“Life … sends you detours” is a line I quoted from the short story “Sunrise over Sausalito” in the last review I posted here at Gums. That review, posted on 11 July, was for the short story collection Love on the road 2015. Unfortunately, since then we have experienced our own love-on-the-road detours. This is why, as some of you may have noticed, my posting here has slowed to a crawl – the last three posts were in fact written more than a fortnight ago and scheduled for posting over the last two weeks – and why you have not seen me commenting on blogs that I do try to visit regularly. I have, in fact, not opened a book in the last two weeks, even though I have always had one or two near at hand.
Here in a nutshell is the story. On 18 July we were heading off on a trip through Central and Northern Australia with two friends. However, on 17 July one of those friends found herself in hospital undergoing surgery for a broken hip. In one of those coincidences we’d hate in fiction, at exactly the same time she was under the knife in Canberra, Son Gums was under the knife in Seoul for a badly broken arm. He was in Korea on a brief teacher exchange but a team-building water sport activity went a little awry for him and … life, as they say, sent him a detour!
So, we rather reluctantly set off on our holiday as a twosome rather than a foursome and rather expecting that we’d have to cut our holiday short if our son returned to Australia – which is exactly what happened a week into our trip. So, any spare time during our trip was spent not relaxing with a book but rejigging, and then re-rejigging our travel plans, or communicating with relevant parties about the two patients.
I won’t bore you with more – both patients are on the mend now – but I did want to explain that a) I will get back to visiting your blogs soon and b) I am not in a reading slump. It’s simply that the love of children and friends has taken priority for the moment and detoured us from the road we had planned for this July.
Now, where is that book …
A couple of years ago I wrote three Let’s get physical posts in which I focused on physical descriptions of places in Australia. Since, I am currently in Central Australia (for my third time), I thought it would be good to write another post or two in this series. Central Australia – or the Alice Springs Region, or the Alice-MacDonnell Ranges area – comprises the southern part of the Northern Territory, and includes the famous sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Alice Springs, itself, is the second major city in the Northern Territory, after the capital, Darwin. My introduction to the Alice was through Nevil Shute’s novel A town like Alice, but but in fact very little of the book is set in Alice Springs. Eleanor Hogan author of Alice Springs in New South’s Cities series said recently in a Wheeler centre interview:
I was particularly interested in the idea of Alice as a microcosm of national identity and history. It’s not a metaphor that you can take to literal extremes, but there are plenty of conundrums and paradoxes about life in Alice as the premier outback town at the heart of the country that intrigued me.
Central Australia is the quintessential outback. It’s geologically old – very flat with low mountain ranges which were formed 350-300 million years ago – and the earth is red. Population is sparse and distances great. It’s replete with heroes and “characters” like explorer-prospector Lasseter, missionary and Flying Doctor Service founder John Flynn, anthropoligist Ted Strehlow, and indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. It has been criss-crossed by many explorers, and it is where Robyn Davidson started her across-desert trek with camels, chronicled in her book (and the later film), Tracks. And it is, most importantly, home to large communities of indigenous people, who, according to Wikipedia, make up about 50% of the region’s population.
Since my focus here is the physical, though, I won’t go further into the history (or we’ll be here all day). The most famous (white) explorer of colonial Australia in this region was John McDouall Stuart, whose south-north expeditions resulted in the establishment of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and of the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin (now known as the Stuart Highway). Stuart’s journals (covering 1858 to 1862) are available at Project Gutenberg Australia. I’ll share a couple of excerpts from the Journal of Mr Stuart’s fourth expedition – fixing the centre of the continent. From March to September, 1860. These entries describe the landscape a little south of the Alice:
At eight miles the red sand hills commence, covered with spinifex; and on the small flats mulga scrub, which continues to the base of the hill. Red loose sand; no water (Tuesday, 3 April)
The creek is very large, with the finest gum-trees we have yet seen, all sizes and heights. This seems to be a favourite place for the natives to camp, as there are eleven worleys in one encampment. We saw here a number of new parrots, the black cockatoo, and numerous other birds. The creek runs over a space of about two miles, coming from the west; the bed sandy. After leaving it … we passed over a plain of as fine a country as any man would wish to see–a beautiful red soil covered with grass a foot high; after that it becomes a little sandy. At fifteen miles we got into some sand hills, but the feed was still most abundant. I have not passed through such splendid country since I have been in the colony. I only hope it may continue. The creek I have named the Finke, after William Finke, Esquire, of Adelaide, my sincere and tried friend … (Wednesday 4 April)
It was he who “named” the MacDonnell Ranges. His journals are beautiful in their description of the geology, plants and fauna of the region. He also notes the presence of local indigenous people (either by seeing them or their tracks or campsites).
Its appearance [Ayers Rock, now Uluru] and outline is most imposing, for it is simply a mammoth monolith that rises out of the sandy desert soil around, and stands with a perpendicular and totally inaccessible face at all points, except one slope near the north-west end, and that at least is but a precarious climbing ground to a height of more than 1100 feet. Down its furrowed and corrugated sides the trickling of water for untold ages has descended in times of rain, and for long periods after, until the drainage ceased, into sandy basins at its feet. The dimensions of this vast slab are over two miles long, over one mile through, and nearly a quarter of a mile high. The great difference between it and Mount Olga [now Kata Tjuta] is in the rock formation, for this is one solid granite stone, and is part and parcel of the original rock, which, having been formed after its state of fusion in the beginning, has there remained, while the aged Mount Olga has been thrown up subsequently from below. Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque; Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime. (July 1874)
And now, something written by an indigenous woman from a book titled Women of the centre (edited by Adele Pring, 1990). The story-teller is Ruth Mackenzie (b. 1919), an Aranda/Aluritja woman, born just south of the Northern Territory border. This particular description is of country a little further south again, but is still relevant. I’m including it because she’s describing traditional Aboriginal knowledge:
He [husband] told us stories … All this country was jungle. That’s a long way back and there used to be big snakes but the seasons changed. Drought and that came and buried everything up and what they call Yandama sandhills the other side of Lake Frome – all those sandhills – that’s all the trees that’s covered up. I think they’ve found animals there. Animals were bigger – wombat, kangaroo. Everything was a lot larger than what they are now. That’s what he said. Australia was different from what it is now, like it’s all barren country now. It was like Darwin I suppose.
For those of you inspired to read about the region, the following books may be of interest:
- Robyn Davidson‘s Tracks (1980)
- Ernestine Hill‘s The territory (1951)
- Ion Idriess‘s Flynn of the Inland (1932)
Many more books are listed on Wikipedia’s Australian outback literature of the 20th century page.
The majority of Australians live on the coast and are drawn to the sea. Not me. I am drawn to the deserts and the Outback. Maybe this post has explained why?
Note: An excellent discussion of “literary constructions” about the Centre can be found in Chapter 8 of The Cultural Values of the Central Ranges: a preliminary report (for the region’s inclusion as a World Heritage area) (2008).
Jane Austen and gender studies are made for each other, not only because the content of her novels inspire feminist critique (albeit sometimes conflicting, because, well, all her heroines get married, don’t they?), but also because reactions to her tend to be polarised along gender lines. (Remember my reporting in a recent post on VS Naipaul’s assessment?). It is this latter issue that Barbara Seeber addressed in her second paper of the conference, “The pleasures (and challenges) of teaching Emma“.
Seeber commenced her talk by stating that “the politics of gender underpin divided opinions of Jane Austen”. She looked at some of the reasons why students (readers, more widely too, I’d say) say they don’t like Emma – Emma herself is unlikable, the book lacks a plot, and it’s mostly a romance – and teased them out one by one, particularly in terms of their gender implications. I’m not going to summarise the paper, but will just share a few salient points that contribute to issues I’ve been thinking and writing about here.
Unlike VS Naipaul, Sir Walter Scott praised Jane Austen’s writing. Nonetheless, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott distinguished between “cornfields and cottages and meadows” which he saw as typical of “the sentimental and romantic cast” and works dealing with “the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape”. Although Scott himself praises Austen’s “precision” and comic ability, this distinction that he makes does, Seeber argued, reflect a common feminine versus masculine divide.
So, how does the gender divide play out for readers of Emma?
Well, Seeber herself recognised that as a young woman she did not like Emma because she is bossy and controlling, but did not feel the same about Mr Knightley. She realised she had internalized the prevailing attitudes regarding femininity, the double standard that allows men to be authoritative and commanding but disallows the same in women.
(I must say that Emma’s bossiness wasn’t an issue for me when I first read the novel – perhaps because, as the oldest child, I had a bossy tendency myself! It was her snobbery that made her less likeable to me, but I have come to a more complex understanding of that.)
Nothing happens, or what happens isn’t important
There’s a gender point too – of course – behind the idea that nothing happens. Seeber quoted Virginia Woolf from A room of one’s own:
Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
Related to this issue of “feelings”, Seeber said that the popular film/tv adaptations can work for and against appreciation of the novel in the classroom. The films, she said, tend to focus on feelings, and can result in students resisting to expand their thinking beyond feelings. Also, in terms of gender, the issue is further complicated by the fact that male students can be self-conscious about liking Austen because of these films.
The focus on feelings in the movies, has been described by some as the “Harlequinisation of Austen novels”. It can result in the shaming of boy Austen readers. Anxiety about normative masculinity, Seeber said, can be present in the classroom. On the other hand, male students can be surprised to find that Austen is actually interesting, and female students surprised to find the male students enjoying her! (Oh dear!)
But then Seeber’s argument became really interesting for me in terms of recent discussions on this blog regarding gendered reading and writing. Seeber argued that denouncing the films as Hollywood romanticism, that dismissing them as popular culture, is related to the devaluing of women, in that works enjoyed by women are often dismissed as trivial. This is ironic, she argued, because Austen satirizes those who claim themselves above the popular novels (eg Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey). Austen, she said, does not distinguish readers by what they read.
The obvious, and frequent, counter made to the argument that nothing happens in the novels, that they are merely domestic or romantic, is to point to references or allusions to wider issues like the Napoleonic Wars, the slave trade, and the governess trade in Austen’s novels. BUT, Seeber argued, to justify Austen in this way is to undermine the real story of, say, Emma, which is about the achievement of self-awareness and living in the every day, about being human or acting humanely, as Norton describes it, or, as I might describe it, about being civil.
In other words, to try to justify the value of Austen by pointing to her references to the bigger picture is to undermine the importance of the so-called feminine (or more domestic) values.
I liked this argument.
Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Annette Marfording of the Bellingen Writers Festival
Having been intrigued by comments made by Annette Marfording, Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, about running a literary festival, I approached her about writing a guest post for my blog. I thought her experience might intrigue at least some of my readers here too.
Marfording chairs one-on-one conversations and panels at the Festival, and is also a broadcaster at Bellingen’s community radio station 2bbb fm for which she created a monthly program on Australian writers and their work. Marfording’s recently published book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, is based on in-depth interviews broadcast on this program. All profits from the sale of the book will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. What a generous gesture! I have bought a copy of this book, which includes writers like David Malouf, Cate Kennedy and Larissa Berendt. You can too at lulu.com.
Now, here’s Annette’s post …
Some time ago, Sue asked me as Program Director of the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) to do a guest post for her wonderful blog on the joys and challenges of organising a writers’ festival. I’m delighted to do so.
This year the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) had its fifth birthday. In the period since our first in 2011, there’s been an explosion of new literary festivals all around Australia. With the exception of big city specialised sub-festivals, such as the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival and its Festival of Speculative Fiction, and some school or suburb festivals, such as the Abbotsleigh Literary Festival and the Sutherland Shire Writers’ Festival, most of the new festivals are in small regional towns and not specialised in any particular genre. Even though not all of them survive (for example the Gloucester Writers Festival), at the time of writing there are at least nine such regional festivals in New South Wales alone in addition to the big ones: the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and the Newcastle Writers Festival.
On the one hand, this proliferation of festivals is wonderful for readers and book sales and demonstrates that the book is not dead. On the other, for several reasons, it is cause for concern:
- All these festivals compete for government grants and sponsorships.
- They also compete for authors, and understandably authors tend to prefer the greater publicity and book sales associated with the big festivals. Our invitations are often declined on the grounds that the author is overseas at the time/wants to concentrate on her/his next book/can’t possibly attend every writers’ festival in the country.
- Several of the festivals are scheduled in winter, enhancing the competition for authors during those months.
- Sadly these difficulties are compounded when other regional festivals choose to schedule theirs at the exact same time as another, as the newer Batemans Bay Writers Festival did with the Bellingen Writers Festival. Thus two of the authors we had invited appeared in Batemans Bay instead. Similarly it is confronting to find that other regional festivals have copied your advertising slogan, as the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival in Bowral did with their adoption of ‘Be a part of the story‘ (in comparison to Bellingen’s ‘Be part of the story.’
Even if there were only one literary festival in the country, organising a festival is not for the faint hearted. The large festivals attract big money from government agencies and sponsors while the smaller ones have to make do with far less. That usually means that large festivals have a large number of paid staff, while the smaller ones tend to be organised and run by volunteers.
In Bellingen all festival committee members work as unpaid volunteers, which means they have to be brimming with passion and enthusiasm for there is a lot of work to be done: books must be read, authors and chairs selected and invited, contracts drawn up, funding applied for, sponsorship sought, venues booked, an experienced bookseller chosen, transport and accommodation organised, possibly a schools program organised, the program put together and proof-read multiple times for print and website, newsletters written for the website, social media and print publicity employed to spread the word. For the event itself, you need an event producer/organiser, sound engineers, microphones for all venues and multiple speakers, additional volunteers and an organiser for those volunteers. After each festival there are clean-up tasks, author payments and accounting to be done. Over the five years we have lost several festival committee members due to burn-out or the need for an income-generating job. We have also gained a few new ones each year, but they don’t always stay. Only four members have been involved since the beginning.
Government funding bodies often demand the introduction of a new aspect or theme for each year’s festival. For 2013 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Celebrating Women Writers and Women’s Stories, because 2012 marked the beginning of a conversation about gender in literary culture. In 2013 the Stella Literary Award was awarded for the first time. As the readers of this blog may remember, a number of women authors, critics and publishers pushed for the introduction of an award for women writers after women had been left off the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Fiction for two years in a row. Another response was the creation of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. For 2015 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Politics and Society and attracted a number of politicians, journalists, screenwriters and fiction writers exploring social issues and added three forums on mental health issues with Professor of Psychiatry Gordon, clinical psychologist David Roland and author of Australia’s first memoir on youth suicide Missing Christopher Jayne Newling.
Festival visitors often don’t realise that authors need to be paid not only for their transport costs and accommodation, but also earn a fee for every festival appearance (in accordance with standards set by the Australian Society of Authors). In small regional towns such as Bellingen, where small businesses often struggle, it is very difficult to attract sponsorship from local businesses, especially since Bellingen hosts several music festivals as well. Government grants are difficult to obtain on a recurring basis, especially in these times of funding cuts to the arts. This means that smaller festivals become ever more reliant on ‘big name’ authors to attract visitors prepared to pay for tickets. The further away authors live from the festival location, the higher the authors’ transport costs. This means that authors who live on the other side of Australia, in Tasmania, let alone the US, are unaffordable for the Bellingen Writers Festival.
I think it’s obvious from the above that the challenges are formidable. The joys of organising a writers’ festival require far fewer words, but nevertheless win in the end for those who are engaged and passionate about reading and/or writing. The joys of introducing favourite authors to new readers, observing the audience’s enthusiastic faces, rapt attention, and long queues for books and autographs. Even better if the authors have a good time, too, and in Bellingen, they always do. For me personally, involvement in the festival has also made it easier to interview some of the authors in my recently released book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Writers which has sold 80 copies in the first two weeks – to the benefit of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which will receive all the profits from the sale.
Thanks so much Annette for this wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into running a festival. Readers like me owe a big debt to people like you who are willing to undertake the hard yakka of putting on a regional festival. I wish I lived closer to Bellingen!
For my second post on JASA’s Emma: 200 years of perfection conference, I want to share (or, at least, summarise for my own edification) some of the ways the speakers had gone about researching Emma, at least as they became apparent to me via their papers. None of these are particularly mind-blowing – they are the bread-and-butter of literature academics – but I enjoyed seeing how they’d variously gone about it to present the papers and ideas that they did.
Sayre Greenfield, David Norton, Barbara Seeber and Susannah Fullerton all drew on works contemporary to Jane Austen’s time to explore their theories about the novel or to elucidate deeper meanings from them.
Sayre Greenfield shared some his research into works that are in the library at Chawton House*, showing how they contribute to our understanding of Austen’s world view and how that might have played out in the writing of Emma. For example, as is obvious to the reader and as many critics like to discuss, riddles and word games feature heavily in Emma. Greenfield pointed us to books and magazines which show that these were a major form of entertainment for girls and young women of Austen’s time. Not only did he remind us of extant riddles written by Austen when she was young, noting that hers tended to be more satirical than those by her brothers, but he also referred to The Ladies Magazine which, like magazines today, contained games and puzzles for its readers. He discussed the role of these word games in the novel’s plot, but also pointed to Mr Knightley’s criticism of Emma to Mrs Weston that:
But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.
For Mr Knightley, games are all well and good, but Emma could do with something more serious!
Another topic that Greenfield explored was that of old maids. He described a book by William Hayley, published in 1785, titled A philosophical, historical, and moral essay on old maids. By a friend to the sisterhood. In three volumes. This description of old maids in one of his chapters sounds very much like Miss Bates:
The curious Old Maid is a restless being, whose insatiate thirst for information is an incessant plague both to herself and her acquaintance; her soul seems to be continually flying, in a giddy circuit, to her eyes, ears, and tongue; she appears inflamed with a sort of frantic desire to see all that can be seen, to hear all that can be heard, and to ask more questions than any lips can utter …
Now, said Greenfield cheekily, Hayley defines old maids as women unmarried by their fortieth year, and it just so happens that the unmarried Jane Austen turned 40 the month Emma was published. What was she really wanting to say about “old maids” he asked.
Seeber drew on contemporary texts regarding animal rights to argue a relationship, that was made during Austen’s time, between the mistreatment of animals and the domination of social “other”, like women and slaves. I’m looking forward to reading her paper, so I can grasp her argument more fully. She had some interesting things to say about fussy Mr Woodhouse and vegetarianism too!
Fullerton explored the many royal connections to places in the novel, which she suggested is partly about “who will be queen of Highbury”, while Norton turned to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definitions to help us understand the contemporary meanings of words used by Austen. When Emma calls Mr Knightley “humane”, for example, she was likely meaning Johnson’s definition of “civil, benevolent, good-natured”. Remember my point about “civility” in my previous post?
Close textual analysis
Close analysis of the text is, of course, standard practice for academic critics, if not for more general reviewers. I’m mentioning it here, therefore, not because it was surprising but because for me close analysis – of word choice, imagery, structure, and so on – can inform meaning, and provide support for arguments, in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. And so it proved to be at this conference.
Fullerton and Norton, for example, talked about the wordplay in names – Highbury, where Emma is buried; Donwell, where Mr Knightley has done well, a farm that is doing well; and Hartfield, or the field of the “heart”, of feelings. These are fun to think about, but what I found most fascinating was Norton’s discussion of punctuation and grammar.
Grammar and punctuation, he said, are straightjackets on how we think, they exert controls on the expression of our thoughts. Austen knew that, Norton argued, and exploited it. Pride and prejudice, he suggested is one of Austen’s most rational, logical novels. We know exactly what Elizabeth Bennet thinks, and her thoughts and feelings progress logically in the book. Emma, on the other hand, is her most secretive novel. Nothing is really as it seems, and what is happening on the surface – Emma’s matchmaking of Harriet, and the possible romance between Emma and Frank – is not the real story.
One way Austen conveys this irrationality and this secrecy is through dashes! Yes, you heard correctly, dashes. And here is where the analysis was particularly interesting because in Pride and prejudice, he said, there is only one dash per 192 words, but in Emma it is one per 52 words. Who’d have thought? The dashes play two roles. Sometimes they convey the dashing around of thoughts – irrational thinking as it were – as characters jump from topic to topic. Miss Bates does this a lot in breathless prose, but Emma is also guilty of it. Etymologically, Norton told us, the “dash” punctuation mark is related to the verb “to dash”, so a dash can give a sense of movement of the mind.
But, formally, according to Samuel Johnson, the “dash” represents “a pause or omission”. And it also plays this role in Emma when characters pause before they say something they might regret, or have not fully realised themselves. Here is Miss Bates trying not to give voice to rumours about Emma and Mr Elton:
A Miss Hawkins. Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever — Mrs. Cole once whispered to me — but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man — but’ [and so on]
What, Norton asked us, can happen in a pause?
And so, he argued, Pride and prejudice is written in coherent, grammatical prose, while Emma is significantly less grammatical – and that tells us something about the novels themselves and the minds of their respective characters. If you don’t believe me, go check them both out, and see what you think.
I’ve rambled on enough, and this third one is a little tangential, but Greenfield and Troost’s speciality is the study of Austen adaptations. They explore how analysing adaptations can throw light on both the adaptations themselves – duh – and on Austen’s originals. At this conference, they discussed three recent adaptations of Emma – Emma (BBC miniseries, 2009), Aisha (Anil Kapoor Films, 2010), and Emma – Appoved (Pemberley Digital VLOG, 2014). They demonstrated how these productions focus on themes or ideas that we don’t find in Emma itself, chief among these being materialism, the pursuit of fun, and the idea that life is about being true to yourself. Most recent adaptations of Emma, they argued, have roots in Clueless.
For Greenfield and Troost, adaptations are a worthy topic for Austen study. In my last post on the conference, I’ll tell you what Barbara Seeber thinks.
* Chawton is where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life, and from where all of her novels were published. Her house is now a museum.
I’ve mentioned the David Unaipon Award several times in passing but have never devoted a post specifically to it. Today seemed to be a good time to do it, as it would mean I’ve bookended this year’s NAIDOC week with Monday Musings posts devoted to indigenous literature.
Just to recap, David Unaipon is credited as the first indigenous author to be published, with a commissioned book on Aboriginal Legends in the early 1920s. He is featured on Australia’s $50 note. To commemorate him, the David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was established in 1988, and has had a rather chequered career. In 1999, it became part of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. When those awards were abolished in 2012 by new Premier Campbell Newman, it was carried over to the new Queensland Literary Awards.
I have read and reviewed several past winners on this blog: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light (2013), Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads (2010), Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing (2008), and Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air (2004, originally titled Dust on Waterglass).
But this is only a start. The list of winners, from the first award made in 1989, represents a useful list for anyone looking for works by indigenous authors to read. Here are a few writers that I’m keen to follow up:
- Samuel Wagan Watson, a poet, who won in 1999 with Of Muse, Meandering and Midnight. According to the New South Wales Writers’ Centre this work is “a collection of moments: snatches of life in urban Brisbane, glimpses into childhood recollections”. Watson is a well-known raconteur, and during NAIDOC Week last week, I heard him recite a very entertaining, gently subversive poem “A message to my publisher”. It reminded me that I need to keep him high in my TBR list, either this book or one of his later ones.
- Larissa Berendt, a writer, lawyer and academic, who won in 2002 with her novel Home. This novel also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel in the south-east Asian/South Pacific region. It explores the complex notion of “home” for people for whom home has become a fraught notion: they’ve been dispossessed, stolen, or separated for a variety of reasons from their roots and significant connections. Her second novel, Legacy, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Prize for Indigenous Writing in 2010. She is frequently recommended to me, and so is also high on my TBR list.
- Gayle Kennedy, a writer who won in 2006 with her “road trip” novel Me, Antman and Fleabag. It was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Deadly Award. She was featured in a Guest Post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge last week so, rather than add my own words here, I’ll just point you to there! Fair enough? (There’s an added incentive for visiting that post. If you read and review a work by an indigenous Australian in July you can go in the draw to win a copy of Me, Antman and Fleabag.)
- Dylan Coleman, a more recent winner of the award, winning in 2011 with Mazin’ Grace. It was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the 2013 Stella Prize. Like Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing, its subject is mission life, a significant part of indigenous Australian experience and a story that needs to be told.
These are just four from a much longer list. I have no idea how many of these books are still in print, but hopefully most if not all are available in libraries. I wonder?
Rules, they say, are made to be broken, and so it was that I broke my rule* of not accepting overseas publications for review and said yes to a short story anthology from Ireland, Love on the road 2015: Twelve more tales of love and travel. I’m not exactly sure, in fact, why an Irish publisher offered me this book for review. Perhaps it’s because I’ve reviewed a collection, Pelt and other stories, by expat Australian Catherine McNamara who is included in this anthology. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take me long to break my rule on this occasion because I love short stories, because it includes an Australian (woman) author and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s an international collection and so offered me a perfect opportunity to diversify my reading.
The collection opens with a brief Foreword by the husband-and-wife editors. They explain that this is the second Love on the road collection, the first published in 2013. The collections are the end-product of a contest in which the editors called for submission from authors around the world “to send us their tales of love and travel, true or imagined”. In this second volume, one is true, the rest are fiction, and they are set all over the world, from Iran to the Philippines, from Zimbabwe to Costa Rica, from New Zealand to the USA.
Eight of the twelve stories are by women, and one of these is the true story. Written in second person by New Zealand writer Nod Ghosh, “Janus: A path to the future” tells of her husband’s decision, after thirty years together, to transition to female and describes their trip to Belgium for the first surgical procedure in the transition, facial feminisation. It’s a warm story about a strong love that transcends gender. Several of the stories are health-related. Catherine McNamara’s story, “Enfolded”, is about a woman visiting a past lover at his request, after an accident has left him, wheel-chair bound, with paralysed legs. The language is tighter and more restrained than many of the stories I’ve read by McNamara, but it perfectly matches the tension between the couple’s playful, no-strings-attached past and what future, if any, they might forge.
American writer Marlene Olin’s “Sunrise over Sausalito” is also health related, but its tone is upbeat. Indeed there’s a lovely variety in tone in this collection, which is something I like in anthologies. Anyhow, in this story an elderly widower has checked himself into a nursing home. He figures that since he’d checked himself in, he can also check himself out, which he does in a very special way (and no, I don’t mean by the usual way people check out of nursing homes!) It’s a warm, engaging story about how it’s never too late to fulfil your dreams.
Not all the stories are about positive relationships, though. American writer Shirley Fengenson’s “Not a finger more”, set mostly in Costa Rica, is a chilling first person story in which a wife describes her life with a physically abusing, emotionally controlling husband. Fergenson handles her first person narrator with confidence and compassion – and makes it all too real.
The four stories I’ve mentioned demonstrate the diverse ways in which the writers interpreted the theme, but it doesn’t stop there. And here’s the thing. Given the theme, I wasn’t really expecting the degree to which political issues would feature in the collection. It started with the first story, “The queue”, by Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu. It was rather strange to be reading this story as we were hearing about Greek people queuing at ATM machines during their current crisis, because this story is about people lining up at the post office for their monthly pay cheques, though they need first to make sure that they are in the right queue – not the bread one, for example. It’s a story about attitude: are you or are you not able to make the best of a frustrating situation? This story’s tone of wry but hopeful resignation made it a perfect opener for this wide-ranging collection.
Other stories were more hard-hitting, such as Malawian writer Stanley Kennai’s “We will dance in Lampedusa” about a pair of hopeful young asylum-seekers trying to get from Tripoli to Italy by boat. Again, a timely story that might open a few eyes, if it ever got to the right ones. Even harder-hitting, though, is Tendayi Bloom’s cleverly titled “Manila envelope”. Bloom is an English political scientist specialising in migration policy. She has lived in the Philippines, though is currently based in Spain. Her story is a heart-sinking one about a naive Filipina teenager and the nefarious practices by which young women in poor countries are lured into foreign exploitative employment arrangements. This was a powerful story indeed, and is probably the one I’ll most remember.
Well, I think that’s half the stories. I can’t write about them all, but I did enjoy them all. The mother of the main character in “Sunrise over Sausalito” tells him that “Life … sends you detours”. And that’s what this book is about – the detours (or turning points) that we all face, and the way that love, of some sort, whether it be genuine and supportive, or exploitative and abusive, is usually behind those changes. Every story offers a different perspective, with a resolution to match. The editors have done an excellent job.
I must say I did chuckle over the front cover blurb written by Lane Ashfeldt, an Irish writer unknown to me. She describes the collection as “Vivid tales of life across the globe that let you travel while standing still”. I chuckled because at the conference on Emma I attended last weekend, we made fun of Mrs Elton’s complaint at the Box Hill picnic that she was “really tired of exploring so long on one spot”! In the case of this book, though, I’m with Ashfeldt. I was way too engaged to even notice that I had stayed on one spot – while my mind had flown around the world!
Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila (ed)
Love on the road 2015: Twelve more tales of love and travel
Dublin: Liberties Press, 2015
(Review copy supplied by Liberties Press)
* This rule is a pragmatic one. I just have to keep a lid on review copies to enable me to have some input into what I read!