Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from Stasiland, to …

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Anna Funder’s ‘classic on tyranny and resistance’ – Stasiland.  Not only have I read it, for many years I have earbashed other people about how they ought to read it too. If you’re privileged to live in a democracy, IMO you have a responsibility to guard its freedoms, and Stasiland is the book that show you what there is to lose.

I’ve read enough books about the German Nazis and the USSR to know that the scariest aspect of the surveillance state is the way it enlists citizens to oppress each other.  The Chinese took this to a whole new level during the Cultural Revolution when it was deemed to be patriotic to inform on your own family and friends if they did not conform to Mao’s insistence on controlling not just behaviour but thought as well. Vivian Xiyan Bi’s new coming-of-age novel Dragon’s Gate (2020) explores the terrible consequences of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of one who grew up during those years.

#3 Footsteps

Footsteps, (1985), third in the Buru Quartet written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is also a coming-of-age story.  Written from Toer’s imprisonment under the dictator Suharto, it tells the story of Minke who starts his adult life at a medical school.  Like everything else in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony, the school is segregated by colour and class, but Minke meets a liberal Dutch journalist who set him on the path towards activist journalism.

This reminds me of a book I read recently: Literary Activists, Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life, by Brigid Rooney (2009). Rooney’s book is targeted at an academic audience, and it focussed mainly on the great Australian activist-writers of the past such as Patrick White and Judith Wright, yet it engaged my interest in the concept of the writer as literary activist.  Contemporary novels that tackle urgent social issues are always going to be more interesting to me than #DuckingForCover fiction about *yawn* domestic secrets and betrayals.

Meg Mundell’s eerily prescient novel The Trespassers (2019) tackles contemporary themes of migration, exile and belonging.  It features a shipload of migrant workers fleeing a pandemic, but bringing it with them across the ocean.  Like the hapless passengers on cruise ships now stranded all over the world, held hostage by governments which fear not only the spread of the virus but also their medical facilities being overwhelmed by non-citizens, the characters in Mundell’s novel remind us of the humanity of those caught in the moral dilemma.

The book I’m currently reading is also about a moral dilemma.  Thanks to a giveaway from the Sydney Review of Books, I am enjoying Aravind Adiga’s new novel Amnesty.  Except that ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word.  Painfully brutal about how Australia treats its undocumented workers, it’s about a man who has overstayed his visa in Sydney, and has crucial information about a crime that’s been committed.  If he comes forward he’ll be deported back to Sri Lanka.

Another book set in Sydney about Australia’s underclass, is the beautiful new novel Symphony for the Man by Sarah Brill.  It’s about a young woman who sees a homeless man and wants to do something for him.  Although she has nothing much in the way of musical background, she wants to write him a symphony.  As I said in my review, do not let this book get under your radar just because the bookshops are closed.  You can order it from any number of bookshops that are trading online

(I have just had an email from the lovely people at Benn’s Books Bentleigh, and they have filled my latest order.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the Facebook group ‘Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party.’ It has been set up by Kirsten Krauth to promote new releases… and there have been some irresistible new books, including a must-have Brenda Niall title called Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson.  I haven’t heard a word of publicity about this book elsewhere, so thank goodness for the Facebook site, eh?)

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a book of essays that demands that we open our eyes to the dangers of a surveillance state, to a novel that asks us to open our eyes to the vulnerable people around us.  Especially now.

Next month’s book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

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

Update 6/4/20 In my original post I made an observation about the Sydney Review of Books being unsuccessful in its application for four year funding from the Australia Council.  It was based on incorrect information and I have deleted it.  I made the observation on the basis of a list of successful applicants that was posted on Twitter.  That list was not accurate, and the link to it at the Australia Council website is now no longer available.  (Possibly a casualty of working from home?)  The current list of recipients can be downloaded here.  Please accept my apologies for misleading my readers or for any concern this may have caused.

 


Responses

  1. What an interesting list, Lisa! As I think I mentioned on Twitter I’ve been thinking about Meg Mundell’s novel at lot lately. I literally live 200 metres from Freo Port and the number of stricken cruise ships docking here and then begging to let passengers and crew off has created a bit of a storm in recent weeks. I have had to readjust to living with the sound of media helicopters continually buzzing overhead (non-stop for three days last weekend/Monday). The Artenia docked on Tuesday (I think…the days all bleeding into one at moment) and offloaded 800 Germans who were escorted by bus to Perth Airport for chartered flights back to Frankfurt. Several patients were taken to private hospitals and there was such a media frenzy about them taking up medical beds. Surely it’s a humanitarian issue and we would want other countries to help Australians in similar situation. I am hopeful that people might become more empathetic toward refugees as a result of this coronavirus cruise ship standoff thing, but I’m not convinced…

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    • We would certainly hope to see more international cooperation in this time of an emergency. Germany has offered an example by providing beds for patients from Italy. That spirit isn’t being shown in USA though with Trump telling ventilator manufacturers they must not sell to a Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely… international cooperation would mean that Aussies in other ports would be looked after and we would look after international who are here.
        The problem is that there are not enough beds or ventilators anywhere and it is human nature, not to mention politically expedient, to look after our own first.
        TBH I am glad I don’t have to make a decision about what to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great chain Lisa – and kimbofo, I like your hope though like you am not convinced that’s how it will play out. The next few years are going to be very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In one way, I am optimistic. For years, there has been only one way of doing things: the hard, uncaring economic way of doing things. At last we are seeing (though I am sorry it has taken a pandemic and many needless deaths) that the selfish economic model of worrying only about the individual doesn’t work, because the poor and the disadvantaged are now a risk to selfish people who didn’t care. People are starting to realise that *they* will suffer if others do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. It is levelling the playing field and proving that many of our systems / processes / set ups are not sustainable.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We are seeing it, I agree Lisa, and it’s a positive sign. I am a glass half-full person but I’m not jumping up and down yet. It could go in two opposing ways at the end of this, couldn’t it?

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        • Yes, it could, and the powerful people who have profited so well from private hospitals and private schools, a brutal welfare system and a grossly unfair taxation system won’t be willing to give up what they have. It will be up to the young to fight for a better way…

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          • Not just the young, I’d say, but all of us need to do what we can don’t we?

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            • They are the ones who, it is widely reported, say they are disaffected and have no faith in democracy. Until that changes and they get involved in politics, nothing will alter because, since they don’t vote, politicians know they can ignore them.

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              • I take your point … but I guess I just meant that it is a whole of society project. Maybe older people need to help them see that they can change things. As I think I’ve said before, I know and/or know a lot of highly engaged young people, some working in activist organisations, others making their ideas heard on social media.

                PS I didn’t realise you meant pre-voting young people … I can’t really comment on them.

                Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa I have long been convinced that the only way to get those who are indifferent to the more vulnerable among us is to point out that it is in their interests to do so. Now perhaps they are finally learning that this is true. I’m just sorry it has taken so much suffering to get the point home. I hope we all remember this when the pandemic is long over but I’m not sure…
        Thanks for an interesting discussion here!

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        • Absolutely… I remember trying to tell parents when Jeff Kennett was making savage cuts to education, that they might think that the loss of an ESL teacher or a Reading Recovery teacher or a Special Needs teacher made no difference since their child didn’t need it, that their child would get less attention in class because I was having to spend more time with the kids who no longer had any special help.
          As for parents with kids in private schools, they don’t seem to realise that it’s in everyone’s interests to have everyone educated to be the best that they can be, in properly resourced government schools. Australia is a small country with a need for highly skilled people. There aren’t any jobs for unskilled workers any more, and we can’t afford to have a cohort of unemployable students because they’ve never had the help they need.
          I grew up in an era when vast numbers of highly intelligent people finished school early and didn’t get their chance till Whitlam abolished university fees. What happened then showed only too clearly how that talent pool had been wasted. (A neighbour of ours went from telecom linesman to graduating as a doctor and started his practice in the western suburbs where GPs were badly needed.)
          The other thing we have to do, as a matter of urgency, is fix the problem of misinformation and conspiracy theories. They are a danger to us all.

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          • Indeed Lisa. My grandmother received an MBE for her services to Aboriginal welfare in an era when it was unheard of for a woman (much less the wife of a mere coal miner, as she was) to receive a tertiary education, much less have a career.

            I still kick myself for not having taken copious notes of the stories she told me. She used to travel all over Australia visiting indigenous communities. There was no way her family could afford a tertiary education for her, yet I think what an incredibly intelligent, highly informed woman she was. Very politically aware, she used to write letters to Gough Whitlam when he was PM and my brother still has his (hand-written!) replies to her. Imagine that happening now!

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            • Wow, she sounds wonderful, no wonder you are proud of her.
              You know, I often say to people (especially people who are into family history) that they should worry less about the people in their past, and write their own stories.
              In your case, I’d suggest that you begin writing about what you remember about her. Even if it’s incomplete, it will be something that will be treasured in years to come. And then write your own story. I’ve started doing mine, (which includes stories from my parents, incomplete as they are) . Not for publication, not to be a memoir, just for my son because I realised recently that there are whole parts of my life that he knows nothing about.

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  3. I enjoyed this chain, particularly your first leap to the cultural revolution.
    I read a glowing review for Symphony for the Man last week. Think it’s one I need to get.

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  4. Interesting chain! I’ve meant to read Stasiland for years but keep forgetting about it… ;D

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    • LOL That’s what I’m here for, to nag you into remembering!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. These all sound really powerful reads Lisa. The Trespassers is probably a bit too much for me at the moment when I’m needing escapist reads but I’ll certainly bear it in mind for the future.

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    • I think your comment makes an important point…this is such an anxious time, everyone is reading in different ways and some of our keenest readers find they can’t concentrate to read at all and can only manage short stories and flash fiction. I’ve seen people say that they can only read NF right now, or they want art or travel books. Some need escapism while others want gritty realism. I’ve seen some who specifically want to read ‘plague fiction’ like Camus’ The Plague or Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. I’ve found that while I don’t read a lot of poetry, Bruce Dawe’s death last week led to comforting hours with his poems, reminding me that the world has been in a mess before and has come through it.
      When all’s said and done, we can always just read about reading amongst ourselves. I admit always to feeling a sense of relief when a comment arrives, it means that another of my friends, virtual though they may be, is safe and well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic list. Such interesting books in your chain. Thank you!

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  7. What a brilliant chain, Lisa, with every book looking like it deserves a place on my TBR list. I don’t think I would naturally have come across some of these titles – isn’t this just one of the great things about international blogging!

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    • Indeed it is… it is a great community of keen readers, and I love the way everyone tackles the same book from a different angle.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ll be earbashing people about Stasiland as well – can’t believe it took me so long to read it.

    I had hoped that The Trespassers would make the Stella list, so that it stayed on my radar… alas, we know it didn’t but I really ought to get hold of a copy so I don’t forget about it.

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    • Yes, the Stella… I know being a judge must be a thankless task, and I know I’d be hopeless at it, but really, omitting The Trespassers was A Big Mistake.

      Like


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