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Monday musings on Australian literature: Little books

November 2, 2015

Christmas is coming and those stockings are wanting inspiration. I know I’m jumping the gun a little in terms of the traditional round of Christmas book talk, but it’s never too early to think of book gifts, and I’ve been wanting to write about little book initiatives for a while now. I can’t wait any longer!

Do you remember those Penguin 60s, the little books that Penguin published twenty years ago, in 1995, to celebrate its 60th anniversary? The books were around 80 pages and, before the days of smart phones, they were handy little items to carry around for those reading moments that suddenly open up out of the blue. I loved them, and still own several. I particularly remember reading Edith Wharton’s Madame de Treymes and Jean Rhys’ Let them call it Jazz. They were so popular that they spawned – at least I think it was the Penguin initiative that came first – similar small books by other publishers like Bloomsbury. I have some of those too. Anyhow, for its 80th birthday this year, Penguin has published a Little Black Classics series – and again they have proved successful, according, at least to The Guardian, which concluded that, even in this era of the e-book, it “proves people like their reading matter cheap… and portable”.

I hope they’re right about this because a few Australian publishers are producing their own “little” books, and I thought I’d share them here, as I don’t think they have the same visibility as Penguin – funnily enough!

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird's Fair Game

FL Smalls 7: Carmel Bird’s Fair Game

FL Smalls  are published by a small independent publisher in Braidwood about an hour’s drive away from me, Finlay Lloyd. Finlay Lloyd describes the project as

an ongoing project where we give its authors sixty pages to create a book. Published together in groups, the first five Smalls came out in 2013, and now we have commissioned another five to be released in early September this year, shoulder to shoulder, as an offering of vital writing by Australian authors.

You might have picked up a difference here between these and Penguin’s little books. FL Smalls are not classics, and are not reissues of works published elsewhere. They are commissioned, meaning of course that they provide a publishing opportunity for living writers. I love that. They include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic works. I have the recent set, kindly sent to me by Finlay Lloyd. They are priced at $10 each. Reviews will start appearing here, soon. Meanwhile, you can check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ discussion of them.

Short Blacks – isn’t that a great name – are published by another Australian independent publisher, Black Inc. They describe the project as being

gems of recent Australian writing – brisk reads that quicken the pulse and stimulate the mind.

Noel Pearson in Short Blacks

Noel Pearson in Short Blacks

These then have been published before – but they are not classics. They are recent works, and seem to be non-fiction. They include Robyn Davidson’s No fixed address which was originally published by Black Inc as a Quarterly Essay, David Malouf’s One day about ANZAC Day, and Noel Pearson’s cleverly titled The war of the worlds about the “colonial project” and genocide in Australia. I bought a couple of these from the wonderful, independent Hobart Bookshop on my recent visit to Tasmania. Twelve have been published and it’s not clear from the website whether it’s an ongoing project. Like FL Smalls they are appealingly, if more simply, designed, and cost only $6.99 each. What a bargain.

Viva La Novella is a slightly different project. An initiative of the online publisher Seizure Inc, it is a prize that was established in 2012

Jane Jervis-Read, Midnight blue and endlesslly tall

First Viva La Novella Winner

to celebrate and promote short novels – because we like them and believe some of the greatest works in the English language are actually novellas.

I wouldn’t argue with that! Since 2012, Seizure has, with the support of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, expanded the award to produce more than one “winner” each year. Like FL Smalls, these are new works, but unlike the Smalls, they are all fiction. Also, unlike the previous two initiatives they are not a standard size, due to the wide the definition of a novella. For Seizure, the range is 20–50,000 words, which means that some books some books are 100 or so pages while others might be 190.  I’ve included them here, however, because they are priced at the cheaper end of the Australian paperback market, $14.95 each, and it is a project dedicated to the shorter book. I have bought one of the 2015 winners, so you will see a review of that too in the coming weeks or months.

Do you like little books? I’d love to hear if you have any favourites – and of any initiatives, in Australia or elsewhere, that you’ve come across.

Emily Bitto, The strays (Review)

November 2, 2015

Emily BItto, The strays, book coverLet me start by saying I really enjoyed reading Emily Bitto’s The strays. It was scheduled for my reading group the day after my return from Tasmania, and I suddenly found myself in the last day of my Tasmanian holiday without having started the book. Wah! I read it in two days, helped by several hours in a couple of airports. I haven’t done that for a long time, and what a joy it was to have a real length of time to commit to a book. It helped, of course, that having both a strong plot and an intriguing set of characters, The strays is a compelling to read – one that reminded me, albeit loosely, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

This is a debut novel, which also won this year’s Stella Prize. Set primarily in the 1930s, with the last of four parts set in the 1960s, The strays is both historical fiction and a coming-of-age novel. It is also a classic outsider story. Lily, who tells the story first person, is befriended when she is 8 years old by schoolmate Eva, the middle daughter of the Trenthams who, early in the novel invite a number of artist “strays” to form a utopian-bohemian artistic community. The Trenthams are inspired by the Reeds and their Heide group, but The strays is not a Heide story*.  This may be the strength of the novel, but also perhaps its weakness – a strength because it frees Bitto to tell her own story, but a weakness because it removes potential ideas on which to hang her story.

Before I get to that, though, a little more about the story. The first three parts follow the Trenthams for 8 years, from when Lily is 8 to 16. During this time Lily becomes increasingly involved with the Trenthams, in preference to her boring, conservative, middle-class parents, eventually living with them full-time. Some members in my reading group found her parents’ relinquishing of their daughter unbelievable, but this was during the Depression, and Lily’s parents did have some problems of their own to manage. I could suspend my disbelief. From Lily’s point of view, she was in thrall to the excitement of the Bohemian life, telling her parents, “I love you both but I want to be different”.

Her parents, however, should have been concerned, because the Trenthams are rather casual, neglectful parents and the four girls more or less run their own lives, sometimes being fed properly, sometimes not, sometimes, in the case of one in particular, going to school, and sometimes not. The story is as much about them, as about the artists, though we do hear about the artists too. There’s exploration of experimental art and its acceptance or otherwise by society, obscenity charges, mentee supplanting mentor, and so on. There are parties, and other occasions, where artists and children come together. Bitto, through Lily, paints all this beautifully. Indeed, I loved her ability to evoke scenes, people and places with effective, yet tight imagery.

Bitto’s use of Lily as her narrator works nicely. Through most of the novel, we see the story through her child’s point-of-view, but occasionally, with a “later I realised” type of comment, we are reminded that this is an adult telling the story of her childhood:

When was it that I became a voyeur in their midst? I was the perfect witness, an unsuspected anthropologist disguised within the body of a young girl, surrounded by other young girls who were part of the family. Yet I was cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hoarding and collecting information.

This narrative style keeps the story grounded. We see the dysfunctional dynamics and its effects before Lily, wooed by the excitement, does – though she does have moments of clarity. When the youngest daughter goes missing on one occasion, she writes:

I drew in my breath. These adults were no use in a crisis.

The subtext is that her parents would be.

But, here’s the thing. The book tackles a lot of ideas. There’s the exploration of society’s reaction to experimental art; the idea of coming to terms with the past (for Lily); the utopian artist community and whether it can really work; indulgent or neglectful parenting, creating a dysfunctional family life that comes back to bite; the exploration of girlhood friendships and the whole coming-of-age thread; not to mention those big issues like loyalty and betrayal, envy, sexuality and sensuality. It’s not that these were uninteresting, or even that they weren’t well developed. It’s more that I struggled to find Bitto’s main focus, and I guess I like some sort of central idea on which to hang my understanding of a book.

My reading technique is that when I finish a book I go back and reread the beginning. This usually puts the whole into context, pinpointing what the author was about. However, this technique didn’t work wonderfully with The strays. Bitto’s Prologue starts by discussing the mystery of instant attraction between people, and then moves on to the idea of past life connections and that people’s souls can be twinned from one life to the next. These ideas are used to explain Lily’s relationship with Eva, but I’m not sure that this is fundamental to the book’s meaning. The prologue then discusses the past. Three decades after the main events, Lily receives a letter:

and I become aware of an old compulsive pain I have pressed like a bruise again and again throughout the years.


I feel a tenderness in my chest, and the past rushes in as a deluge I can no longer hold back …


I let my mind turn back once more, to recreate again that distant, still wracked past.

Is it this, the idea of coming to terms with or resolving the past, that binds the book together? It is partly. By the end of the novel, Lily has come uneasily to terms with what happened those three decades ago, and its impact on her life. I say uneasily because – and here we come to the epigraph, by William Pater, which expresses a different idea again to those in the prologue: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”. Lily’s uneasiness is that she has chosen “conventionality”, but recognises that part of her “is still drawn to the romance of the fully lived life”. Then we have the book’s concluding paragraphs, which are more concerned with mothering and family in Lily’s recognition that it was the Trentham children who paid the debt for their parents’ experiments. See my problem regarding central idea? Or, is it just that I’m being boringly 20th century?!

Whatever it is, they are just niggles. As a read, The strays is up there as one of my most enjoyable for the year – for its lucid writing, for the story and a setting that had such appeal, and, yes, even for that whole raft of ideas that she throws so determinedly at us. Even for that.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book too.

* Interestingly, a couple of “real” people are mentioned, one being politician and later judge, Herbert Evatt – as a supporter of modern, experimental art.

awwchallenge2015Emily Bitto
The strays
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922213211

Don Miller, Will to win: The West at play (Review)

October 30, 2015

Sport is probably not the first subject you expect to find here, but it is in fact the focus of my latest read, Don Miller’s Will to win: The West at play. Published by independent Melbourne press, Hybrid Publishers, it was offered to me after my Monday Musings post a few months ago on Australian Rules in literature. In that post, I wrote that Australian Rules “can over-emphasise competitiveness to the point that winning overrides being fair and just”. I said this of Australian Rules because that was the subject of my post, but the statement is true of much sport – that is, of elite, professional sport – and it’s this “truth”, this issue of winning, that Don Miller examines in Will to win.

Who is Don Miller? He’s not familiar to me, but he apparently worked in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne for 30 years until 1995, and then in 2006 he established an organisation called the Melbourne Centre of Ideas. I’m not sure what his academic credentials are, exactly, but “creative thinking”, particularly on society and values, is his mantra.

Miller writes in his Introduction that the book was inspired by two ideas. One is anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s statement in his book The savage mind that when football was introduced to New Guinea the locals changed one rule: the game was to be played until both teams were equal. Love it! Miller read this a few decades ago, but the second notion is far more recent: it’s the “failure” of Australia’s swimmers at the 2012 London Olympics. There was such a hue-and-cry about this during and after the Games, including blaming post-mortems, apologies galore, and the commissioning of a review! I remember being horrified. Well, so was Miller. He had, unsuccessfully, tried to write about sport many times before, but the London situation gave him the angle he was seeking: he would write about “contemporary professional sport” and frame it with a reference to New Guinea.

So, this is what he does, approaching it, he says, in a spirit of enquiry:

to follow my own thoughts; to see where they take me; to consider new questions as they periodically erupt. A journey of discovery, clarification, and pleasure.

Several themes run through the book, the main ones stemming from Western culture and civilisation, from the way the West looks at the world. Western thinking he argues tends to be dichotomous (that is, to see issues as black/white, or, in this case, win/lose). The West is focused on the measurable, believes actions should be purposeful, and admires progress. He explores these ideas in terms of their relationship to sport – of how they frame the way we view, practice and understand sport. 

Sport’s excesses

The overriding motif is – as you can tell from the title – that winning is everything. The logical extension of this is the idea of “excess”. To win, sportspersons push themselves – physically, emotionally and mentally – to a point beyond endurance, to, in fact, self-harm. Take hurdler Sally Pearson, who, Australians know, is a tough, determined competitor. She said after the London Olympics:

My back was killing me. It’s just a matter of telling your body that you have to do it, no matter what – I know I am not an old athlete. I’m only 26, but just the way my body is ageing at the moment and my disc is degenerating, it’s just a matter of trying to keep it intact so I can compete at least until Rio.

But, the more sensible (value judgement here!) of us think, what about your post-sport life?

So, there are the punishing regimes athletes put themselves through in order to be the best, to win, regimes that Miller likens to training for and partaking in war. Is such self-harm worth it, he poses. He quotes the infamous Lance Armstrong who famously said “losing and dying; they’re both the same”. Tour de France athletes, we know, undertake punishing training to compete in a gruelling race. But mention of Armstrong of course raises another by-product of competitive sport, that of cheating and corruption. There is a fine line between “winning” and “winning at any cost”, with the latter referring not only to the aforementioned physical and mental cost to the athlete, but to crossing over the line of fairness and ethics to something more ruthless. Armstrong epitomises this crossover, but is by no means the only sportsman to have been so lured. In his discussion of Armstrong’s behaviour, Miller suggests that his behaviour could be seen as “the exemplary model of a Western businessman”. A fair analogy?

Sport’s truths

Miller also explores some “truths” that have been promulgated about the value of competitive sport, arguing that some are false (such as “the practice of sport is a human right*”) and others overstated (such as that sport will set you up for life). Really, he questions? Sport a human right, like food, shelter and security? As for setting you up for life, Miller asks that, even if we agree that sport can have these benefits, “does it have a monopoly?” What about being an oboe player in the Australian Youth Orchestra, or part of a multidisciplinary team pushing the boundaries of science, or even being a wheat farmer or apprentice plumber? Don’t the skills learned here also train you for life? Life, he suggests, is complex, and to propose otherwise, to propose there is a “singular model or formula”, is grossly misleading.

Then there’s that ultimate “truth” about losers, that they are, well, losers, that even second place is losing. Miller quickly puts paid to that idea. We all know winners who do not “succeed” and losers who learn valuable skills. Indeed, it’s worth considering, he says, Jean Cocteau’s statement that “to succeed is to fail”, a statement that “breaks from conventional dualistic thinking”.

Will to win is not so much an academic work, as a clearly written, personal investigation of a topic that has long interested Miller. It is not footnoted, though he does cite sources as he goes, particularly from newspapers, and there is a bibliography. Does it have a conclusion? Yes, and no. This is what he says near the end:

This book returns again and again to the excess in modern sport – to its ubiquity and impact. Whatever it does, it goes too far, and the cumulative consequences can be disturbing. The book is a call for moderation of all its qualities, a change of emphasis, a shift towards a more expansive range of values.

The challenge is to think and imagine other ways of engaging in sport – a challenge that he suggests we should take up now. Can we Westerners, for example, see our way to a win-win value? I enjoyed the read – but, in me, he was preaching to the converted. I’d love to know what those more passionate about competitive sport think, those who expected and accepted the apologies of Australia’s 2012 London Olympics Swimming Team. What would they answer to Miller’s questions?

* The Olympic Charter

Don Miller, Will to win, book coverDon Miller
Will to win: The West at play
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000580

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Serendipitous finds in Tasmania

October 27, 2015

Well folks, I’ve not posted here for a week. As I wrote last Monday, I’ve been travelling in Tasmania, and have only returned home this afternoon. I have some ideas for future Monday Musings, and could have researched one for today, but I can’t resist sharing a few more of my Tasmanian literary experiences.

Tasmania is home to many Australian writers including Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan (see my review of his The narrow road to the deep north), National Biography Award winner Alison Alexander, commentator and memoirist Robert Dessaix, and novelist Danielle Wood (see my review of her Mothers Grimm). But there are other, quieter, literary treasures to be had here.

Take gravestones for example …

We visited the historic Bothwell Cemetery, and read some poetically poignant (or, do I mean, poignantly poetic?!) gravestones. Poor Elizabeth, wife of Edward Simon Arnett, died in 1841 at the age of 33. Here are the words on her gravestone:

Now husband dear my life is past
My love was true while life did last.
Bereaved of me no sorrow take
But love our children for my sake.

I wonder who wrote that? Did she, knowing she was dying, write it? So sadly, but probably, typically, self-effacing if she did. And then there’s the grave for siblings Margaret and John Anderson, 14 and 6 years old respectively, who died within a month of each other in 1853. On their grave is:

Margaret and John Anderson, Bothwell Cemetery

Margaret and John Anderson, Bothwell Cemetery

Say not their sun went down at noon.
Early they died, but not too soon,
Not till their heart by grace had changed
And from the world and sun estranged.
Not till the Lord whose love they knew
Taught them to smile with death in view.
Life’s noblest ends thus gain’d betimes
They have gone to live in happier climes.

Poor little things. Presumably they died of an illness contracted one from the other, but did they really learn to “smile with death in view”? These and the other gravestones – and I know I’m not telling you anything here – provide such insight into nineteenth century life and thinking.

Then there’s the urban environment

Wooden dog sculpture

Thompson waited lazily outside the shops

The redevelopment of Elizabeth Street Mall in Hobart’s CBD in the 1990s was carried out with a view to humanising the space, to, if I understand correctly, making it aesthetically appealing and artistically interesting, not to mention fun and a little bit provocative too. Much of the art was, I understand, commissioned from the versatile Tasmanian artist Patrick Hall. He did street signs, sculptures, and “granite stories”. The sculptures include a “fish out of water” drink fountain (metalwork), Maurice the pig (moulded hebel) and Thompson the dog (woodcarving).

The sculptures would be hard to miss by anyone walking through the mall, but not so obvious are the tiny stories and images etched into the granite pedestals supporting the mall’s public seating. I suspect these are mostly discovered by word of mouth, but they are addictive once you discover them – that is, you want to find and read them all. Here are a few:

Rupert going shopping etching

Rupert going shopping

Beneath their feet lay buried the intersecting tracks and paths of the lives that went before.


To the casual observer Hubert seemed lost in thought, when in fact he was trying not to tread on the cracks.


Zoe tied her bicycle next to a pole and said “stay” before she went shopping.


When Rupert went shopping with Joyce he would plan his route strategically around appliance stores in an attempt to check the scores on shop window televisions.


They would sit with their collars rolled up against the chill winds & imagine they could peer over the edge of the planet.

I love the mix of whimsy, commentary and philosophy here. They are universal, but also seem to be very much of Tasmania.

Just around the corner, more or less, from Elizabeth Street Mall is Mathers Place. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera when my trusty guide took me through it, but displayed there, on large billboards, are some of the stories by young writers produced under the Young Writers in the City program, which is run by the Tasmanian Writers Centre and the City of Hobart. The idea was that the young writers (under 30 years old) would sit somewhere in the city, and “compose an essay between 1500 to 5000 words … in an observational or experimental style inspired by the [chosen] space”. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed Claire Jensen’s piece about a space where older people meet. Only the beginning of it is displayed on the billboard:

In Hobart’s CBD there is a place where retired women and men meet their friends. They play scrabble, take art and writing classes, computer and ukulele lessons, hold book clubs, discuss family history and grey nomad road trips. For the last few weeks I have been invited into this secret society. They tell me stories, let me eat lunch with them, and beat me at scrabble. In the quiet afternoons, I escape the chatter to sit typing by the windows.

Ben Armstrong, in his piece, “Unified Mall Theory”, tackled the challenge to be inspired head on. (I can’t recollect whether his is displayed in Mathers Place). I like his tongue-in-cheek-up-frontedness:

I have a set of assumptions about the form my benefactors hope this inspiration will take. They want me to contribute to the cultural landscape. They expect me to write about history and stories and the interweaving of history and stories. The phrase “nooks and crannies” has not been explicitly mentioned, but I feel it is implied. Place and context also seem like things I should probably mention. Probably something about David Walsh* as well.

And now, since it is half-an-hour or more into Tuesday on my clock, I shall publish this, without a proper conclusion but hoping you have enjoyed my two little idiosyncratic Tasmanian posts. Normal Monday Musings will resume next week!

* David Walsh is the owner/benefactor of Hobart’s famous, and very popular, private art museum, MONA.

Monday musings on Australian literature: A Tasmanian interlude

October 20, 2015

You may have noticed that it’s been fairly quiet here at the Gums over the last week or so. This is because I’ve been travelling for nearly two weeks now in Australia’s island state of Tasmania. I scheduled last week’s Monday Musings in advance and had planned to also schedule a Tasmanian “Let’s get physical” post before I left, but it didn’t happen. Once here, I’ve been so busy catching up with my brother and then road-tripping with Mr Gums that I’ve not had time to do the necessary research to do such a post justice, so today I’m just going to post three photos, each with an associated quote to at least give you a taste of this gorgeous place.


Looking across western Maria Island to the main island of Tasmania

Maria Island, off south-east Tasmania, was a convict settlement, with two waves, the first from 1825 to 1832, and the second from 1842 to 1850. An inmate of that time was William Smith O’Brien, a leader of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. He is quoted as saying, as he arrived at Maria Island:

To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by the hand of Nature in one of her loneliest solitude creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island

Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River on the west coast was also a convict settlement, at least Sarah Island, which is located in the river, was. It was infamous for its brutality, and is in fact the setting for Marcus Clarke’s classic move, For the term of his natural life. However, the Gordon River has another claim to infamy. From the late 1970s to early 1980s it was the centre of a bitter conservation battle when the Tasmanian government proposed building a dam as part of its ongoing hydroelectricity program. But this is wilderness of high order. In fact, when the Tasmanian Wilderness was granted World Heritage status for which you need to satisfy at least one of ten cultural and/or natural criteria, it satisfied 7. Only one other site has apparently achieved this. Like many people our age we supported the protest, donating to the Australian Conservation Foundation and sporting the yellow “No Dams” sticker on our car. The conservationists won, in a landmark decision that had Australia’s High Court supporting the Federal Government’s case for stopping the dam, overruling the State Government. What a joyful day that was. One of the supporters of the movement was the historian Manning Clark. He said in 1980:

Keep this treasure and hand it on to posterity so that those who come after will learn about beauty, about awe, about wonder, because it is in the southwest of Tasmania that you will have a chance to solve the mystery at the heart of things.

Winegalss Bay to the left, and Hazards Beach just visible to the right

Wineglass Bay to the left, and Hazards Beach just visible to the right

Finally, though I only say finally because I have to stop somewhere, there’s Freycinet National Park, which takes us back to the east again, a little north of Maria Island. This is a stunningly beautiful place of clear bays, pristine beaches and pretty pink granite mountains. Australian poet James McAuley loved this area. Here are some lines from his poem “Coles Bay Images”:

Turquoise – coloured waters in small bays
Shawling towards the beach say shalom, peace.

And that is exactly the feeling you get walking in this part of the world – a sense of peace.


Prison post: Letters of support for Peter Greste

October 18, 2015

GresteNewSouthIf you’re Australian, you’ll know who Peter Greste is. If you’re not, you may know. He was one of three Al Jazeera English journalists* who were arrested in Cairo in late 2013 for “spreading false news, belonging to a terrorist organisation and operating without a permit”. It was a ridiculous charge and we all thought they’d be released quickly, but instead, in June 2014, they were convicted of “spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood”, and Greste was sentenced to 7 years in prison. At that point, Peter Greste’s family set up an email account encouraging people to send messages of support to Peter that they would then print out and deliver to him in prison.

After 400 days in prison, in February 2015, Greste was released, that is, deported. His conviction was not overturned. In September 2015, his two colleagues, who had been kept in prison, were pardoned and released. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, understands that Greste will be pardoned too, but I don’t think this has formally happened yet.

However, this book is not specifically about the legal story. Rather, it comprises a selection of the emails sent to Peter between his conviction on 24 June 2014 and the time of his deportation in early February this year. I have a copy of the book because my wonderful octogenarian mother was one of the correspondents. Some of her messages are included in the book.

To be honest, although I rather enjoy reading letters – you’ve seen posts about them here before – I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy a 200-plus-page book of letters (emails) to one person about one topic. But, I was bowled over, not simply because of the quantity of emails that were written, but because of their warmth, generosity and eloquence. Some are from Peter’s friends, acquaintances and colleagues, past and present, and a few are from well-known people like Julie Bishop and Wendy Harmer. But many are from complete strangers like my mother and, at the other end of the age spectrum, 9-year-old Grace. Grace writes:

Do you like to read? I love reading because when you are stressed or are worried or angry, reading takes you to a completely different world, where all your worries and fears are drowned away from your mind. (Grace Worthing, 11 July 2014)

Some of the strangers are journalists and journalism students. Many of these want to emulate him, while a few admit to lacking the necessary bravery to do so. All of the writers, though, strangers or not, are outraged by the idea and fact of Greste and his colleagues being imprisoned for doing their job, and many express appreciation for the work journalists like him do in telling the truth:

However small, I hope it is some consolation that your cause has given a voice to those of you in the business of giving others a voice. Your situation has highlighted the risks you take, the dangers you face, knowingly, in your dedication to shedding light on injustice and human suffering, and to exposing the truth, from all angles. (Lulu Nana, 25 July 2014)

Some writers tell of tweeting about the injustice of his imprisonment. They describe writing letters to government, diplomats, Amnesty International, or the editor of their local newspaper. They talk of taking part in fund-raisers and benefit shows. They will not, they say, let it rest until he is free.

Not all letters, however, are specifically political. Some are more personal. They want to cheer Peter up, offer him hope or sympathy, or just take his mind off where he is for a moment or two. They do this by telling him stories from their own lives, and or by sharing little jokes, proverbs or inspirational quotes. They quote from Shakespeare, the Bible, or poets like Robert Frost, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that by far the most commonly quoted is Nelson Mandela. What is perhaps a little more surprising is that these Mandela quotes are all different!

Another common feature of the letters is praise for Greste’s family – his mother and father, his brothers, and his sisters-in-law. They are described as “diamond grade”, as inspirational in their strength, cohesion and dignity. One correspondent even went so far as to write, after Greste’s release:

I hope we don’t lose the Greste family from public life entirely. If any of our leaders, in various fields, have been paying attention they could’ve picked up some excellent lessons. (Amy Denmeade, 8 February 2015)

The letters are presented chronologically, but the chronology is broken into sections: section one, for example, comprising spontaneous responses to the announcement of his conviction; section two, the establishment of the email address and “call to arms”; and section five being letters written in December for his birthday and Christmas. (Several correspondents, including my mum, in fact, sat down and wrote an email on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.) Each of these sections has a brief introduction describing what is happening at that point in the chronology. There are also a timeline of events at the beginning of the book, a foreword by Greste himself, and an acknowledgement statement by editor-publisher Charlotte Harper.

What more can I say? The book could so easily have been schmaltzy, but it’s not, mainly because the writers, those selected for inclusion anyhow, are too unselfconsciously themselves. After all, when they wrote, they had no expectation that their letters would ever be published, so they wrote from their hearts. This is a book of its time, and yet is also timeless. That is, it relates to a very specific event involving very specific people, and yet it is really about big principles, like justice and truth, and about human values, like empathy and compassion. It is, in other words, a darned good read.

PS: Just in case you are interested, profits from the first year’s sales are going to the Foreign Prisoner Support Service. Digital copies can be ordered for $9.99 from Editia; and print copies for $24.99 from NewSouth Books.

Prison post: Letters of support for Peter Greste
Braddon: Editia, 2015
ISBN: 9781942189022

* The other two were journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and their producer Baher Mohamed.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writer-in-residence programs

October 12, 2015

I’ve written before about Writers’ Retreats, which are sometimes framed as writer-in-residence programs. However, for this post, I want to focus not on those programs that are designed for writers to withdraw (retreat) to focus on a personal project, but on those for which engagement with the community in which they reside is a significant part of their role. I don’t know about you, but I come across these quite often out of the blue and love that they exist. Some of them are ongoing programs, while others are one-offs. Some are specifically targeted to writers while others, usually described as artist-in-residence, are open to any arts practitioner. The most common ones I’ve seen are those offered at schools and universities, but they can be offered by anyone. They can vary greatly in purpose, targeting all sorts of people from school students to other writers, from potential clients to the general public. And they range from non-profit programs to rather commercial ones. All of this will become obvious from the small selection below:

Accor Hotels MGallery Literary Collection is a program in collaboration with Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre. It involved providing eight award-winning Australian writers with a short residence in one of Accor’s boutique MGallery hotels and commissioning those authors to write a short story which will be published in a book which will be “presented exclusively to guests at MGallery Hotels”. Associated with these are author events at the hotels, such as that with Favel Parrett at Mount Lofty House in Adelaide in April 2015.

Bayside City Council Artist-in-Residence is open to visual artists, multimedia practitioners, writers and composers. They describe it as a public program in which the resident artist is “required to be involved in community engagement activities. This may take the form of artist’s talks, community workshops, master classes for local artists, participation in Bayside festivals or exhibitions or other activities agreed upon”.

Birrong High School Writer-in-residence was part of the ASA’s (Australian Society of Authors) Authors in Priority Schools program which aims to build “the narrative and literacy skills of school students, from K-12.” It involves authors running creative writing courses at a school, but the exact style of program varies a little in each school in accordance with the school’s needs. The Birrong program involved author Laurene Croasdale who has worked both in publishing and as a writer.

Cocoon Floatation floating writer-in-residence program is a program that runs in partnership with the Wollongong Writers’ Festival. The program involves the Festival choosing an author from the festival line-up  “to receive two free floats in exchange for producing a piece of work to be donated back to WWF and Cocoon Floatation”. The 2015 writer is Candy Royalle, who is “a performance artist, poet, storyteller and educator”.

Editing in Paradise writer-in-residence is part of the organisation’s business of running workshops and retreats for writers. The writer-in-residence is their program for including a writer on their retreats to give “an added dimension to the teaching and sharing of industry knowledge”. So, for example, at their Bali retreat, this October, they will have Ashley Hay whose most recent novel was The Railwayman’s Wife. Previous writers have included Charlotte Wood and Susan Wyndham. I’m assuming the writer is paid to attend and provide expertise at the retreat.

Lotus Asian-Australian Playwriting Project is a project aimed at bringing more Asian-Australian stories to the Australian stage, by “installing” an Asian-Australian resident playwright in three theatre companies by 2017. Supported, at least initially, by the Australia Council and Arts Victoria, this program also includes other initiatives including salon-style play-readings

RMIT Writers-in-residence program is a fairly typical university program. The program aims to make “a significant contribution to RMIT, its writing program and to Melbourne’s broader literary culture”. RMIT writers-in-residence have included Robert Dessaix, Chloe Hooper and Nam Le. It was supported from 2009 to 2012 by the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL)’s Cultural Fund. The web-page implies that it is an ongoing-program, but it is not clear whether this really is the case or not.

I found references to programs in several universities, such as the University of Adelaide and UTS (the University if Technology Sydney), but no clear evidence that they were ongoing programs. Indeed it seems that these programs often have short lives, which is a shame. I wonder why they seem often to be flashes-in-the-pan?

Despite this uncertain history, whenever I come across these programs I feel a little excited – even if I’m not going to have any involvement – because I imagine the stimulation, excitement and creativity that the participants will experience. A little starry-eyed, I suppose, but I hope this is the common outcome!

Have you experienced a writer-in-residence program, either as a writer or a “consumer”? If so, what value did you get out of it?


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