:

What about the world around us?
How can we fail to see?
What about the age of reason?

‘Francis.  Jesús.  You’re here.’ His mother had appeared from nowhere.

She ignored her son completely, turned to Jesús and gave him a kiss.  ‘I hear you are doing very, very well for yourself. Worked hard.  Almost an accountant now.  Your mother will be able to visit you in your office one day.

Jesús smiled and nodded.  But Francis knew his mother was not really speaking to Jesús.  She was speaking to him.  She wanted him to be more like Jesús.  To have dreams of offices too.  Never going to happen.  Francis smiled at her.  He knew his mother well enough.  He knew that she’d had just the right amount of sherry and was enjoying herself just enough to smile back at him eventually, if he kept on smiling.  (p. 51)

This party for Antonio’s premature retirement is the catalyst for the collapse of Antonio’s life.  All his old securities have gone, and now he wonders if he was wise to come to Australia by boat.  He tells himself that in his era Australia wanted people like himself to come here, but like Clare’s ex-student Paul whose parents came by boat from Vietnam, Antonio has a fragile sense of belonging.  He is plagued by the raucous media and the Prime Minister’s infamous mantra ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’  The promised land is not what he thought it would be.

The reader isn’t sure if Antonio’s bizarre behaviour is triggered by prescription painkillers or the early signs of dementia, but when the ghost of Nico commands him to paint ‘No More Boats’ in giant letters across his concrete front yard, it provokes a predictable response.  Both sides of the refugee debate camp out in the street, with megaphones blaring slogans and fisticuffs among the hotheads.

In my review of Max, I pointed out that there are topics that need sensitive handling by authors.  Castagna has explored the underbelly of a vexed social issue without endorsing or condemning it, leaving the reader to form her own judgement.  I’d like to see more of this kind of writing about contemporary life in Australia… it’s illuminating and it’s thought-provoking.

Update 16/6/17 For a European angle on the world refugee crisis, see Emma’s billet about Elorado by Lauren Gaudé.

Author: Felicity Castagna
Title: No More Boats
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336306
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: No More Boats and direct from Giramondo


Responses

  1. Interesting that a story written from the perspective of an Australian of Italian heritage would have the protagonist feeling not wanted. I’ve met migrants who didn’t like being here, Brits and Dutch mostly, but even now, that surprises me. Of course how Muslims feel, I can only guess.

    • Yes, there are some interesting and unexpected angles to the story. But I remain unconvinced that there’s anything valid in the protagonist’s PoV: I think that Australia’s position on refugees, when we are so wealthy and so safe, is contemptible. (And guess what, I’ve been in this country for over half a century, but there will still be people who say that if I don’t like it, I should go back where I came from!)

      • I’m sorry about that! One of the (many) aspects of our immigration laws that I dislike is our ability/willingness to deport people who grew up here.

        • I don’t agree. If a migrant has lived here for decades and not bothered to take out citizenship, then they’d better not break the law IMO.

  2. The point you make in your first paragraph is an interesting one, but it’s not limited to migrants or refugees. I’m equally surprised by women who don’t support women, by people who were bullied who go on to bully others, and so on. It seems to be human nature, unfortunately.

    (My women comment refers, for example, to my experience when my friend and I were pioneering part-time work/jobsharing in the public service. Our main opposition came from women. It was astonishing. Of course there were women who supported us, but in this situation it was the women who didn’t support who held a lot of power. We got through in the end, but what a painful business it was. Our experience is a common one I’ve heard/read. So, nothing surprises me!)

    • The bullying does make sense in a weird kind of way: people who were bullied and powerless to stop it, often deal with it by bullying others less powerful than themselves. At least, that’s what we see with children in schools, and that’s why it’s important to break that cycle when they’re young.
      I’m not sure that I agree with the general proposition (if that’s what you’re making) that women should support women. I decide issues, and whether I’ll support them, on their merits or the ideas behind them, and I would be annoyed if judged for ‘not supporting women’ as if it’s something I should automatically do because of my gender.
      I don’t know about any other kind of work situation, and I’m not extrapolating to other workplaces, but I personally found that in a school situation my workload as a Leading teacher/Assistant Principal increased exponentially the more part-time teachers we had.
      That’s because teaching isn’t just about the hours at the chalkface, it’s also making a contribution to committee work, completing professional development obligations, liaising with parents and other teachers etc etc etc. The average teacher (not the conchie ones) has a 50-hour week, and they don’t work from 8.45-3.30pm, they work from 8.00-8.15 to 5.30 or 6.00 or later.
      One obvious example of the extra work generated is when a parent rings up to complain about a teacher who’s gone home at 3.30pm. Those of us routinely still there until 6.30 have to take the phone call, and let me tell you, advising the parent to ring back the next day or next week when she’s back at school doesn’t cut it. No, without knowing anything about what’s happened, the one taking that angry phone call will spend half an hour or more listening to the complaint and doing their best to resolve it. (You probably have no idea how long an angry parent can go on and on about comparatively minor things, lost jumpers, homework that’s too easy/hard, getting the same reader twice, somebody telling their little darling that they don’t want to be friends any more!) Because everything has escalated, everything has to be documented in case things get more out of hand, so add in however long that takes to do, after the phone call has ended. All that is time the teacher taking the call then doesn’t have to do their own work before they go home. Then the next day (or next week) there has to be a conversation with the part time teacher, probably during recess or lunch time because there isn’t any other time. That might be another half hour, for something that that teacher could have dealt with herself in 10 minutes if she’d been there after school. Multiply that by the number of part time teachers in a school, and add in all the other things that have be chased up, one by one because they’re not available and not at meetings, and you can see why our hearts sank every time our teachers came back from maternity leave wanting part time hours.
      Teaching is a feminised profession and it has good family leave and part-time provisions which is good for the women who take those opportunities, but they’re not good for the women in leadership positions who have to deal with it. And we have families too.

      • I hear you Lisa, but I do understand something about managing part-time staff, and the impact of that. Most of my career I managed teams and sections and 2/3 of that time I was part-time myself, and had some part-timers in the group. At one stage I had a team of pretty well all part-timers. (Something like 6 FTEs but 9 or so staff members.) It was a challenge – from several perspectives – but it was one of the best times of my working life because it was the happiest, most productive team I worked in. You do have to back up behind people but I found it worth it because those same people gave back the support they were given. They appreciated my support for their hours and worked really hard when they were there, were flexible when they could be, etc.

        I know a bit about teachers and parents – I was Board Chair for several years and handled a bunch of tricky issues from teachers e.g. If you hire a female principal I’ll leave) and parents (Can you stop Mr D having Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the classroom.) I never ever want to go there again. And of course my son is a teacher and I hear enough to know that teachers are often up against the wall. It’s not easy, I do know that. Parents can be so unreasonable and one-eyed.

        But I am absolutely committed to flexible work and believe we have to make it work – not just for women, but also for men. Also, it seems to me that even a full-time teacher can go home at 3.30pm on some days, because they have an appointment for themselves or their children. It just needs goodwill on all sides – which I appreciate is not always there in parents!

        As for women supporting women, I don’t mean all women should support all women indiscriminately but I do think women should support other women when they are striving in areas where it is reasonable to do so, where, for example, we want to effect social change, where women are behind the eight ball. I don’t like that sense of “well, I did it the hard way and so should you” which is around a bit I think. That’s not, I believe, how we improve conditions for people – males and females. It’s not how conditions have been improved in the past.

        We are probably going to have to agree to disagree on all this, though maybe we might meet in the middle somewhere!?

        • Of course we can meet in the middle, and *chuckle* I’ve retired so it’s not my problem any more!

          • Haha, Lisa, moi aussi – and thank goodness for that. It was good while it lasted, but my, this part of life has things to offer too. How lucky we are.

  3. I find it supremely ironic to hear so many people in the USA oppose immigration when they themselves are the product of that and indeed proud to proclaim they are Italian, Irish etc even when they are fourth generation. So much for “bring me your huddled masses” I’m not suggesting all Americans hold this view but we seemed to hear it a lot in the election campaigns.

    It’s a controversial topic but kudos to this author for daring to explore it.

    • Our national anthem:
      “For those who’ve come across the seas
      We’ve boundless plains to share”
      Ironic, eh?

      • And I bet it’s taught in schools so should be enshrined in everyone’s consciousness.

        • Yup. It’s supposed to be sung once a week at assembly…

  4. Have you read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s excellent collection of short stories, The Refugees? Both thought-provoking and beautifully written.

    We have similar attitudes to refugees here in the UK, or so our politicians would have us think. A little while back it was reported that the total number of Syrian refugees local authorities throughout the country were willing to house outweighed the pitiful, shaming number our government had said it would accept.

    • I am reading a book about the Middle East at the moment, and it is such a mess… not just Syria. Why they cannot get together like Europe did to resolve differences that plagued the continent for centuries, I do not know…

  5. This book sounds interesting. I could not wait to become a citizen and I place a high value on it. I have had people abuse me bc I don’t use an Australian accent but still sound American. Makes me laugh bc I just can’t say those darn vowels. I have been blamed for the first Iraqi war. Me! The hardest people to deal with at work were women being awful. I think like Whis. Gums says it is human nature. It is probably also partly ignorance, fear of change and the educational priorities in school. So complex. But I still love the people of Australia. ALL of them (ok, maybe not the pollies).🐧🐧🐧

    • One of my dear friends was American, but despite her obviously American accent gets very indignant if anyone asks if she is American, she’s been here so long and doesn’t like American foreign policy at all!
      But Sue is right, it is human nature. People who only speak one language (which is most people in the US, UK and Australia) don’t realise how hard it is to shed an accent – even if you work at it. Actors have to have professional voice trainers to help them do it because accents are basically ingrained by the time you reach 8 or 10 years of age. I had a miserable time at school (both here and in Africa) because of my ‘posh’ Pommie accent, and I’m still sometimes judged as having a certain set of values and beliefs because of it, but now I just don’t care. And that resilience is the essential thing that migrants must have,. We have come to a place not our own, we do everything we can to make it our own and to fit in because we love it, but at the end of the day, that’s the migrant experience. You can’t ever fully belong, and that’s how it is. On the scale of world tragedy, it doesn’t even rate.

  6. Great review on a touchy topic.
    I wonder what you’d think of Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé.

    • I’ve just read your billet of Eldorado, (and am mystified as to how I missed reading it when you published it). I think I should get a copy of it….
      BTW I have put a link to your billet above. I think it’s good that some of our finest writers are tackling this issue….


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