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Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 1

July 21, 2014

Nettie Palmer was one of Australia’s leading literary critics, not to mention essayist and poet, through the 1920s to 1940s. I have mentioned her several times in this blog, including in my post on Australia’s literary couples. She also mentored younger women writers such as Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. However, what I want to discuss today – and next week – is the article she wrote in 1927, about “The novel in Australia”. It was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

She starts by commenting that the number of “good novels written in Australia has been small”. There are reasons for this she says but discussing those is not her aim in this article. Rather, her plan is to reduce her list of “good” Australian novels just the best. The result “is a nugget of surprisingly high quality”. And now my plan is to share with you those nuggets that she defined for her readers back in 1927. It makes for interesting and sometimes surprising reading. Here goes, using the headings she did.

Some early nuggets

She names two.

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood) (Public Domain from the National library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood), by Henry Walter Barnett (Public Domain from the NLA, via Wikipedia)

Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), which is a book I have in my TBR and would love to find time to read. I’m not sure I had heard of it until a few years ago but it keeps popping up in unusual places which has piqued my interest. It has, Palmer says, without elaborating, “a very colonial outlook”.

Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms (1882), which I defy any self-respecting Australian to say they haven’t heard of (though I suspect many of us haven’t read it!). She does elaborate over one and a half paragraphs on this one! She writes that, despite its “truculent title”:

It is one of those rare books that can please on several different counts – as an adventure story, as a sketched historical background, and as a sons psychological novel.

I love that she praises it for its “fine and unexaggerated vernacular, without dropped aitches or other irritating apostrophes to spot its pages”. She sees it as a model for good novels in Australia.

Some successors

Palmer then says that it was a “long time before the simplicity and naturalness of that book was again reached”, but eventually some more nuggets appear.

Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1870), but she does not elaborate.

Mrs Campbell Praed’s (or Rosa Praed as I know and have read her) “easy flowing books now almost forgotten” (1890s). Books being forgotten is, clearly, an age-old problem! Anyhow, she names one, which I haven’t read, Longleat of Koralbyn.Wikipedia tells us that it  was first published in 1881 under the exciting (my description!) title of Policy and passion! No wonder it was republished under a different title. I have read Praed’s rather raw The bonds of wedlock (1887). I laughed at Palmer’s comment that Praed’s books are set in Queensland but “the writer shirks the whole problem of making her Queensland live in the readers’ sight”. That could mean a number of things – but the important thing, I suppose, is that she likes Praed’s writing!

Then, though her subject is novels, she mentions short story writers, naming Louis Becke, Price Warung (whose stories I’ve reviewed), Henry Lawson and Albert Dorrington.

She concludes this section with the following:

For many years it has seemed that only short stories would ever be published again (and those only in fugitive form): any novels that appear have had every sort of circumstantial opposition to overcome.

Fugitive form? Does she mean in magazines (like The Bulletin, established in 1880) and newspapers rather than something more permanent like books? I suspect her comment about the difficulty of getting novels published is not totally incomprehensible to writers today?

Novels after 1900

Her choice of novels from the early twentieth century includes a couple of authors I don’t know. Regular readers here will recognise which ones they are by not having seen them mentioned here!

First up, of course, is Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career which she describes as a “bit of ironic auto-biography, set in an up-country township of the drearier sort”. Palmer, from the point of view of 1927, hopes that “some day she [Franklin] will be able to repeat her early success, looking through the opposite end of life’s telescope”. Franklin did achieve fictional success again, in the late 1930s, with All that swagger.

She then names Randolph Bedford’s – quick quiz question: have you heard him mentioned here? – two novels. True eyes and the whirlwind (1903) and The snare of strength (1905). (Don’t you love these titles?) Palmer describes the first as “a novel of the picaresque style, a useful type for expressing the nomadic youth spent by many Australians before they find their life’s work”. Interesting. I hadn’t quite realised just how far back the idea of Australians as travellers extends, but it reminded me that Patrick White spent time jackarooing in Australia, in the 1920s, and travelling overseas as he sought a place for himself in the world. Overall, she says, Bedford’s work “is never without a fine gusto”. Sounds worth checking out.

I’m pleased to see that she also includes in her list, Barbara Baynton and her novel The human toll (1907) which, she says “had a strong, if acrid life of its own … full of bush tragedy”. That’s our Baynton!

And finally, in this group, she names Louis Stone’s Jonah, “a Sydney story of young larrikins, done with sincerity”.

Palmer ends this section with a cry that is surely universal:

Out-of-print, out-of-print – that is what one has to lament about all these books! Many novels deserve to die in their year of birth, but what of those that have permanent quality? We can only beg for new editions.

I will conclude my discussion of her article in next week’s Monday Musings.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang

July 20, 2014

This year is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary. For those of you who don’t know, Bangarra Dance Theatre is an Indigenous Australian contemporary dance company that was established – obviously – in 1989. Its artistic director since 1991 has been Stephen Page. His brother, David Page, does the music. These are two very talented brothers who have had their hands in many significant indigenous arts endeavours besides Bangarra, but today it’s Bangarra I want to talk about! Bangarra is apparently a Wiradjuri word for “to make fire”.

Mr Gums and I have been to many Bangarra shows over the years. They are exciting. We love the way they incorporate indigenous themes and movements into the contemporary dance world. Last year’s show was Blak, which comprised three parts – a men’s story, a women’s story, and then both genders together. It was clever and entertaining. In 2012, we saw Terrain, which was inspired by the changing landscape of Lake Eyre in central Australia.

Two performances we’ve seen, though, have been inspired by historical figures – and have also connected, coincidentally, with Australian literature. In 2008 it was Mathinna, the indigenous Tasmanian girl who was adopted by Governor and Lady Franklin. Richard Flanagan told her story in his novel Wanting, which I read before blogging.  The other is their current show Patyegarang about the young indigenous woman who befriended and trusted first fleet astronomer-timekeeper, Lieutenant Dawes. She trusted him so much that she shared her culture with him, including her people’s language, which Dawes recorded in his diaries. Their story is told in Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Stephen Page explains in the program why he chose this story for their 25th anniversary show:

I wanted to take the opportunity to pay homage to the land on which we have gathered and created dance theatre works since 1989 – the Eora nation; the place we call Sydney.


I believe Patyegarang was a young woman of fierce and endearing audacity, and a ‘chosen one’, to speak, within her clan and community. Her tremendous display of trust in Dawes resulted in a gift of cultural knowledge back to her people almost 200 years later …

What he means here is that Dawes’ diaries, which were “rediscovered” by a researcher in the 1970s, has helped current people recover language and culture that had been lost.

Dramaturg Alana Valentine talks of how she translated Page’s vision into a story. She also quotes Richard Green, an elder and cultural adviser for the project, who said that “Dawes was different, he listened”. Valentine continues:

It is an observation that carries invaluable wisdom for how contemporary Australia might continue to honour the contribution Dawes himself made to reconciliation and respect.

There it is again – the message we keep hearing: Listen!

Musician David Page talks of working closely with his brother, nutting out just who Patyegarang was. He said the biggest question for him was “How close was their relationship?”

So, the show. It runs for 70 minutes without interval. My, how hard those dancers worked. As you would expect, it took their relationship from their meeting through getting to learn to trust each other and share their knowledge to when Dawes departs. The scene opens on the beach with the warm glow of dawn. It’s idyllic. The people go about their business, safe, as they usually do. Then a strange man appears and the story progresses. There’s hunting and gathering, smoking ceremonies, the gradual acceptance of Dawes (danced by the non-indigenous Thomas Greenfield) led by Patyegarang (Jasmin Shepherd) while others are less sure – and of course there’s fighting with the red coats. It’s a work that requires concentration and imagination from the audience – and I’m not sure we understood all the references. I suspect this is because while there seemed to be a clear narrative, the program is framed a little more abstractly, focussing on feelings, spirit, values and politics rather than narrative. It’s a work that would benefit from multiple viewings.

The dancing draws closely from traditional moves – at least from those I, as a non-indigenous person, recognise – but is still contemporary. Much of it is low to the ground, earthy, suggesting connection to country. All this is accompanied by lighting that tracks the day and mood; a simple backdrop of cliffs, which at times gave the impression of the ancestors looking on, and a single large rock representing a place of safety, of meeting; and gorgeous costuming that blends with the earth while suggesting lightness and spirit too. There’s one dance by the women – “Maugri (Generic Fish)” – in which tubular costumes enable them to slip from human to sea-creature and back again in fluid, organic moves. The music is dramatic, evocative – including clapping sticks at times, strains of “Botany Bay” at others, and overlays of the language Patyegarang shared and Dawes documented.

Works like this are inspiring on multiple levels, emotionally, intellectually and politically … it would be wonderful if Australians could (or would) see it.

John Updike, The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd (Review)

July 17, 2014

I have an old-friend-cum-ex-colleague who has been asking me for longer than I can remember to read John Updike. He even, a year or so ago, sent me a link to a Kindle special for Rabbit, Run. I obediently bought it, and I do intend to read it, I do. However, I recently reorganised my Kindle and discovered that I have a TBR pile there of 20 books! How can that be? I hardly ever buy for the Kindle. But, there you are, the Kindle Cloud never lies, so I must have. All this is to say that I realised it could be some time before I got to Updike, so when I saw a story by him appear on the Library of America a year ago, I printed it out! It finally reached the top of the pile and I’ve just read it. My friend is right. I really should read (more) Updike.

The story, “The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”, is told from the point of view of a male member of a group of couples who socialised and holidayed together over many years – indeed from the time their daughters were two or three to now, when they are in their mid-twenties. Well, until they were somewhere in their teens anyhow, because the old crowd is no longer together – not only due to “the children, really, growing unenthusiastic and resistant” to group holidays but due to “the divorces as they began to build up”.

He compares happy times of the past – from his perspective – to the less than exciting or fulfilling things all their daughters are doing now – from his perspective. He also compares the daughters to their mothers – and again, of course, it’s from his perspective. This is the important thing about the story – his perspective. We know nothing really of what the girls thought then or think now. We only know what a now middle-aged man thinks. Should we trust his view? What does the fact that Updike included this in a collection, published in 1987, titled (presumably by him) Trust me tell us about his intention?

Late in the story, the narrator also compares the girls to the “daughters of people we hardly knew”. These daughters “are married to stockbrokers or off in Oregon being nurses or in Mexico teaching agronomy” while

our daughters haunt the town as if searching for something they missed, taking classes in macramé or aerobic dancing, living with their mothers, wearing no make-up, walking up beside the rocks with books in their arms like a race of little nuns.

So, here’s the challenge. From his point of view, there’s something wrong with these girls. They are not getting married, they are not in high status or highly admirable jobs or situations. Well, we readers might ask, why should they be, given that their parents have clearly not set good examples of happy marriages? Indeed, our narrator, who’s in “about the last marriage left”, reveals a wandering eye. We wonder, in fact, whether they may have been swinging couples. We might also ask, though, what is wrong with the choices the daughters are making? Why should they wear make-up? To catch a man? What is wrong with walking “beside the rocks with books”? And, do they want to marry a stockbroker?

I love the complexity of this, the fact that Updike has chosen to tell this story through decidedly subjective eyes, and yet has managed to leave the interpretation surprisingly open. It’s a story, I suspect, that can be read very differently depending on each reader’s experience and point of view, despite some givens in the text.

Before I conclude, I want to mention the style. The tone is intimate – as though the narrator is talking to one of his old friends. He refers, for example, to Mary Jo Addison and “that bad spell of anorexia”, implying we know all about Mary Jo’s problems. There’s also some lovely imagery, such as this description of the young girls with “their pale brushed heads like candles burning in the summer sunlight”. Decorative but not very necessary? Is this how they were treated? And, overall, there’s a sense of disconnect between the narrator’s nostalgia and the reality of their lives. I’m not sure he’s unreliable exactly, but he does seem rather deluded about what role he and his friends may have played in who the girls are now.

“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd” is such a sly story. It suggests that the daughters are troubled, are somehow wrong, and maybe they are, maybe they’re not, but that is not the real, or the whole, story. And therein lies the lovely irony in the title.

John Updike
“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”
First published: in The New Yorker on April 6, 1981; later republished in his collection Trust me (1987)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous writers recommend …

July 14, 2014

Last week, to commemorate the beginning of NAIDOC Week, I devoted Monday Musings to Anita Heiss’s series of interviews with indigenous Australian writers, In conversation with BlackWords. I said then that this week’s post would also draw from the series – and so here it is.

I’m not 100% sure of Heiss’s process, but I think she sent the same set of questions to all writers, and they answered some or all of questions as they desired. I am focusing, in this post, on one of the questions. Seventeen of the twenty writers responded to it. The question is:

What book do you think every Australian should read?

Anita Heiss, Am I black enough for you?

Courtesy: Random House

The answers are fascinating. Most, as you would expect, recommend books that would help all Australians learn and understand more about indigenous culture and history, and the books they recommend are mostly by indigenous Australians. But, the interesting thing is that there’s a lot less duplication than I expected. I like this. It suggests the existence of an active indigenous literary culture. No simple, easily defined cannon here! It provides a great list for us all to go to – both now, and when we are planning for ANZLitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.

Anyhow, I thought, when I decided to do this post, that I could tally up the recommendations and list them in popularity order. But, given what I actually found, I have decided instead to simply list them in alphabetical order by author/editor, with the name of the recommender/s and comments where appropriate.

  • Berendt, Larissa: HomeEllen van Neerven called this “A very important book.”
  • Carey, Peter*: True history of the Kelly GangJared Thomas said it “alerted me to class struggle – the fact that it is not only Aboriginal people who have endured persecution in this country.”
  • Chi, Jimmy: Bran Nue Dae (script). Kim Scott.
  • Eckermann, Ali Cobby and Fogarty, Lionel (eds): Southerly, Vol 71, No. 2, 2011, “A Handful of Sand: Words to the Frontline”. Lorraine McGee-Sippel described this as “An invaluable resource of Australia’s First Nations writers … Across all genres, ages and life experiences”. She believes is should be “compulsory reading … in all high schools and universities”.
  • Eckermann, Ali Cobby: Ruby MoonlightBruce Pascoe.
  • Gammage, Bill*: The biggest estate on earthKim Scott simply said “an important book”.
  • Gilbert, Kevin: Because a white man’ll never do itKerry Reed-Gilbert, his daughter.
  • Green, Evan*: Adam’s empireSue McPherson described it as “a good Aussie story. It should be made into a film.”
  • Haebich, Anna*: For Their Own GoodKim Scott said that it “focuses on south-west Western Australia, but the power relationship it articulates applies across the continent”.
  • Heiss, Anita: any book. Lionel Fogarty gave Heiss as an example in recommending “Indigenous-authored books such as those by Anita Heiss.
  • Heiss, Anita: Am I black enough for you? Jared Thomas, Bruce Pascoe (my review)
  • Heiss, Anita and Minter, Peter (eds): The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal LiteratureKerry Reed-Gilbert.
  • Leane, Jeanine: Purple threadsMelissa Lucashenko (my review).
  • McMullen, Jeff*: any writing. Samuel Wagan Watson.
  • Maynard, John: Fight for liberty and freedom. Recommended by himself.
  • Munkara, Marie: Every secret thingBruce Pascoe (my review).
  • Papunya School with Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle: The Papunya School Book of Country and HistoryAnita Heiss likes this because it is “accessible to all”.
  • Pascoe, Bruce: works by him. Recommended by himself.
  • Pascoe, Bruce: EarthMelissa Lucashenko.
  • Pilger, John*: A secret countryKate Howarth.
  • Reynolds, Henry*: any book. Kerry Reed-Gilbert argued that “it’s time for people to know the truth of this country”; Samuel Wagan Watson.
  • Reynolds, Henry*: Forgotten WarLorraine McGee-Sippel said that it “addresses Australia’s selective amnesia in relation to the wars fought between Traditional Owners and the Invaders. Where are our memorials?”
  • Reynolds, Henry*: This whispering in our heartsJackie Huggins.
  • Scott, Kim: Benang: From the heart. Bruce Pascoe.
  • Scott, Kim: That deadman danceKerry Reed-Gilbert; Bruce Pascoe (my review).
  • Scott, Kim: True countryMelissa Lucashenko.
  • Thiele, Colin*: Labourers in the vineyardBruce Pascoe.
  • Weller, Archie: stories by him. Bruce Pascoe.
  • Willmot, Eric: Pemulwuy: The rainbow warriorDub Leffler.
  • Wright, Alexis: CarpentariaBruce Pascoe (my review).
  • Wright, Judith*: stories and poems by her. Bruce Pascoe.
Kim Scott also recommended that people read an anthology of writing from the region in which they live, such as Those Who Remain Will Always Remember: an Anthology of Aboriginal Writing, edited by Rosemary van den Berg, Anne Brewster and Angeline O’Neill.
Tegan Chillcott and Samuel Wagan Watson were a little wary of being prescriptive. Chillcott said, simply, ““whatever book seems most interesting to them”.  Watson, thought was a little more explanatory. He said:

Every Australian?’ Hmmm … It’s hard to say, and I know mature Australians who have admitted to having never finished reading a book because literature bores them. I can’t answer that question? I’ve never watched a cricket match in my 41 years either … So I must seem weird to people who don’t pick up a book. If I was on a ‘soapbox’, I’d say any writing by Uncle Henry Reynolds or Uncle Jeff McMullen.

But some people can be turned off literature – altogether – by books that are too confronting. And that’s the delicate balance that needs to be dealt by a writer when you’re thinking about audiences. I do believe some writers have no idea that they are either not engaging with an audience or they don’t care? As a writer, on the journey of composing your work or novel or music, you need to consider your audience at every turning point. If you don’t think about the needs of your reader, you are simply writing in a very tight vacuum.

Another respondent who didn’t seem keen to name specific titles or authors was Samantha Faulkner.

Papunya School Book

(Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

I’d like to conclude with her lovely, generous statement. She wrote:

Any book by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer. Reading a book by a First Nations Australian writer will identify similarities that connect us, and bring us together, rather than divide us. After all, we live on this beautiful country together.

* Non-indigenous author

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air (Review for Indigenous Literature Week)

July 13, 2014
Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch (Courtesy: Friend of subject, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air is another book that has been languishing too long on my TBR pile, though not as long as Sara Dowse’s Schemetime. For Swallow the air, it was a case of third time lucky, because this was the third year I planned to read it for ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. Like the proverbial boomerang, it kept coming back, saying “pick me!” Finally, I did.

Winner of the 2004 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous writers, Swallow the air made quite a splash when it was published in 2006, winning or being shortlisted for many of Australia’s major literary awards. (See Tara June Winch’s Wikipedia entry). I believe Winch is working on another novel, but it hasn’t appeared yet.

Now, though, to the book. The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English. At the novel’s opening, she is living in coastal Wollongong, which is not her mother’s country, in a single-parent household with her mother and her brother, Billy, who has a different and indigenous father. Absent fathers are, I should say, disproportionately common in indigenous families.

In fact, one of the impressive things about this debut novel is how subtly, but clearly, Winch weaves through it many of the issues facing indigenous people and communities. Poverty, loss of connection to country, the stolen generations, mining and land rights, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, rape, child abuse by the church, imprisonment and the tent embassy are among the concerns she touches on during May’s journey. Listing them here makes it sound like a political “ideas” novel but, while Swallow the air is “political” in the way that most indigenous writing can’t help but be, its centre is a searching heart, for May has been cast adrift by the suicide of her mother. Life, which was tenuous anyhow, becomes impossible to hold together as her brother and aunt, both loving, struggle with their own pain.

This is where I become a little uncomfortable as a non-indigenous person making a generalisation about indigenous literature, but I’m going to do it anyhow, because I think I’m on firm ground. I’m talking about story-telling and what I understand to be its intrinsic role in indigenous culture. It imparts – or can do – a different flavour to the writing. Marie Munkara’s David Unaipon Award winning Every secret thing (my review) has some similarities in form to Swallow the air, and covers some similar thematic territory, but is very different in tone. Munkara’s novel also presents as a bunch of stories, with a uniting narrative thread. Swallow the air is more subtle, but nonetheless it’s the idea of stories that underpins the narrative.

What particularly impressed me about Winch’s writing is the way she manages tone and structures her story. She understands the Shakespearean imperative to offer some light after dark. For example, there’s a lovely little chapter/story called “Wantok” about family closeness which occurs after a story about a difficult work experience. In another situation, with just one word at the end of a story (“Mission”) – “Seemed [my emphasis] all so perfect, so right” - she prepares us for the opposite in the next (“Country”).

This flow – with shifts in tone that are sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, and with a narrative that is mostly linear but with the occasional flashback – kept me reading and engaged until the end. As did the writing itself. It’s deliciously poetic. Sometimes it is tight and spare, as in:

I do not cry, my eyes are hardened, like honey-comb, like toffee. Brittle, crumbling sugar. He puts his hand out toward me; we shake hands, a pact that I won’t be here digging up his past when he gets back.

And I’m not.

And in this description of life in the city: “Suits and handbags begin to fill the emptiness of the morning”. Other times it is gorgeously lyrical (a review buzz word, I know, but sometimes there’s no other word):

The river sleeps, nascent of limpid green, tree bones of spirit people, arms stretched out and screaming. And at their fingertips claws of blue bonnets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the erratic dips and weaves of wild galahs, grapefruit pink and ghost grey splash the sky.

But back now to the story. As May makes her journey, we meet many characters – her brother, aunt, women like Joyce who care for her but also know when to push her on, men with whom she hitchhikes, to name a few. None of these characters are developed to any degree, but we learn what we need to know about them by how they relate to May. Most are kind, generous, nurturing. May’s journey, in other words, is not challenged so much by human barriers, but by emotional, social, political and historical ones. It is a generous thing that when she starts to understand her place, it’s an inclusive understanding, one that encompasses all of us who occupy this land:

And it all makes sense to me now. Issy’s drawing in the sand, boundaries between the land and the water, us, we come from the sky and the earth and we go back to the sky and the earth. This land is belonging, all of it for all of us.

However, while May comes to a better understanding of the land and her relationship to it, there is no easy resolution to the ongoing struggle of living in a place in which there is still “a big missing hole” created by the loss of connection to culture. It will take a long time to refill that hole, if indeed it can be done, but books like this will help communicate just what it means, and how it feels, to be so disconnected.

awwchallenge2014Tara June Winch
Swallow the air
St Lucia: UQP, 2006
ISBN: 9780702235214

* One chapter/story, “Cloud busting” was published in Best Australian Stories 2005.

Sara Dowse, Schemetime (Review)

July 11, 2014

Sara Dowse SchemetimeWhat Sara Dowse didn’t know when she recently commented here on her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles was that I was in the closing stages of reading her novel, Schemetime, set there. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve had this novel since Christmas 1990 when I was living in the LA area (in adjoining Orange County, in fact). For some reason, I didn’t read the book then, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, along with several other novels by Aussie writers from the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was interesting to read a book in 2014 that was published in 1990 but set mostly in the late 1960s. This is not a unique situation of course, but most books in my TBR pile are set around the time they were written. Why then was this one set a couple of decades before it was written, making it a “bit” historical, but not really? I think it’s because the late 1960s was an exciting time, politically and socially. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a time when high ideals were being vigorously tested against commercial imperatives. Where better to set such a novel than in LA – using the film industry as a framework?

Early in the novel, Dowse establishes this tension through her description of place:

California the golden, Eden re-entered. People pretend they are children. They revel in the heat and the sunshine. But they are fretful. Do they deserve this? The question nags. So there is always, underlying the play, the fear of catastrophe. For a paradise, it has known its fair share. Earthquakes make dogs howl and plateglass shatter and bricks spill from walls, and the fires that sweep through the hills and down the canyons have consumed the grandest of estates. Coyotes live in those hills …

I love this prose – so crisp, so clear, so evocative, and yet so provocative too.

But now to the plot. Schemetime concerns an Australian filmmaker, Frank, who comes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry, a quality career, though, on his terms. Through him we meet a varied cast of characters: refugee film director Mannheim who wants to make artistic films but needs to make commercials and B-grade movies to survive; Frank’s old flame Susan, a physiotherapist and anti-war campaigner, who leaves her Aussie husband for Nathan; this Nathan, a lawyer conflicted about money and his ideals; the black singer-actress, Paula, with her precarious career; and sundry others. We watch Frank as he enlists these characters to help him, practically, artistically or financially, achieve his goal of making a film about his somewhat mysterious father.

This is not a plot driven novel, however. It is about LA, but more than that, it is about characters searching for, well, meaning. This may sound clichéd, but isn’t it what most of us seek? What makes this novel not clichéd is the style and structure Dowse puts to her task. Often when we describe a novel as reading like a film script, we are suggesting, usually a little dismissively, that the author has written it with a movie deal in mind. But, when I say Dowse’s book reads like a film script, I am implying something very different. I am implying a complex picture comprising multiple little scenes, that sometimes flow and sometimes jolt us along with sudden changes in perspective, much like a camera can, particularly in an experimental movie. In fact, particularly given its time, I’d say this novel is innovative (or experimental) in structure and narrative point-of-view, in the way it moves between first person narration by Frank, and the third-person subjective perspectives of the main characters. It is, though, highly readable because the language is accessible. The syntax is flexible and the imagery expressive, but they are both comprehensible.

If it’s not plot-driven, then, what does drive it? Several things really. The characters’ relationships with each other, for one. An exploration of the meaning of art, for another. And dreams, the dreams and passions that drive us. Much of the novel concerns Frank’s filmmaking venture with Mannheim and Paula. There are lengthy discussions about the 1931 film Tabu, made by Murnau and Flaherty. It was a production mired in conflict between two, if I understand correctly, competing perspectives – Murnau’s focus on aesthetic “truths” and Flaherty’s on those coming from social or political realities. Dowse seems to be suggesting that “art” is (perhaps even should be) a constant struggle between these two imperatives. In Tabu, Mannheim argues, Murnau’s

craft and artifice triumphed. But there is enough of the real to make us believe …

There’s another reason why Dowse seems to have chosen Tabu to discuss, and this is its setting, the Pacific. The Pacific is the link between her two lives – her American birth and her adopted Australian home. Its nature is paradoxical, representing different things to different people: to Mannheim, “nothing in the Pacific is quite as real” as Europe;  to Susan it is both escape and barrier, “the way to freedom and then the highest wall”. One of my favourite scenes occurs when Frank, Paula and Nathan do a beach-crawl along the LA coast looking for the perfect Australian-looking beach! Various stories and images of the Pacific appear throughout the novel, making it, perhaps, her “poem to the Pacific” like Murnau’s Tabu.

Schemetime is a novel of grand conception. Even the title with its hints of schemes, screens and dreams suggests that. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped all that Dowse intended, and I certainly haven’t touched on all that she raises in this book about “money and love and culture”. I haven’t explored, for example, the rise and fall of Nathan as a hotshot lawyer-investor or the conflicted restlessness of his second wife Susan or the survival skills of first wife Estelle or even the discussions about artists in exile.

“The camera”, Mannheim lectures early in the novel, “is no golem … it sees things you cannot imagine”. And so, we find, does Dowse’s pen. Schemetime is a fine read – and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps even moreso.

awwchallenge2014Sara Dowse
Ringwood: Penguin, 1990
ISBN: 9780140080742

Monday musings on Australian literature: In conversation with Black Words

July 7, 2014

Today* marks the first day of NAIDOC Week 2014, which will run through to July 13. In honour of this, and of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers, I thought I’d devote this week’s Monday Musings to indigenous Australian writers – and specifically to Anita Heiss’s “In conversation with Blackwords” series.

This series is described on the AustLit website as follows:

In late 2013 Dr Anita Heiss sent a series of questions to contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. The responses she received are at times funny, sad, moving, and always deeply insightful. Universally an important piece of advice was to ‘Read, read, read’ if you want to write. As an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Anita was very happy to see that advice coming from some of Australia’s most admired and read authors.

As far as I can understand from the website, some 20 interviews were gathered, and posted on the site between November 2013 and May 2014. The last interview (to date anyhow) is with Heiss herself. The writers interviewed include some well-known to me like Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, and Bruce Pascoe, and some I’m not at all familiar with like Dub Leffler and Sue McPherson. Heiss starts by asking them about their mob and where they are from, and then asks them about their writing and their reading – about, in other words, all those things other readers and writers love to know.

I haven’t read all the interviews, as they are pretty extensive, but have at least dipped into most, and will read more in the coming days. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things they say:

Samuel Wagan Watson (internationally recognised poet and storyteller) said this in response to “what makes a good writer”:

As far as what makes a ‘good writer’ … I don’t know? I’m an ‘established writer’ yet I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘good’ writer. Should we define a ‘good writer’ as someone who publishes a novel every year or an artist who simply falls in love with language and is a skilled technician who writes a sentence now and then that simply smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye?

Anyone who can write “smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye” must surely make some claim to being a good writer?

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

Kim Scott (author of That deadman dance, among other things) said this about his aims as a writer:

To reach and connect. To provoke, sometimes. To transform, if only a little. As Elizabeth Jolley said, to provide ‘places where people may meet’.

To touch on greater truths. Language and stories shape the world; I sometimes want to flex and remake it again.

He’s won me over, first, by referring to one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jolley. But, I also like his desire to “touch on greater truths”. It’s not surprising that an indigenous writer might also want to “flex and remake” the world.

Ali Cobby Eckermann (poet, and author of Ruby Moonlight) offered this advice to writers:

My advice is to be creative! Turn the telly off and be creative. A half an hour each day has the capacity to achieve remarkable results. Be relentless, and find happiness in honouring your story, the legacy of your cultural knowledge.

Being creative, I think, is easier said than done, but I do love her suggestion to “find happiness in honouring your story”.

Ellen van Neerven (winner of David Unaipon Award in 2013) is a writer I hadn’t heard of before. She said in answer to “who do you write for?”:

Sometimes I could be writing for my younger self. I want people to feel less alone. I want people to feel less confused.

Now, that’s an answer from the heart.

Bruce Pascoe (writer of fiction, non-fiction and YA fiction). I had to finish with Pascoe’s response to the question about his writing process:

Get up, go into room and work arse off. Break for lunch, tour of vegetable garden, back into room. In good weather I write down by the river, especially if it’s a job I’m writing longhand. In my room I’ve got a growing gallery of dead Black friends to watch over me and all the birds who come to the door and want to know if it’s ok if they tell me a story. The Willy Wagtail is good but the Scrubwren is profound, the Powerful Owl haunting, the pelican a bit superior on occasions and the cormorants are always good for a laugh. I get a hell of a lot of story from birds and animals.

With such an imagination, you can sure see why he’s a prolific writer.

I plan a follow-up post on this series of conversations for next week’s Monday Musings to conclude NAIDOC Week.

* Hmm … just realised today is 7 July! NAIDOC Week started officially on 6 July!


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