Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2021

Vale Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

I am sad to pass on the news that the Australian poet, essayist, short-story writer and novelist Kate Jennings died yesterday in New York.

It is only a week or so since we were chatting on Kim’s Reading Matters blog about Jennings’ novel Moral Hazard, (2002) which was was the book that brought her to the attention of readers like me when it was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize.  Moral Hazard also won the the Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Adelaide Festival Fiction Prize, and the ALS (Australian Literature Society) Gold Medal. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year too.  Wikipedia tells me that Moral Hazard was described as “humane and unsparing; witty, unsettling, and wildly intelligent” by Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus.  Kim says it’s a beautiful little gem of a book and the best book she’s read so far this year.  It was reissued by Text Classics in 2015.

It is Jennings’ first novel Snake (1996) which is reviewed on this blog.  First published by Minerva, and also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, it was reissued by Black Inc Books in 2011. Snake is blistering in its feminist critique of a doomed marriage in the Riverina, and it’s deeply unsettling.

Both these novels are autobiographical in origin, as is, apparently, Stanley and Sophie, (Scribner, 2008) described at Wikipedia as a memoir ostensibly about her dogs but also about life in New York City after 9/11, politics in the US and her encounters with two macaques in Bali at the time of the 2005 bombing there.

Jennings was also a poet, a writer of short stories and a fearless essayist, and in 2010 Black Inc Books published TroubleEvolution of a Radical, Selected Writings 1970-2010.  It’s an anthology of her best work with autobiographical elements, and you can buy it (print and eBook) at the Black Inc website.  The blurb at Goodreads is a good summary of her preoccupations and her life.

In 1970 Kate Jennings, twenty-one, stunned a Sydney anti-war rally with a pull-no-punches speech that put ‘women’s lib’ on the map. Brave, impassioned and searing, the speech set the tone for the idiosyncratic career that was to follow. A few years later, she was on her way to New York, where she would make her name as a writer and enjoy a ringside seat at some of the most confronting events of our time.

Trouble collects Jennings’s best work from the last four decades. With a polemical anger tempered by a keen sense of the absurd and a fiercely independent streak, she writes incisively about politics, morality, finance, feminism and the writing life. She describes America with the keen eye of an outsider and looks back at Australia with an expatriate’s frankness.

Trouble is both an unconventional autobiography and a record of remarkable times. From the protest movements of the 1970s, via Wall Street’s heyday and dramatic collapse, to the historic election of Barack Obama, Jennings captures the shifts – seismic and subtle, personal and political – that brought us to where we are now. After four decades, Kate Jennings’ work is as exhilarating and impossible to categorise – shocking with the shock of recognition – as the day it was written.

Black Inc Books is the division of Schwartz Publishing that publishes books, and it’s worth quoting their mission statement because it’s so relevant to the Kate Jennings books they have published.

Schwartz is an organisation of unusual expertise, bound by a common purpose. Our aim is to publish writing worthy of our reader’s attention. We reject ideology in favour of integrity and rational, informed ideals. Our commitment is to a thinking Australia, to keep seeking out the raw materials from which the nation makes up its mind, providing a home for conversations that can’t happen anywhere else.

It is the media arm of Schwartz Publishing which brings us Quarterly Essay which is often featured on this blog.  I consider it essential reading, especially now that journalism in this country is in such a parlous state.  QE is a journal about current affairs which I subscribed to from its inception, except for a brief period of (fruitless) economising in the wake of the GFC.  It’s ironic then, that Kate’s essay American Revolution, the fall of wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama (Quarterly Essay #32, 2008) is one that I haven’t read… but because I am a subscriber, I can read it (and all previous QE essays) online.  And I will.


Update, later the same day: I’ve just finished reading it, and taken the dog for a walk to think about it.  If you can access a copy, it’s still well worth reading even though it’s two presidents ago now, because it’s not only witty and wise and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it’s also a reminder of the hope people felt at the election of the Obama presidency.  Weirdly, it also brought a sense to me that the last ghastly eight years of American politics was a dream nightmare and not reality.  An aberration, we would like to hope, albeit with the caveat that the Kate Jennings of this essay would have never have succumbed to wishful thinking. 

In 2017 Black Inc also published Eric Jennings’ reflections on Snake as a work that inspired him as part of its Writers on Writers series. This is the blurb about On Kate Jennings from their website:

Kate says she doesn’t know what to say about writing. When people ask, she tells them to prepare for a life of failure.

Award-winning writer Erik Jensen plunges the reader into the world of acclaimed novelist, poet and pioneering feminist Kate Jennings. Weaving in his interviews with Jennings in New York, he shows how poetry, politics and family were transmuted into her first novel, Snake – a work of art that depicts rural Australia in a funny, cutting and unforgettable way. This is a biography of a book and the life that made it.

It’s unsettling to see Kate Jennings quoted as saying that hers was a life of failure.  I hope she meant it not as a statement about her personal life, but rather, about her passionate desire to make the world a better place…


Responses

  1. Sorry to hear the sad news. I have her book Moral Hazard.

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  2. Thank you for the links, Lisa. I was shocked to hear the news this morning. I’ve never read her poetry but the two short novels I have read were five-star reads in my opinion. I think she must have led a rather extraordinary life. It’s such a shame she’s not better known.

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    • I am reading her QE essay now, just taking a break from laughing out loud, she is wickedly funny when writing about the most serious of things. This is how she writes about the presidential debate between Obama and McCain
      “All the late-night comics – Leno, Letterman, O’Brien – are making whoopee with John McCain’s bizarre meandering around the town-hall set of the presidential debate yesterday. But Jon Stewart hits the jackpot. Stewart shows footage of McCain crisscrossing behind Obama and even in front of his opponent as he is speaking, blocking the camera and making the moderator Tom Brokaw peer around him. McCain clasps his hands as he roams, occasionally unclasping them – one of his tics – to hold up a palm. “What are you doing, McCain?” asks an incredulous Stewart. He then tells us that they have isolated the feed from McCain’s microphone during his “sojourn” and replays the footage with the soundtrack. With Obama in full throat and the CNN banner at the bottom of the screen reading “Should Healthcare Be Treated as a Commodity?” McCain wanders over to the audience, asking them softly, “What’s goin’ on over here? How’re you folks doing?” Over to the chairs and then, as he makes his way back to the outer reaches, he asks, ever so plaintively, “Has anyone seen my dog? Has anyone seen my little Mr Puddles?” Unclasps his hands, palm up. “Just a little guy. Fits right in your hand. No? Mr Puddles, Mr Puddles, I have [sic] snausages …”

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      • Oh, reading this reminds me of how much I miss John Stewart! ☹️

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        • I wish we had some *witty* comedians these days…

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          • Plenty of witty ones about, but not many who are crusading / social activists / astute media commentators such as John Stewart. His “replacement” John Oliver is very good & I like our Australian equivalent Charlie Pickering.

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            • I have to be in the mood for Charlie Pickering. He’s a bit predictable IMO.

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  3. Hi Lisa, that is sad news. I did enjoy her writing, and Snake was a great read. A very insightful writer.

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    • Yes…
      And another thing…
      Most of the obituaries on this blog have been for writers older than than Kate Jennings. 72 seems far too young.

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  4. I loved Snake, and Moral Hazard, and have read Troubled, which I greatly enjoyed.

    72 is too young.

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    • I’m not a great reader of essays but I think I might track Troubles down.

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      • It’s not really essays Lisa, so much as pieces of her writing that she chose to narrate her life – there are excerpts from her novels, as well as essays and other pieces of writing. It’s a really interesting work – at least I think so because I like writers playing around with different ways of doing things!

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        • Just excerpts? *pout*

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          • Well, yes, sorry!! Like from Snake, to describe something about that part of her life, and so on.

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            • I know, I’m pathetic, but I find excerpts frustrating. I love my Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian writing, but I never read the excerpts, I only read the writing that’s complete.

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              • No, you’re not! I’m not a big fan of them at all. I have that Anthology too, and keep being put off by all the excerpts in it. However, it is a matter of horses for courses I think, in that Jennings has herself curated Trouble to tell a story, and that makes quite a bit of difference (to me anyhow.)

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                • Neither of my libraries have it but I’ve just reserved the Eric Jenson one, so I’ll be happy to look at that.

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  5. 72 does seem far too young for such a light to be distinguished. Sad day.

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    • The ABC and the Guardian haven’t run an obituary yet… I wonder if the US media has?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] wrote a Vale Kate Jennings post on the weekend, and I have reviewed three of her […]

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